Earlier this year, Blackberry finally unveiled its new and re-written Operating System: Blackberry 10. After many years of being stuck behind the curve on touch-centric platforms and modern interfaces, Blackberry 10 promised a fresh look and, most importantly, several innovations that would carry it forward and help it keep the Blackberry-fanatics satisfied while also trying to bring some new converts over.
Along with the new platform, Blackberry announced two new devices: the touch-only Z10 that started shipping a while ago and the traditional keyboard Q10 that’s just starting to ship. I’ve had a Z10 in my hands for several weeks now, enough to get used to the platform and the device and to form my own opinion from extended use. As a Blackberry novice — I had never even tried a Blackberry device before — I’m impressed by what I’ve seen, enough to make me step away from my trusted Galaxy S3. Normally, when I get new devices, I try them for a while, feel excited for a bit, then move back to the S3, but that isn’t the case with the Z10. I’ve come to find several features that keep me going back to it. Read on to find out what they are.
Obviously, you can’t mention any Blackberry device without thinking about the company’s signature Hub. This is where all your communication and notifications are centrally gathered. Think of it as the notification shade on Android on steroids. Whether you just received a new email, SMS, BBM message, phone call, calendar event, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn notification, everything appears in the Hub. Other applications like WhatsApp or Google Talk clients can also plug into it.
More than just notify you of incoming communication, the Hub allows you to take action: reply, comment, delete and more. By comparison, on Android, you have to tap every notification, open it in its corresponding app to see it fully and take action. Sure, the expandable notifications in Jelly Bean made some of this easier, but they come nowhere close to having every message listed in one central place that you can go back to, scroll through, and check successively without switching between apps.
Even better? You can search all of your communications, regardless of the medium. If I had a penny for every time I wanted to find a message and went looking for it in my email inbox, then in my Twitter communications, then in my SMS, only to find that it was a conversation on Google Talk for example… With the Hub, you simply click the search icon and you can find anything, in any conversation, in less than a second. It’s liberating.
That’s not to mention how easy it is to peek into the Hub from any app by simply sliding your finger up from the lower bezel of the device, and then either go into the Hub to take action immediately, either go back to what you were doing and leaving it for later.
Easy Unlock and Bedside Mode
All Android devices now use a Power/Unlock button to wake the device up. While this was nice to have back in 2010 when physical buttons were the norm, and when phones were small and the top or side buttons were easy to reach, it is no longer the case. Right now, with the tendency towards making everything gesture and touch-based, it makes little sense that we still have to click a physical button. It’s especially disruptive of the smooth flow our phones offer otherwise.
Nokia first introduced a new way of unlocking phones by double tapping the screen on the N9, and Blackberry 10 took this one step further. You simply slide your finger from the bottom bezel of the glass towards the top of the screen, and your phone is unlocked. The gesture is simple, intuitive, and feels a lot like lifting a curtain to see what’s behind it. It’s also smooth and sensitive enough to be triggered by your finger but not inside a pocket or a bag. It’s one of those simple things that you think you don’t need until you go back to something that doesn’t have them. I now find myself trying to wake my S3 the same way I wake my Z10, and getting frustrated every time because things don’t work that way on Android yet.
Another plus on the Z10’s unlock mechanism is the presence of a hidden Bedside mode. When you’re viewing the lockscreen, all you have to do is slide down, and your phone goes into night mode with a black background, low brightness, silent mode for notifications, and a nice orange analogue clock with quick access to your alarms. The screen fades off after a few seconds, and you only have to tap it once to glance at the time. It makes for a perfect bedside clock. And all you have to do is slide up again to go back to your normal lockscreen mode. It’s brilliantly effortless.
Time Shift in the Camera
Several Android manufacturers have began adding camera improvements. From HTC’s Zoe, to Samsung’s Burst Shot, Best Photo and Best Face, there are several features to help you take the best photo possible. However, none of these exist in stock Android. The Nexus 4, for example, has no way whatsoever to take several photos consecutively and pick the best one. That’s a shame considering that the raw power inside mobile devices nowadays should be enough to capture and process several pictures in less than a second.
Time Shift on Blackberry 10 can be described as a mix of Samsung’s Best Photo and Best Face in one. Basically, when the mode is activated, the device captures 5 frames before and 5 frames after you press the screen, along with the middle frame. You can then pick the best photo. What’s even better is that if your photo involves people, you can select the best facial expression for each person individually from any of the 11 frames, along with the best background. The software then merges your choices together to create one perfect picture.
Time Shift is more then welcome when you’re trying to take a photo of subjects that typically move a lot — like pets, children or people doing sports — or when you want to get the best group shot possible of friends or family. Try it once, and you’ll curse the day you had to repeat the same shot several times to get what you want.
I couldn’t really explain or quantify the difference between the Blackberry 10 keyboard and the default Android keyboard or Swiftkey, but I could just tell you that it feels better and more accurate. On Android, I tend to switch between the Jelly Bean 4.2 keyboard and Swiftkey. However, ever since I got the Z10, time and time again, I find myself rejoicing at typing on it more than my S3. It’s just that the Z10’s keyboard seems smarter to me. It also supports multiple languages at once.
The one reason I could point to is the fact that I can switch to the symbols keyboard with one swipe. As with the unlock gesture I mentioned above, this is a lot more fluid than finding the symbols button and clicking on it. It’s quite welcome in countries like Lebanon, where typing transliterated Arabic requires a lot of numbers to replace the missing phonetical letters in the Latin alphabet. You swipe, find the number and continue with the rest of your word. It’s simple, fast, and a lot less disruptive than locating a small button and pressing it, or long-pressing on a letter to get to the number.
Another bonus feature is that when entering a password, the keyboard automatically adds a number row on top of the letters. It’s tiny details like this that make you realize how thoughtful the developers are. Most secure passwords are letter+number based, so it makes a lot of sense to have a number row at the ready when entering a password!
Being an entirely new platform, Blackberry 10 lacks a lot of third-party apps. However, Blackberry did a very good job with the OS out of the box to remedy the problem. When you first set up your phone, you get the option to add a Facebook account, as well as Twitter, LinkedIn, Foursquare. You can also sync contacts, calendar and email with Exchange, Gmail, Hotmail and other services. As explained above, all of these plug seamlessly into the Hub.
Want more? Blackberry 10 offers a built-in Remember app that’s basically an Evernote client, a weather app made by Accuweather, Docs To Go and Adobe Reader for office document viewing and editing, along with a file browser that can also add access to Dropbox and Box. Those are a lot of features to have out of the box, let alone integrated with the OS. For most people, this is essentially all they require from a smartphone and they won’t even need third-party apps beyond the ones already present. By comparison, I have to download each of these apps separately on any new Android device I get, and aside from notifications and Share support, no app is really integrated into the OS.
The difference becomes more staggering when you consider that I had to download less than 5 third-party apps on the Z10 to get it to a fully working state according to my needs, whereas I need at least 15 apps on Android only to cover the basics.
The Grass Is Greener, Sometimes
I’ve praised Blackberry 10 a lot in this article but of course, it’s by no means a perfect OS. Lack of third-party apps is the first hurdle now and due to the newness of the platform, it’s lacking maturity in some key areas. But consider where Android was with Cupcake — that’s loooong before Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean!
Blackberry 10 is excellent if your smartphone use is communication-centric instead of app-centric. It’s promising, full of fresh ideas and new takes on several established notions — like gesture unlocking and Hub peeking — that make you question why everyone else is stuck doing things the same ol’ way and dreading innovation.
Thankfully, having 2 SIM Cards, I can keep one in my S3, where I enjoy my Google services and Google Now along with tons of third-party apps, whereas the other SIM sits in my Z10 and allows me to experience the Hub, a nicer keyboard, a fun-to-use camera and more. That way, I have a reliable and mature platform in my hand, while also keeping an eye on all the original changes to mobile computing that Blackberry is introducing. I couldn’t ask for a better setup.