Yesterday, I attended the worldwide launch of BlackBerry 10 (the Toronto instance). I was impressed by the way the event was handled, by the PR moves that were announced, and most of all by the new OS itself. I think BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion) has done everything right. I sincerely hope the often-fickle marketplace rewards them for it.
Since yesterday, I’ve had a chance to spend an hour or so with the new BlackBerry Z10. Here are a few early impressions.
In a word, sexy. The Z10 is on the large side for a phone, but I like that. I wouldn’t want a much smaller screen, and generally prefer larger ones, myself. The shape is simple and elegant, and the back (which is actually a cover for the battery compartment) is made of a very friendly soft plastic with a dimpled grid surface. (When you open the back to insert the battery and SIM card, you find that this piece is actually quite flexible.)
The obvious comparison will be to Apple’s Retina display. Bottom line, no matter how closely I look, I can’t see the individual pixels. Looking at a smooth, bright color gradient, you get the feeling the dots are there, lurking just below the threshold of sight. Sharper eyes than mine might just be able to pick them out, from a couple of inches away. But in normal use, they’re invisible. The display looks great.
The User Interface
From the pre-release descriptions, BlackBerry OS 10 seems like a radical departure. In fact, it’s very familiar, if you’ve used a BlackBerry PlayBook. Clearly, BlackBerry (the company) has taken what worked and evolved it for a smaller form factor.
PlayBook users will find that the ability to ‘minimize’ running apps is core in OS 10. The difference (in the handheld version, at least) is that minimized apps display not side-by-side, but in a 4×4 grid. When you have more than 4 apps running, the grid scrolls vertically. Also, the app tiles don’t seem to be ‘live’ as on the PlayBook. They either freeze the last view, or revert to a generic representation of the app.
PlayBook users will also find two very familiar swipe commands. Swipe up from the bottom of the display, in order to minimize an app. Swipe down from the top to drag open the app’s options menu.
What’s missing, alas, is the ability to swipe sideways between running apps. That was one of my favorite features of the PlayBook. It made multitasking truly effortless, and put the PlayBook miles ahead of any other platform. With OS 10, you have to minimize the current app and pick another from the grid. Not a big deal, but less convenient than the older way.
In exchange for removing the side-swipe task switching, you now have the new Peek feature. Swipe up and over to the right, and the current app slides over, revealing the new communications Hub. This works from anywhere. For instance, you can Peek when viewing the minimized app grid, or the desktop of installed apps. However, if there’s a way to Peek at anything other than the Hub, I have yet to find it. If, like me, you value communications less than some other capability, you may find this a bit frustrating. Most users, I assume, will love it.
The BlackBerry Z10 includes all the usual apps: calculator, calendar, contact manager, camera, photo viewer, video player, clock. But there are some nifty extras as well.
My own favorite is Documents to Go, which appeared on the PlayBook as well. It’s a meaningful value added, since it’s kind of vital, and costs up around $15 even when it’s on sale. Moreover, the BlackBerry version seems to be significantly nicer than the one I actually bought for my Android devices. For instance, the word processor has a formatting toolbar.
There are dedicated apps for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Foursquare, but these can be accessed via the Hub as well. BlackBerry (the company) tells me that the intent is to steer users to the full app for deeper dives, and make message feeds easily available in the Hub.
Story Maker is novel: a simple video editor that can combine video and photos, adding transition effects and text captions. Pretty neat, for a handheld device.
There’s a Dropbox app, which is welcome. And a Newsstand, that shows “view and purchase published content on a per issue or subscription basis.” I had to “share” my name and date of birth in order to run the app, and was rewarded with the option to download the latest issue of Surfer magazine, or Bicycle Times. Not so sure about this one…
Also interesting is the Compass app. Not only does it show the direction, it adds a 3D ’tilt’ effect when you move the Z10 around. Just a visual frill, to be sure. But fun.
Like the PlayBook, the Z10 can be set to share files via Wi-Fi. I had no trouble opening the device from Windows Explorer without installing any software on my desktop system. I consider that a huge bonus… iTunes is the biggest reason I’ll never be a big iOS user. I know some users prefer a comprehensive ‘sync’ capability, and it was certainly there with the PlayBook, but I haven’t discovered the OS 10 equivalent so far.
Oddly, the Z10 insisted I set up a password for Wi-Fi access, then allowed me to access the device and copy files without one. Not sure what that’s all about. Lots more to learn!
The BlackBerry Z10 is as slick a piece of mobile gear as I’ve had my hands on. I’d pick it in a nanosecond over an iPhone. The greater openness and evolved ecosystem of Android remain compelling to me, but the big thing is that with OS 10, BlackBerry becomes a serious contender, a worthy inclusion in the Top Three. I don’t think Apple will be quaking in its boots, but I suspect that Windows Phone 8 may find its progress slowed still further, as businesses turn first to the mobile solution they’ve already been happy with.
I haven’t even played with the BlackBerry’s new Work/Home capability, which will let enterprises have secure apps and data on the same device alongside a user’s own stuff. That’s a compelling feature. And the overall implementation strikes me as much slicker, more familiar and more efficient than WinPhone. No doubt Microsoft’s OS will continue to have its fans, but BlackBerry will force them to work even harder to justify their views.
More thoughts on this subject as I continue to explore…