Ihnatko: New Blackberry functional, not fantastic
I’ve been using the BlackBerry Z10 for a couple of weeks now. My reaction is closer to what I had with the first Android phones. I’m having a lot of “Gee, I wish my phone had this feature” moments, but not any “Gee, I wish this were my phone” ones.
So: I didn’t like the Z10, and this is a negative review? Not entirely true. Yup, that’s how I felt about the G1 — the first Android phone — and yet, after Android and its apps and its hardware had gone through four years of improvements on that strong initial concept, I switched from an iPhone to a Samsung Galaxy S III.
I’m liking this analogy so I’m going to keep rolling with it. Like the G1, the Z10 is a solid device, but you need to have a strong reason to choose one.
With the G1, that reason was “Because the iPhone is AT&T exclusive and I don’t want to switch carriers” or “Yes, I hate Apple exactly that damn much.” With the Z10, the reason is “Because I use my phone almost exclusively to manage my messages, my schedule, and my contacts, and neither iOS nor Android is giving me nearly enough help with those chores. All other functions can go hang themselves for all I care.”
Yes, BlackBerry 10 will appeal to that person on the plane who’s desperately trying to maximize every moment they have left before the cabin doors close and they’re going to be off the grid for three hours.
BlackBerry 10 coordinates multiple communication sources (mail, texts, BBM, social media) into a unified inbox that also ties into your calendar and contacts. Which isn’t a new trick, but unlike other phones with this feature, it just…happens…without any need to tell the phone what to do.
I was just noodling around with the Z10 and I created a fake calendar entry for the upcoming PAX game conference. Later, when I scrolled past the top of my Inbox (well I’ll be darned) there it was, along with my other meetings and appointments.
I tapped on the PAX item, and found that BB10 had automatically mined my Inbox and contacts to link that calendar item to every message and person related to that event. That kind of organization is almost impossible on an iPhone and requires a lot of hands-on manipulation on an Android device.
And communications and contacts and schedules is all of the same piece. You meet with people, and people are quantized meat signatures with whom you communicate, after all. Why do other phones split that data and those functions across multiple apps? Why do they force you to enable a task switcher multiple times while you process your Inbox?
BB10 does a good job of managing most of those mechanics for you. Even when you do need to hand off a piece of data to another app, you can usually do so without ejecting from your current view, using Android-style system-wide sharing.
I like BlackBerry 10′s methodology. But I confess that I found the lack of a “home base” initially confusing. Years of using iOS and Android trained me to think of that panel of app icons as the center of the phone experience. My BB10 disorientation was genuine but after a few days, I came to appreciate that the lack of a center is a BB10 design concept and not an omission. The philosophy seems to be “Wherever you are…you’re good. You can get there from here.”
It is indeed a core philosophy. It’s so subtle that it took me a few days to identify it. All other phones treat “here” and “there” as binary states, which is a source of multiple pains.
Example: you’re composing an email to Talia about a missing file and in the middle of your second sentence, you want to quickly check your Inbox to see if she’s already sent it. Neither iOS or Android’s mail clients will let you go “There” before you close your business “Here.” First, you must either send this email, or save it to your Drafts folder.
On the Z10, you can just swipe up from the BlackBerry logo and to the left, and “peek” back at where you were without leaving your message-in-progress. BB10 has been updating your Inbox while you’ve been composing, so when you slide your thumb back and finish your thought, you can change “You’ve made a powerful enemy this day, Talia” to “Thanks for the exemplary work, as usual.”
“Peeking” is a great feature and I only wish it were aggressively implemented system-wide. When I’m using an iPhone or Android, one app often has nearly my full attention (Kindle, my newsreader app, a movie I’m watching) and there’s this other app (Twitter, my Inbox, MLB.com) that I just want to keep an eye on. I wish BB10 would allow me to peek into an arbitrary second app. Though there’s always a row of status icons with unread message counts to be seen.
This points to another nice personality trait of the Z10 and BB10: BlackBerry has made a strong effort to put maximum power under a single thumbstroke. The Z10 is truly all-in when it comes to a gesture-based UI. It doesn’t have any static buttons at all, apart from the unavoidable volume keys and sleep/wake. Even with the latter, you can wake the Z10 simply by swiping up on the dark screen.
The iPhone has a mechanical Home button and Android devices have static “soft” buttons that are always there, no matter which app you’re using. The lack of static UI buttons on the Z10 takes some getting used to. Even the best-designed apps can confuse even the most experienced users. It’s good to have a rope around your waist that leads you back to a place of cognitive safety. I missed that sense of security.
That said, the lack of distraction in this simplified user interface is quite welcome. BB10 menus tend to lurk just off to the right: slide your thumb a little bit, and you’ll see a discreet panel of icons. Slide further, and the adjoining labels will reveal themselves as well.
A messaging hub is off to the left. You’re never more than a moment away from your inboxes. Settings roll in from the top.
And BB10 is yet another device that reminds me of the influence of Microsoft’s Modern-style UI…or at least the influence of the same “side-scroll” type of UI that influenced Microsoft. It’s increasingly proving itself to be a solid concept. The user’s perception is that menus and other UI elements are always “there,” but waiting just offstage; in iOS and Android, the classic concept is that menus must be drilled down into, through layer after layer, until you find the function or the information you want.
It’s easy to see the wisdom of BB10′s approach. If the minimalism of BB10 is slightly off-putting and confusing at first, it’s a huge improvement over the abject clutter and stripmall-esque junkware that come preinstalled on almost all Android phones.
The iOS user interface (now six years old, remember) isn’t terribly sophisticated, but it’s straightforward. If there’s a function available, then there’s a clearly labeled button that takes you there. Even its sole mechanical button bears the outline of an application icon, to cue the user that pressing it will bring you to a screen of apps. It works great.
Windows Phone is a step ahead in that it tries to hide away any controls that you probably don’t need for the immediate task at hand. But! persistent buttons at the bottom of the phone will always take you one step back from where you were. And when additional functions or content are off screen, some of that content bleeds into the right edge to inform the user that you can just swipe that stuff into view at any time. It works great.
BlackBerry 10 screws up by handing the user some powerful elementary controls (“Swipe up from the BlackBerry logo, and then swipe left or right”) that work inconsistently.
As I transitioned from “visionary tech columnist” mode to “user” mode with the V10, I started to think I’d been giving BB10 too much credit. BlackBerry 10 is only 80% of a great new interface because these great ideas aren’t consistently applied.
So much of the experience is centered around that simple swoosh of the thumb that I can’t help but expect more of it to be tied to simple gestures. Application menus slide in from the right. And in other parts of BB10, I can make things happen by swiping in from that edge of the screen.
Cool, so I swoosh in from the right of the screen to pull it out, right? Nope: I’m supposed to look for a faint Menu button at the bottom of the screen. But I can roll it back out, right? Nope; tap outside the menu to dismiss it.
And many parts of the UI are distressingly modal. BB10 is, at times, a gorgeous, modern, animated mobile UI; it’s just plain weird when it needs to present me with a list of choices and it does so by filling the screen with a four-item list. And a “Cancel” button in the screen’s title bar. It’s very (yeesh) Windows Mobile.
Some parts are just poorly thought out. We’re still in the messaging app and I want to attach a photo to my email.
Um, where’s the “Attach” button? The interface offers me no clue. Swipe in from the right? Good guess, but that’s almost always wrong. I give up, so I’ll go with the fallback choice: swipe up from the BlackBerry logo.
Ah! Okay, the keyboard goes away and I can see a trio of function keys, as well as a menu button. Cool, I’ll tap the papercl…Whoah. I landed back in the app hub as soon as I lifted my thumb. Damn. Let’s try that again. Oh, um, why isn’t the mail app somewhere on this screen of recent apps I’ve accidentally landed on?
Well, all right, I suppose I can get there by swiping to the left, from apps into the messaging hub. Yup! Good.
I’ll try again. Damn, nope, I landed back in the app hub.
And again…Ah! Got it.
Are you freaking kidding me, BlackBerry 10? I had to swipe upward to reveal the strip of buttons, and then swipe back down to prevent BB10 from dumping me into the application hub?
Oh, for the love of God. That’s bad. And if there’s actually an easier way to do it, then that “right” method is so weird that I haven’t discovered it.
I was confused by other bits. Like, you can select text, but cut/copy/select all/etc. buttons don’t appear until you long-press on the selection. When a user selects text, isn’t it a given that they’ll want to do something with the text immediately after?
I see strong UI concepts in BlackBerry 10. But dammit, I’m at the start of week three with this phone and I’m still encountering Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moments with the V10. Admittedly, I’m not using it fulltime. But I “got” iOS in less than ten minutes and Windows Phone stopped confusing me in under an hour.
Internal inconsistency is a serious problem. Not a fatal one, but man, I’m hoping that they do some fine tuning to the gesture interface.
All right, let’s follow that tablespoon of cough syrup with a feature that I absolutely love.
If there’s a signature “Vroom” to the BlackBerry brand, it’s the keyboard. It was one of the reasons why their phones became so successful: BlackBerry phones featured big, comfy keyboards and became super-attractive to people who must push out loads of texts and emails every day.
The Z10/BB10 virtual keyboard might be the best there is.
It cleverly fuses two characteristics of my two favorite mobile keyboards. Like Windows Phone, BB10 excels at straightforward accuracy. It’s an invisible alchemy. The knack for the OS is to recognize that when you tapped the upper corner of the “H,” you were actually aiming for the “U.” BB10 does a great job and it makes you into a far faster and more accurate thumb-typist than you actually are.
And like Android, the BB10 keyboard goes beyond the literal “push this lever down to type this letter” mechanics of a non-mechanical keyboard.
“Flick typing” is a brilliant implementation of predictive text. My favorite Android keyboard (SwiftKey) tries to guess the next word in the sentence I’m typing, and it throws a few guesses into a deck above the keys. BB10 integrates those suggestions directly into the keyboard itself, over the keys where BlackBerry 10 thinks your thumb is likely to go.
Type “W-H.” “When” is superimposed over the “E,” “What” is above the “A,” and I’m sure you can figure out where “Who” and “Why” wind up on your own.
Continue with an “O” and the cues change to “Whoops,” “Whole,” “Who’s,” and even “Which,” just in case you mistyped.
To have BB10 autocomplete the word, just tap the key and flick up. It’s not an instinctive gesture, but I quickly got the hang of it and found myself blazing through long blocks of text.
It’s not just clever, it’s not just accurate, it’s not just fast. It also adapts bloody quickly. The name of my favorite restaurant in the Boston area isn’t a proper English word, and it isn’t in my list of contacts, and I’d never typed it on the Z10 before.
Nevertheless, when I created a new calendar entry for an upcoming dinner, BB10′s keyboard autocompleted that name after one keystroke of an incorrect (but key-adjacent) first letter. The Z10 had learned the name of the restaurant because it had been mentioned inside a message in my Inbox.
The word “dammmmnnnnnn” seems scarcely sufficient, doesn’t it?
“Blackberry Balance” attempts to address the ridiculosity of workers who feel as though they need to carry their personal and company data on two separate phones. Balance allows both types of files, contacts, messaging, security, calendars, etc. to exist on the same device, with strict firewalls in between.
Your company’s IT department can load, update, and wipe company data invisibly without affecting user-owned data. And the owner of the phone never has to worry that the photos he took during his recent vacation to a state in which certain substances have been partially-decriminalized will get passed around the IT department and eventually impede his further advancement within the company.
Can you just buy a Z10 and show it to your company IT people and everything will work out fine? Mmm…probably. Balance works best when your company is running Version 10 of BlackBerry Server. If they’re using something else, then any server that uses ActiveSync can deliver the basic meat of Balance — syncing company data while leaving personal data private and untouched.
Of course, it’s no good to wave a sheet of feature specs in the face of your IT manager and demand support. I’ve spoken to a few admins about BlackBerry Balance and asked them how they’d react to an employee who came in with a Z10. All of them were familiar with BB10′s requirements, and they agreed that supporting the Z10 would require a level of effort ranging from “zero” to something quite manageable.
All the same, they noted that their job is generally defined as “delivering services” and not “making everybody happy.” So unless your name is on the building or you feel like you can park in handicap spaces without fear of reprisal, you still ought to clear the idea of the Z10 with IT before making a purchase.
Holding down one of the Z10′s mechanical buttons reveals that Apple’s Siri voice assistant has another half-sibling. Honestly, it’s like Siri’s father was a touring jazz musician or something. BB10′s assistant is capable, if less ambitious; it works fine with a limited menu of popular handsfree operations.
The Z10 hardware itself is unremarkable. It’s solidly built, though it lacks the reassuring premium build of an iPhone, Nokia Lumia 920, or HTC One. (That said, I’ve only just now noticed a neat feature: the completely flat, rubberized back means that I can swipe and operate the Z10 while it’s sitting here on this polished cafe table. The phone won’t slide around and require a second steadying hand, like an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy. Nice.)
It’s only slightly smaller than the Samsung Galaxy SIII. Which seems like an odd choice, given that this is a phone that tries to put all of its features and power under a single thumb. Like every large phone, the display is a little too large to use one-handed. A small, iPhone 4-esque form factor might have sold the advantage of BB10 better. Failing that, BlackBerry should have worked harder to remove UI elements from the top of the screen.
The Z10′s eight-megapixel camera is unremarkable. It takes decent shots in decent lighting and if you’re not using manual tap-to-focus, its autofocus can easily be bamboozled by an off-center subject. A special photo mode captures a pile of images around the moment when you click the shutter. You can then “wind” through the pile to find the one version of this group shot in which nobody seems to be blinking. The front-facing camera is 2 megapixels.
The 4.2″ 768×1280 screen shows 720 HD video with adequate color and detail. Text is rendered at 355 ppi and is easy on the eyes. A microSD slot expands its 16 gigs of internal storage by as much as 64 gigs.
The Z10′s speed, too, merits the U-word. The user interface is utterly liquid, no complaints there; it’s exactly as fluid as the iPhone UI. When I threw a big movie clip (ripped from a Blu Ray disc) at it, though, the device couldn’t keep up and it dropped the framerate down a bit to compensate. Videos from the BlackBerry store played just fine.
Speaking of the Store, BlackBerry has done a decent job enticing developers to support BB10. BlackBerry proudly announced the arrival of its 70,000th app, and the 100,000th followed closely. Cash bonuses to developers helped, as does the fact that most of these apps are C-list items that add little value to the Z10. I couldn’t find the Fruit Ninja game but I did find an app that did nothing more than present a recipe for grilled lamb with fruit sauce. And a few dozen like it. So: do regard those numbers with a certain amount of healthy skepticism.
Still, they’ve snagged some stars, like Kindle and Waze. BlackBerry promises that other hit apps (including MLB At Bat, Skype, and Rdio) will be available within the next couple of weeks.
Netflix is a highly notable holdout. The company has said that the technical difficulty of porting a streaming video player plus the limited audience for the Z10 equals “no plans at this time.” But they said the same thing about Android. If sales of BlackBerry 10 devices are solid — or perhaps if BlackBerry were willing to underwrite the costs of the port — that could change.
As I said at the beginning, I like a lot of elements of BlackBerry 10 and the Z10. I honestly wish that Apple and Google would team up, steal BB10′s keyboard from its crib,and raise it as if it were their very own.
That said, it’s not suitable for most users. The Z10 excels at a central task: managing the traffic through your inbox and coordinating it between your calendar and contacts. Fortunately for BlackBerry, that’s the major frustration that many users battle daily. If you’re one of them, the Z10 should be among the top-tier candidates as your next phone…if third party apps aren’t a big draw for you.
But most people, I think, want their phone to be a Silly Putty computer. It should be pliable enough to be at least good at just about everything. The Z10 might indeed be the best tool there is for hammering in nails (caution: just a metaphor) but when you want to do other things, you’ll wish you had more than a hammer.
The other difficulty with BB10? So far, third party apps haven’t demonstrated the strength of the operating system. Most of them are straightforward ports of Android apps. I want to see a Notes app that magically integrates with and enhances all of my other personal information in ways that iOS and Android could never manage. I really really want to see an app like Evernote pull that trick off.
Maybe I won’t have long to wait. An examination of BlackBerry 10′s SDK and APIs reveals an as-yet-unrevealed system app for notes and to-dos, which can sync directly with an existing Evernote notebook.
Ultimately, I’m hoping to see is proof that any app can express its data in a fluid way that enhances any other app. If BlackBerry can do away with the perception of rigidly-divided, firewalled apps, they’ll have built a phone with a serious functional advantage over most others…and a specific advantage over the iPhone.
Hey, that was a fun side-trip into Andy Ihnatko’s Fantasy Hopes For Tomorrow, wasn’t it? Let us return, regretfully, to today and reality.
It seems as though throughout this review, I’ve been praising apps that run on the BlackBerry 10 OS and not the OS itself. That “rewind a photo for the best expression” feature? I’ve seen it on an Android photo app. The smart inbox that deftly integrates data from multiple sources? Seen parts of it in multiple iOS and Android apps, though none achieve what BB10 does with such little effort; also, the underachieving mail apps that come with iOS and Android have attracted a bunch of higher-octane alternatives…notably “Mailbox” for iOS. I’ve seen other parts of it in Tempo, a new smart calendar app for iOS built by some of the same people who built Siri.
So has BlackBerry created a bold new mobile platform? Or have they done little more than build a live, functional demonstration of some terrific concepts that don’t seem very difficult to implement on any platform?
Time — and the broadening BlackBerry World app marketplace — will tell.
In any event, BlackBerry (the company) has a valuable advantage in the marketplace that Apple and Google don’t. BlackBerry’s old hardware and operating system defined an entire generation of mobile devices. It informed the generation that followed it (yes, including the iPhone). But it has no future.
Hence, BlackBerry’s advantage. When you have no future, you’re certainly free to invent one.
When, do you suppose, will Apple or Google ship a brand-new phone that grinds the current generation into obsolescence just as emphatically as how the first iPhone killed the BlackBerry? Doesn’t that seem like a silly question? Though the iPhone and the Google Nexus are fantastic phones, the drag of tens of millions of users and hundreds of thousands of apps slows their forward progress.
Put it another way: BlackBerry wouldn’t have wished to see their home burned to the ground. But the need to rebuild from scratch could mean that theirs will be the only home in this whole 1960′s-era development with energy-efficient heating and without an 800-pound lava rock tiki bar taking up most of the living room. So to speak.
I believe a company can succeed by creating a product that everybody likes, or it can succeed by creating a product that a smaller audience passionately adores. As new as BlackBerry 10 and the Z10 are, they shrewdly maintain the original character of a company that’s won millions of fans. BlackBerries were never perceived as “sexy” consumer devices. They were always “fleet vehicles.” The Crown Vic that the employee will like because roomy and easy to handle, and the company that issues it will like because they’re reliable and easy to maintain and support.
So it’s okay if BlackBerry never dominates again. Because there will always be plenty of business users who care more about messaging and scheduling than angry birds and fruit ninjas.
(No, neither game is available for BB10 yet. But you understand what I’m trying to say.)