BlackBerry Z10.
BlackBerry Z10.

A PRODUCT almost three years in the making and designed to relaunch a company should be knock-your-socks-off good. As a long-time BlackBerry fan, I hoped the Z10 smartphone would be. Launched last week, it is by far the best BlackBerry so far, but does it have the 'wow' factor to persuade users the brand is cool?

BlackBerry Z10 — four stars

After three years without an upgrade, I was keen to slide my fingers across the new, all-touch BlackBerry Z10 and its stubbier sibling the Q10, which has a smaller touchscreen and a physical keypad.

At first glance, the Z10 looks remarkably similar to the iPhone 5, thanks to its minimalist industrial design motif and discreet, edge-mounted buttons for power, volume and navigation, even though its 4.2-inch screen is a tad larger than the iPhone.

In many respects the hardware specs of the Z10 are pretty standard for current generation smartphones — a fast processor, 2Gb of memory, 8Mp rear-facing camera and 2Mp camera on the front, the ability to 'tap-and-pay' through an NFC (near-field communications) chip and a battery big enough to deliver up to 10 hours of talk-time in 3G mode.

But BlackBerry has poured its efforts into design. While the Z10 is a little thicker and wider than the iPhone, its curved edges and textured carbon back ensure it is still comfortable to hold in one hand. This was a key point for BlackBerry’s designers, who set out to build a device that could be operated most of the time with just one finger or thumb.

The most obvious result of this design ethos is BlackBerry Flow, which enables users to move easily and smoothly between apps. For example, you can tap on an attendee listed for a meeting to see their latest tweet or LinkedIn profile. Or tap the thumbnail of a picture you just took to launch the picture editor and instantly share it with contacts.

Design simplicity is reflected in other distinctive features including peek, which enables users to 'peek' behind the current screen to see updates on other apps without stopping the one currently in use, and the BlackBerry Hub, where you can manage all your communications including e-mail, BBM messages, social media updates and tweets.

Most actions can be accomplished by swiping the screen — swiping up wakes up the phone and provides access to apps, while swiping down takes you to settings.

The Z10 and Q10 are the first two devices to run BlackBerry’s new BB10 operating system. One of its key corporate features is BlackBerry Balance, which separates and secures work applications and business data from personal content and allows users to switch between 'work' and 'play' modes. Sadly, this feature was not yet available on my Z10 so I could not judge how well it works.

As befits a company that built much of its reputation on its mini thumb-operated keyboard — still in my view the easiest way to send and receive text and e-mail while on the move — BlackBerry has paid a lot of attention to the Z10’s onscreen virtual keyboard. Like its physical counterpart on the Q10, the Z10 keyboard adapts to the user, learning what words you use and how you use them. After a while it can predict whole words based on flicking a single letter up from the keyboard.

While I still prefer a physical keyboard, the Z10 virtual keyboard is the best touchscreen keyboard I have used and is certainly good enough if you are a casual user rather than a heavy mobile e-mail sender. I also found the new BB10 browser much faster than its predecessors.

There are also new music and content services, as well as 70,000-plus apps that Research In Motion, BlackBerry’s maker, says will be available immediately — although some of my favourites such as Netflix, Pandora and Google Maps are still missing.

Arguably, many of the features can be found on rivals, albeit not packaged in the same elegant way. BB10 and the Z10 handset put BlackBerry on a par with the best-selling Apple iPhone 5 and Android-based devices such as the Samsung Galaxy III, but do not represent a leap ahead.

BlackBerry is likely to sell a bunch of the handsets to loyal users like me, who have not so far defected. I am not so sure that the Z10 or the Q10 will win many new customers. But I hope I’m wrong.

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