Research In Motion Ltd. has released the most important phone in the company's history – and it's very good.
The Z10 touchscreen smartphone, unveiled in a grand worldwide marketing blitz on Wednesday, is the first phone to run on RIM's brand-new BlackBerry 10 operating system. In almost every sense, the phone represents a milestone for RIM. It also represents a change in philosophy. In the past, the company has been content to ignore some very obvious trends in the smartphone market, to its own detriment. With the Z10, it has taken the opposite approach, adopting and borrowing the most popular apps and features from competing devices. The Z10 is a collection of other people's greatest hits – and surprisingly, RIM pulls it off.
Canadian customers will be able to get their hands on the Z10 on Feb. 5. Until then, here are some highlights (and a couple of low lights) of what is perhaps the best smartphone RIM has ever built.
WHAT WE LIKE
1. BlackBerry Hub
This is the fancy name RIM has given a feature that lets you check all your messages at once, painlessly. Whenever you're using the phone and the familiar red light goes off to let you know you have a new notification, you simply slide your finger up the screen to bring up the Hub, which lists all of your e-mails, Twitter mentions, Facebook notifications and just about everything else. From there, you can either check the messages, or let Hub fade off-screen, all without ever closing whatever other applications you had open in the first place. It's a simple but incredibly useful feature.
2. BlackBerry Messenger
The most popular app RIM has ever built gets a major upgrade on the company's newest phone. In addition to text and multimedia messages, BBM users can now also hold video conversations. Another feature also allows one user to "project" their smartphone's screen onto the screen of the person they're chatting with. For example, if you want to walk a colleague through a change in a spreadsheet, you can do so by bringing up the document on your own phone, as they watch over your virtual shoulder.
3. Keyboards (both virtual and physical)
The first BlackBerry 10 smartphone comes with only a virtual keyboard, but RIM has crammed that keyboard with all kinds of innovations. While you're typing, the software tries to guess not only what word you're typing now, but what you'll be typing next. Swiping up the keyboard inserts those words into the text. The system learns as you type, and eventually learns to guess your thoughts with a creepy accuracy. In the spring, RIM launches a BlackBerry 10 phone with a physical keyboard. From our (admittedly short) time playing with that device, it appears to have one of the best keyboards on any smartphone.
The Z10 camera itself, with its 8-megapixel capability, probably isn't going to blow you away, but it does come with a few neat features. One tool lets you take a "photo" over a short period of time, and then scroll through the visual timeline to look for the best shot. This works particularly well if you're trying to, for example, shoot a group of screaming kids, and you're looking for the one moment when everyone looked good. Built-in photo editing software also lets you quickly run a series of Instagram-like filters, and immediately share the results on the most popular social networks.
WHAT WE DON'T LIKE
1. BlackBerry World app store
At launch, the Z10 will come with access to some 70,000 apps – only about a tenth of what's available for the two other major smartphone platforms. In fairness, RIM tried very hard to convince the biggest names in the app industry – from Skype to Angry Birds – to migrate to BlackBerry 10. And the BlackBerry World store now also includes a healthy selection of movies, TV shows and songs. Nonetheless, beyond the highlighted, big-name apps, a lot of the software on BlackBerry World isn't all that impressive.
2. iPhone similarities
Let's be honest: the Z10 – like virtually all high-end smartphones these days – looks an awful lot like an iPhone. The similarities extend beyond the minimalist, glass-pane design. Load up the main screens on the phone, and you'll notice the app icons arranged in columns and pages that look very similar to the iPhone. When you want to move or delete an app, you tap and hold until the apps start shaking – just as you would on an iPhone. RIM is certainly not the only smartphone company to do this sort of thing, but the effect is plainly visible on the Z10.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Whether the new BlackBerry 10 phones are enough to save RIM is anything but certain. With the Z10, the company hasn't produced a revolutionary smartphone – but then again, there hasn't been a truly "revolutionary" smartphone since the first iPhone. Instead, RIM has crammed its newest phones with all kinds of features and software that mimic the most popular features on other best-selling devices, supplementing them with productivity and typing tools that rank among the best in the industry. The Z10 isn't going to blow away the competition, but at least it's a phone that can compete.