Thirty days is just a tiny fraction of the two-year commitment you sign when buying discounted phones in the US -- one-twenty-fourth of the actual time you're stuck with the device before switching phones. For a reviewer like me, however, it's actually about twice as long as I typically spend with any given device as my daily driver. I'm halfway through my monthlong BlackBerry 10 experiment, which means this is the point at which I'm usually ready to move on to something new.
Strangely, I'm not feeling the same about the Z10 -- at least, not as much as I had expected. While I became accustomed to the user interface during the first week, my experiences during the second week were even more smooth and natural than before. That's great news as I prepare for my upcoming trip to Spain to cover Mobile World Congress (I leave tonight), since my habits as a power user will be amplified during my weeklong venture to the other side of the Atlantic. Phone-wise, what would normally be a minor frustration at home can become an emergency in other countries, so I spent this week putting the Z10 to the test. I wanted to make sure it's prepared for the rough and taxing journey the two of us will face in Barcelona. Venture across the break and I'll fill you in on some of the things I discovered.
Editor's note: This is not a review. If you haven't taken the opportunity to read through our review of the BlackBerry Z10 and the BB10 operating system, now is the perfect time to do so. As I progress through my 30-day BlackBerry trial, I'm writing most of my thoughts with the assumption that you have a basic understanding of BlackBerry's new devices and platform.
One of my fondest recollections from my BlackBerry Curve days was the phone's intricate use of shortcuts. They were everywhere; discovering new shortcuts was the equivalent of locating hidden treasure on a pirate map. At the time, I had the feeling that there were plenty of keystrokes and other shortcuts that I never found -- and now I'm experiencing that same thing with BlackBerry 10. Since my first week was dedicated to learning the user interface and ecosystem, I didn't learn many of BB10's secrets; this past week, however, was a completely different story. Thanks to a plethora of online resources (including some helpful Engadget commenters), I was immersed in the phones inner workings.
I discovered that there's a delicate balance between necessity and luxury. In other words, shortcuts can add a great deal of convenience and depth for power users, but it's also important that they don't overwhelm users that only want to utilize of the platform's simple features. Fortunately, BlackBerry does a beautiful job of striking this balance. For instance, the keyboard offers several handy tricks -- type "ld" to automatically insert today's date, "mypin" for the device PIN, "mynumber" for your phone number and so on. I've also put in my own custom autocorrects, the same way I can with most other platforms. If you don't want to see the keyboard anymore, just pull it down with two fingers (and vice versa). The most mind-blowing shortcut, though? If the Hub misbehaves, you can reset it without a battery pull by pulling down from the top-right corner of the screen five times. (Head here for more shortcuts.)
I wish I could say that BlackBerry 10 offers that same kind of flawless execution in every facet of the OS, but unfortunately there are still plenty of areas that need extra work. One such area is battery life. Nearly every review I've read (including our own) makes mention of the Z10's power-management struggle, and my experience over the last two weeks matches those claims. I'm emailing, messaging, tweeting and browsing the internet much more frequently than any sane person should, but I'm lucky if the phone gets me through a standard workday -- usually eight to 10 hours at the most. Not once have I been able to make it through a full day on a single charge. Granted, there are some power-saving measures you can take to extend the Z10's life, but these will likely only work if you aren't wholly dependent on the phone for any degree of your livelihood. (And don't even think about playing graphic-intensive games on it unless you're close to an outlet and a charger.)
This week, I also explored (and became frustrated by) BlackBerry Maps. Its simple interface might do the job for some travelers, but it's too basic for my needs. The voice turn-by-turn navigation, GPS tracking and traffic updates are handy to have and all work well, but those are staples for any OS at this point, which means they aren't standout features. The bigger concern is what the Maps application doesn't supply: I need transit directions, walking options, offline maps, distance between two points, a bird's eye or Street View feature, more POIs and Zagat- / Yelp-style reviews. I also noticed that while it's able to find most businesses I search for, there are a few smaller establishments that don't show up (many of which have been around for years).
Unfortunately, I've grown increasingly hesitant about relying on BB Maps as my sole navigation option for my trip to Spain, so I've been playing with two other options: an older APK of Google Maps sideloaded from my computer -- it's sluggish, but usable -- and Nokia Here on the BB10 browser. So far, the latter has been my top choice. While it's a web app, it works amazingly well with very little delay in response. Best of all, it does everything BB Maps doesn't do with the exception of voice turn-by-turn, and I actually don't even use that feature very often.
Apart from my experience using Nokia Here, the browser as a whole is one of my favorite elements of BB10 so far. I typically use HTML5 much more frequently than I use Flash, but it's nice to have the option to take advantage of the latter whenever I want. If it's not needed, I can easily turn it off in the settings. This is one feature that may persuade others to give BB10 -- an OS without many competitive advantages over its rivals -- a shot. I do wish text would auto-adjust to fit the screen whenever I zoom in (much like HTC does on its browser), but I use Reader mode to check out long-form articles in a larger font, so it's not a huge pain. The only thing missing on the browser to appease this frequent flier is the ability to save pages for offline reading, so I'll likely depend solely on movies and podcasts en route to Barcelona. How well will that work out for me?
The stock video and music players deliver decent quality, but they're still a little too basic. No audio enhancements can be found on either player, though at least the video app offers sharing and editing options, something I believe is essential on every flagship smartphone. While I can't do much tweaking, the phone's audio element is at least loud and balanced enough to get an above-average listening experience, which means it'll work well enough on my upcoming flights. Without additional settings, however, the Z10 won't be my personal media device of choice unless I find solid third-party options to take the place of both players.
Just like multimedia playback, the camera UI is surprisingly scarce and simple. I'll discuss the imaging performance in more detail later this month (spoiler alert: it's not terrible, but I won't look at it as my go-to device if I need to take high-quality shots). Sadly, BB10's camera UI doesn't offer very many settings to tweak. I'd rather have options available to adjust my shot for each unique situation, but even the most basic camera features are missing. I'd like to see HDR, ISO, white balance, panorama mode, exposure and additional Scene modes, among others. Using the volume rocker as a shutter button is a nice touch, especially when the only alternative is to touch the viewfinder, but very few tricks are available for the camera aside from this.
The camera, maps and multimedia apps offer just a few examples of the minimalism that appears throughout various parts of the OS. It's been one of my major takeaways from the first half of my BB10 trial, and I don't believe things were left out by accident -- in fact, most mobile platforms start out the same way. It makes sense that a company like BlackBerry would want to focus primarily on the core OS and features first and tackle smaller things like extra settings and options iteratively as the platform grows and progresses. Unfortunately, it also means I'm making compromises in order to use BlackBerry 10, but I'm hopeful that we'll start seeing third-party apps that throw in more options.
The first half of my experiment was the easy part. As I prepare for my trip to Spain, I'm now starting to realize the second half of the month will be the true test of what the BlackBerry Z10 is capable of, especially from a power user's point of view. My reliance on the device will increase dramatically as I work overseas, and to be honest, I'm a little nervous about it. While I've had enough time to become acquainted with BB10, and to make sure I'm equipped with everything I need, there's no way I can count on the device's battery to last me the whole day without an external pack. Still, there's nothing like a huge trip to turn an unproven OS into a proven (or worse, still unproven) one.
You can follow Brad on Twitter, where he is documenting many of his thoughts and observations on BlackBerry 10.