TOYBOX: Hands on with BlackBerry Z10, the great comeback hope

HOT: Clever, clean hardware and software design; Hub ties all your messaging together
NOT: Not as many apps as iPhone, Android; no integrated cloud storage
TECH SPECS: 4.2-inch, 768x1280 pixel display, 4G/LTE, 130x65.6 x 9 mm, 137.5g, 8 megapixel rear camera, 16GB storage (expandable via SD Card), 2GB of RAM, 1.5GHz processor. Full tech specs.
PRICE: TBA (pricing across the Tasman is from $A733)
CARRIERS: Telecom, Vodafone (from late June)
MORE: nz.blackberry.com

The Z10 isn’t BlackBerry’s first stab at a touchscreen phone.  We’ve already seen the Storm (sluggish and best forgotten) and the Torch (chunky by dint of spreading its bets with a pull-down keyboard).

But it is the first BlackBerry handset built from the ground up for touch and featuring the smarts of the company’s new BlackBerry 10 software.

The Z10 has only three physical buttons – an on switch, plus volume up and volume down paddles. There is no physical Home button; all navigation is down with finger swipes. You swipe upwards to wake up the Z10. Then use further swipes to switch from an iPhone/Android-style icon-based home screen to the BlackBerry Flow view, which makes it easy to flip between many open apps with a minimised app view (see screen grab right).

It’s a clever, well organised system but takes some acclimatising too.

Twenty years ago BlackBerry caused a revolution with its push email, pushing pagers toward extinction. There is no equivalent revolutionary feature here but everything’s cleanly, smartly laid out. A central feature of the interface is The Hub (see screen shot), which offers a single list of new messages across your txt, calls, and various social media platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook - an modern refresh on BlackBerry's famed universal inbox.  It’s nicely done and useful. The only negative is it seems a little slow to sync if I've checked updates on my laptop or another device. Sportingly, the Z10 allowed me to add my Google Apps for Business email account, which duly showed up in my Hub list (although it did take a while on initial setup; after about 20 minutes I'd given up, but it appeared the next day).

A bug-bear with previous BlackBerries has been web browser spend. The Z10 is snappy on that front, even with the (cough) demanding www.nbr.co.nz, and quick all-round.

The 4.2-inch display (a touch bigger than the iPhone 5) means you can forget about the multi-day battery life of BlackBerries past. But it’s a good practical size and the rubbery backing makes the phone easy to grip. It’s a handsome handset and feels robustly engineered.

It’s a simple fact of life that app developers are prioritising iPhone and Android, and BlackBerry lags on that front. More curiously, BlackBerry hasn’t integrated a cloud storage or file sharing system along the lines of Apple’s iCloud or Microsoft’s SkyDrive. Instead, you get 10GB with Box, or 2GB with Dropbox. You can pay for more, but it's no great shakes given Samsung and HTC are dishing out 50GB Dropbox accounts with their  high-end Androids.

So far, I’ve had mixed feelings about another headline Z10 feature – its ability to not only offer predictive words but to learn how you type and offer predictive phrases and corrections to your common blunders. But it’s said to take a couple of weeks for this feature to bed down. For now, trying to type an address into the BB10 maps app has driven me crazy as it auto-corrects away from the street name and number I want to type.

BlackBerry old-schoolers will be pleased to know the Z10 still has the traditional flashing red light to alert you to a new message. There are also various audio effects - which switch-off in do-not-disturb mode. A good thing too. Given the volume of social media and other updates these days, my Z10 was dinging almost non-stop (you can turn the volume down on alerts anytime).

Launching the Z10 at an event in Auckland earlier this month, BlackBerry Australia-NZ managing director Matthew Ball said, “We’re not Blackberry bold, the arrogance is gone. The sense of entitlement is gone."

The company has come out  of the other end of its extended restructure, Mr Ball says.

It's also "investing more in the New Zealand market than every before" - albeit off a low base, moving from zero local staff to one local sales lead.

Said sales lead, Jennifer Strange, joined BlackBerry a few weeks ago. Previously she was with Dell.

Ms Strange points to BlackBerry 10 features like BlackBerry Balance, which makes it easy to create work and home profiles on the same handset, which she says will help the company in the enterprise market.

But she also sees possibilities in the consumer space, given the Z10's features like Time Shift - a Samsung Galaxy S4-style feature that sees the phone take rapid stills before and after your photo, allowing you to zero in on one person in a multi-person shot, then cycle to a snap where there eyes are open. The competition goes both ways, however. Samsung is touting Knox, its software for controlling phones on a corporate network, while Apple promises its pending iOS7 will make it easier to deploy iPhones and iPads across a large organisation.

Ms Strange is not in denial over the scope of the challenge she faces. She told NBR when she looks around a restaurant and sees someone who still uses a BlackBerry, she figures they welded to BES - or BlackBerry Enterprise Server, necessary to enable all of the company's remote control and management features.

That would be a correct reading of the situation. By most market surveys, BlackBerry is now a distant fourth in the smartphone stakes, with single digit market share behind Windows Phone.

Over the past couple of years, someone who pulls out a BlackBerry in any social situation has felt sheepish.

The Z10, by contast, intrigues. 

I no longer think BlackBerry is heading for the dustbin of history. The Z10 should see the company halt its decline, and maybe even turn the tide.

The comeback shouldn't be oversold. With June ticking away (release is promised by  month's end), I'm still waiting for local Z10 or BES 10 pricing.

Telecom and Vodafone have yet to decide whether to stock BlackBerry's other major BB10 device, the Q10 (which packs a more traditional physical keyboard).

Neither carrier has chosen to stock the new 4G/LTE version of BlackBerry’s tablet, The PlayBook.

And 2degrees, which has never carried any BlackBerry product or supported the server software necessary to enable a BlackBerry handset’s full features, shows no signs of starting now.

So: hard yards.

But at least after many years on the back foot, the Z10 finally gives Blackberry a device that gives it at least a fighting chance.

ckeall@nbr.co.nz