COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

BlackBerry's comeback phone

BlackBerry is back with a new phone that's intended to catapult it back into the frontlines of the smartphone competition. But it’s come after long delays and the ouster of the company’s co-CEOs, who were oblivious to the iPhone/Android bulldozer that nearly crushed it to death. BlackBerry's new Z10 is the company’s answer, perhaps its last hope (hence the “Z” designation?).

For the past two weeks I've been trying the AT&T version, which costs $200 with a new contract. (It’s also available from Verizon and T-Mobile.) The Z10 is based on a new operating system, which provides faster response and multitasking.

It looks more like an iPhone than a BlackBerry, particularly with its on-screen touch keyboard; BlackBerry's famous thumb keyboard is gone, although it will be back on another model. The Z10 has a touch-screen display just slightly larger than that of the iPhone 5. The phone resembles the iPhone 5 with a similar shape and profile, but made of mostly plastic rather than aluminum.

I found the Z10 to have one of the longest learning curves of any smartphone I've used, and after two weeks it’s still a bit confusing. There’s no home button as found on other phones, just an on/off button at the top (plus a volume rocker on the side).

BlackBerry's new Z10. Photo courtesy of BlackBerry

To use the phone, you swipe the screen: Swipe up to unlock if the phone is locked; otherwise to go to the Active Frame screen that has recently opened apps. Swipe down to access a settings menu, and left and right to move between screens. The leftmost screen contains a short list of frequently used apps.

The screen to the right is Active Frames, and the next three are screens filled with an array of app icons. But apps open between the first two screens

There are no clues when and in which direction to swipe. I've frequently stared at a screen, trying to figure out what to do next. With some apps, nothing happens when you swipe. And in a few cases, when I swiped, I accidentally activated a button push.

Back to first screen that contains a short list of some of the more frequently used apps, such as Gmail or Facebook; touch an item on the list, such as Gmail, and the Gmail inbox screen slides in from the right.

Another item that's in the list is “BlackBerry Hub”; it slides in a screen much like Gmail, but is a unified inbox that includes messages, calls, appointments, alerts and email, all in chronological order.

There are few options for choosing what's on this list, but there’s no way to add items. In particular, there’s no phone or calendar in the list, an odd omission, since they are most frequently used. The list does include a call log, something of lesser importance.

To make a call, you need to swipe twice to the left and do two on-screen button pushes to get to the dial pad. It's quite inconvenient to have the phone functions spread out among multiple screens. It’s a phone after all!

The app you are using can be sent off to the Active Frame screen by swiping your finger upward from the bottom of the display to the top. A reduced ¼ page icon appears on the screen, where you can relaunch it or close it. There's no way to close the app directly.

While on the Active Frame screen, slide your finger to the left to go to the next screens, and you'll see three successive pages with all of your apps arranged in a grid of 16 icons per page, looking much like it does on Apple and Android phones. You can hold down any app to rearrange the collection or create folders, just as on the iPhone.

What's confusing is that there are very different interfaces to master from page to page and the swiping action is not always predictable and sometimes frustrating. The user interface and operating system just don’t feel finished; it seems like additions were made at the last minute, and the whole thing was pieced together and rushed out.

The phone has the usual complement of features, including an app store, 4G LTE cellular capabilities, a front and rear camera, and built-in navigation. It does not have an easy way to silence the ringer and, instead, requires a swipe and touching two buttons on the display, unlike the iPhone that has a physical on/off switch.

BlackBerry's store, called BlackBerry World, is where you get apps and content. Being just released, it has a small number of the most important apps, and lots of mediocre apps that seem to be there just to increase their number. What that does is make it more difficult to find the good apps.

One of the Z10's best features is its on-screen keyboard. It has the most powerful autocorrect system of any phone I’ve tried, and it’s the one redeeming feature. While you type, suggested words appear above some of the letters in between the rows, often above the next letter you are about to type. When you see the correct world, swipe up on that key instead of pressing on it to complete the word and add a space.

After some typing, it learns and even brings up proper names. It really works well. I went to type “My vacation is next week” and it required only seven keystrokes or swipes.

I found call quality on the AT&T network to be fine. Battery life seemed about average, requiring a daily charge. Navigating to websites was quick, but some of the text appeared a little soft as the pages were rendered.

I really wanted to like this phone. I was a BlackBerry user for many years, having used five or six generations of its phones. But once I migrated to the iPhone, it was hard to go back. The Z10 does not have enough to tempt me now, nor will it likely attract other Android, Apple or Microsoft phone users, whose phones are all easier to use and much more polished.

BlackBerry may have survived for a while, but the Z10 is not enough to take it off life-support without a major software upgrade very soon.



Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press and available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other booksellers. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others; holds 30 patents; and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Baker can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Baker's blog is blog.philipgbaker.com, and his website is philipgbaker.com

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