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BlackBerry Z10 has ingenious features but some drawbacks, too

BlackBerry's Hail Mary pass, its bet-the-farm phone, is finally here. It's the BlackBerry Z10, and guess what? It's lovely, fast and efficient, bristling with fresh, useful ideas.

It boasts a well-stocked app store, a music and movie store, Mac and Windows software for loading files, speech recognition, turn-by-turn navigation, parental controls, copy and paste, Find My Phone (with remote-control lock and erase) and on and on.

The hardware is all here, too. The BlackBerry's 4.2-inch screen is even sharper than the iPhone's vaunted Retina display. Both front and back cameras can film in high definition.

The thin, sleek, black BlackBerry has 16 gigabytes of storage, plus a memory card slot for expansion. Its textured back panel pops off easily so that you can swap batteries. It will be available from all four major carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.

Some of the BlackBerry 10 operating system's ideas are truly ingenious. A subtle light blinks above the screen to indicate that something — a text, an email message, voice mail, a Facebook post — is waiting for you.

All communication channels (including Facebook, Twitter and phone calls) are listed in the Hub — a master in-box list that appears at the left edge when you swipe inward. Each reveals how many new messages await and offers a one-tap jump into the corresponding app. It's a one-stop command center that makes eminent sense.

The BlackBerry's big selling point has always been its physical keyboard. The company says it will, in fact, sell a model with physical keys (and a smaller screen) called the Q10.

But you might not need it. On the all-touch-screen model, BlackBerry has come up with a mind-bogglingly clever typing system. Stay with me here:

As you type a word, tiny, complete words appear over certain on-screen keys — guesses as to the word you're most likely to want. If you've typed "made of sil," for example, the word "silicone" appears over the letter I key, "silver" over the V, and "silk" over the K. You can fling one of these words into your text by flicking upward from the key — or ignore it and keep typing.

How well does it work? In this passage, the only letters I actually had to type are shown in bold. The BlackBerry proposed the rest: "I'm going to have to cancel for tonight. There is a really good episode of Dancing With the Stars on."

I typed 20 characters; it typed 61 for me.

The more you use the BlackBerry, the more it learns your way of writing. Freaky, brilliant and very, very fast.

There's Siri-like speech recognition, too, but it's slower, less accurate and far narrower in scope. You can also speak to type, but the accuracy is so bad, you won't use it.

The camera software is terrific. One feature, Time Shift, is mind-blowing. You take a photo of people — then, with your finger on a face, you can dial forward or backward up to two seconds in time, seeking that perfect expression. You repeat with the next face, and the next, until you've dialed up the perfect fraction of a second, independently, for each person in the shot.

The BlackBerry 10 neatly solves a huge problem for corporate techies: how to keep employees' work phones secure in a world where people also use their phones for personal things. If a company has BlackBerry's corporate software suite, they can create separate worlds on each phone: personal and work, with distinct calendars, address books, wallpaper and even app collections. They appear together — but without the work password, only the personal stuff is visible. When the worker leaves the company, one stroke deletes the entire corporate or personal half.

The popular BlackBerry Message, or BBM, service now lets you make free phone calls and video calls over the Internet. You can even screencast — share what you're doing on your screen with your conversation partner, such as a map, an app or a photographic snap.

Thanks to NFC (near-field communication), you can shoot a photo, a map, a Web page, an app, a file or a song to another BlackBerry 10 owner, wirelessly, on the spot. Other phones do NFC sharing, but rarely as simply.

There are some missteps. There's no physical silencer switch (only a software function). In the Mail app, you can't move from one message to the next without returning to the in-box in between. When you've used the faux Siri to dictate a message or an email, you can't edit it, even manually. And the battery barely makes it through a day.

But the usual Achilles' heel for a new type of smartphone is the apps. Incredibly, BlackBerry says there will be 70,000 apps available on Day 1. The company shrewdly wrote a program that can convert Android apps, making it simple for programmers to adapt their wares.

On the other hand, if you choose BlackBerry over iPhone or Android, you give up some very attractive ecosystems.

Other opinions

Some reviews of the Z10 were not as effusive as that of the New York Times' David Pogue. The Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg praised the phone's camera and virtual keyboard but called it a "work in progress" that lacks apps and a cloud-based system for sharing files. Bloomberg's Rich Jaroslovsky said Z10 is "handsome, intuitive to use and a whiz at multitasking" but also noted the small number of apps.

BlackBerry Z10 has ingenious features but some drawbacks, too 02/03/13 [Last modified: Sunday, February 3, 2013 6:11pm]
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