BlackBerry's Z10 and BB10 feel a generation late

New BlackBerry Z10 hands-on
New BlackBerry Z10 hands-on

The BlackBerry Z10 is the kind of phone Research in Motion should have made years ago.

The Z10 and the BlackBerry 10 operating system that powers it are rock-solid, and at times innovative. RIM (RIMM) (now called BlackBerry) is caught in the impossible position, though, of having to outpace its rivals on innovation without alienating its very, very, very loyal audience of existing users.

This keyboard-less phone needs to both please CrackBerry addicts and inspire lust and envy from Android, Apple iOS and Windows Phone users. That's a very high bar it doesn't quite clear.

There are several great ideas on display here, but everything still feels a generation behind.

Hardware: Let's start with the device itself. Unlike RIM's first attempt at a touchscreen phone, the ill-fated BlackBerry Storm, the Z10 is thin, light, and most importantly, attractive. That's a good first step.

The screen is as sharp and dense as you would ever want, even if it isn't quite as bright and vibrant as the best displays. At 4.2 inches, it's neither too big nor too small.

Related story: 8 cool BB10 features worth checking out

But -- presumably for shatter-related reasons -- almost everything that isn't the actual glass screen is made of plastic. The Z10 also has a removable back panel, which is good for swapping out batteries but breaks the illusion of premium craftsmanship. It's a trade-off that makes sense given BlackBerry's corporate clientele, but it means that the Z10 doesn't evoke the same sense of design awe that the best products from Apple, HTC and Nokia (NOK) do.

Software: And then there's BB10, BlackBerry's built-from-scratch operating system. Despite all the new ideas and concepts it presents, it still looks like BlackBerry software.

That's not a bad thing. Microsoft (MSFT) scared off many of its existing Windows Mobile users with its strikingly modern Windows Phone overhaul. BlackBerry didn't go to that extreme. It carried over fonts and icons that will be instantly familiar to BlackBerry users.

BlackBerry CEO on the new Z10
BlackBerry CEO on the new Z10

BlackBerry's big ideas with BB10 revolve around its multitasking user interface -- something none of the major players have yet perfected. It also focused on a pioneering virtual keyboard and its much-hyped BlackBerry hub, which combines all of your social networks and communication lines into a unified feed.

BB10's multitasking approach is reminiscent of Palm's webOS (which was a magnificent failure). It takes you in and out of open apps -- envisioned as cards -- with a single swipe up from the bottom of the screen. It's not jaw-droppingly elegant, but it feels much more efficient that any other available smartphone solution.

Related story: BlackBerry maker changes its name, launches BB10

The virtual keyboard has the most creative solution we've seen yet for predictive text. As you type, words start popping up all over the keypad. When you spot the one you want, you can just flip it -- with the flick of a finger -- straight into your message. It's a love-it-or-hate-it feature.

And then there's "Balance," which puts up a virtual firewall between the data and apps connected to your enterprise life and personal life. IT departments can't snoop around in your personal affairs, and you can't accidentally leak company secrets with your clumsy fingers. For companies that choose to use it, it's a smart way to handle the convergence between our work gadgets and our personal gizmos.

Strangely absent are any sort of pop-up elements for notifications as they roll in. There's an LED that blinks and a motor that vibrates and icons that appear on the lock screen when mail, text messages or updates roll in, but there's nothing to tell you who is sending you what in real time. You always have to go into the hub to find your answer.

At times the BB10 interface glides from app to app and menu to menu with speed and grace. At other moments, it stutters and coughs like a beat-up car. Sometimes the touch panel seems slow to pick up your fingers; other times, it's at your beck and call. Some of this is standard first-generation kinks that will soon get smoothed out, but BlackBerry doesn't have the same grace period that its competitors had.

Apps: It's playing catch-up on another front, too: Any smartphone platform is only as good as its apps and services. For the time being, that's a huge question mark for BB10.

There are proper apps for Facebook (FB), Twitter and Foursquare right off the bat, but other major apps are missing from BlackBerry World. That means no Netflix (NFLX) or Hulu. No Spotify or Pandora. No Yelp (YELP). No Google Maps. That last one especially hurts, since BlackBerry's maps app seems middling at best.

Bottom line: Two things are immediately clear about BB10 and the Z10: They're good enough that BlackBerry shouldn't be embarrassed in any way, but they're only "good enough." Nothing seems drastically more innovative than the existing smartphone status quo.

This is a phone that feels like it's six months behind the rest of the pack. To get the non-enterprise users it wants and needs, it has to be thinking a year ahead of the industry's innovation leaders -- devices like Apple's iPhone, Samsung's Galaxy S3 and Google's Nexus 4.

BlackBerry finally has a viable platform for its future development. The big question is: How quickly can it adapt as the smartphone landscape evolves?

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