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BlackBerry Z10: Prepare to fall back in love

The BlackBerry Z10's "peek" feature allows users to

The BlackBerry Z10's "peek" feature allows users to view other open applications, including the pictured BlackBerry Hub. (Credit: BlackBerry)

After myriad delays pushed its maker to near irrelevance, the new BlackBerry Z10 finally went on sale midnight Friday. Just a few hours later, when the dust settled from the launch event at the Best Buy in Manhattan’s Union Square, the retailer gave Newsday.com a hands-on look at the BlackBerry Z10.

And, for the most part, we were blown away.

With the help of sales associate Julie Asencio, we looked at the device with some trepidation. The sleek, completely touch-screen phone was a far cry from the clunky keyboard models of our past. The new model had neither a keyboard, a trackball, a touch pad, nor any physical button, whatsoever. And BrickBreaker was nowhere to be found. (More on that later.)

Instead the phone looked far more like the top models of the two market leaders. It is slightly taller, wider and thicker than an iPhone 5, but smaller in those three categories than the Samsung Galaxy SIII. The screen, too, is larger than that of the iPhone but smaller than the Galaxy’s.

But the phone distinguished itself from those competitors the instant we swiped upward on the screen and awoke it from its slumber. Aside from the basic tiled display, which is nearly identical to that of most smartphones, BlackBerry has some interesting and innovative features.

KEY INNOVATIONS

Let’s start with the two most-publicized features: the adaptive keyboard and BlackBerry Hub.

The touch keyboard is built on technology that predicts the next thing you are going to type. During our brief test run with it, when we typed “w-h-e” the word “where” appeared over the “r” key and “when” appeared over the “n.” We swiped upward on the “r” and the word “where” appeared in the message box. Then, after hitting the space bar, the words “do,” “are,” “is” and several others appeared over their respective first letters. Sure, we could continue to type out each letter in the entire sentence, but with just a few more swipes we had finished writing “Where are you going?”

It takes a little getting used to, but it’s pretty easy to see how this can speed up messaging on touch keyboards, which can be maddeningly frustrating if you’re not nimble-fingered. Asencio told us that with just a few hours of heavy usage, the phone had already begun to pick up on her typing patterns. This might be welcome news for those longing for an easier input method on touch-screen phones.

The BlackBerry Hub wasn’t quite as impressive. It just gathers your phone calls, text messages, emails, and social media notifications in one place. The handy thing is that you can “peek” at the Hub, and respond to messages, with a simple side swipe while using other programs and apps.

The peek feature is actually a pretty good one as it can be used to access any program that’s recently been launched  --  even while another application is open. Think of it as a more advanced version of the screen that descends from the top of an iOS device when you swipe downward.

The Z10 is also loaded with some notable camera features to enhance the very underwhelming high-definition lenses on either side of the device. There’s “timeshift” mode, which, when activated, snaps six shots at once and allows users to match aspects of these different shots. It practically guarantees that your photo subjects won’t have their eyes closed or capture a sudden disruption in the background. There’s also a “storymaker” feature that allows you to build a slideshow  --  complete with background music and filters  --  directly from your phone. But keep in mind the camera’s photo quality leaves much to be desired.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OLD FEATURES MADE NEW

Making their returns from BlackBerry tradition are souped-up versions of the beloved BlackBerry Messenger and the maligned BlackBerry World, its app store. The app store exceeded preliminary projections and is loaded with 100,000 apps, including most of the ones that smartphone users have come to expect. Netflix is to be added in the coming weeks, and this is where you can try to set a new high game score on BrickBreaker.

Meanwhile, like the iPhone’s iMessage and FaceTime, BlackBerry Messenger offers chat and video service over a secure network. But it also adds the ability to make international phone calls free of charge with other BBM users in your contact list and offers a handy screen-share feature for greater collaboration.

Speaking of collaboration, our favorite feature is something called BlackBerry Balance, which builds on the company’s reputation for corporate security. In an attempt to free buyers from the shackles of two phones -- a personal phone and a work phone -- it splits  into two profiles -- one for work, the other personal.

A simplified setup process allows users to completely separate any corporate applications from personal ones; it even allows users to download the same application twice: once for the work side and again the personal side. This is especially useful for email programs, photo albums, BlackBerry world and any other area where it may be best not to mix business with pleasure. BlackBerry held its reputation for corporate security even during its tumultuous years, so we can see this dual functionality being a big selling point.

As for basic stuff, the phone is 4G LTE and retails for $199.99 with a new wireless agreement. It also supports Adobe Flash and HTML5  --  in other words, it will load any website or video. (Unlike the iPhone which is incompatible with Flash.)

For now, the phone is only available with AT&T, but Verizon and Sprint versions  --  including one with a physical keyboard  --  should be hitting shelves shortly. (Take that for what it’s worth given BlackBerry’s history of delays.) You can check the Best Buy site (http://bit.ly/11D4xYM) for complete details.

BOTTOM LINE

Now, the big question: Is it worth ditching your iPhone or Android for the latest BlackBerry? Or will you be re-entering a world of glitches and spinning hourglasses?

While we can’t say with certainty that the phone is glitch-free, there were no signs of slowness during our 45-minute test run. Julie, who sells phones across all makers and carriers for Best Buy, said she has yet to run into those issues. She’s even planning to trade in her Galaxy for the Z10.

But there’s probably no reason for you to rush to do the same. While we do believe the phone is better than the existing Galaxy and iPhone models, it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s also much newer. A new Galaxy is expected in stores in April, and it will most likely close the current gap.

Meanwhile, if you have an iPad or other Apple products you might not want to break that device compatibility all for the sake of a few cool features. And then there’s the learning curve, which may be steep for those not technologically inclined.

On the other hand, if you’re carrying two phones around like this Newsday reviewer, the BlackBerry Balance functionality on its own might be enough to reunite you with the phone maker once synonymous with the smartphone.

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