Tuesday, February 5, 2013

BlackBerry Z10: Early Impressions (Updated)

Today, the long awaited BlackBerry Z10 became available in Canada. I'm not even going to pretend that I can do the device justice, so if you want to full scoop, you've probably already read Crackberry.com's exhaustive coverage. My main interests in this device are twofold:

  • Is it a good photography phone?
  • Is it a device that you can live with? 

I'll touch on the last one first. If I had to, I could live with this phone. The operating system is very similar to the Playbook OS, and the unified in-box, now dubbed the "Hub" is also familiar if you've used the updated Playbook. The interface is not quite modern, and a bit stodgy, but the screen swipes back and forth smoothly... but very so slightly less smooth than with an Apple iPhone. The keyboard is terrific and works just as well as any other touch-keyboard I've used. However, insomuch that Android works a little like iOS and vice versa, the QNX based BlackBerry OS is just a little bit different.  If you've never used it, enough of it is identifiable, but there are some things (like gestures) that will be unfamiliar at first.

Overall the construction is familiar if you've used a BlackBerry before. It's not feather light, but it's got the same pleasing "un-denseness" that the iPhone 5 has. It's a bit thicker than the iPhone or the Galaxy SIII, but you really wouldn't mind because the proportions are pleasing. The black models have the familiar rubberized back, suggesting that the device is meant to be held and used much more so than the gild-the-lily anodized aluminum of the iPhone or the cheap plastic backing of the SIII.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to slip in a microDS card to show you some samples, but the scuttlebutt on the web is that the camera is not as good as either the iPhone or the Galaxy, and I would tend to agree. You can search around, but compared to either, the Z10's images have less contrast or look like they are more prone to chromatic aberration lens flare. I think that they would have done better to have used a more steep default tone curve to make up for this. My original guess was that this was the same Sony camera unit that the iPhone 5 is using, but the output looks nothing like that, so I'm guessing it isn't. (See update below)

This is a missed opportunity, though. BlackBerry users, though not heavy app users, tend to be active on Facebook and Twitter nonetheless, and both apps are increasingly getting picture-centric. Now that data is so cheap, your social media streams are "show-and-tell", not just "tell".  When the company was still called Research in Motion, the phones gave cameras short-shrift because it wasn't seen as a serious business function, and maybe even as potential security threats. However, now that BlackBerry has ostensibly embraced the non-business side of the mobile phone world, that philosophy won't work. Nobody expects a camera phone to be a serious photography tool, but with the exception of the large(ish) sensor Lumina 920, nobody three years ago expected camera output to be as good as what you get from the iPhone or Galaxy either.

Overall, it's an intriguing device, but it's not enough for me to want to leave either the Apple or Android ecosystem as my personal phone. If this were foisted on my by my corporate overlords, I actually wouldn't mind. I do hope this does well,though, especially for the sake of the innovative QNX operating system.


The folks over at CrackBerry.com have done some side by side comparisons. They show the same trend that other sites are showing, that the Z10 images tend to be darker than with other similar cameras. Since the camera specs are 8mp 1/3" sensor with BSI, I'm guessing now that it is inside the same unit used in the iPhone. The primary difference seems to be exposure and tone curve. For whatever reason, the Z10 seems to render scenes darker and with less saturation than the other manufacturers. This is more of a low-level programming thing than it is to do with the actual camera unit. The difference is like comparing the Nikon D200/D300 versus the more consumer oriented D90/D5100... one set of cameras renders conservatively, making some seems look flat and drab, while the other goes for a more punchy output. Again, I do think that this is a missed opportunity for BlackBerry. If they are going after the more consumer and lifestyle oriented crowd, they should have focused on a more saturated and punchy look, even though it is less natural.

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