BlackBerry Z10 review: The BlackBerry we've wanted is finally here

The old BlackBerry is dead and buried, and the new one is a worthy option in the modern smartphone world

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Security for more users than before
A very welcome change to BlackBerry OS is its support of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) security policies such as requiring encryption and passwords. The previous BlackBerry OS protected devices only if a company invested in the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). By contrast, both iOS and Android support EAS out of the box, with further security capabilities available, especially for iOS, if your company uses a mobile device management (MDM) server. The BlackBerry 10 OS now can be used in EAS-secured environments, not just those that buy BES.

I was displeased that the BlackBerry 10 OS doesn't automatically encrypt the device. Like Android, it has to be turned on manually and takes about 45 minutes. But as long as you're using an EAS account that requires it, the BlackBerry 10 OS's encryption can't be turned off by the user. BlackBerry 10 connects easily to VPNs, like iOS. It's compatible with Cisco IPSec VPNs, unlike most Android devices (recent Samsung Android devices support such VPNs as well).

BlackBerry has touted its Balance technology that lets you set up separate business and personal environments on the smartphone, which you can easily switch between and still have a unified view of in the Hub. Balance requires BES 10, so you need that new mobile device management (MDM) tool to use it. Balance works well once installed, using policies set by IT to separate personal data and apps from work ones. Policies can be loose, allowing both personal and business access to email, contacts, and/or calendars, or strict, keeping them strictly separate.

Switching between the two workspaces is easy, though you have to go to the apps grid view first. Once you see a grid of apps (swipe to the right until you see it), place your finger in the center of the screen and swipe down. Two buttons appear at the top of the screen: Personal and Work. Tap the button for the workspace you want. Your workspace will show the apps available to it. For common services such as calendar and contacts, you'll see just the personal or work accounts, assuming IT has set up that division.

BlackBerry 10 has no email app -- that's what the Hub is for. When Balance is enabled with policy separation between work and personal email, you still see all your email accounts when you compose a new message. But you have to enter your work password to send an email from your work account (again, assuming the IT policy separates work email access from personal email access). The Hub's list of emails is limited to those in the accounts allowed for your current workspace.

When Balance is enabled, the work workspace is automatically encrypted. But the personal workspace is left unencrypted. Users who want to protect their own data still should turn on device encryption and set a password for the device to keep their own information and accounts safe if they lose the device. Balance takes care of IT, but not you.

All in all, Balance maintained the separation that many companies want without placing an undue burden on the user. That's critical in today's world. It should be noted that InfoWorld's IT staff ran into some issues when setting up Balance. Users could still establish an account once the setup period had expired, and policy settings weren't always retained for new accounts (you can push them after the fact if that happens). We're not sure why, but after a few rounds, they got Balance working as expected; I suggest you build in some piloting time before doing a broad deployment to learn the peculiarities of the new tool.

The rest of BlackBerry 10
The Contacts app is nicely designed, with configurable fields per card as in iOS. Each card is a hub to a person's social networking activities -- a clone of Microsoft's slick People app approach in Windows Phone and Windows 8. The Calendar app is well-designed and continues to offer the more sophisticated recurring-event patterns of the previous BlackBerry OS. The Remember app for to-do items is also fine, and BlackBerry users will like the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) client and its new support for screen sharing and video chats. The Camera app has some nice photo-retouching capabilities, and the Maps app crisply presents maps and driving directions, though like iOS's Maps app it can route only car traffic, not public transit or foot traffic (as Android can). I do wish that more BlackBerry 10 OS apps supported screen rotation; neither the Maps nor Calendar apps do, for example.

Syncing music, videos, photos, and documents over a USB connection is straightforward with the BlackBerry Link app for your Windows PC or Mac, as is backing up your device, but it's no iTunes. When you play music, then switch to an app or the Hub, there's no simple way to pause the music as in iOS (via the multitasking dock) or Android (via the notification tray). Instead, you need to change the volume to display a pop-up box that has the Pause control.

The BlackBerry App World app store has a fairly small number of apps, a few dozen serious entries, and a similar number of games. BlackBerry says about 40 percent of BlackBerry 10 apps are wrapped version of Android apps, not apps really designed for the new OS. That may quickly fill App World, but Android apps as a whole are not that sophisticated, so it remains to be seen how app-oriented -- as opposed to message-oriented -- the BlackBerry 10 OS will be.

The BlackBerry 10 OS has a Siri-like feature called Voice Control that lets you speak some commands for it to execute, such as "take a note." The voice is harsher than Siri's, and the commands more limited, but it works. Press the center button in the volume rocker to start Voice Control.

The BlackBerry 10 OS's Web browser is fast as promised. The browser has the bookmarking features you'd expect, as well as the Reader feature that Apple debuted in iOS and OS X to show just the text of a Web page when desired.

The WebKit-based browser is the most HTML5-compatible browser yet, according to the HTML5test.com benchmarks. It scores 485 points out of a possible 600, versus 386 for iOS's Safari, 390 for Android's Chrome (the browser in the Google Nexus series), 434 for Android's Browser (which other vendors' Android devices use), and 320 for Windows Phone 8's Internet Explorer. In fact, the BlackBerry 10 browser beats all desktop browsers as well.

But it sometimes has trouble displaying images, not consistently sizing them properly to the mobile screen as iOS and Android do. Although it did well with AJAX sites I tested, it had trouble with some JavaScript menus in that it would not keep them open if the item that opens the menu is itself a link. Overall, this is a top-notch browser missing only the kinds of sharing and sophisticated bookmark organization found in iOS's Safari.

The Z10's battery life is so-so -- I often didn't make a full workday before having to recharge. And I could not connect to my company's PEAP- and cetificate-secured Wi-Fi network, a problem that I also experience with Android devices, but not with iOS, Windows, or OS X. Our IT staff was also stymied. After some research, I found BlackBerry documentation that says the certificate for such secure Wi-Fi networks must be manually installed on the BlackBerry 10 -- it won't auto-install on as on most other mobile platforms. That's just dumb, a vestige of the bygone era where IT manually configures every device.

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