Another of RIM's longtime strong suits, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) sends peer-to-peer messages, photos, voice notes, contact information, and files between BlackBerry users for free. In BlackBerry 10, the app blossoms, adding voice chat, video chat, and screen sharing to its beloved emoticons and group messaging.
I tested video chat and screen sharing with a RIM employee. Both worked well during the brief test, though I'll continue testing with other users. Even though BBM video and voice chat will technically work over the data network, expect carriers like AT&T to lock it down to Wi-Fi use only.
Another BBM addition in BlackBerry 10 lets you add contacts through NFC in addition to scanning a code. So long as NFC is on, touching the backs of compatible phones will transfer contact details.
Even though you can share images through BBM, I wasn't able to successfully share a photo with my RIM contact. As I said, I'll continue testing BBM in the coming weeks.
I'll just come right out and say it: I'm disappointed with BlackBerry 10's limited Maps app. Importantly, it has turn-by-turn voice navigation for drivers, it can show traffic, and lets you chose certain route options, like the fastest or shortest route.
However, I didn't see any local business names or clickable points of interest, and there's no compass on the map to show you what's what. You can forget about 3D view, satellite view, and walking or transit directions.
On the plus side, I do like that you can view recent spots, and there's a good interface for searching out local businesses. I also really like being able to filter those contacts for whom you have a mailing address; it makes it easy to launch navigation without having to leave the app.
With that foresight, it would have been nice if BlackBerry 10 also let you launch the map from an address on the Yelp Web site, for instance, or one listed in Google's search results. You also can't open the Maps app when you tap a map in Google's search results. As far as I'm concerned, that's a basic mapping failure.
In the best-case scenario, RIM would have licensed Google Maps, at last giving it parity with the best mobile mapping system around.
BlackBerry 10's music player gave me a good music experience. You get album art and tracks, intuitive controls, shuffle, and repeat. You can create playlists on the fly, or any time, transfer songs to other devices, and visit BlackBerry World for more.
There are two nice surprises as you listen to music; the first is that tapping the album art retracts the image to reveal the album roster or playlist. Just tap again to get back where you were.
If you control the song after you leave the music app, a tap on either volume button pulls up a widget that flashes album art and info, plus the options to Pause/Play and skip ahead or go back.
Camera and video
A camera lens can lead to poor or stellar photos, but the software plays a role, too. In BlackBerry 10, you have a few modes and scenes. There are the usual camera and video modes, and there's also TimeShift, which takes multiple shots along a timeline. Right after the photo snaps, you can rewind along the timeline to save the best "moment." This is best for photos of groups, dogs, and subjects that aren't adept at staying still.
I like the idea of TimeShift, but the fact that you can't activate it from the regular camera mode means you have to plan ahead when you want to use it.
So what are the camera's other scenes? You've got burst mode and stabilization (which automatically launches when you turn on the video camera,) but there's no built-in HDR or panorama. You will, however, find scenes tuned for capturing action, night scenes, the beach, and whiteboards. You can turn on flash, and choose a 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio.
Compared with what you get from other cameras, the options are on the sparser side. You can't choose a smaller resolution, for instance, adjust white balance or ISO settings, toggle geotagging, or turn on a grid. In addition, there's no self-timer and there's no way to turn off the camera shutter sound, which means you can't take incognito photos or even take a screenshot without alerting the world.
The video setting shoots from the front or rear camera; from the rear, it'll take either 720p HD or 1080p HD video. You can choose to turn on the flash or leave it off, but you won't be able to shoot limited-size videos for video messaging, if that's what you'd like. I guess RIM trusts that you'll be able to censor yourself.
RIM gets big points in my book for its extensive built-in photo-editing software, but then loses a point or two for lumping screenshots and camera photos together (iOS does this too.) The OS gets another demerit for a confusing workaround in which you create new albums using an outdated file manager system, a method I never would have tried without the assistance of a friendly customer service representative tasked with helping reviewers. A file manager, really? That is so 2006.
RIM's Documents To Go suite of Microsoft Office apps offers up a rich experience for creating and editing documents and spreadsheets, and viewing PDFs and presentations. As in the good old days, you'll find a wealth of formatting options that are fairly easy to track down, and you can easily share documents through a variety of channels, including Bluetooth, NFC, and BlackBerry Messenger.
The methods of copying, pasting, and text selection are also interesting takes, but this is where the bad news comes in. Accurately dropping in the big circular cursor is easy, but the cursor makes it impossible to select the word you're on. You have to move the cursor first, which can be tricky. Otherwise, selecting words is easy when you touch and hold on the word for a moment. To do more with your highlights, you also have to first select a word, then long-press to bring up the context menu.
Here's another idiosyncrasy: when you use the context menu to select the entire range of text, it isn't immediately clear how to delete the entire chunk of words. It is also hard to work out how to rename a document, and I'm still trying to determine why RIM wants me to go through the extra step of pressing the edit button before making changes to text in a Documents To Go file. Why can't I just tap it to get the keyboard so I can start typing? RIM, which bought the Documents To Go developers a few years back, should streamline these steps in future updates.
The brand-new BlackBerry World app store looks fantastic, with saturated icon colors on a black background. You can download apps, games, music (provided by longtime partner 7Digital), TV, and movies.
RIM clearly has its sights set on profits. It's easy to find top paid apps, but there's no list at this point for free content -- even though free apps can be found. Good luck trying to search for podcasts; App World has no dedicated section at this point.
From the content page, you can read reviews or add your own, share, and contact the developer. It would be nice if you were able to launch the app from the download menu.
The question of apps is huge for BlackBerry. Major social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Foursquare are ready from the get-go. Box, Dropbox, Flixster, and Angry Birds Star Wars are other heavy hitters. Fifteen EA Games titles (including Plants vs. Zombies), The New York Times, and The Economist are also ready, and Skype and Kindle also get the go-ahead. Here's more on apps from CNET's Jaymar Cabebe.
The questions that remain are twofold. How many other major and independent developers will also build apps for the new platform, and how many will be BlackBerry-specific, and not just Android ports running on the built-in emulator. We'll be keeping an eye on this space.
For a long time, BlackBerry was synonymous with the business user. With BlackBerry Balance, RIM keeps its corporate promise. If your IT department has apps to install, you'll be able to swipe down on the home screens to see buttons for Personal and Work.
Toggle them to bounce back and forth between your personal profile and your company-given work apps. The divide locks up your sensitive corporate information, including work e-mail, which RIM secures with 256-bit AES encryption.
Since CNET doesn't install IT apps at this time, I wasn't able to test this outside of a brief demo with RIM, though I will say that toggling back and forth was quick and easy.
BlackBerry has had a reputation for security from the very beginning. BlackBerry 10 continues using encrypted servers, collectively calling its security elements BlackBerry Safeguard. These include a security wipe, a pop-up blocker, parental controls, certificates, and application permissions.
The security wipe section is where you'll manage data, files, and apps. BlackBerry Protect handles the remote location and maintenance for your lost or stolen device.
BlackBerry Link desktop software
You'll get your updates over the air, but for transferring data through the cable, RIM unveils BlackBerry Link for Mac and PC. This app, a vast visual improvement to the BlackBerry desktop software that came before, installs itself when you plug in the BB10 device.
As with most managers of this type, you can manage automatic syncing options, and transfer music, photos, video, and documents.
How it stacks up
Although it builds off previous BlackBerry operating systems, BlackBerry 10 is a brand-new thing.
On the whole, it's more sophisticated right out of the gate than Microsoft's first iteration of the Windows Phone OS, though some of what RIM left out -- like a way to turn off the camera shutter sound and click-to-call from any app -- leaves me scratching my head.
There are some fresh, inspiring features for sure, like Bedtime Mode and BlackBerry Balance, but I would have loved to see RIM get even more creative, let's say with a multicolored LED light that shone a different color depending on the type of awaiting message.
Then there are the OS behaviors that are downright confusing, inconvenient, or inefficient, like dumping screenshots and camera photos in the same bucket, and opening every app from the multitasking page.
I'm not even sure how to classify the frequent network connection errors I saw, though I suspect some of those are related to testing on a review unit before the absolutely final software release.
The conclusion I return to time and again is that there are people who will love BlackBerry 10 for its bigger-picture interface, keyboard, and business and security features. These people will already be fans. But until RIM can smooth out the kinks and offer a few more compelling reasons to switch, iOS and Android users can feel justified staying put.
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