By Ben Bowers
on 1.30.13
Photo by Blackberry

BlackBerry’s latest grasp at relevancy is now all on the table, and there’s plenty to unpack. In what we consider a fairly smart move — if not overdue — they’ve ditched the official company name of RIM (or more formally, Research In Motion) and fully embraced the widely known moniker of their once-popular BlackBerry product line instead. That was the biggest surprise to come from today’s announcement fanfare, but it was also more of a symbolic gesture than anything else. The brass tacks of the ailing smartphone company’s attempt at reincarnation revolves around a new mobile OS, Blackberry OS 10, and two companion devices, the Z10 and Q10, which were both extensively leaked online ahead of today’s unveiling.

Here’s the Cliffnotes on the new hardware and software from sources like The Verge: BlackBerry’s managed to create capable products that can meet the expectations and demands of modern smartphone users. In a world where Android and iOS devices already offer plenty of value, though, the real question at this point is not “can you compete”, but rather “why should I switch?”

Hardware-wise, the Z10 is more status-quo than whoa thanks to a 1,280 x 768 4.2-inch screen, which strikes a balance between visual real-estate and feel in the hand, along with a 2MP front and 8MP rear camera, a dual-core 1.5Ghz processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, a microSD slot, LTE and NFC. There’s also no denying that its slate form factor and curved corners resemble the iPhone 5 while improving on the utilitarian elegance phones like the Bold 9000 helped to pioneer. Apple fans mqy cry foul of the emulation, but early teases of the design were shared over a year ago (before the 5 launched).

The decision to include a removable, soft-touch-coated back that allows users to easily access SIM and microSD slots — or even swap out the removable battery, viewed as a grail-feature by many a road warrior — are welcomed tweaks in our eyes. The same goes for providing Micro USB and Micro HDMI ports on the left side of the device. Ditching a physical home button in favor of an upward swiping gesture is a more questionable move, but we imagine that gripe might fade with familiarity. Shoppers across the pond can buy the phone as soon as tomorrow on networks such as Vodaphone UK and EEE. Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T will also sell the device for $199 on some contracts as early as this March, or potentially even $150 for a three year contract on select carriers.

While the Z10 is clearly the poster child for the future of BlackBerry and could spell doom for the remaining zealots clinging to physical keyboards in the long run, the announcement of the Q10 alongside the Z implies BlackBerry hasn’t forsaken this ever-shrinking niche just yet. Details beyond the presence of a square, 720p touch screen are hard to come by currently; and given BlackBerry’s refusal to allow hands-on reviews at this point, we’re guessing it’s because the Q10 still needs some baking before primetime. That’s disappointing, given this phone’s strong point of differentiation, but its second fiddle status is also understandable given the current market trends. For BlackBerry’s sake, we hope more details around hardware and an expected launch window come sooner than later.

As the battle between Android, iOS and newcomer Windows Phone over the last few years have proved, mobile hardware means nothing outside of the context of software. Many tend to fixate on app store numbers as a lone metric of strength in this arena, and to that point, Blackberry says their app store will have 70,000 titles at launch and include standbys like Facebook, Twitter, Angry Birds, The New York Times and MLB. Looking past the zeros reveals that other “distractions” like Instagram, Pandora, Spotify, Netflix and Google Maps are noticeably absent for now. It’s worth mentioning that the new OS 10 does offer a partial stopgap since it can run Android apps through what amounts to a software emulator experience of Android 2.3. It’s clearly not ideal, but better than nothing.

App store measuring contests shouldn’t distract from the fact that BlackBerry OS 10 represents an entirely new direction for the company in terms of look and feel. Like Windows 8, the now defunct Palm OS or even the Playbook’s QNX system before it, navigating the system requires users to become familiar with a series of swiping gestures. Some will invariably get used to this experience, and some won’t. Reviewers like Walt Mosberg praise the virtual keyboard as the best in the business, while other key elements such as the browser (which supports Flash but gives users the option to disable it), new BBM (which adds video chatting as well as mobile screen sharing) and BlackBerry World’s inclusion of music and movies for purchases have all been fairly well received.

On the flip side, others take issue with the how the OS handles notifications and the BlackBerry Hub unified inbox — which combines texts, BBMs, and emails as well as social messages from Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, but requires unnecessary taps — as well as the new homescreen, which acts as a fast-app switching page by showing only the last eight apps used in constant sequential order. For a detailed breakdown on all of the nitty gritty, check out Engadget.

Taken together, BlackBerry OS 10 and its initial companion handsets aren’t a homerun that will usurp Android or iOS’s duopolpy at the top of the mobile food chain, because they don’t offer a killer reason to switch beyond just being different. But they are a solid triple from a company that’s famously whiffed away the last few years. They’re back in the game and will contend with Microsoft in the race for third place, as long as they continue to focus on the product post launch, which sadly wasn’t the case with the PlayBook. We’re rooting for BlackBerry, because we firmly believe that more choice in the mobile world can only mean good things for consumers. They’ve earned the right to keep swinging. Here’s hoping they continue to connect.

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