Back to BlackBerry: international travels

Brad Molen
B. Molen|02.28.13

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Dropping a smartphone is an absolutely horrifying experience. And on my first day in Barcelona for Mobile World Congress, it happened to me with my BlackBerry Z10.

As much as I hate to admit, it was a dumb move on my part. Unfortunately, tragedy can strike with as simple an act as brushing one's elbow across the table, and that's all it took for me to knock my smartphone right onto a hard surface -- facedown in a perfectly horizontal position. If you've ever been through such an accident, you know the few seconds it takes to pick up the phone and survey the damage can be incredibly nerve-wracking and one of the most suspenseful moments of your life.

I'm happy to say that this particular story has a positive ending, as I turned the phone over to see if I would need to call BlackBerry HQ in a panic. To my shock, it was completely fine. There wasn't a single scratch or ding, and the touchscreen was just as responsive as ever. It would've been a different story had it fallen onto a concrete floor, but this still significantly increased my opinion of the Z10's durability.

Had my Z10 come face to face with concrete, I would've been in a nasty predicament. Not only would I have had to pause or put the kibosh my 30-day trial run with the BlackBerry Z10, but I'm also on the other side of the world in a foreign country. While getting a new phone isn't impossible, it's expensive, time-consuming and frustrating. Yep, this was how my 10-day international adventure began, but how well has it gone for me since?

Editor's note: This is not a review. If you haven't taken the opportunity to read through our review of the BlackBerry Z10 and the BB10 operating system, now is the perfect time to do so. As I progress through my 30-day BlackBerry trial, I'm writing most of my thoughts with the assumption that you have a basic understanding of BlackBerry's new devices and platform. If you're reading this series for the first time, you can look at my previous posts here.

I'm going to rewind the tale of my journey to where and when it all began: the flight here. In preparation for the eight-hour venture into the dark black skies, I loaded my phone up with podcasts (via a third-party native app) and plenty of games and music to keep me occupied. Everything worked up to expectations -- and frankly, that shouldn't surprise anyone. Any smartphone that can't pass the basic airplane in-flight entertainment test simply doesn't deserve to exist, and the Z10 does just fine on that end.

One of the first matters of business after arriving was securing a pre-paid SIM for a few minutes, texts and all of my data needs, since I landed at the airport with no way of communicating with the world without paying outrageous international roaming charges (I'm giving you the evil eye, US carriers; you know who you are). Though some BB10 services offer reasonable offline support, I had a difficult time finding any that applied to me. In fear that I wouldn't be able to get the address of my hotel or pull up a map on my phone at the airport, I made sure to take a few screenshots just to be on the safe side. Accessing the address in an email was easy enough, but the screenshots came in handy when trying to describe my destination to the taxi driver.

DNP Back to BlackBerry week 3

I promptly got set up with a Vodafone pre-paid SIM. After booting, it became clear that my unlocked unit actually comes with a rather unique trait not seen in many other GSM devices (this is the first phone I've seen work this way): it's able to load up splash screens, ringtones, apps and accounts that are associated with the current SIM's carrier. On AT&T, my Z10 booted up with "Rethink Possible," contained AT&T-specific ringtones, offered AT&T Address Book as an account option and more. Once I inserted my Vodafone SIM, however, all of those disappeared and -- with the exception of the ringtones -- were replaced with Vodafone's versions (including a Vodafone app that magically appeared after my first boot up). This was a pretty cool discovery. It's a feature that I hope is implemented on all of BlackBerry's unlocked devices (all of our units have it), though I'm not expecting handsets that are originally locked to a carrier to have the same privilege. Sure, I'm definitely not a fan of any sort of carrier branding -- especially on unlocked handsets -- but admittedly it was worthy of a small geekout moment.

Another service I've always geeked out about, despite how long it's been around, is Skype. I'm not the most frequent user of the service, but it's a godsend when I'm overseas because it makes it so easy to video chat with my wife and kids. While there are plenty of similar services available, it's the one that nearly every member of my family uses. I was hoping that Skype's anticipated app would be ready for BB10 by the time I left for Spain, but unfortunately it's still MIA. The only alternate option, FaceFlow, isn't cross-platform (though it offers a web interface), so I've been using the service on my computer instead. Of course, Skype is coming to the platform soon, so most BB10 buyers won't have the same concern for long, but it was one less way for me to take advantage of the OS.

DNP Back to BlackBerry week 3

A solid few days using the Z10 in Spain haven't changed my mind about BlackBerry 10 -- it's still a perfectly capable platform that just needs improvement in a few key areas -- but I must admit that my experience abroad has been better than I originally expected. To be on the safe side, I brought along an unlocked Android device as a backup, ready to accept my SIM at a moment's notice if I decided the Z10 wasn't successful at keeping up with my excessive work. Fortunately, I never felt it necessary to resort to the backup. Does that mean I had a flawless experience at MWC? Not at all. I had a few struggles, primarily in the area of mapping and app availability, and my desire for pure threaded-email conversations in the Hub dramatically increased when I was faced with twice the email volume and team email correspondence as a normal week.

Furthermore, my initial concerns with battery life were also magnified as I more heavily relied on the BlackBerry to handle a much larger workload than I usually require; indeed, I made good use of external battery packs as backups, just in case I ran out of juice halfway through the day. I typically got away with only needing one recharge per day. With that said, I want to make it clear that a firmware update is on the way which promises more efficient battery life, but I haven't had the opportunity to receive it yet while I've been on the road. I hope to get my hands on it as soon as possible to properly test it out.

One other thing I learned during my first few days at Mobile World Congress: four weeks after its initial launch, I was surprised to see a lot of interest in the Z10 when I pulled it out of my pocket. (The gestures seem to be a hit with most people, for what it's worth.) I know that part of this is due to the limited availability of the device so far, but people are still at least talking about it. This is good news for the company in a few ways: it hasn't been entirely dismissed by the mobile community, BlackBerry hasn't been declared dead and it is at least seen with much more curiosity and intrigue than other phones introduced at the show. (Firefox OS, anyone?)


DNP Back to BlackBerry week 3

During the first half of my international adventure, I've learned that my Z10 is much more durable than I originally expected. The BB10 platform is also at least capable of handling the workload I throw at it, even in high-stress conditions. I can't say that it's been the most efficient method of tackling my trade-show routine, but I've survived so far. As I noted earlier, there have been a few frustrations along the way, but I got through nearly all of my typical chores just fine. (I think it's also important to mention that at this very moment in the platform's infancy, I couldn't pull this experiment off without sideloading Android apps.) A few days in Catalonia have not magically turned me into a BlackBerry convert, but the phones are good enough that I have at least become a lot more confident in the company's future.

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