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Back to BlackBerry: a whole new UI world

Brad Molen

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 were to ask me what the most significant changes are in BlackBerry 10, I'd likely go into detail about the user interface, gestures, the Hub and the ecosystem. It's an amazing improvement over previous BlackBerry devices in most cases. It's not too difficult to learn, either: just three days into my 30-day trial, I found myself unsuccessfully swiping up on a friend's Android phone to turn it on. But now that I've had the chance to set up all of my accounts, do some hardcore messaging and play around with the device, what are some of my thoughts about those major differences? Join me after the break and learn some of the best and worst things I discovered so far.

DNP Back to BlackBerry week one

The setup began with my BlackBerry ID, which was so old that I was surprised when the phone accepted my password. I added all of my email and social networking accounts in just a few minutes, but adding my inboxes to the Hub took several additional minutes. No special BlackBerry data plan was required; all I had to do was simply slide my AT&T micro-SIM card into the phone, boot up and it gave me full access to everything I need.

Even in the setup process, BB10 offered a few smart touches seldom seen on other platforms. For instance, my Facebook account is attached to one of my old Yahoo Mail accounts that hadn't been set up on my Z10 yet. When I added my Facebook logins to the BlackBerry Hub, it instantly recognized that I was using a different email address and asked me if I wanted to set that account up as well. All I had to do was throw in my password and I was ready to go. It's something that seems like common sense, but it's still a rarity in the mobile world.

DNP Back to BlackBerry week one

Once my Z10 was set up and ready to go, I had a chance to get introduced to the user interface. It's modern and beautiful, and the swipe gestures are a great touch. Despite its learning curve, I was used to the BlackBerry Flow gestures after just a couple days -- and it got even easier over time.

Flow is much more intuitive than I originally expected. Going back and forth between the Hub and recent (or running) apps is just a matter of a couple finger swipes, which made multitasking much faster and easier once I became acclimatized to the UI. However, the phone would occasionally ignore my gestures; I've also experienced the complete opposite scenario, like during attempts to swipe up on the keyboard's space bar, which the phone interprets as the "home screen" gesture. Also, it seems odd that an OS dedicated to simple swipe gestures doesn't let me swipe up to get rid of running applications on the main screen (à la webOS).

DNP Back to BlackBerry week one

Speaking of which, the recent apps Active Frames screen (seen above) doubles as the UI's home panel, which was a little jarring at first; being accustomed to diving straight into the standard apps, this new style has involved a solid amount of adjustment time. I started using the running apps much more frequently than I ever had on any other platform, since it was so easily accessible. This quick access, as well as the ability to get into apps almost immediately, has provided me with one of the best multitasking experiences I've ever had on a smartphone.

Once I began exploring the app pages, found on the right side of home, I was reminded of iOS, which features a static grid with apps and folders. To the left of home is the Hub. Here, all of my accounts are together in one place (and filterable to specific inboxes for better organization), but it's a half-baked effort. It lacks the numerous customization and communication options from previous BlackBerry devices, and app notifications can be erratic. It's also supposed to fully integrate with native apps, but two-way communication between the two elements is quite lackluster. As an example, after looking through my mentions on the native Twitter app, they remain as unread notifications in the Hub that need to be cleared out (a time-intensive process). Because of this, I have less interest in using the Hub, and only visit it to check my emails. (Update: a commenter pointed out that it's possible to long-press dates in the Hub, which reveals a "Mark prior read" option.)

DNP Back to BlackBerry week one

What about the ultimate BlackBerry staple, BBM? After setting the messaging service up -- easy to do, since it already had my ID -- and chatting with a few of my colleagues, the interface and feel seemed immediately familiar. The two-way video chat and screen-share features are handy, and BBM is just as pleasant to use as I remember. Unfortunately, the feature lacks cross-platform capability, limiting the number of potential friends and family members that I can talk to on the service. (Not to mention video chat is definitely no stranger to the smartphone world.) Unless millions of people flock to BB10 over the next year or so, I simply won't have a lot of opportunities to take advantage of BBM -- and I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything.

I couldn't even make it through a day before I was setting out to find worthy replacements to the "native" Facebook and Twitter clients. Since Facebook hasn't committed to pushing out its own BB10 app, BlackBerry built one; at best, the application is a horribly implemented Android version wrapped up in BB10 code, and some sections of the app take you to the site on the mobile browser. As for Twitter, I've never been able to refresh my feed without fully exiting and re-entering the program. (Not everyone has experienced this bug, but numerous attempts to re-install the app haven't made a difference on my device.)

DNP Back to BlackBerry week one

As a hardcore emailer, the Z10 has proved to be somewhat cumbersome in real-life use. My inbox is organized into a "conversation view," but when I click on the email thread it takes me into an individual-message view and I can't hop from one email to the next without jumping out of the email first. I haven't found a way to preview the first line or two of text before jumping into the message, and the only way to multi-select my messages is to jump into the menu and press "select more" before proceeding. These complications make for a more time-intensive experience.

While I got push emails through IMAP, syncing my account with Google's server wasn't instantaneous. There are a few settings that let me change how often the phone will communicate with Gmail, but whenever I read my email from my desktop, it would take ages before the phone knew about it. As soon as I switched to Exchange, though, everything began syncing much more quickly. On a more positive note: push email works great; BlackBerry Peek helps me see how many email notifications are waiting; viewing / saving attachments is easy; and my experience reading HTML emails is pleasant. Typing messages on the new virtual keyboard is also fast and smooth, though my experience using the word-prediction feature is right on par with our review.

DNP Back to BlackBerry week one

Once all of my essential accounts and social networks were set up, it was time to play around in BlackBerry World. The store, which flaunted 70,000 apps at the time of its launch, still looks amazingly bare. Additionally, BB World isn't easy to navigate, so app discovery was rather difficult. Several times I've exited the store in disgust because I couldn't find anything close to what I was looking for. Only a handful of "featured apps" are shown on the first page, and "trending apps" typically displays just 10-15 of the apps BlackBerry wants to show off. To get to the meat, I have to dive into the categories, which are then broken up into subcategories. The silver lining is that once I get there, at least there are filters that narrow down my choices and let me change the sorting order.

DNP Back to BlackBerry week one

What if the app you really want isn't available on BlackBerry World? Welcome to the immediate future, folks. The ability to port Android apps over to BlackBerry has been a lifesaver. Once I learned how to sideload Android apps to my Z10, I installed Flipboard and used it to keep up on the usual feeds (I can access Google+ and Instagram this way). Additionally, I found apps for Remember the Milk, Google Voice, speed tests and podcasts, to name a few.

This doesn't mean the use of repackaged Android apps is a flawless experience. Some are clunky, unresponsive and don't give me an experience as smooth as programs written natively for BlackBerry. Since Runtime for Android only supports Gingerbread or older versions (this will be bumped to Jelly Bean eventually), I've dealt with an archaic UI and apps that don't work. Many of the sideloaded files didn't launch. On multiple occasions, some of the apps that actually did work would freeze, forcing me to exit the app completely or reboot the phone. However, since it only takes a couple minutes to sideload an app, the additional functionality you receive is worth the gamble.


DNP Back to BlackBerry week one

While I'm fully committed to spending 30 days with BlackBerry 10, the first week onboard the new OS hasn't converted me into a dedicated user. I'm not saying my decision to do a month-long challenge was a mistake or that I loathe every waking moment with the Z10, but BB10 simply doesn't offer many competitive advantages that would take me away from the other platforms. The UI and gestures are refreshing and fun to use, but the Hub feels a little too basic for my email needs. I'm also willing to give the ecosystem some more time to grow, but it's not a good sign that I have no other choice but to sideload Android apps to fill massive holes in BlackBerry World. Granted, I believe BB10 is the best first-gen version of any mobile OS on the market, and it has a lot more potential than I originally thought. How well -- and how soon -- it lives up to that potential is a completely different story.

Note: You can follow Brad on Twitter, where he is documenting many of his thoughts and observations on BlackBerry 10.

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