BlackBerry hasn’t had much good news lately, as a seemingly endless series of product delays pushed out its latest handsets from an April 2012 release all the way to Jan. 30. In that time, competitors such as Apple and Samsung have continued to erode whatever market share BlackBerry had left. Many analysts wondered if it was “too little, too late” for the Canadian smartphone manufacturer.
It didn’t help matters that BlackBerry’s last product launch was an understated one for the Playbook LTE and was met with a lukewarm response from the consumer base. Many are hoping that the staggered launch of the BlackBerry Z10 (launching first in the U.K. on Feb, 1, in Canada on Feb. 5 and in mid-March for the U.S. and other countries) won’t encounter the same issues that the last high-profile BlackBerry launch (the original RIM BlackBerry Playbook) met when it was released.
The back of the BlackBerry Z10 communications board
The BlackBerry Z10 is the first BlackBerry handset to feature a dual-core processor. Notable is the inclusion of 2 gigabytes (GB) of internal RAM. From a “bells and whistles” perspective, the Z10 claims to feature a display of higher resolution than Apple’s “Retina” technology while also incorporating an 8-megapixel auto-focus camera with backside illumination (BSI) and a 2-megapixel camera for use in video conferencing. It also features BlackBerry’s answer to Apple’s Facetime, called BBM Video.
The Z10 is LTE-enabled and features the usual gamut of sensors found in the modern smartphone (MEMS accelerometers, gyroscopes, etc.) BlackBerry isn’t selling the Z10, however, on its technical merits but on the fluidity of the new BB10 operating system. How well BB10 resonates with consumers remains to be seen. However, taking a look inside at the components of the BlackBerry Z10 will give us a good idea as to how technologically comparable it is to the current market leaders, the Apple iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S3.
Big points for touchscreen keyboard
Before we took the device apart, we took a few moments to actually use the BlackBerry Z10. What immediately stood out was the touchscreen keyboard. Unequivocally, I would say that this is the best touchscreen keyboard I have ever experienced. The predictive typing is great and composing emails, texts and BBM notes comes with ease and intuitiveness. I applaud the designers of BB10 for creating a touchscreen keyboard that would make the move from the plastic keyboards of previous BlackBerry handsets very easy for legacy owners.
The screen is also quite vibrant. In terms of the visual to the human eye, it is very competitive with the Samsung Galaxy S3’s Super AMOLED screen and Apple iPhone 5’s Retina display. Overall the BB10 OS flows very well. I experienced no bugs from the first update (which is a marked improvement from the day I booted up my Playbook for the first time) and BB Hub, BlackBerry’s all-encompassing message manager, actually does simplify all messaging on the handset. It just takes some time to get used to the deluge of information that initially might seem overwhelming.
Truthfully, however, there is one noticeable drawback. Nothing in particular stands out as innovative about this handset. Mind you, one can point to Apple and Samsung and state that innovation there has been replaced with iterative improvement design. But the problem in that comparison is that both Samsung and Apple have had months of advance sales on their latest offerings and a huge library of applications from which they are able to build leverage from.
The Z10, on the other hand, lacks some key apps such as Netflix, Instagram, and others that the average person would want in a phone right out of the box. If some of these applications are missing, there needs to be a “wow-factor” that would encourage a Samsung or Apple user to make the switch to the BlackBerry Z10. As it stands, this handset is going to be a huge leap forward for you if you are an existing BlackBerry user. You’ll finally have a phone that is comparable in many ways to the market leaders.
However, if you’ve already made the switch to an Android device or an iPhone, there’s really nothing here to make you want to come back, unless you really miss BB Messenger.
The front of the BlackBerry Z10 communications board
Qualcomm the big winner
When we took apart the BlackBerry Z10—once the main board was separated from the handset casing and the shielding covering the components was removed—what stood out to us was the number of familiar components we saw. We found a number of components that we’ve seen in numerous handsets released over the course of 2012. A number of the components we found were also used in many of Samsung’s Galaxy products.
Standing out as the big design winner was Qualcomm, with four major socket wins within the Z10. Much like the LTE version of Samsung Galaxy S3 , the BlackBerry Z10 is powered by the MSM8960 baseband/applications processor. The MSM8960 integrates a multi-mode 3G/LTE modem while incorporating two asynchronous CPU cores and the Adreno 225 GPU for the applications side of the processor. For the BlackBerry Z10, the two CPU cores are clocked at 1.5 GHz of processing speed. The MSM8960 is manufactured at the 28nm processing node which makes for a power-efficient processor, a necessity considering the battery requirements of LTE-enabled handsets.
A closer look at the Qualcomm MSM8960.
Other major design wins for Qualcomm include the PM8921 power management IC, found in such devices as the Galaxy S3 LTE and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2, and the RTR8600 multi-mode transceiver and GPS, also found in the Galaxy S3 LTE and the fourth generation iPad. Also found in the BlackBerry Z10 is Qualcomm’s WCD9310 audio codec. This relatively new device was also found in the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE. It should be noted that these design wins underscore Qualcomm’s continued prominence in the smartphone component space and highlights the impressive run the San Diego communications component manufacturer has been on in scoring major design wins in globally-successful smartphones and tablets.
Speaking of Samsung, the Korean giant supplies a few key components for the BlackBerry Z10. Memory for the newest BlackBerry (a 16GB model) prominently featured Samsung components on the main handset PCB. Samsung provided both the system memory, in the form of 2 gigabytes of low-power DDR2 SDRAM, and the usable memory with a multichip memory package labeled KLMAG2GE4A that houses 16 GB of MLC NAND flash and a memory controller.
Another interesting note is that Texas Instruments, a once-prominent partner of RIM/BlackBerry, now finds itself with very few design wins within the BlackBerry Z10. TI’s biggest socket win is the WL1273L – a single-chip radio incorporating 802.11a/b/g/n WLAN, Bluetooth, and FM. Qualcomm has TI out.
Other design winners include TriQuint [ for its TQP6M9017 dual-band WLAN module, RF Micro Devices—which provides the linear power amplifier modules that facilitate multi-mode communications like LTE—and Avago, with two power amplifiers (ACPM-5017 and ACPM-7051). Synaptics’ Clearpad 3203 is the capacitive touchscreen controller for the BlackBerry Z10.
The BlackBerry Z10 is also NFC-ready, as we discovered Inside Secure’s SecuRead IC5C633I4 NFC solution module. This component was also found in the LTE version of the Playbook.
All in all, the BlackBerry Z10 seems to incorporate many of the component selections of the Samsung Galaxy S3 LTE. It’s not certain if these decisions the designers made on what semiconductors, ICs and other modules to use were by design or by accident. But based on the relative success of the Samsung Galaxy S3, it isn’t a bad model to draw from.
It remains to be seen if a name change and a new product philosophy will make an impact in the smartphone market with its established leaders Samsung and Apple. However, it is a positive step forward that BlackBerry now has handsets that can compete at the software and hardware level with the best handsets the industry has to offer.
Allan Yogasingam is a technical research manager at UBM TechInsights, owned by the same company that publishes EE Times, UBM plc.