First impressions: BlackBerry is back in the game but needs more innovation

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TORONTO - For BlackBerry fans who have been desperately hoping that Research in Motion would get its act together and once again deliver a smartphone worthy of its old CrackBerry moniker, there's good news.

While the new BlackBerry Z10, the first smartphone to run the dramatically revamped BlackBerry 10 operating system, didn't exactly take the tech world by storm when it was officially unveiled Wednesday, it was widely reviewed as a respectable competitor to Apple's iPhone and the top phones running Google's Android platform.

BlackBerry fans who held out from buying a rival smartphone out of allegiance to Research in Motion — which is changing its company name to BlackBerry — can now get a mobile experience that's similar to using an iPhone or a top Android device but without giving up BlackBerry Messenger and all the other things they love about their phone.

But BlackBerry 10 does not "leap frog" the competition, as former co-CEO Jim Balsillie famously — and foolishly — claimed it would back in the fall of 2011.

Although the operating system is impressive and keeps BlackBerry in the conversation about mobile innovation, the company still needs to do a lot more to firmly re-establish itself as a real player in the smartphone wars once again.

First impressions of the BlackBerry Z10 are good. It has a super sharp 4.2-inch screen — with more pixels per inch than the Retina Display that Apple brags about — and has a powerful-enough processor that browsing through screens, launching apps and browsing the web is satisfyingly fast.

BlackBerry fans, who tend to be the types that send a lot of emails, will love the virtual keyboard, which makes typing on a flat screen feel less torturous than on some other devices. Those who can't live without a QWERTY keyboard will just have to wait until April when the BlackBerry Q10 is expected to be released.

Another cool feature in the BlackBerry 10, include a unified-inbox feature called Hub that merges the contents of several email and social media accounts into one place.

The web browser is strong and even supports Flash (although it's turned off by default) unlike the iPhone and many other smartphones.

And while BlackBerry's selection of apps was once dire, more than 70,000 will be available at launch, including some 1,000 "top apps." These will include apps for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, Kindle, WhatsApp, Angry Birds, Songza, Slacker, Rdio, NHL.com, CBC, Tim Hortons, Air Canada, RBC and ING Direct. But many will be disappointed that Google Maps, Instagram and Netflix aren't available.

Many tech observers were surprised at how strong the BlackBerry Z10 actually is — considering how many missteps RIM had over the years — but it lacks a killer feature that encourage tech enthusiasts to drop whatever phone they're using and rush out to buy one.

Based on Wednesday's product unveil, it seemed that BlackBerry might have been more focused on retaining its loyal customers and cementing its position as the smartphone platform of choice for corporations, rather that trying to appeal to consumers.

BlackBerry Balance, a feature that partitions a phone into two modes for personal and work usage, will appeal to security-minded IT departments and got a strong push off the top.

While the consumer-friendly announcement of pop star Alicia Keys as an ambassador for the brand didn't come until the tail end of the presentation, more than an hour after the event began.

Corporations that were drawn to the security of the platform, but felt compelled to seek out other options as the BlackBerry experience deteriorated over the years, now have less reason to experiment with deploying iPhones or other devices. All but the pickiest of users will likely be satisfied with the BlackBerry 10 experience and IT departments don't have to worry about managing a rag-tag collection of devices.

And with the BlackBerry Z10 set to be typically priced at $150 on a three-year contract in Canada, it's cheaper than an iPhone, which will appeal to budget-conscious buyers.

A first glimpse at how well BlackBerry 10 will be received comes on Thursday when sales begin for the Z10 in the United Kingdom. It's available in Canada next Tuesday and in the U.S. starting in March.

Organizations: Apple, Google, CBC Tim Hortons Air Canada RBC ING Direct

Geographic location: TORONTO, Canada, United Kingdom U.S.

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