Thanks to Steve and Tim from Phones Show Chat, I've been lucky enough to get a short loan of a BlackBerry Q10, and I've been testing it out as my almost day-to-day work phone*. All email and Internet access plus outbound calls have been on the Q10, leaving only inbound calls on my previous handset. I was concerned that in going after the consumer market, BlackBerry's version 10 operating system would lose some of the efficiencies of its predecessors as a raw efficient phone call and email machine, instead going after flashy graphics and fancy gesture controls. Well, they have indeed gone after those features, but the physical qwerty keyboard is happily alive and well! This is only a mini-review due to the short time period I had with the handset, and that I was unable to get enough time to test out some major features with a busy workload!
*The almost is because there was simply too much hassle in 1) cutting up my current mini SIM into a micro SIM, plus 2) getting the IT department to remove the BES service on my account, then have it put back on a week or two later!
The Q10 is BlackBerry's latest incarnation of their most traditional form factor; the wide candybar with a physical qwerty keyboard. It's where they made their name many years ago, and is still what most people think of when they hear the word BlackBerry. It's also a favourite form factor of mine for work and getting things done, having already tried touch-based keyboards for the that purpose. When typing acronyms, technical terms, names and lots of punctuation into emails whilst on the move, which my job regularly requires, I still find there is nothing better and more efficient than a physical keyboard. Unfortunately for me, there can't be much other demand in the market for this, as this form factor is now an endangered species.
BlackBerry OS 10
The Q10 launched with BlackBerry OS 10, which is a big departure from the recent BlackBerry OS 5, BlackBerry OS 6 and BlackBerry OS 7 versions seen on the last few years' worth of Bold, Curve and Torch devices. Out go a lot of the old style menu driven functions, and in come swipe gestures. Out goes the entire concept of a traditional home screen used by iOS, Android and Windows Phone. Out goes the nasty low resolution displays and slow CPUs and in comes a lovely screen, lots of RAM, and with it some very nice transition animations. Fortunately this all runs very smoothly, which is probably no surprise given that BlackBerry OS 10 is built on QNX, a real-time operating system built to be dependable and lag-free in multi-tasking environments. Seriously the animations around the OS are buttery smooth, to borrow a phrase from Google! At the time of writing the Q10 was running version 10.1, with version 10.2 allegedly being around the corner based on leaks into the wild earlier this month.
The new gesture controls take a while to get used to, as does the lack of a genuine "home" screen. The "main" screen is arguably the multitasking view, which gives a vertically scrollable 4x4 list view of running apps, which works really well. Swiping to the screen on the right gives you a horizontally scrollable app drawer, where apps can be re-ordered and put into folders like iOS and many Android-based devices. Swiping to the left from the multitasking view takes you to BlackBerry hub, a unified messaging area for all your email accounts, SMS, BBM, notifications, and calls. Swiping down from the top of the screen in any of these views brings up quick settings for WiFi, Bluetooth, Alarm and a link to the main settings area for the whole device. Within some individual apps this top down swipe gesture gives you the app's menu area, and commonly the app's settings and shortcuts. Swiping from the bottom of the screen upwards at any time takes you back to the multitasking view, which as previously mentioned makes this view (arguably) the home or default screen if you were forced to pick one. Check the bold sections there, that's a lot of gestures to remember! As a full-time geek I found I got my head around this eventually, but I'm not so sure the average user would find this easy at all, especially compared to simpler user experiences and paradigms found in iOS and Android.
It should be noted that BlackBerry no longer requires BES or BIS connectivity with OS 10, where OS 7 and previous did. For the average user this is great, as BlackBerry bolt-ons for BIS were only ever confusing, and forced traffic through BlackBerry's own servers which weren't known for their stability, particularly during 2012. For business use, a server-side upgrade to BES 10 is required for the handset to use BES to sync email and PIM data. With my employers not forking out for this paid-for BES 10 licence and upgrade, I opted instead to use ActiveSync. In practice this worked just fine, although during my test period I found it to be 10-20 seconds slower updating email and calendar entries. The standard Microsoft Exchange-based remote wipe functionality wiped the entire device, as opposed to removing the ActiveSync account and its related data.
My primary use case during this brief period was for work purposes, which only really needs call, SMS and email functionality, and these all pass with flying colours. I use Evernote a lot, and was excited to find it was integrated into the OS. Until I found it was very basic, not even bringing in tags for example. There is no standalone Evernote app, as there isn't for many other marquee services and apps found on iOS and Android, and even Windows Phone in a lot of cases (probably because Microsoft are paying for them). This was one of the areas I didn't have time to fully explore though, as I was using the Q10 only for work purposes, but anecdotally there do seem to be many big-name apps missing from the BlackBerry World app store, and quality games also seemed hard to find. If I were to have the handset for personal use, I would also have tested Google services integration, and was unsurprised when I found very little in the way of first-party Google apps in BlackBerry World, instead finding third-party paid apps for access to Drive and Maps for example. Note that anyone using Google 2-step authentication will have to use an application-specific password to add your Google account for email, calendar and contact sync.
One very interesting feature I ran out of time to test was being able to run Android apps within BlackBerry OS 10. At present this is limited to Gingerbread (v2.3) compatible apps only, but version 10.2 is rumoured to bring support for Jelly Bean (v4.1) apps.
This is the best hardware qwerty keyboard device I've used. Unfortunately that's not a great accolade, as all the other efforts in this area, particularly the Android-based ones, were so incredibly poor. We haven't seen an Android phone with physical qwerty keyboard in the UK since the Motorola Pro+ in December 2011, which is 18 months ago, and that too was poor, under-powered and underwhelming in almost every way! There is no such thing as an iPhone with a physical keyboard, and next to none for Windows Phone. The last big stand on physical keyboards outside of BlackBerry was by Palm (subsequently bought out by HP) with the Pre range of handsets, and that didn't end well! So it seems this is a dying breed, which is a real shame for those who love the form factor.
The keyboard buttons have slightly softer click than previous BlackBerry models, but still retain the per-button curved raised edge, making each button easy and quick to locate under your thumbs. I found I was equally fast on this keyboard as I have been on all the previous generation of BlackBerry handsets. The overall build quality is great, very sturdy, and has a great feel in the hand. I didn't have much chance to properly try out the camera or speakers in any meaningful way, but quick tests showed them to be no cause for concern.
Again, I must stress this is mini-review only, and I lacked enough time to properly test things like the camera, using Android apps, and many other consumer-facing apps, features and integrations. However, as a business tool and a natural successor to the Bold and Curve ranges, I was pleased to see that the new BlackBerry OS 10 direction had not detracted too much from the origins of being a very efficient business tool, and whilst it is a little larger than previous models to accommodate a bigger screen, I could definitely use it day-to-day at work. It's great to see a manufacturer put some decent specs behind a handset with physical qwerty keyboard, but I'd still prefer it with Android or even iOS if I were to have the handset for personal use as opposed to work use.