Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/05/08/blackberry_q10_review/

Review: BlackBerry Q10

Not cheap, but a most excellent Communicator

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Phones, 8th May 2013 11:57 GMT

One of my four-year-olds pointed to a BlackBerry Bold recently and exclaimed "It's HALF A PHONE!".  She was pointing at the screen. And the other half? The answer, I elicited later, was that it was some kind of letters game.

Just think about that for a moment. Every day of your life you've seen adults pawing at a phone, but only ever with a full-screen display. Today, releasing a phone with a QWERTY keyboard appears to be quite perverse - and carrying one becomes almost a retro fashion statement.

The market has been educated into typing on glass, and full touch onscreen keyboards can spew out text as fast or faster than physical QWERTYs. What would be the point, you may rationally ask, of crippling a smartphone with such an encumbrance? It leaves less room for viewing web pages and messages, which is what we do most of the time.

The Q10 provides an emphatic answer to that question.

BlackBerry Q10. This marketing render doesn't show the Hub to its full advantage: you can
usually see six messages at once.

To evoke a now-forgotten category, the Q10 is a terrific "Communicator". It does everything that a modern smartphone should do, but really excels as an integrated organiser and communications device. Like Psion and Palm once did, BlackBerry designs its software with immense thoughtfulness and a clear idea of what people want to do. When this is built into a first-class telephone, you have a very appealing proposition indeed.

Of the big mobile players, only Apple still controls both the platform software and its own hardware devices, and BlackBerry shows a similar attention to detail. But of the two, BlackBerry is far more responsive - it has to be - and it is iterating its brand-new mobile operating system very rapidly. The progress from the first flakey BB10 just three months ago to BB10.1 in the Q10 is very impressive.

The Q10 banishes some long-standing and legitimate gripes of BlackBerry users. The old BlackBerry OS limped into the modern era in a pretty sorry condition. Yes, messaging (and IM and Twitter) were excellent, but almost every other aspect of the platform had become seriously sub-par: particularly web browsing and imaging, and the platform was patched together with glue and string. BB10 fixes this. The BB10 browser is as good, or better, than any rival.

I found the Q10's call quality to be outstanding, with a good implementation of HD voice. You can boost bass and treble in the phone options. Web browsing was a pleasant surprise; I expected to only use the "half a phone" browser for emergencies, but it's actually very usable. What the Q10 lacks in display size, it makes up for with the browser's outstanding "Reader" mode, used in combination with convenient keyboard shortcuts. The device's battery life is excellent, and appears to be improving as the platform is optimised. Battery life looks to be one of the key strengths of QNX. Which is ironic, really, as until recently this venerable embedded OS was not considered a mobile OS at all. Unless you count a car as a "mobile platform".

Where the QWERTY keys really pay off is not in a head-to-head typing competition, but because permanent shortcut buttons offer so much convenience in so many contexts. Processing an inbox is much faster using single-key shortcuts (backspace to delete, for example, or "W" to flag a message) than by swiping every time. Personally, I found that the time taken to type a message was about the same or maybe even slower than on glass.

But overall, the seconds add up throughout the day, the Q10 got the jobs done far more quickly than any rival I've tried. Your finger muscles will thank you for not swiping - although as we shall see, it's not all plain sailing.

The hardware nitty-gritty

The Q10 is very similar in size to the premium BlackBerry it supersedes, the Bold 9900. It is also a little heavier. (Q10: 119.6mm x 66.8mm x 10.35mm and 139g. Bold 9900: 115mm x 66mm x 10.5mm and 130g). Both the battery cover and the top rear of the device are finished with a very comfortable new material that gives it a solid, slightly rubbery feel. The finish makes a big difference to the perception of the device, I found, as it gives a true grip, but without the cheap feel of a rubber or silicone jacket.

A steel frame is reinforced with struts front and back, the rear bar is raised a little to protect the camera lens. Dispensing with the traditional trackball and call keys, the Q10 has a screen some 30 per cent larger than the 9900, and slightly larger keys. The 720 x 720 resolution 3.1 inch display works out at a 330ppi pixel density, (versus 287ppi on its VGA predecessor) and text looks outstanding on the SuperAMOLED, where black really is black. BB10 has been tweaked with a new darker theme.

The innards are the same as the BlackBerry Z10: a dual core SnapDragon 1.5Ghz, 16GB of storage (expandable to 32GB), 4G LTE support and NFC. BlackBerry claims 13.5 hour talk time on 3G, and nine hours of video playback. In practice, the Q10 lasted well over a day of heavy usage. The phone only got warm during the initial setup phase, when it was pulling in email and indexing the contents for instant text retrieval, from multiple accounts.

Type-tastic

The physical QWERTY is the biggest USP, of course, and there's very little competition for QWERTY devices today. The Q10's keyboard is excellent, with a lighter feel than the Bold 9900, meaning it's a little less wearing on the joints, but still firm. It must be held a little lower than the Bold, but

Whether this matters to you depends on what you want your phone to do. The stock iOS and Windows keyboards are now very good indeed, and SwiftKey's excellent keyboard deserves the plaudits. BlackBerry's Z10 keyboard, apparently using technology licensed from Swiftkey, is outstanding. It's not as if you'd find yourself handicapped in any way without QWERTY. Interestingly, the Z10 word prediction is incorporated into the Q10 but turned off by default.

The 8MP camera performed well enough, and can take 1080p HD video, while the 2MP front camera is well-specced for video calls. By default it takes square photos, and although the aspect ratio can easily changed, it naturally gets a "letterbox" look. The latest cut of BlackBerry's BB10 integrates photo editing nicely into the main app.

Some ghosting is evident in this picture, taken in HDR mode, new to BB10.1

BlackBerry has built NFC into devices across its legacy, and it is present here. However I failed to pair the Q10 with the JBL PowerUp speaker, or the NFC music gateway hub. BlackBerry says it does support bonk-to-pay and file transfer.

One surprising (and for me inexplicable) omission is wireless charging. The 9900 supported it, but the Q10 lacks the 9900's contact points at the bottom. Hopefully a third party will fill the gap now that Qi is emerging as a standard.

Software

The Q10 implements the fast and fluid UI introduced with the Z10. Task-switching is particularly easy and leaves you wondering how rivals contrive to make it quite so difficult. Once the hump of having "no home screen" has been negotiated, it's easy to get around.

The Q10 sees the debut of a new kind of command line, if you like, built into Universal Search and called Type and Go. Universal Search is accessible from any of the system screens - which you get to with a simple swipe up from anywhere - after which you can immediately begin typing. But Type and Go is a special set of queries which assume you want to perform an action. So, type {verb} {subject} and fire away. Only a few characters of the verb or subject are required as the system prompts you for completion, as you can see from this very Real World example.

It can be used to update your Facebook status, make a call, or even post a full Tweet.

Supported verbs are call/phone, sms/text, mail/email, bbm, tweet/twitter and facebook. It also learns as you go along - I now need only type "ca" and hit return to call my wife. Type and Go is a great feature, a natural for a real-QWERTY device, and very accessible (one swipe up, and start typing). It's so obvious you wonder why nobody thought of putting it into a smartphone before. I do remember a command line interpreter called CMDP for Psions, but it was a developer tool rather than something integral to the UX.

BlackBerry has promised to expose a Type And Go API later this year to allow third parties can integrate their apps with it. It would be great to see common system commands supported, such as "set notifications to silent", for example, or "mark prior messages as read" without having to enter the Hub. And perhaps some greybeard will conjure up a LISP or DCL interpreter. Just for the lulz.

But, as I hinted at earlier, the Q10 makes some demands traditional BlackBerry users will find puzzling, and perhaps even discombobulating, at first, as the Q10 has dispensed with the Trackball.

Firstly, you need to hold the device lower down in your hand than a traditional 'Berry - in order to reach the top of the screen more comfortably. And you need to reach the top of the screen to pull down the settings (with the swipe-down gesture Android uses for its Notifications pane) or to reach the top row of "Active Frames", which is what BlackBerry calls the eight most-recent running apps.

It isn't avoidable. In addition, some routine actions on the Q10 are decidedly more laborious without a Trackball: such as selecting text, for example, or moving sequentially through messages in the new unified inbox, or "Hub". That simply isn't possible. To use Q10, your fingers must leave the keyboard zone - I'm afraid there's no escaping that fact.

I found I got used to almost all of this very quickly. Task switching is so intuitive, I have discovered I am not the only Z10 user to find myself making the "up" swipe to see the active tasks, er, Frames, on other devices. It's swings and roundabouts, with the positives largely outweighing the negatives.

The Type and Go "command line" is part of Universal Search, introduced in BB7, and with the Search history retained in icon form - very handy.

The browser is excellent - click for a larger screenshot

[Left] Browser options - note the keyboard shortcuts and [Right] Reader mode

Hello, file system, fancy meeting you here! Here, in the browser

Hubba hubba...

You can swipe from the Hub, past the Active Frames, to the app icons with one gestures, by sweeping your thumb across the dots

The new BB10 "Hub" aggregates not only your email accounts but Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yahoo IM, BlackBerry World app store updates and downloads and Evernote exchanges - the latter two being rather superfluous.

The Hub also offers a nice glimpse of the calendar - a rather fine calendar app can be invoked for more detailed editing. The great USP of the BB10 Hub is that it can be glimpsed, or "Peeked" with a single gesture at all times, from anywhere on the phone. It's a nice idea, but the reality doesn't always deliver on the promise.

This is because BlackBerry has stuck to the convention that the messaging app view contains but one "item" - so if an email has been opened for viewing or editing, that's what you'll "Peek" - not the inbox underneath. This is not an easy UI design challenge to solve, as allowing multiple emails to be open at once causes clutter. So I longed for a gesture or shortcut key to really give me a "Peek" at the inbox. Note that unlike many (but not all) BlackBerrys, the Q10 does not have a Convenience Key which could do such a job.

The real win with the Q10 is the keyboard shortcuts. Almost all apps support the spacebar key for scrolling down, and traditional T and B for moving to the top to bottom. In the browser, an excellent "Reader" mode is invoked by the R key. This is far easier on the thumb than dementedly swiping down to read. The new BB10 browser is a polished affair, rendering extremely quickly and consistently, and pages look superb.

In the messaging Hub, many traditional keyboard shortcuts are implemented, but not all of them. BB10 retains the traditional C to compose a message, N and P to skip through the inbox by day, and W to flag a message - that translates to a real IMAP "Flag", which the old BIS couldn't quite manage. However swiping message-by-message isn't possible. Gah. The shortcuts are particularly handy for hopping about the Calendar app.

Here's a long list.

BlackBerry Q10 keyboard shortcuts

So once you've got a Q10, and have learned a handful of these, you'll be get things done far quicker, regardless of your typing speed.

BB10's maps are fast and look good, but are very basic. And why does it think I want to nip to France for lunch?

BB10 falls down quite badly in two areas. Mapping has become indispensable to many smartphone owners, and the native BB10 client is pretty uh, basic. Searching for the nearest Chipotle (not recommended, by the way - too acrid) found one branch further away, but not the nearer one. And included some surreal entries too. Now that Nokia is licensing its HERE suite to all comers, let's hope the current one is binned for something richer and better.

BlackBerry needs to put some thought into refining the Hub, but also the other show-stopper - for some - is the vaunted Evernote integration. It must have looked a nice idea on paper: give users a Reminder app that aggregates Outlook tasks, flagged messages, and Evernote notebooks. But in reality the deep Evernote integration is half-finished, so tags aren't recognised, you can't sort entries in notebooks, and formatting is lost on a round trip. For people who rely on Evernote, this is a problem, since the native Evernote client isn't on BB10 yet. For details of workarounds, read on.

There are also some quirks we can forgive because it's early days: The Hub confusion, and the necessity for apps to display themselves in an Active Frame - there are no "headless" apps, yet. And the rich range of customisations that were unique to BlackBerry haven't quite made the transition yet. BB10.1 gives us back customisable ringtones, but not variable-length vibrate. Some omissions, such as the inability to change accounts when replying to an email, will surely head back.

BlackBerry, the App Gap... and the Android kludge

Where the Q10 clearly falls behind the more mature competition is in the selection of high-quality third party applications. The Q10 lacks many of the apps of the Z10, and the Z10 in turn lacks many of the apps of the old BlackBerry OS. And as you know, that in turn lacks many of the apps of market leaders Android and iOS.

BlackBerry's solution is threefold: encourage native apps, make porting from Android easy and allow Android apps to operate in a runtime environment called the Android Player. So far, only one high-quality native app has so far emerged, a funky Twitter client called Blaq. A few of the bundled apps such as Twitter and Facebook are clearly Android ports, and I found running Android binaries to be a very mixed bag, and rather less satisfactory than on the Z10.

For example, Android binary of Evernote is quite usable on the Z10, but isn't on the Z10's square screen. It's not unusual for Android apps to hiccup or blackout completely. However many run fine most of the time, including Google Maps and Netflix.

Skype is now available "natively" - it's an Android port but with hooks into the messaging hub. However, Z10 apps ranging from the Vodafone UK app to eBay to the Kindle app aren't yet available for the Q10. No doubt this will change.

Amazingly, the Android Netflix app runs fine, sideloaded, in the Android Player. Although you'll need to squint a bit if you want to watch a video on the device itself.

Clearly there's an OS/2 dilemma for BlackBerry. If you make your platform an agreeable place to run foreign binaries, then developers will do a quick and dirty port and consider their job done. OS/2 boasted a "better Windows than Windows" and suffered because native application developers never took advantage of its superior native APIs - many were single-threaded Windows ports. Sound familiar? Today there's no Spotify, no NetFlix, hardly any banking apps, and no Hailo.

In practice, BlackBerry is doing as well as it can. One area, however, that really looks like an executive mistake is the decision to allow any old rubbish through the store, we'd imagine in order to bump up the headline number of apps. BlackBerry now claims "100,000 native apps" but it's actually an awful showcase for BlackBerry - because there appears to be no quality control. In addition to thousands of Fart Apps, and many more "apps" which are links to a website, BlackBerry World contains some borderline scams. Stop trying to sell me videos and MP3s, and give me a nice curated app store. And reward the developers who've done a nice job with Cascades - they deserve better.

The Verdict

In a nutshell, the Q10 delivers everything RIM should have offered three years ago. I was surprised how much I got along with it. For all its quirks, the Q10 deserves high marks for ease of use and performance. The design and pricing are clearly high end, and it is intended to compete with the latest and greatest full touch devices on £35-£40 contracts. Yet people looking for a more practical device with a clear utility aren't well-catered for today. Not everybody wants or needs glitzy, high-spec techno porn. Nokia has recognised that need and I imagine with future models, BlackBerry can pull off the same trick. As it is, the Q10 offers a lot of convenience.

Another reason to consider the Q10 is that the market has changed subtly over the past year with the advent of low-cost tablets, in ways that haven't really been fully appreciated yet. You can "do media" (eg, watch NetFlix) much better on an affordable 7-inch Nexus, Kindle Fire or Apple iPad Mini. That frees you, as a punter, to be more discerning with your choice of phone. My daughter's description of the QWERTY BlackBerry as "half a phone" is no insult - and it might just suit some people down to the ground.

Vive le command line! ®