Blackberry Q10: The key is the keyboard
Not so long ago Blackberry made phones that set the bar. They were avatars of serious cool among the power set, a visible token that you had arrived. Then came the iPhone, and there went Blackberry’s cachet.
Now Blackberry is back with a two smartphone phones running a new operating system — both the phones and the OS are dubbed “10.” The rebooted line is a gambit — some think Blackberry’s last — to recapture the cool.
The Z10, released in the United States in March, was an attempt to join ’em: it’s a full screen, multi-touch rectangle with a pop-up, software keyboard — sound familiar? But the Q10, due in the U.S. at the end of May, is a spit-in-your-eye attempt to beat ’em: An unapologetic central feature is a physical keyboard, and this defining Blackberry touch makes the device an intentional outlier in the smartphone world.
Some smartphones coming to the market are more like small tablets than phones. Some have more apps, like the iPhone. But all have access to a plethora of streaming content, e-books, games, cloud storage, push e-mail and browsers that “undesign” web pages, making them easier to read.
One has a keyboard. This feature is not a pander to the Blackberry faithful or a half-hearted attempt to get back to some company roots. Blackberry has made the hardware keyboard essential again. The Q10 is at the same time different, familiar, exciting, comfortable. The key is the keyboard.
Ever since the iPhone debuted, the keyboard tradeoff has seemed one-sided. Full-face screens begat even bigger screens and led to the infantilization of phones. They’re great for watching movies and playing games, but they don’t make handling e-mail, editing or reading a document a vastly superior experience. When you have a portable tablet like the iPad Mini, why would you choose to watch a movie or play a game on an even smaller screen?
The Q10’s keyboard takes up 33 percent of front face real estate. It measures 3 centimeters vertically and is situated below the 6-centimeter-high multi-touch screen. The keyboard is the main way you access content. Typing a letter or two from any menu page instantly calls up an app, a contact, or a calendar event. You don’t have to organize a darn thing. Sure, you can arrange app icons and gather them into folders. You can create contact favorites. But in the week I’ve used the Q10 I didn’t once access an app or a contact by looking for where I left it. I used the keyboard, typed two letters, and there it was.
This is only possible on a phone with a physical keyboard which, by definition, is always on. On my iPhone 4S I can also find apps in a device search, but that requires first going to the search page. And the iPhone search isn’t as smart: Type “te” (or “me”) on the Q10 and among the hits is the messaging app. Type “te” on the iPhone and “Messages” is nowhere to be found. On the Q10, “me” got me not only “Text Messages” but “BBM,” Blackberry’s proprietary messaging system. It understood that my intention was messaging.
For typing, the keyboard is great. And with predictive words — for some reason, this feature is off by default — you have a best-of-both-worlds scenario.
This Q10 is a winning combination of well-thought-out ideas in other ways as well. The contacts function aggregates “activity,” social gestures and even news stories about the company where contacts work, with “updates,” the exchanges you’ve had. This “all-in-one-place” approach is like a mini profile of anyone you put in your address book.
When connected to your computer, the Q10 is recognized as an external drive whose contents are accessible on your desktop through the latest version of Blackberry Link — no syncing intermediary like iTunes.
The iPhone only recently added a To Do app — Reminders. But Blackberry’s To Do leaves it in the dust with an Evernote-like ability to add voice note and attachments to a task.
Navigation, transitions and animations are all spot on. This seems to be as quick and responsive an OS as I’ve seen, perhaps because Blackberry (like Apple) does both the hardware and software.
There are still ways the Q10 could inch closer to perfection.
Apps availability isn’t ideal. Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, LinkedIn and Skype were installed on the AT&T branded unit. There was no Google Maps app, but Blackberry’s version worked just fine for me on four, hour-long car trips to unfamiliar destinations. But Pandora, Spotify, Netflix were all absent.
Without a Google Drive app — and uncertain prospects for one — you can’t work directly on a collaborative document. Blackberry is up against three powerhouses that allow collaboration in the cloud with widely used Google and Microsoft (SkyDrive) apps. That said, some of the available productivity tools are impressive: Docs to Go, Dropbox and Box.
There is no horizontal orientation (you can’t use a sideways keyboard), so video and game play is on a squarish screen. This is a gamble for Blackberry but not a big one in my view. I see a smartphone as a device of last resort for such activities anyway – a small tablet is better for those types of utilities.
Finally, I’m still not the biggest fan of how the 10 series handles notifications, which I mentioned in my review of the Z10. The Hub concept is fine, but there are no verbose, peek-a-boo alerts about received messages, just that you have new messages and what accounts they are in. E-mail in the Hub can’t be filtered by default to show only unread items, so unread items are sometimes hard to find. It is possible to filter out read items ad hoc, but that takes four keystrokes each time. You can’t even mark all items read without opening them, which you might want to do based on the subject line alone.
(Maybe we can prevail on the people at Pebble to reconsider their decision to ignore the new Blackberry line so we could outsource verbose alerts to our wrists where they belong? After all, Pebble’s CEO cut his teeth on Blackberry version in 2008, with the InPulse watch. Or, hey Blackberry — How about a smartwatch of your own?)
There are a few software upgrades in the Q10 (that will also soon roll out for Z10 handesets). Most of them will delight the Blackberry faithful — and mean nothing to anyone else. They include pin-to-pin messaging, a proprietary means of texting which doesn’t use your data plan or the Internet, and can only be done between Blackberry phones. It’s one of those quirky differentiators that Blackberry had abandoned but loyalists missed. The “T” and “B” shortcuts are back, scooting you to the top and bottom of pages.
Since 2007, I’ve owned nothing but iPhones, but the Q10 is the first phone to make me question that loyalty. Carrying one for about a week feels like I’ve put on my big kid pants. At this moment in time, the Q10 is my next phone.