According to BlackBerry representatives, 80% to 90% of BlackBerry's 76 million subscribers are still using older BlackBerry smartphones with physical keyboards. That's a lot of people who will likely be delighted by the new BlackBerry Q10, with its stylish qwerty keyboard, vivid Super AMOLED display and updated BlackBerry 10.1 software.
The next question, however, is whether people who currently use smartphones with virtual keyboards (including the recently introduced BlackBerry Z10), will feel comfortable going back to (or trying for the first time) a qwerty keyboard device.
Currently, BlackBerry says that the major U.S. carriers will make the Q10 available in late May at a suggested price of $249 with a two-year contract. It will be available on Canadian carriers May 1.
I had the opportunity to test the Q10 and find out for myself.
More than another qwerty
At 4.9 oz. and 4.7 x 2.6 x 0.4 in., the Q10 is a tad heavier, thicker and wider than the Z10 -- although it is shorter.
The Q10 has rounded corners and a gently curving top and bottom edge that are actually seductive -- especially when placed beside the boxy and rectangular Z10. It feels great in the hand, with beveled edges all around the plastic back. There is a black steel edge around the entire device and a glass front above the keyboard. The back comes with a gray tweed-over-black pattern. (The Q10 will be available only in black for some U.S. carriers; there's no word yet which carriers will also carry the white version.)
In fact, the profile of the Q10 is reminiscent of various BlackBerry Curve models of days gone by -- the Curve 8520 being the closest. These days, however, designers have pushed the 35 hard keys into three full rows with a partial fourth row at the very bottom for the spacebar and command keys. Naturally, because of the touch screen, there's no need for the iconic BlackBerry roller ball or track pad above the keys to navigate with.
The keys are not arranged in curving rows as with older Curve models and instead are in straight rows, separated by polished stainless steel frets, not unlike a guitar. The appearance is elegant.
The keys are slightly beveled to make them easy to handle. I found that, after several days of use, I gradually went back to my old way of two-thumb fast typing, the way I used to work with an older BlackBerry (instead of pecking with my right-hand index finger while holding the phone with the left hand, which I do with modern virtual keypads). Maybe I've lost something by going virtual? With the Curve, I could type entire stories by thumbing along at a fast pace -- a real advantage while covering crowded trade shows.
Aside from the keyboard, controls include a power button on the top edge and three buttons on the right for volume and other functions, the same as the Z10.
The back of the Q10 has another steel fret running horizontally just below the camera and flash ports. This rear-side fret is not flush with the plastic back cover, and rides a tad higher: According to Michael Clewley, director of handheld software product management at BlackBerry, designers created it this way to keep the back cover from getting scuffed from constantly being laid down and picked up from a desk or other surface. It's a neat design idea, although it's hard to say if it will work in the long term.
Hardware by the numbers
To accommodate the keyboard, the Q10 has a 3.1-in. display, which is 25% smaller than the 4.2-in. display on the Z10 (and also smaller than the displays of most competing smartphones). I noticed this reduced real estate immediately when reading Web pages and looking at longer emails and documents (although it didn't matter at all for instant and text messages). The smaller screen doesn't invite you to watch videos or play games either, although neither is impossible.
Why? Because even at the Q10's 3.1-in. screen size, BlackBerry made a good choice by going with Super AMOLED (which is not quite full HD). The 720-x-720-resolution (330 pixels per inch) display shows images brighter and crisper than does the LCD screen of the Z10, and I found it especially good for watching video and reading websites with images.
The BlackBerry Q10 (left) sports a qwerty keyboard and a smaller touchscreen than the BlackBerry Z10, but the Q10's Super AMOLED display is noticeably brighter than the Z10's LCD.
Aside from differences with the keyboard and display, the Z10 and Q10 offer pretty much the same hardware. Both run dual-core 1.5GHz processors, which provide snappy performance for touches, swipes and other inputs in various applications. Both have 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage and a microSD slot under the back cover for adding up to 32GB. Also, both have 8-megapixel rear cameras and 2-megapixel front-facing cameras. Both contain NFC chips for file exchanges and support for mobile payments.
However, the Q10 has a 2100mAh removable battery, considerably bigger than the 1800mAh battery in the Z10. The choice to have the larger touchscreen device run with a smaller battery might seem counterintuitive, since the larger screen will probably be used for viewing more power-sucking videos and games. But having the larger battery in the Q10 points to one of BlackBerry's underlying missions with the Q10: To give (hopefully) more than a full day's charge to the executives, stockbrokers, lawyers and other busy people who were the original users of BlackBerry devices.
BlackBerry rates the Q10's battery life at up to 9 hours for video playback and up to 61 hours for audio playback, with up to 13.5 hours talk time on 3G. However, I was running the Q10 on 4G HSPA+ from AT&T (LTE is not yet available where I live) and found that I could barely get a full 8 hours on a single charge after a day of using it for a variety of tasks (including some admittedly power-sucking tasks like voice commands, video and audio).
An OS upgrade
The Z10's BlackBerry 10 OS is chock full of great features -- like a universal inbox called the Hub and Active Frames, the latter a feature that some have likened to live tiles in Windows Phone 8. The Q10 picks up all those same features, but will ship out of the gate with an upgrade to BlackBerry 10.1 that adds some significant new features and a number of minor ones.
A really cool new feature is a high dynamic range mode (HDR) for the camera, which automatically picks the best combination of dark and light areas of an image based on three frames taken in sequence. It is a noticeable improvement over version 10 for indoor shots.
But the biggest OS improvement in 10.1, in my opinion, is a feature that BlackBerry calls Instant Action, which is designed to provide keyboard shortcuts in various apps. For example, if you want to reach your colleague quickly via BlackBerry Messenger, you can just start typing the name in the home screen; when it appears in a frame on the screen, you touch the frame, type the message and finish by touching the enter key.
The advantage to Instant Action is that there's no need to first open the Messenger app. This works with other apps as well -- for example, when I typed the letter "t" from the home screen, I was immediately shown a screen with the choice to "add a task" or "post a tweet." When I touched "post a tweet," I was immediately shown the Twitter composition field. I found it to be a real time saver.
BB 10.1 also allows slightly more content to appear on the display by hiding the toolbar for more onscreen space, which can be quickly brought into view with a finger swipe.
Yet another feature has to do with the optimization of the battery for the particular display that the Q10 uses. Because Super AMOLED relies on black as its primary tone (while white is the primary tone in LCD displays), the Q10 uses black backgrounds instead of white in various Q10 applications (such as calendars) to save power. Unfortunately, I found the effect of having black backgrounds annoying, although not seriously.
A feature called Remember lets a document's format -- including colors, exotic fonts, etc. -- be transferred intact to the smartphone. In other words, if you have an email with underlining and a numbered list, it will appear with those features on the Q10 -- something that's unusual for smartphones. I found this feature worked great when reading unusual fonts and notes in emails received on the Q10 review unit from desktop users.
Busy executives will love that BB 10.1 adds support for receiving and reading .msg and .eml attachments in email.
When one name is inserted into an email, you also now get suggestions for adding other contacts -- something that makes sense if an email really needs to go to a team instead of just one person. And you can cut, copy or paste phone numbers into and out of the dialer screen, which is a time- and frustration-saver.
Version 10.1 adds something that BlackBerry believes will be a hit with older users and users in other countries: PIN-to-PIN messaging. It allows you to send instant messages over the data channel (not the separate texting channel) by using a person's specific seven-digit or eight-digit alphanumeric PIN address that was assigned to the phone by BlackBerry. I recall that the BlackBerry PIN network worked for emergency assistance for some BlackBerry users in New York City's financial district during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when other communications links had failed.
My biggest concern with the BB 10.1 OS is that, in my tests, boot time averaged 84 seconds, which is much longer than on typical smartphones, and even above the 70 or so seconds on the Z10. While you may not power your phone off and on frequently, you will definitely notice the delay when you land after a long flight and need to quickly make a call or text.
High-end security features
Security is a constant worry for many handheld users, especially in the government and financial sectors, and BlackBerry has tried to address their needs head-on with BB 10.1.
One feature included in BB 10.1 is what BlackBerry's Michael Clewley calls "BES advanced policies." (The official name BlackBerry uses is Enterprise Mobility Management -- Regulated Policies.) It gives IT shops the ability to tightly control the devices in ways they see fit -- such as disabling a camera or location services on a phone remotely.
BlackBerry says its advanced policies capability will apply through use of its BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES) 10 server for operations where a government or private security-conscious organization would want to distribute Q10s to employees.
Computerworld's Matt Hamblen tries out the BlackBerry Q10's Balance feature.
Other business customers can take advantage of BlackBerry's new Balance feature, which made its debut with the Z10. With Balance, a user can blend both work and personal email streams into a single email stream. (Phones with BES advanced policies set require users to go to separate work and personal email inboxes.) Other apps are divided into separate work and personal containers.
To make Balance or these advanced policies work, users must be connected to a BES server, which in most cases means an enterprise buys the server to locate behind the firewall.
For this review, BlackBerry set up a trial account giving me access to a BES server to test out Balance. After I set it up on the Q10 (which is not a trivial process), I was able to swipe a finger down the center of the screen to access the personal or work container for data. If a rule had been created that kept one type of file in a specific container, I was told by the device. For example, when I was on the work side, I tried to open a pictures icon, and got this message: "You are currently in the work space. Please switch to the personal space to see any personal files."
Various other choices can be made, with oversight from IT. One choice allowed in my trial was the ability to lock down the workspace access after a period lasting from 1 to 45 minutes. Another choice was to allow personal apps to use work networks, such as work Wi-Fi. (Some employers don't want workers playing games over the company Wi-Fi in order to keep the bandwidth available for company business.) A password to unlock the device each time it is powered on was encouraged; IT shops could conceivably require this and other security steps.
My brief examination of Balance shows that it works well, but I am left wondering if IT shops will need plenty of hands-on time with workers to explain Balance, as well as the value to workers -- and to the company -- of having the work/personal separation.
BlackBerry's Q10 is filled with many creative features but its ultimate success will come down to one basic question: Do you want a qwerty device?
I don't think the era of the qwerty is over, since I have met users who prefer a physical keyboard. But they are in the definite minority.
What Q10 users will get with the new smartphone is a distinctive-looking device with a vivid display, an easy-to-use physical keyboard and touchscreen interface and an inventive approach to user security and management. In the most optimistic scenario, BlackBerry's Q10 sales will out-do its Z10 sales, which BlackBerry claims have gone well, critics notwithstanding.
If BlackBerry can continue to attract developers to build more apps for BlackBerry World and if BlackBerry can propel its Messenger app into a fuller social networking experience, then there is some basis for believing BlackBerry has a solid long-term future, well above its current 5% global smartphone market share.
Just about everything -- hardware to software -- in the Q10 (and the Z10) is good, but the market is crowded with great products that will make BlackBerry's marketing more vital than ever.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at Â @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.
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