It's not often that the fate of a company rests on one or two products, but after a few miserable years, that’s the situation BlackBerry finds itself in as it starts to roll out the Q10, the keyboard-equipped cousin to the Z10 released in February.
Having fallen behind the likes of Apple and Android in the smartphone race, the company needs some big hits this year to continue as a going concern.
The verdict is still out on the first of its two all-or-nothing devices, the Z10. The all-touchscreen phone, the first to run the new BlackBerry 10 operating system, is a hit according to the company. Some analysts, however, say it’s been anything but in the critical U.S. market, where it launched in March, with sales there sluggish and returns high, both charges that BlackBerry disputes.
The next few months, and the upcoming quarterly report from the company, will likely shed some light on how that particular device is doing.
Ultimately, it may not matter, since the BlackBerry that everybody has been waiting for is the second of those devices, the Q10.
Simply put, it’s the one with the physical keyboard.
The company started rolling out the Q10 in Canada on May 1. The first carriers include Bell, Rogers, Telus, Virgin, Koodo, Fido and Sasktel.
Actual buttons have become something of a BlackBerry trademark — when people think of the iconic device from Waterloo, Ont., they often associate it with that full QWERTY keyboard. The touchscreen Z10 may have tickled some buyers’ fancies, but for many the Q10 is the real BlackBerry.
Having spent the better part of a week with it, I can officially report that the Q10 is a worthy heir to that legacy. The keyboard is indeed good.
How good? I wrote most of this review on it —something I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing on an all-touchscreen phone. I’d have ripped my hair out. Typing on the Q10, while not exactly pleasant (it is a phone after all), is an infinitely better experience.
The Q10 has the largest keyboard yet of any BlackBerry, according to the company. The four rows of buttons have ample space between them thanks to three silver dividing frets.
The frets and general layout effectively replicate the Z10’s virtual keyboard, which was also designed to ease typing. The Q10’s individual keys also have raised bumps on them, an effect that, over time, subtly guides your thumbs, almost like Braille.
Unlike the previous BlackBerry Bold and Curve models, the Q10's keys are lined up straight, rather than on a slight curve. I’m really not sure which layout is better, but I had no issues with the straight alignment.
If the physical keys aren’t enough to make typing easier, the same predictive-text feature found on the Z10 can be turned on.
The phone smartly predicts the next words you might be looking for and displays them on the screen, just above the keyboard. If the word you want appears, you can tap it and it gets added to whatever you’re writing.
When it works, it works amazingly well —you can zip through entire sentences by typing only a few letters. To be honest, though, I found that doing so divided my attention enough to actually slow me down.
With predictive text turned off, I was able to zip off large chunks of text quickly. It’s a case of personal taste, and how well different users can utilize different portions of their brain at the same time (evidently, I’m not very good at that).
The Q10 also packs some other bonuses to aid with typing, including a new, big circular cursor that you can navigate over words. Tapping on a specific quadrant of the large circle makes the cursor move one space, whether it’s up, down, left or right. It effectively replicates the old BlackBerry trackball, which let you move around text with precision.
There’s also the "instant action" function, which kicks off certain apps just by typing. So, for example, if you want to send George an email, you can just type "mail George" and a message will instantly launch. So far, the function works with email, texting, Facebook and Twitter, though BlackBerry is opening the feature up to other app developers as well. It’s a neat little time saver.
The phone feels good in your hand — or hands — whether you’re holding it in one while looking at a website or in two while typing something.
I was a little concerned that having a physical keyboard would compromise the screen size too much, but at 3.1-inches diagonally, it’s about 30 per cent bigger than the previous Bold model.
I was able to get nearly two full days on a single charge, with moderate usage and all push email and notifications activated.
There’s no doubt that photos, websites and apps don't look as good on the smaller screen and the phone’s inability to do landscape mode is a bummer, but that’s unfortunately the price to be paid for a full physical keyboard.
One of the pluses of the smaller touchscreen, however, is better battery life. I was able to get nearly two full days on a single charge, with moderate usage and all push email and notifications activated. That would be pretty much unthinkable with most all-touchscreen phones I’ve tried recently — few can make it through a single day.
Hub and Flow
Otherwise, the Q10 packs many of the same good things — and bad things — of its fraternal twin, the Z10.
The unified communications "Hub" inbox and the swoosh-heavy "Flow" interface are the stars of the show, with everything literally at your fingertips. The new BlackBerry devices are very heavy on multitasking, so you can peek into your Hub to see a new email message that has just arrived while you’re in the midst of using another app. It’s a nice change from having to close one app to get to another, which you typically have to do with other phones.
Meanwhile, the Hub itself organizes all your accounts nicely all in one place, so there’s no need to flip between various communications apps and calendars.
And after suffering through the annoying blips, bleeps and vibrations of notifications on rival phones, the Q10’s blinking red light is an almost soothing, civilized way of being told that a new email has arrived.
As a communications device, the Q10 is top notch. However, if it’s a life hub you’re looking for, it’s pretty far behind the competition, a fact that’s probably most noticeable in the camera department.
Despite packing an eight-megapixel main camera, as many smartphones do, and despite a software update from BlackBerry, the Q10 still performs poorly compared to competitors, both in bright and low-light conditions. The side-by-side comparison with the iPhone 5 below illustrates this.
Similarly, BlackBerry Maps is also far behind both Google Maps and the much-maligned Apple Maps, in terms of map quality and detail, points of interest, transit directions and so on. Some third-party apps are available for BlackBerry that incorporate parts of Google Maps, but there's no official Google Maps app yet. Anyone switching from Android or iPhone will find a big downgrade in this regard, at least until — or if — Google ever decides to release its Maps app for BlackBerry.
And of course, BlackBerry is far behind its two main competitors in total apps.
While the company is focusing on delivering the most-popular, most-used apps — Skype is finally available with the Q10 — the reality is that many Android and Apple users are already locked in to their platforms, thanks to many of those seldom-used apps. Many have gotten used to controlling their televisions or lighting systems with their phones, or connecting their fitness gadgets to them.
Unless BlackBerry can attract those same apps, the thought of losing that functionality is going to be a deal breaker for many potential users.
BlackBerry is thus stuck in a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma. It needs to sell enough phones to motivate app makers to develop for its platforms, yet it might not sell enough phones if it doesn’t have enough apps for them.
The company’s hope is that it can build some momentum with app developers through success with the Z10 and the Q10. For its part, the Q10 is probably strong enough to dissuade the communications-minded user or the BlackBerry loyalist from defecting to competitors. It might also tempt those who are tired of typing on touchscreens or who are looking for something different.
On the other hand, BlackBerry still has a long way to go to offer up the sort of full lifestyle devices currently being sold by rivals.