Back in January, Research In Motion announced its name-change to BlackBerry and launched the long-awaited BlackBerry 10 OS along with two new handsets — the Z10 and the Q10. The Z10 was given to journalists attending the launch event, and reviews quickly followed. The Q10 has only recently hit the market, and is now available from all major operators as well as SIM free.
The delayed arrival of the QWERTY-keyboard-equipped BlackBerry Q10 may disappoint diehard BlackBerry fans, but it's been clear for some time that touchscreen-only handsets are now the main focus for smartphone makers.
There's no mistaking the fact that the Q10 is a BlackBerry handset. The keyboard says it all, with distinctive rows of keys separated by bands of silver, and the shaping of the keys themselves, giving all the clues you need.
The keyboard is absolutely superb. Keys are easy to find under the fingers thanks to their centre ridges, and depress firmly when pushed; they even click a little. There's a small nubbin on the D key whose second function is the number 5, helping you find the number keys by feel easily. We don't want to appear gushing, but BlackBerry still makes the best physical smartphone keyboards by a country mile.
BlackBerry has moved away from the curved keyboard design it has used in recent devices, presumably to maximise screen space. The design is the first from BlackBerry without a section between screen and keyboard offering shortcut buttons and some sort of screen navigation device.
This also allows more space for the screen, although it does mean that all navigation has to be based around the touchscreen or the keyboard. It's relatively easy to place a voice call, as there's a call button on the bottom of the handset's app drawer and on running app screens. Tapping it takes you into the phone app, where you can access contacts.
Despite BlackBerry's best efforts, the Q10's screen is small, measuring 3.1 inches across the diagonal and just under 2.25 inches square. It's a Super AMOLED display with a resolution of 720 by 720 pixels (330ppi) that delivers a bright and sharp — but just too small — image.
Web browsing is an uncomfortable experience requiring either lots of horizontal and vertical scrolling or a diversion into Reader mode, which strips out all everything except text, allowing you to read content with vertical scrolling only. This works, but we felt we missed out on important and useful elements of designed web pages when using Reader mode. We weren't happy with video viewing either — bigger screens really are better for this kind of thing.
The Q10 is a solid feeling handset with a nice sturdy build. It may be a little too substantial for some people, at 10.35mm (0.4in.) thick, but we found it quite comfortable to hold and use. The rocker button for volume control is well placed on the right edge, with a central mute button that doubles up to pause video and initiate voice control. The upper and lower parts of the volume rocker can be used to take photos when the camera software is running.
This multi-use is welcome, and it makes the positioning of the Micro-USB port and a Micro-HDMI connector on the left edge of the chassis all the more irritating. We prefer the charge port to be in the more ergonomic location on the bottom of a handset. Also, because Micro-USB and Micro-HDMI ports look very similar, we absent-mindedly tried to push the charge connector into the wrong port on more than one occasion. Why did BlackBerry not simply opt for MHL support?
The rounded edges of the chassis and curved top and bottom are pleasing to the eye, as is the patterned backplate — which also provides a slightly rubbery grip.
With a dual-core processor running at 1.5GHz and 2GB of RAM, the BlackBerry Q10 is reasonably well specified. Our review sample, from Vodafone, always felt speedy when connected to the mobile network, or when the dual-band (802.11a/b/g/n) Wi-Fi kicked in.
The BlackBerry Q10 supports LTE, HSPA+ and EDGE with its microSIM sitting under the backplate. The backplate provides protection for a MicroSD card, which thankfully you can access without removing the battery. This can be used to augment the 16GB of internal flash storage, some of which is taken up by the OS and preinstalled apps: fresh out of the box, our review sample reported 11.4GB free. The 2,100mAh battery, incidentally, is rated for up to 13.5 hours' (3G) talk time and up to 14 days on standby.
The Q10 supports Near Field Communications (NFC) and GPS and has a full set of sensors — accelerometer, magnetometer, proximity sensor, gyroscope and ambient light sensor. Probably more interesting for corporate users, though, is BlackBerry Balance, which keeps business apps, services and data separate from the user's personal information. Companies can essentially designate an area of a BlackBerry 10 OS device as a 'walled garden', leaving the rest of the device free for users to populate with their own apps and data. Balance — which is available in conjunction with BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10, BlackBerry Enterprise Server and BlackBerry Enterprise Server Express — could be the feature that helps the company win back lost corporate ground.
Anyone interested in speedy text-based communication will appreciate the feature called 'Type and Go'. This builds on the universal search concept that lets you find apps, map locations, do web searches and more simply by typing on the keyboard then tapping the app or URL icon that appears. As long as you're on a main screen and not in an app, you can type to make something real happen. Type "SMS Pete" and you can send a text if Pete is in your address book, for example; entering "Email Jenni" will do a similar job. It's fast, simple and efficient.
The main 8-megapixel camera at the back shoots 1080p HD video, while the front facing 2-megapixel camera can handle 720p. Both shoot in 1:1 (square), 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratios, which are easily switchable via tappable on-screen icons. You can also switch into Time Shift mode, where the camera shoots multiple images — including before you depress the shutter — so you can assemble a final photo with all your subjects looking their best.
BlackBerry 10 OS is built around a brand-new user interface, which we discussed when we reviewed the Z10. Central to this is the BlackBerry Hub, a unified inbox bringing together Twitter, BBM, Facebook, Linkedin, email and more. You can 'peek' at this when you're in other apps by dragging the screen to the right, and go into it fully only if you need to. Once you're viewing content a right-hand sidebar lets you do things like mark as read, delete, call an SMS sender and so on. Options are context dependent.
It's a really nice idea, and it works smoothly — although not everyone will want this kind of unified approach, and it could be more flexible. It only copes with one Twitter and Facebook account, for example, so power users are going to have to look elsewhere.
Another constraint that might put some people off the BlackBerry Q10, and BlackBerry 10 OS in general, is the BlackBerry World app store. Although it has developed significantly since launch, there are still notable absences — and just because an app works on the Z10 doesn't mean it will work on the smaller, square-screen Q10. The ability of BlackBerry 10 OS to run Android apps helps, but there's nothing like a well-made native app and there's work to do here. If apps are particularly important to you, make sure the ones you need are available before you buy.
Those who held out for the BlackBerry Q10 following the launch of the Z10 won't be disappointed. The excellent keyboard and clever ideas like Type and Go should make 'classic' BlackBerry fans happy. However the BlackBerry World app store needs filling out, the small, square screen isn't ideal for some uses, and BlackBerry may find that the QWERTY keyboard's days are numbered.