BlackBerry Q10 review
The BlackBerry Q10 is the BlackBerry of BlackBerry users. It retains the keyboard that BB owners know and love, sticking to the tried and tested route, rather than taking on the big rivals from Apple and Samsung with a touch-only device.
With the BlackBerry Z10, that is exactly the aim. A brand new platform, with a brand new device, that looks to offer all the consumer joy of other large-screened devices, while retaining much of what BlackBerry holds important.
The BlackBerry Z10 has some shortcomings: the battery isn't great, there are some UI holes that make the experience feel a little more fiddly than you might want it to, and there's nothing that's really distinct, that you can't already get on other platforms, all compounded by slow adoption of apps.
The defining moment for BlackBerry may well be in experience of the Q10. For those still loving the BlackBerry Bold, or one of the lower-tier Curves, then BlackBerry Q10 is the obvious device to aspire to.
But is the BlackBerry Q10 the crowning glory of BB10, or has the sun set on the BlackBerry empire?
The BlackBerry Q10 is a distinct evolution of the Qwerty devices that have preceded it, but one glance and you know exactly what you're looking at. It has every ouch of BlackBerry design DNA, so in the hands of anyone who has used a BlackBerry before, it is all very familiar.
The biggest change in real terms is that the central control line, between the display and the top of the keyboard, is gone. There are no calling buttons, no menu button, no optical navigator, as BB10 does away with the need for those specific controls.
But the first thing that people will say when they see the Q10 is that it's rather fat. In an age where all devices are slimming down and your side profile as seemingly as important as the rest of your spec sheet, measuring 119.6 x 66.8 x 10.35mm and weighing 139g, the BlackBerry Q10 is a good handful.
But the tactile finish of the glassfibre woven back feels great in the hand. It's not slippery like some of the anodised metal handsets out there and the soft curves around the back make it feel great in the hand. It might be a bit of a fatty, but we can't say that's especially problematic.
Around the rear, the Q10's lovely back slips away a little too easily. It's not the first BB to do this and on several occasions, we reached into our pockets and pulled out only the back cover. Perhaps that classic holster case is more useful than it seems.
At least the removable back cover means you can access the internals, where you'll be able to expand the memory with microSD, up to 32GB over the 16GB internal, as well as change the battery. Our review model came with a spare battery and charging caddy for it, and if you're a power user, then this is one accessory you'll want.
It's a keyboard experience
Of course the focus of interest will be on the keyboard around the front. That's the reason you'd buy this smartphone, because you want that BlackBerry keyboard experience. In that the Q10 delivers, because if you loved the Bold, you'll love the Q10.
Although the keys are now arranged slightly flatter than the Bold 9900, we found that we were instantly into the keyboard flow again. If you've been a BlackBerry user then you'll find that the keyboard action is very much like second nature. All those little rolls of the thumb to hit the key you want still work, so you'll feel right at home.
BlackBerry tells us that the frets have been made larger to make it easier to feel exactly where you are but we can't say we really had any difficulty with it. The break in the keys is a nice clean look however and the overall size of the keyboard is similar to previous devices.
Losing the central waistband of controls means that navigation of the BlackBerry Q10 is very different from previous Qwerty devices. You can't hit the end call button to go home, because there is no end call button. There's no home page either, as BlackBerry 10 wants to do things differently.
That means you are forced to use the BB Q10 as a touch and type device: you have to touch the screen to operate the phone, whereas the last generation of devices you could still navigate without touch. The touch experience is very much as it is on the BlackBerry Z10 and involves the same gestures to get around.
However, with the keyboard putting 35 keys under your fingers, there's a whole range of shortcuts that they offer. As with older BB devices, you can still use T for top or B for bottom when faced with a list, or N to move to your next message, and so on. That means that although there are some real practical differences when it comes to navigation, it's nice to see that those familiar shortcuts have been retained.
There's a new addition, however, and that's a mic shortcut on the keyboard. This will let you dictate text to your phone, which is useful if you can't be tapping the keys and it works as a separate system from the voice commands accessed through the normal right-hand central button.
Other physical buttons offer power/standby on the top, which provides a proper option to turn off your device, rather than the previous dubious might-or-might-not-have-actually-turned-off option. The 3.5mm headphone socket sits on the top too, the best place for it if you ask us.
There's a volume rocker on the right-hand side, with the central mute/voice command button we've just mentioned. There's no dedicated camera button, however once you're in the camera app, the volume buttons will act as shutter if you don't want to touch the screen.
Hardware and display
On the front of the BlackBerry Q10 is a 3.1-inch 720 x 720 pixel resolution display. At that size you get a pixel density of 330ppi, which it pretty high. It's a Super AMOLED display and it suffers from the typical signs of that display technology, which is that the whites are a little yellow, but you'll only really notice when you set it alongside a superior display.
It's responsive enough to the touch and we'd go as far as to say that it feels a little faster when flicking through pages of apps than the BlackBerry Z10 does. That's a little odd, perhaps, because both devices have the same core hardware: a dual-core 1.5GHz processor and 2GB of RAM.
When it comes to connectivity, there's a micro HDMI for quick connection to a TV or projector and on the wireless front, the BlackBerry Q10 supports 4G LTE for the faster data speeds. You also have GPS, NFC, Bluetooth and plenty of motion sensors and the like.
The performance, however, is very much the same when it comes to interacting with BB10. The display aspect is wildly different and you lose some of the large-screen wow factor that you get from the Z10. This obviously isn't going to give you the same video experience that you get from the larger device, but if messaging is what you want to spend your time doing, then that's the Q10's real strength.
Keep in touch
One of the unique features of BB10 is the BlackBerry Hub. A simple swipe up from the bottom of the display and you can peek into the Hub and see what alerts you have waiting for you. There's a simple inverted "L" gesture that will take you into the Hub so you can access your messages, although it's not without problems.
With communication, especially messaging, lying at the core of what BlackBerry is all about, we're still not convinced that the BB10 approach is really faster than you'll find elsewhere. In Android, for example, you can tap an alert and head into that message or app. In BB10 on the Q10, however, we found ourselves spending too much time returning to the BB Hub and heading back out of several layers of messages to get to what was new.
From the top down, BlackBerry Hub is nice as you have the universal inbox where you can get to everything, but in reinventing the wheel when it comes to notifications, it's not quite round enough for us.
It's not all bad, however - far from it in fact. Rather than give you a homepage where you can find that favourite app, BB10 gives you a page of your live or recent apps. From here you can access universal search, where just typing will often bring up what you're looking for. There are a few nice touches BB10 brings too, like the way that an app thumbnail will change, a little like Windows Phone's live tiles, to give you a view of what's going on, but it also means that multitasking can be a breeze.
Slipping from Skype to WhatsApp to BBM, to carry on parallel conversations while walking down the street becomes incredibly easy. Switching from one app to the other is fast, so this sort of intensive use of messaging apps really works on the BlackBerry Q10. You have the keyboard for quick and accurate text, and in many cases, switching apps is faster than navigating to a different conversation within the same app.
The app experience
We've mentioned two key apps, WhatsApp and Skype, which were promised for BB10 and have been delivered. The different display aspect of the Q10 means that apps have to be converted for this device. That seems to have been taking place, but there are still plenty of holes in what is on offer.
The number of apps available might be less than on Android and iOS, but whether you deem this good or bad comes down to what you want apps for. If you're interested in playing games and consuming media, then the Q10 probably isn't the device you should be thinking about. There's no Netflix app, there's no Amazon Kindle or Amazon shopping apps, there's no eBay app, no British Airways travel app, no Spotify, etc, etc.
Of course, this is early days and these things will come as more people adopt the BB10 platform and its devices, but on day one you should be aware that BlackBerry is sitting behind the other major platforms, including Windows Phone 8, at present when it comes to apps. What's important is that out of the box, the BlackBerry Q10 offers good support for being productive on the move, both in terms of messaging and using social networks, as well as being able to dive in an edit documents through Docs to Go.
Browser, music and video
We've suggested that the BlackBerry Q10 isn't going to be a media powerhouse. Although video looks reasonable, there's no avoiding the fact that the display is small. The browser will swing into place to handle some of the app deficit and supporting Flash, the browser can cope with much of what the internet has to offer.
You'll be able to watch catch-up shows like BBC iPlayer, but the app is simply a link to the mobile site. You can use Flash to play music from the Spotify web player for example, but this sort of compromise isn't what we really want, as dedicated apps are much more efficient.
However, the browser experience is much more advanced than previous iterations of the BB platform, so this is a good positive step forward for those looking to keep informed and entertained on the move. It's reasonably fast to load pages although the small size means you'll be spending a good deal of time zooming to reader the content.
There's one strong point of the browser, as well as the YouTube app, and that's that you can continue to play music from them with the screen on standby, meaning you have a few more options for your entertainment.
There has also been some real power put into the external speaker. It's not up to the standard of the HTC One's comically named BoomSound speaker, but we're impressed by the volume and the richness that BlackBerry have achieved with it. The headphone performance is good too, however the bundled headset is pretty uncomfortable, so for best performance you'll want a third-party set of headphones.
Around the back of the BlackBerry Q10 is an 8-megapixel camera, with LED flash and the front offers a 2-megapixel camera. The design of the rear of the phone features another fret bar that matches those of the keyboard, which BlackBerry told us was designed to keep the camera lens from getting scratched when you put it on a table.
In use the camera feels a little primitive compared to the sophistication you'll now find in rival devices. It has autofocus and offers touch capture in addition to being able to use the volume controls or the space bar to snap images. Zooming is controlled through pinching on the display.
Obviously, this is a 1:1 aspect, perfect for those Instagram-style retro food shots, but you can switch to 4:3 or 16:9 for a more conventional shot. There are some in-built editing features that can be applied after you've taken a shot.
In terms of shooting modes there isn't a huge amount on offer, the main impressive feature being BlackBerry's Time Shift camera. Time Shift will let you turn back time on faces in the photo to get a nice smile on everyone. It works well enough, you just have to remember to shoot in Time Shift, rather than the regular camera mode.
In low light things are much better than on the last Bold, which typically gave very soft and noisy images. Noise is handled better now, but you'll need a steady hand for good results. Colour isn't great in low light either, but that's probably part of trying to control those noise speckles.
In good conditions you get reasonable results, with an HDR mode to get the best out of scenes with shadows that need lifting. The problem is that things are a little too hidden, and we wish that there was more on show in the interface, rather than tucked away, like HDR mode, behind two layers of menu.
The front camera isn't especially good. It copes well enough with video, so those video chats look perfectly fine, but self-portraits aren't especially sharp, with things looking a little too mottled and grainy once seen on the bigger screen.
Both cameras offer HD video capture, with the rear offering 1080p video recording.
Calling and battery
Making calls is always going to be a big part of what you do with your BlackBerry Q10. We found the calling experience to be good, with no reported problems will call quality or volume.
The battery life, however, wasn't quite what we expected. BlackBerry give 13.5 hours of talk time as an expected figure. We were expecting to sail through a day, but we didn't find that to be the case. On a long day out we had to switch battery, but with moderate use, it managed to get us through 12 hours typically without being a concern.
Certainly, the BlackBerry Q10 will outlast the BlackBerry Z10, but it isn't quite the endurance device that the BlackBerry smartphone once was.
Set alongside the BlackBerry Bold, we'd take the BlackBerry Q10 any time. It's a step forward for BlackBerry's Qwerty device, it offers the reassurance of a physical keyboard that's great to use, with tried and tested shortcuts, and improvements to many areas of the OS.
It's more up to date, it's a better performer all round and still delivers the elements we love about BlackBerry. The browser is better, the UI is more sophisticated and the experience is much more comparable with rival smartphones than the last generation of BlackBerry smartphones.
In that it has an advantage over the Z10, which doesn’t bring with it quite the wow factor that you'll get from the iPhone 5, HTC One or even the Nokia Lumia 820. But the Q10 is different, because it offers you that keyboard experience that's now extremely rare.
READ: BlackBerry Z10 review
As a pure communicator, we'd take the Q10 over the Z10, because you really can just knuckle down and get on with it. But like the Z10, there’s little here that's unique besides BBM. As contacts have moved away from the BlackBerry platform, we've been using WhatsApp and Skype more and more, and those apps and services excel on other platforms.
In summary, we like the BlackBerry Q10 because it embodies those things that we love best about BlackBerry. We like the design and the keyboard experience, but beyond that communication experience, there's little that's unique and BB10 is still some way behind rival offerings.