There's a question everyone has been asking for the past two years, and the Q10 appears to be the answer. Is BlackBerry back? With the famous hardware keyboard on the outside and a snazzy new touch-based system on the inside, it certainly seems so.
It certainly looks the part. The Q10 is 100-percent a BlackBerry phone, the sort of handset you can easily recognise from across the room. At that distance, you'd be forgiven for mistaking the Q10 for a late-model Bold handset -- the Bold 9900 especially -- but on closer inspection there are quite a few nice differences to consider.
The battery cover is a lovely soft-touch plastic with shades of grey making up an attractive herringbone-like pattern and stainless steel trim helps sell the premium look and feel of the phone. On the front is the iconic QWERTY keyboard, but this time without any navigation keys above the letters. You don't need them, of course, all of the phone's navigation is performed through the touchscreen.
It's an interesting screen, a 700x700 pixel resolution -- making it one of the only square smartphone displays in recent memory. It is a great looking screen too, using AMOLED LCD technology, similar to Samsung's Galaxy smartphones and a handful of the best Nokia Lumias.
AMOLED or active matrix organic light emitting diode (remember this, there will be a quiz at the end) differs considerably from the LCDs used in most phones and TV in that it doesn't need to be backlit (or side-lit) to display an image. This means black elements have a rich black colour, rather than the slightly washed out grey appearance you see with some LCDs.
Deep blacks help the colours on screen to really pop too, giving the menus of the Q10 a vibrancy which is lovely to look at day-in, day-out. The 700 x 700 pixel resolution is quite a bit lower than the screen on the Galaxy S4 or HTC One, but then the screen itself is smaller too, so you need less pixels for a sharper picture.
Crackberrys will be pleased to learn that the keyboard is as least as good as on previous BlackBerry phones -- if not better. Having not used one for some time, this reviewer took a day or so to get back in the swing of things, after which I was touch-typing like a secretary in Mad Men.
You can slide the battery cover off the back of the phone, giving you access to MicroSIM and MicroSD card slots. The battery itself is removable too, and BlackBerry is selling a first-party spare battery kit with a dedicated charging case.
The new BlackBerry 10 OS is most of what it needed to be. BlackBerry couldn't afford for this operating system to be seen as the poorer cousin next to the slick software on iPhones and Androids, and for the most part, BB10 does a fine job of giving the original smartphone maker a much needed face-lift.
Key to this overhaul is a new gesture-based user interface. Gone are the navigation buttons below the screen on older models, and in there place is a phone controlled by swiping in different directions across the screen. Swipe up from the bottom of the display to exit an app and return to the home screen. Swipe down from the top to reveal the settings for the app you are working in.
These gestures take some remembering, and some are more complex. One example is a gesture BlackBerry calls 'peek'. You swipe up from the bottom of the screen and hold your finger in the centre. The app you are using is minimised and you can see (or peek at) icons on the left indicating whether you have any new messages. If you don't (or you're not interested in the messages you see), you can swipe down again and return to the app. If you need to look at a message, you swipe to the right of screen to enter the Hub -- a catch-all for all new messages.
If you think this sounds overly confusing, relax. It certainly more difficult to explain in words than it is to do on the phone. Once mastered, these new gestures offer a fluidity to using a smartphone that just isn't available on the competing platforms at this time.
The Hub is a big part of this, and is unique to BlackBerry 10 OS. In concept, it is so simple; a unified inbox for messages for all text-based communication. But this extremely useful tool is yet to be replicated by any of the other major players and is a real feather in BlackBerry's proverbial cap. By default, email, SMS, BlackBerry Messenger and missed calls show up in the Hub. Add Facebook and Twitter apps to the phone, and these show up in the Hub, too. Third-party messaging apps like What'sApp, are also supported, provided third-party developers build the functionality into their apps. If you are big on messaging, regardless of the platform, you should take a look at BlackBerry 10.
If we have a complaint, it is about the combination of BlackBerry 10 and the 3.1-inch screen on the Q10. A gesture-based system and small screens just don't mix so well, and frustrations are sure to follow. One common problem arises when using apps with long lists, like the Contacts apps or Twitter, where you have to scroll by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. Of course, this is the same gesture you use to exit an app, with the only difference being that you swipe up from the bezel (just below the screen) to minimise the app. But, try telling your eager thumbs this as you try and move quickly through a list. This certainly works better on the Z10 and its 4.3-inch display.
For a smartphone geared towards business users, the camera in the Q10 isn't too shabby. It's also not among the best camera phones, but the photos it takes will suffice for those instances when you leave your camera in the kit bag.
It is quite a fast camera, if you are patient with the auto-focus. Using automatic settings, the Q10 will take a second or two to find its focus sweet spot, after which photos are snapped nearly instantly by touching on the screen. Switching the settings is easy enough using the icons on screen.
Importantly, the photos taken look amazing on the Q10's screen. This is the number one place where you'll be viewing these pics, and the experience of playing them back on the small 3.1-inch screen is likely to have you feeling pretty chuffed with your artistic prowess.
A closer inspection of these photos on a larger screen reveals more: more blemishes, more ugly pixelation, more unusual blending of colours, but for many of us, this is an unnecessary level of scrutiny. The flash also causes some problems. The bulb itself is quite yellow to look at, and this same colour is cast across images lit by this bright LED light.
Connectivity and the web
As with most of the new phones coming out this year, the Q10 is a 4G device with support for a number of networks. There are a number of international variants out there though, so if you are not buying it through the network carrier you are planning to use it on, make sure you are buying a model with the right antennas inside.
Hugely improved over older models is the speed and quality of the web browser in BlackBerry 10 OS. Old BlackBerrys (and their users) were plagued by consistently terrible web browsers, but it seems those days are certainly behind us. Pages load super quickly on the Q10, and the browser does a fine job of rendering content as it was indeed to be seen.
The only thing that holds back this browsing experience is the size of the screen and the fact that the browser doesn't reflow text after you zoom in (where the length of lines in a paragraph adapt to the zoom level). The best work-around for this problem is using Reader mode, which deletes all non-essential images and web design and leaves you with just the content from the page you are reading. On the Q10 you can access this feature quickly by pressing 'R' on the keyboard when viewing any web page.
Beyond cellular network connections, the Q10 also supports Wi-Fi on 802.11 b/g/n hardware, Bluetooth with support for version 4.0 and NFC. BlackBerry makes interesting use of NFC too, using it as an easy way to add new BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) contacts to your address book.
Given that BlackBerry 10 OS is so new, there aren't any benchmark tools to help us make this point. But take it from us, the Q10 is one fast phone. Moving from app to app is seamless, and the animations that act as transitions between tasks flow smoothly and without glitches or stuttering. Everyday use of the phone is a pleasure.
We have observed a couple of soft-reset of the phone occur without our input during testing. There have been times when we have taken the phone out of a pocket and discovered it asking for our SIM card PIN - a sign that the phone has restarted itself without our knowledge. These instances all occurred on older firmware, and the phone has been updated to BB 10.1 since, so perhaps we can forgive and forget these restarts.
Battery life on the Q10 is manageable at about one business day, though heavy users will struggle we feel. BlackBerry does well to use lots of battery-saving black in its UI design, but with only an 1800mAh battery in the phone, there is only so much it can handle. As mentioned earlier, BlackBerry is selling a first-party battery accessory with a spare battery and portable charger. Heavy users should consider picking this up with a new Q10.
If you are using a Bold or Curve and have been hanging out for the Q10, we think you are going to love the new look and feel. The phone's small 3.2-inch screen poses a few problems for those of us with large, clumsy thumbs and poor eyesight, but at least it looks fantastic and colourful. Happily, the outstanding keyboard makes up for the screen size - it is one that BlackBerry touch-typists of years past will fall in love with immediately.
While the new BlackBerry 10 software, with its gesture-based navigation, may take some getting used to, but it is worth the effort to learn it. Proper use of the gestures delivers a fluid smartphone experience that is not replicated on other platforms.
If you are coming from an older BlackBerry, you may be surprised with the battery life on the Q10. It's single-day battery life is pretty standard for today's powerful smartphones but it pales in comparison to the multiple days of charge you'd enjoy back in the good ol' days.