It’s been six years since the popularization of the touchscreen keyboard began in earnest, an eternity in the fast-paced world of mobile technology. But in contrast to -and maybe in defiance of- that breakneck pace, many less-cutting-edge consumers still cling to the more tactile artifacts of yesteryear. Even in 2013, these folks will settle for nothing less than a true physical keyboard on their smartphone. And though the options in that space have dwindled dramatically in recent years, some solid contenders remain.
The BlackBerry Q10 is one of them. We glimpsed it briefly during our time in Toronto covering the launch of the BlackBerry Z10, and we’ve been itching to get our hands on it ever since. Because the Q10 is much more than just a BlackBerry Bold refresh; it’s a fully-featured BB10 contender that just happens to offer a physical keyboard. This is the BlackBerry that many hardcore fans have been waiting for – but will it interest anyone else? Let’s see what it brings to the table, both for the devotees of one of the world’s oldest smartphone brands, and for the “Crack-berry” converts it seeks to attract.
Video Review · Specs/Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance
Specs & Hardware
One of the annoying things about the modern smartphone industry is that keyboarded devices, like durable ones, tend also to be midrange devices. In other words, manufacturers tend only to offer physical QWERTY keyboards on phones with lesser spec sheets. To our surprise and relief, BlackBerry chose not to go that route with the Q10; while its specifications aren’t likely to excite anyone, they’re still largely identical to those of its Z10 forerunner.
The U.S. version of the Q10 gets its power from a 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 backed up by 2GB of RAM. The RAM remains unchanged for non-U.S. versions, but the processor may vary based on market, with other builds using a TI OMAP 4470 SoC in place of the Snapdragon (we have two review units in the Pocketnow offices; both carry the designation SQN100-1).
Also aboard: 16GB of storage, of which more than 11GB is available to the user out of the box. That’s expandable up to an additional 32GB via a microSD card located in the battery compartment; that battery is removable and packs a mAh rating of 2100 – 300 mAh larger than the Z10’s pack (both output at 3.8V, allowing for a meaningful comparison). Also included on our test unit were the usual radios: GSM/EDGE/HSPA/4GLTE for cellular connectivity, NFC, WiFi a/b/g/n at 2.4GHz and 5GHz, and Bluetooth 4.0. There’s also GPS with GLONASS and the usual sensor trifecta of accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer.
The most major component that did see a downsize compared to the Z10 was the display. Because of the QWERTY keyboard that gives the device its name, the Q10 has significantly less real estate to devote to a screen: at 3.1” on the diagonal, its AMOLED panel is pretty tiny compared to today’s jumbophones. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in quality: BlackBerry didn’t compromise much on resolution, which at 720 x 720 delivers a very sharp 330ppi. Also, the substitution of AMOLED for the Z10’s LCD means blacks are deeper and colors are more saturated on the Q10, though daylight readability takes a slight hit, and the 1:1 aspect ratio isn’t great for watching video. Overall, though, if you can deal with its small dimensions, the Q10’s display is quite nice.
While the screen size diminished from Z10 to Q10, the casing dimensions went the other way. The larger battery and physical keyboard have resulted in a plump little handset, the Q10 coming in at 10.35mm thick with a mass of 139g (though it feels heavier than that in the hand). The added padding feels good in this form factor, the wide-radius corners and soft-touch coating on the back giving the Q10 a rounded, comfy quality that makes it tough to put down.
Visually, the new BlackBerry presents a very familiar picture from the front – at first glance it looks very much like the BB7 devices of yore, with only the steel keyboard frets and lack of a trackpad providing visual cues as to the phone’s modern origins. Indeed, no one questioned us as to the identity of our review unit out in the wild; for anyone who doesn’t know what to look for, the Q10 is just another BlackBerry.
Hardware cues from the Z10 abound on its shorter, plumper sibling. The machined metal volume and mute keys appear identical, sitting directly under the thumb for all the right-handed folk out there, the power/standby key up top within easy reach of a forefinger. All of the above offer good travel and excellent, clicky responsiveness. Charging and Micro HDMI ports sit off to the left, leaving room at the bottom for a wide speakerphone port and the device’s primary microphone (its noise-canceling counterparts make their home along the top edge, opposite the headphone jack).
As for the keyboard itself, the angled keys do the BlackBerry name proud. They’re a little crowded, but they’re responsive and springy, delivering satisfying muted clicks when pressed. The steel frets setting them apart are attractive and ruler-straight – and according to BlackBerry, they serve a practical purpose as well: they keep the keys from popping off and flying under furniture when you drop the Q10 on a hard linoleum floor.
Once we got used to using a physical keyboard again, we were able to bang out text pretty quickly on the Q10 – though our unit shipped with BlackBerry’s excellent word prediction service turned off. Considering how well the software works, that’s a choice we found puzzling. Once we flipped it back on, using the Q10 became more efficient – not as fast as the predictive text on the Z10, but certainly fast enough for most folks. Those still looking for a physical keyboard on a 2013 smartphone won’t be disappointed here.
In all, the Q10 is a subtle but distinguished piece of hardware. It doesn’t quite match the devil-may-care, flamboyant aesthetics of the Bold 9000 it resembles -and it certainly won’t turn many heads in public- but it does a nice job of ushering the QWERTY BlackBerry design into 2013.
We covered the new BlackBerry 10 platform extensively in our Z10 review, and so we’ll direct you there for a more comprehensive look at Waterloo’s QNX-based OS for the new century. The Q10 ships with the revised 10.1 build of the platform, which brings a variety of minor enhancements to the version we saw on the Z10 back in February, but the user experience is very similar. It does bear a bit more polish, though it’s also been flattened somewhat to accommodate the Q10’s square screen.
Unfortunately, while the platform is mostly fluid and reliable, we found the Q10 a bit slower and easier to trip up than some other devices. Sometimes that happens during heavy use – playing a spirited round of Sparkle 2 with many other apps open in the background on one occasion, we were abruptly and unceremoniously dumped out of the game as the app crashed.
But that’s almost expected; graphic-heavy games can trip up almost any platform. It’s the constant sluggishness of basic actions like marking items as read, or opening tweets or Facebook posts in the BlackBerry Hub, that really gets grating after a while. This isn’t “lag,” per se, and it’s not so jarring or annoying as dropped frames in animations or stutters in transitions – it’s just slow performance. You spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen in BB10’s Hub, which isn’t a great attribute for a notification center built specifically to get you in and out quickly. Hopefully a future update will correct this sluggishness.
The big problem for BlackBerry 10 remains the app ecosystem. This is an issue we covered pretty extensively both in the initial review and in episode 17 of After The Buzz, so we won’t retread it here. Suffice to say, though BlackBerry World now offers over 120,000 apps, it’s still missing a very wide swath of the most popular titles – and that problem is exacerbated by the Q10’s smaller display, which makes the phone incompatible with some of the titles already released for the Z10. The good news: from what we hear, it’s relatively easy for developers to port their apps to the different screen dimensions. The bad news: games are tougher, and will probably take longer.
Indications are that BlackBerry will continue to aggressively grow the offerings of the repository formerly known as the App World, so hopefully the situation will improve. The platform should get a nice shot in the arm when the BlackBerry Runtime is upgraded to support Android Jelly Bean apps, a development that the company recently announced would come with version 10.2 later this year.
Still, if you have any reliance on a rich app ecosystem, it’s very hard to recommend a BlackBerry right now. If you don’t mind using the mobile versions of websites as substitutes, you’ll be fine: the browser renders pages well and allows for the placement of bookmarks on the home screen. But lots of apps that require deeper-level integration like Shazam, Spotify, and Netflix are still nowhere to be found. Side-loading of unauthorized Android apps is possible for hobbyists willing to do a little work, but more casual smartphone users should expect a rather thin app selection for at least the near future.
It’s not just the third-party situation that constantly reminds us that BB10 is a fledgling platform; the stock apps are pretty rough, too. Aside from standouts like the beautiful, TAT-designed clock and compass, there’s a lot here that’s still rough around the edges. BlackBerry Maps is still just shy of useless; the stock Facebook and Twitter apps are bare-bones and unreliable; and the Remember app, with its much-ballyhooed Evernote integration, is so feature-light it might as well be in beta.
But those are familiar complaints – because we’ve made them before, about other platforms. Platforms like Android, and like Windows Phone: ecosystems whose app situation eventually brightened.
And the core features of BlackBerry 10 that so captivated us on the Z10 are still here in force: the Hub, though slow, is excellent in concert with its handy Peek functionality. The multitasking Active Frames are still fun and useful. The ability to keep a YouTube video playing in the background, even when its frame is minimized, should be standard on every platform. And the Q10’s physical keyboard means you can just start typing from the home screen to initiate a search – probably our favorite feature BlackBerry “appropriated” from Palm’s webOS. There’s good stuff to be found in the Q10’s software – you just need to be willing to put up with a lot of compromise to get it.
The Q10 sports a the same 8MP BSI primary camera as the Z10, and so it delivers similar performance. The camera does very well with still photos outdoors, in ample light. To our eye, colors look a bit over-saturated on shots from the Q10, and exposure control is a bit too aggressive, with viewfinder taps in light and dark areas generating the kind of wild swings we’re used to seeing from HTC devices. That said, we were quite happy to see the addition of an HDR option in BB10.1; it tends to mute colors a bit too much, but it’s still better to have it than not. And of course, BlackBerry’s Time Shift mode returns here, a handy feature for eliminating blinks or stupid faces in portrait photos.
Photos are output in 1:1 format by default, presumably because of the Q10’s square display, but you can crop them to 4:3 or 16:9 if you prefer. The Q10 is still slow to focus, so you’ll want to give it ample time before snapping the shutter. Indoor photos tend to get a little washed out, a little less vibrant, and low-light photos aren’t really very good at all – though the flash is there to help with those.
Video performance isn’t bad at all, with very quick auto exposure and white balance adjustment, nice color reproduction, fast autofocus, and excellent audio recording. These results don’t surprise us at all considering the Z10 generated similar results in our tests back in February, but it’s admittedly a bit strange to see such solid video being generated by a device that resembles a generations-old smartphone.
We tested the BlackBerry Q10 in Greater Boston, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine (and all the highways in between) over a five-day period on AT&T’s 3G and 4G LTE networks. We encountered almost no issues with coverage, the device getting reception everywhere from downtown to the coastal boonies, and throughput was excellent.
In voice testing, callers said we sounded about average, with no complaints about background noise. That persisted over speakerphone, which was also loud and clear on our end; one caller said that he couldn’t tell when we toggled between standard and loudspeaker modes. Even more impressive was voice and video quality over BlackBerry Messenger, whose new version supports video chat with screen sharing. The Q10’s 2MP webcam delivered sharp video with good color balance between two Q10s, one over cellular and one over WiFi. And, of course, the BBM text functionality continues to impress with speed and read receipts.
While we weren’t blown away by the battery performance on the Z10, the Q10 is an entirely different story: it’s outstanding, probably due to its larger power pack and smaller display. Across five days of testing, we were never able to run the Q10 dry with normal usage. Even with heavy use, on a day full of voice and video calls, constant BBM chats, a torrent of SMS and email messages and social media feed-speeding, and several sessions of gameplay in Sparkle 2, we still ended up with more than 20% battery left at the end of a 13-hour day. For the kind of message-heavy road warriors who will be buying the Q10, that’s awesome news.
+ Best-in-class physical keyboard
+ Outstanding battery life
+ Solid video performance
+ Good call quality with loud speakerphone
+ BlackBerry Hub concept is brilliant
– Dated, unremarkable design
– App ecosystem still a major concern
– BlackBerry Hub execution is sluggish
Pricing and Availability
The BlackBerry Q10 is already available for purchase on several global carriers, with U.S. availability confined to Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile USA as this review goes to press. AT&T will join those carriers on June 21st, while Sprint is said to start offering the device in the “late summer.” The full retail price appears to hover between $579 and $599, with on-contract pricing ranging from $99 to $199 depending on carrier.
There aren’t many surprises lurking beneath the surface of the BlackBerry Q10 – it looks like a texting machine built for hardcore message-senders with some modernized software, and that’s exactly what it is. And while we called out many of its shortcomings above, the device still packs an ineffable quality that draws our affection. Maybe it’s nostalgia for the golden years of the company formerly known as RIM. Maybe it’s the great keyboard.
Those factors alone don’t sell a smartphone though, and it needs to be said: we’re left wondering just who will spring for this device, out there in the real world. There’s little question that the Q10 will please all but the most inflexible BlackBerry aficionados (it already boasts excellent user reviews on carrier sites), but what about the folks eyeing other platforms, whose heads are ringing with brand names like “Galaxy,” “iPhone,” and “Lumia?” It’s not as though BlackBerry’s product is cheaper than those devices, and its once-proprietary enterprise abilities and even its vaunted BBM are now finding homes on other platforms. So what does the Q10 offer that the more-mature ecosystems of Android, iOS, and even Windows Phone don’t? A great physical keyboard. A “peek-able” notification center. Cool multitasking. BlackBerry Balance. Is that enough? We’re not sure.
Fortunately, the answer is a little clearer for those upgrading from feature-phones, those who don’t need as many bells or whistles, and those who just can’t bear the thought of tapping on a glass keypad. If you’re one of those folks -or a BlackBerry devotee- shopping for a messaging-focused smartphone with an excellent physical QWERTY keyboard and outstanding battery life, the Q10 is right up your alley. We just hope there are enough of you out there to warrant a sequel when the time comes.