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BlackBerry Q10 review: revenge of the keyboard

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BlackBerry Q10 hero (1024px)
BlackBerry Q10 hero (1024px)

I feel like we’ve been here before.

In any discussion about BlackBerry, “The Bold is the one you really want” is a line you could’ve used at practically any point in the last five years. And so it is again: When the full-touch Z10 started hitting retail earlier this year to mediocre reviews, you couldn’t help but think, “This isn’t BlackBerry’s wheelhouse. The Bold is the one I really want.”

Of course, it’s not actually called the Bold this time around, but the Q10 is the spiritual successor to BlackBerry’s flagship line of portrait QWERTY phones. Make no mistake, this is BlackBerry’s bread and butter—no one can lay a more authentic claim to the portrait QWERTY form factor than these guys can. (Arguably, that’s because no one else is really trying to make a good portrait QWERTY phone, but that’s another matter entirely.)

And like I said, I feel like we’ve been here before, because this is the part of the review where I tell you that the smartphone landscape has changed, that no one actually wants portrait QWERTY anymore, that full-touch is the only way to go. It’s the part where I say that the Q10 is trying to be the best of a dead and irrelevant breed, while the Z10 does little to make up the massive amount of ground that BlackBerry has lost to the iPhones, the Galaxy S4s, and the Ones of the world. It’s the exact same thing I could’ve told you two years ago when we were talking about the Touch, the Curve, and the Bold.

So has the story changed this time around? Who is the Q10 for? And is it seriously worth a look? Let’s find out.

This is BlackBerry's bread and butter

The Z10 was panned, in part, for its crushingly boring design. It’s practically the antithesis of design, really—an unornamented matte black plastic box, thrown together as an afterthought. The Q10 is undeniably a chip off the same block, but it works better this time around: the four straight rows of physical keys, separated by satin metal lines, do an admirable job of breaking up the monotony.

The Q10 also features a nice chamfer and a gentle curve between the front, side, and back, giving it far greater "holdability" than the Z10—it feels good. The back of the Q10 has a matte, three-dimensional carbon fiber look that is classier than it sounds; it has less texture than the Z10’s rear, but the soft-touch finish still has plenty of grip.

It doesn’t have the "precious object" presence of an HTC One or an iPhone 5—but in some respect, I think BlackBerry basically nailed the look and feel of the Q10, which is remarkable considering its forgettable Z10 bloodline. This is more or less exactly what I would expect a modern portrait QWERTY phone to look like: a touchscreen that is neither too big nor too small, a perfectly sized keyboard (more on that in a bit), and an understated, business-appropriate look interspersed with high-end detail.

It's what I expect a modern portrait QWERTY phone to look like

The Q10’s 720 x 720 AMOLED display is good, but not great. It’s a bit warm—whites come through as very, very light yellows—and the maximum brightness is surprisingly low (this really shows when holding it up next to the Z10, which is much brighter at full tilt). Touch responsiveness was fine, though I would’ve liked a "glove mode"—since it was introduced on the Nokia Lumia 920 and recently featured on the Galaxy S4, it’s something I’d like to see become standard this year, particularly since I live in an area of the country with a real winter.

I had one annoyance brought about by BlackBerry 10’s reliance on gestures: you need to swipe up from the bottom to bring up the multitasking screen and "go home." That’s totally fine on the Z10, where you’ve got a big bezel beneath the display on which to start your swipe, but on the Q10, that means you need to basically swipe up from the keyboard. It just feels weird, like BlackBerry didn’t consider the notion of a physical keyboard when it designed that gesture. I also found myself occasionally swiping up to scroll a menu or web page and inadvertently bringing up the multitasking display—likewise, that isn’t an issue either on the Z10 where the bottom of the screen is much lower relative to your thumb.


"Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s talk about the keyboard," you’re thinking. Or, at least, that’s what you’re likely thinking if you’re a BlackBerry diehard who patiently held fast through the Z10 launch to get your hands on the hardware this company is known for.

I’m happy to report that I think this keyboard is going to satisfy BlackBerry loyalists. I don’t pretend to be a hardcore portrait QWERTY user, but I’ve used my fair share of Curves and Bolds through the years, and there’s no sign with the Q10 that BlackBerry has forgotten its roots. The keys are "Bold-style"—that is, there’s no space between them, but each one has a distinct ridge that guides your angled thumb in the right direction—and they run literally edge-to-edge, so you’re taking maximum advantage of the phone’s roughly 2.6-inch width. They’re clicky, they feel great, and they’re somehow magically designed to minimize mistyping with fat thumbs, though BlackBerry 10’s auto-correction functionality can bail you out when you do fumble.

One oddity is that the Q10’s rows of keys are straight across, not slightly curved as on virtually every other phone BlackBerry has made. BlackBerry claims this was done because the Q10 lacks the cluster of controls between the keyboard and display, giving them the opportunity to align the keys with the square screen. Regardless of the reason, it didn’t seem to have any impact on my speed or accuracy.

There are a handful of tweaks here, though, that weren’t present on the Z10 at launch, thanks partly to the fact that the Q10 includes a new build (version 10.1) out of the box. Most notable might be the addition of "actions" to universal search, which—as the name suggests—allow you to trigger specific actions by typing into the phone’s search screen. (Old webOS users might remember this as "Quick Actions" in Just Type.) It’s a shout-out to the BlackBerry mantra of getting to work as soon as you start typing on the home screen.

Third-party apps can plug into these actions, but the Q10 supports a handful out of the box. For instance, I can type "Tweet this is a test" and it’ll shoot out "This is a test" from the Twitter account I have linked to the phone. "Note shopping list" will file a new note in the Remember app with the title "shopping list." Typing "email" followed by a contact name will start a new email to that contact (or you can simply type "email" to start a new blank email). It also works for BBM, the phone app, and others. It reminds me a bit of Alfred, the Mac app that lets you set up actions using short textual commands—the difference is, I don’t want to be typing on my phone if I can avoid it.

The Q10 feels faster than the Z10, side by side

Don’t get me wrong, I get the appeal of these actions for users who live and die by the Q10’s keyboard—and there will be many of those users, I’m sure—but I didn’t really see the advantage, personally. I was never able to convince myself that I was saving much (if any) time by typing out what I want to do on the phone rather than simply tapping the app and executing the command on the screen. (For what it’s worth, BlackBerry will be delivering actions to the Z10 as well once the 10.1 update starts rolling out.)

In a way, these actions feel like one of the fundamental rifts between the full-touch and keyboard philosophies of mobile computing: how do you want to get things done? If you’re willing to take the time to learn the Q10’s full list of keyboard shortcuts, you’ll no doubt shoot around the operating system a little bit faster, but I can’t imagine recommending this to anyone who isn’t already using a phone with a physical keyboard. If you’re already a fast and effective typist on a full-touch phone, the perceived advantage of the Q10’s form factor quickly evaporates, even taking actions and shortcuts into consideration.

More generally, when they're side by side, the Q10 feels faster than the Z10—scrolling is notably smoother, for instance. I don’t know whether we have 10.1 to thank for that or the fact that the Q10 simply has fewer pixels that it needs to manage, but it’s an improvement.

I would be willing to bet that the average BlackBerry user spends more time on voice calls than other users, and that makes sound quality even more important than usual. The Q10 is in a good place here: the earpiece is plenty clear (though I can always use one more notch of volume for extremely noisy environments), and the loudspeaker—a big meshed slot on the bottom of the phone—has a boomy quality that might be second only to the hilariously loud HTC One. Callers told me that they didn’t hear a peep of background noise when I was in a Starbucks filled with people and music.

The camera hardware in the Q10 is identical to that of the Z10, and so performance seems to be roughly the same—in daylight, I was able to produce images that were just fine, though colors were muted (less so on the phone’s vibrant AMOLED display than on my laptop’s LCD). Time Shift, which takes a burst of shots to choose from and lets you replace the faces of people who are blinking or frowning, is present on the Q10, but I’d argue slightly less useful than on the Z10: you need to make decisions about which shot to choose and which faces to use on a much smaller screen, and you can’t zoom the shot (detected faces are automatically magnified, but you can’t zoom in on other areas of the image). Frustratingly, it’s a one-time decision; you can’t go back to an old Time Shift image and change your mind.


BlackBerry 10.1 also adds support for HDR. I was impressed with how fast the phone seemed to snap HDR shots, but in practice, it didn’t make much of a difference for HDR’s notorious ghosting—I was actually getting giant ghosts on images of completely stationary objects, possibly because the camera is spending more time snapping photos than the shutter sound and UI lead you to believe, so you inadvertently start to move the camera before it’s actually done doing its work.

Our Q10’s review kit came with a nifty, extremely compact external battery charger powered by Micro USB, but you’ll probably only need to juice up that second cell if you’re putting in an inordinately long day (and night) away from a wall outlet. In my testing I had no issue making it through a full day of use in and around AT&T’s LTE network; in fact, there was a moment early in the afternoon where just a tiny sliver of the battery meter was missing after several hours of intermittent calling, texting, and browsing. On balance, it seems to do noticeably better than the Z10, which makes sense: it’s a smaller screen paired with a bigger battery (2,100 mAh versus the Z10’s 1,800 mAh).

If you’re not on the Q10 for the productivity bonus, what are you here for?

On two occasions in my life, I’ve made a serious go at using a BlackBerry full-time—first with the unforgettable and amazing Curve 8900, later with the Bold 9900. On both occasions, despite crippling software flaws and anemic app catalogs, there was something about the simple act of using a BlackBerry that made you feel more important and productive. Whenever I pulled it out and started typing, I was “getting stuff done.”

Now, though, the Q10 has lost even that appeal for me. Yes, the software is miles beyond anything that BlackBerry 7 could ever deliver, but as a chronic Android and iOS user, there was no point during my encounter with this phone that I felt like I was running circles around those other platforms. Not with email, not with documents, not with contact management. BlackBerry 10’s Hub—which aggregates calls, texts, tweets, emails, BBMs, and so-on into quite possibly the most universal inbox on the planet—is a neat trick, but not particularly useful for business users who deal with a heavy stream of low- to medium-priority emails. I just didn’t feel the productivity bonus.

And if you’re not on the Q10 for the productivity bonus, what are you here for? The small, square display? The weak third-party app selection?

Maybe you’re here for the keyboard. As superb as the Q10’s physical keyboard is, I keep thinking about the six-year evolution of the soft keyboard since the introduction of the original iPhone. They’ve gotten so good on every platform—iOS, Windows Phone, Android, even BlackBerry’s own Z10. The argument used to be that physical keyboards were for serious users who needed to burn through email, and I just don’t think that holds water anymore. Yes, this is the best of a dying breed, but for the life of me, I don’t know why someone who’s accustomed to a full-touch phone would come back to this.

That doesn’t mean I’d recommend a Z10 over this; if it’s a full-touch phone you want and you’re open to using something other than BlackBerry 10, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend an iPhone or any number of Android devices before it. But for the faithful, make no mistake: the Q10 is the ultimate BlackBerry. All paths in BlackBerry’s nearly three-decade history lead to this phone. Happy Bold users will, and should, upgrade in droves. Unfortunately, BlackBerry needs much more than a stop-loss product.