Why would anyone use a Blackberry Q10 in 2013? The answer, as I’ve found in four months of testing, is simple: speed, battery life, keyboard and the quality of connectivity. I’ll expand on each of these below, as well as the negative aspects of the Q10.
There is also a wider overall purpose to this article: identifying which elements of the Blackberry experience hold strategic lessons for the rest of industry. Blackberry has been attended by a storm of negative publicity in recent times, but in many ways this has become a self-fulfilling prophesy and one which obscures the pioneering user experience introduced by the new Blackberry 10 platform. It has become so common to repeat the tech press’ tales of Blackberry’s demise that we risk missing the valuable insights this distinctive platform can provide.
I started with the Q10 as a Blackberry novice. I’d tested Blackberries briefly over the years, but never used one as my own device. In short, I arrived to the platform unbiased by the nostalgia which might affect a former ‘Crackberry’ addict.
I simply could not kill the Q10. No matter how early in the morning I unplugged from the charger or how late at night I returned home, not once in the 4 months was I able to drain the battery in a single day. Its longevity was astounding, courtesy of a removable 2100 mAh cell, paired with a screen which draws relatively little power. At just over 3 inches, the display is tiny by current standards and runs at a resolution of 720 x 720 pixels, giving a sharp 330 ppi. It is also an OLED panel, meaning pixels only draw significant power when illuminated. Blackberry’s dark themed UI is designed to maked the most of this characteristic, further improving the battery life of the Q10.
This kind of bullet proof battery performance is almost unheard of in current smartphones and users subconsciously change their behaviour to ensure they can make it through the day with enough battery left to make an emergency phone call phone. By freeing me from these concerns, the Q10 achieved my trust and enabled me to do things I’d never normally consider. For instance, in the car I’d drop it into a cradle and use it for navigation without a charger, confident than even an hour or so of satnav would still leave it with plenty of charge to get me through the day. Similarly, I’d play podcasts around the house through its excellent built-in speaker without worrying about draining the battery.
In theory I could have carried a spare battery with me too, something which simply isn’t an option with the sealed design of most current smartphones, but I never felt the need.
I took delivery of the Q10 a few weeks before our last MEX event. This is a time of year which represents a significant spike of activity for my inbox, when I need to be responding to hundreds of requests per day across email, text, voice, Twitter and LinkedIn. The Blackberry Hub integrates everything into a single flow of incoming messages, so I can browse through a timeline and respond to it all – from SMS to social media – in one location. The Hub is always there, metaphorically speaking, sitting in a virtual UI space just behind and to the left of the screen, accessible from anywhere on the device by swiping up and left in an inverted ‘L’ gesture.
Blackberry calls it the ‘Peek’ and the name seems apt. The physics of the UI are such that it feels like the current screen is being shifted to one side and you’re getting a glimpse of the Hub beneath. Indeed, the gesture doesn’t actually need to be completed. You can push the screen aside, check for new messages beneath and then return to the original screen if you decide there’s nothing new in the Hub worthy of your attention.
I found the Hub useful in dealing with a high volume of communication during the run-up to MEX and it has continued to be valuable since. It simply makes my correspondence faster, both in how quickly I can respond to individual messages and in how rapidly I’m able to deal with multiple channels of communication on the go. It is hard to imagine returning to a platform where communications are siloed into individual applications.
This is one aspect of what makes the Blackberry Q10 feel fast, but the speed is noticeable throughout the user experience. Some of this is down to raw specifications: the Q10 has 2 Gb of RAM and a dual core 1.5 Ghz Snapdragon S4 processor driving a comparatively small number of pixels on the 720 x 720 screen. In contrast, top of the range Android devices with 1080p screens are trying to push 4 times as many pixels with a similar processor and RAM combination.
The most significant contributions to the speed of the Q10, however, come from how Blackberry creates the impression of instantaneous response throughout the UI. To unlock the device, you simply swipe up from the bottom of the screen and the interface appears in real time. The lag is imperceptible so that it feels instantaneous. Once the screen is active, another swipe from the bottom brings up a grid of open applications, with the interface responding in real-time to the movements of your finger.
The result is a zero lag UI which instills the confidence to move quickly. While the brief stutters common to Android, and even some older iOS devices, may seem inconsequential when measured in the milliseconds they occupy, they result in a culture of hesitation. Once a user feels a UI lacks instant response, they become more cautious and start to hunt and peck with their finger tip rather than letting it slide effortlessly from tap to tap.
The single biggest asset of the Blackberry 10 experience is this speed. It represents a benchmark other platform providers should strive to achieve and there is much which could be learned from both the technical efficiency and the natural combination of gestures which form the core of the Blackberry 10 UI.
I’ve not yet mentioned the Q10’s most distinctive feature: the keyboard. It is almost alone in 2013 as a smartphone equipped with a hardware QWERTY keyboard. I’ve used tiny hardware QWERTY keyboards in every guise over the years, from the miniature laptop style of the old Psion palmtops to the portrait sliders of the Palm Pre. The Blackberry Q10’s keyboard is astoundingly good. It feels great physically, but it is the pairing with Blackberry 10’s predictive input software which makes it shine. Users get the best of both worlds: the precision of tapping physical keys, with the added safety net that if you do get something wrong, the predictive software is there to correct your mistake. Suffice to say, I typed much of this review on the Q10 itself.
The software integration extends beyond predictive input. There are also a number of keyboard shortcuts, some of which are easy to learn, others which may only be applicable to power users. Hit ‘S’ in the Hub and up pops a universal search box to explore all your messages. ‘R’ opens a reply. My favourite is using the space bar to scroll through text, with each press acting as the equivalent of a ‘Page Down’ command. It balances the ergonomics of the device, so that it becomes possible – even pleasurable – to read longer documents on the small, square screen, holding the device in one hand and tapping the space bar to move through the page.
The most valuable use of the keyboard is from the home screen, where you can simply start typing to search through everything on the Q10. If I want a specific app, I no longer have to page through screens of icons, I just tap the first letter on the keyboard, and the icon appears almost instantly in the search box. The same method can be used to search contacts, notes, browser history or pretty much anything else stored on the device.
There are also shortcut actions which can be initiated in this way. For instance, typing ‘Map’, followed by an address or postcode, takes you straight into the relevant location in the Maps app. Type ‘Tw’ followed by your message, and Blackberry 10 allows you to post to Twitter from the homescreen.
It is another way in which the Blackberry 10 experience feels fast and powerful.
Of course, there are weak points. While the Blackberry Z10 and Z30 have large, widescreen 720p displays for viewing videos, the Q10’s square 720 x 720 orientation and small physical size means media appears in a tiny letterbox format. As a result, I found myself using the Q10 much less often for catching up on Youtube feeds, something I do frequently on other mobile devices.
Then there is the question of third party applications, arguably Blackberry’s biggest problem. The selection of apps available in the Blackberry World store is poor. Compared to iOS, Android and even Windows Phone, there are very few applications designed to run natively on Blackberry 10. The catalogue is padded out by applications ported over from Android, but it is usually quite obvious they haven’t been optimised for Blackberry devices. They run slower and often look wrong on the screen of the Q10.
The situation may be set to improve in the future. At the time of writing, Blackberry was testing a new version of its Android run-time as part of the forthcoming 10.2.1 Blackberry OS update, which it claims will improve the way Android apps integrate with the Blackberry experience. Crucially, it should also allow Android apps to be installed directly on Blackberry device, without needing to go through the current arcane process of sideloading using developer workarounds.
I’m no software developer, but to my eyes, Blackberry’s strategy in this area is a mess. There are too many different ways to develop for Blackberry 10, from its Cascades framework to converting Android APKs, leading to a confusing and inconsistent message for potential developers. Blackberry has also allowed a huge number of pointless, low quality applications to pollute its Blackberry World catalogue.
Blackberry should focus on a single native application development option and a single, high quality runtime and delivery mechanism for Android apps. It should also root out the nonsense apps in the catalogue, remove them and commit to a much more rigorous vetting procedure in the future. Far better to encourage a few hundred really good apps than boasting about having tens of thousands, most of which are useless. This needs to be a top level priority for Blackberry – developer activity is already too low to sustain a healthy ecosystem and is declining further.
That said, I personally found most of my needs were adequately covered by existing third party Blackberry apps. I found Fast Tube to be a reliable Youtube client, gNewsReader connects to Feedly for my RSS feeds and Nobex is a good Podcast app. Foursquare, Skype, LinkedIn, WordPress and Evernote all offer reasonable apps too. None, however, were better than their counterparts on other platforms and few had been optimised for the useful native features of Blackberry 10.
Back within the core of the Blackberry OS, there is a capable and mature set of built-in features. Photo and video editing are well implemented and, as you might expect from a Blackberry, the calendar and contacts apps are very good.
Blackberry Maps lacks the detailed list of place names we’ve come to expect from Google or Nokia’s HERE, but it did perform well as a satnav when given a specific address. It routed correctly, even in rural areas which often confuse other mapping products, and seemed to respond quickly to traffic problems in urban areas. It was also very good at downloading maps in areas with poor, GPRS-only data coverage, perhaps as a result of Blackberry’s long standing expertise in efficient data transfer.
This proficiency in network technology shines through when you look at the Q10 as its creators intended: as a high performance communications device. Reception quality for both Wifi and cellular networks was the best I’ve ever experienced on a mobile device. In areas where my iPhone, Sony Xperia and even Nokia Lumia struggled to hold a signal, the Q10 outperformed them significantly. I could comfortably hold voice calls with good sound quality while the other devices frequently dropped the connection.
Blackberry’s approach to cellular data transfer also meant that in areas with GPRS or EDGE data coverage, I could still send and receive emails and look up web pages, where my iPhone would simply give timeout errors.
Just as with the battery performance, the reliable connectivity of the Q10 engenders trust – that intangible sense the device will hold up in unfavourable connectivity environments.
There were a few other pleasant surprises along the way with the Q10. The camera was much better than I’d expected and I was able to produce good quality 8 megapixel shots so long as there was reasonable lighting. Camera performance dropped in lower light levels, but this is common to almost all smartphone cameras (with the exception of some optically stabilised Lumias like the 920, or those with the added bonus of Xenon flash, like the 1020).
The integration of the camera with Blackberry’s system-wide sharing capability meant it was simple and fast to offload the photos wherever I wanted them: Bluetooth, email or Flickr. It learns frequently used sharing patterns, so over time it got better and better at presenting me with a shortcut to the destination I wanted with a minimum number of touches. I often find the ease with which media can be shared is just as significant a factor in how often I take photos and video with a device as the quality of the output itself.
Audio performance was also impressive, both from the built-in speaker, which is one of the best I’ve used on a smartphone and when connecting to speakers or car audio over Bluetooth.
My favourite quirk was Blackberry’s ‘Night’ mode. Plug the device into the charger at night and the lock screen appears, with a little pull down ‘Night’ shade bouncing for your attention at the top of the screen. You simply slide the shade over the screen to silence all incoming alerts until the morning, almost like you are pulling down a blind on your working day and shutting down for the evening. It also shows an always on, low brightness, red night clock for glancing at the time if you wake up in the dark, with a simple toggle for setting alarms.
A competitive future
As the Q10 it sits on the desk in front of me now, the little red light blinking to notify me of a new alert, I can’t help but be concerned for Blackberry’s future. The Q10 is a robust device, with soft touch glass weave plastic around a solid, cold metal frame. It seems small compared to competing smartphones, but the build quality is good and the ergonomics are right for one-handed use. I like it.
However, Blackberry’s strategic position is anything but robust.
As a company, it is losing money and has cut its workforce significantly. The four Blackberry 10 devices it launched (Z10, Q5, Q10 and Z30) have not sold well. As a result, it is losing legacy customers with older Blackberries much faster than it is gaining new ones. The negative publicity of the last several months has created the perception of a sinking ship, causing developers to abandon plans for supporting Blackberry 10 at a time when the availability of third party apps is important to its long-term survival.
A new CEO, John Chen, has been appointed and promises to refocus the company on four areas: handsets, enterprise mobility management, cross-platform messaging and embedded systems. Chen is the man credited with turning around enterprise software company Sybase and has already been active in the few weeks since his appointment in reassuring existing customers and investors that Blackberry offers a credible long-term strategy.
I think the core focus Blackberry has been articulating for the past few years – as the mobile solution of choice for demanding, professional users – is actually the right strategy. However, its execution has been poor. The new generation of Blackberry 10 devices took too long to reach the market and when they did they were overpriced.
To remain relevant, Blackberry must identify the unique qualities which gave its brand such appeal a few years ago and work quickly to direct the engineering talent remaining at the company to expand on these. The Q10 provides hints: a good physical QWERTY keyboard is a standout differentiator. There simply aren’t any other companies offering this experience, which is still prized by those who create content on their mobile devices. The uncompromising quality of connectivity and battery performance. The speed and efficiency of the user experience, particularly in messaging and content creation. Security and reliability. These are the characteristics which stand a chance of making Blackberry a success again within a significant niche of individual professionals and corporate deployments.
After four months with a Q10, having never owned a Blackberry before, I’ve learned a few things.
Firstly: don’t believe everything you read in the tech press. There are elements of Blackberry 10 you need to experience for yourself to understand their value, both in the context of the Q10 as a device and for what they can teach the wider mobile industry. The speed and physics of the UI are an example of this.
Secondly, a device like the Q10 highlights the shortcomings of other smartphones in areas which are still very important to high-end business users: quality of connectivity and battery life. There’s an opportunity here to capture those customers who use their phones more for work than play.
Lastly, the perception of strength around an ecosystem is of paramount importance in convincing smartphones buyers and the nonsense of listing how many thousands of apps you have in a store must stop. Blackberry should focus instead on supporting a smaller number of high quality developers to ensure a good selection of apps, backed by companies which see the value in their ongoing development.