With near-perfect keyboard, Q10 a better BlackBerry than Z10

TECHNOLOGY REPORTER — The Globe and Mail

The new BlackBerry Q10, photographed at The Globe and Mail offices in Toronto. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

One of my few annoyances with Research In Motion’s Z10 – the touchscreen device released earlier this year to generally positive reviews – is that it felt like somebody else’s phone. Many of the phone’s features felt derivative of other companies’ popular models.

The Q10, on the other hand, does not have that problem. This is a tried-and-true BlackBerry, complete with the best keyboard RIM has ever developed. The Z10 may prove to be the more commercially successful phone, but the Q10 is the better BlackBerry.

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The Q10 – which landed on our desk last week and goes on sale May 1 for roughly $200 on a three-year contract through the major Canadian carriers – is the physical-keyboard cousin of the Z10, in that both run on the new BlackBerry 10 operating system. If the Z10 was designed to appeal to people who fell in love with iPhones over the past few years, the Q10 is for the die-hard BlackBerry user.

For the most part, the two phones share many of the same features, including BlackBerry Hub, which organizes all your messaging in one place. The touchscreen gestures are also largely the same: You swipe up from the bottom bezel to wake the phone up or to exit programs, you swipe down to access menus, and so on. If you’ve used the Z10 or you’re one of the half-dozen people who still use a PlayBook, you’ll be familiar with the way these controls work.

Design-wise, the Q10 looks like a trimmer version of the most recent BlackBerry Bold. There are a few touches of flair, such as a backing cover made of something called “glass weave” that a RIM rep swears is not plastic but sure feels like plastic – albeit a sturdier, smoother plastic than the one on the backing covers of any recent BlackBerry models.

Along the top of the phone lies the main power button. There are rear-facing (8 mega-pixel) and front-facing (2 mega-pixel) cameras. Along one side are the steel-brushed volume and play/pause/voice command buttons. Along the other side are the MicroUSB and MicroHDMI buttons, which are right next to each other and which you will inevitably get mixed-up. The touchscreen measures in at 3.1 inches.

The Q10’s new features can be broadly classified in two categories: keyboard-related upgrades and things RIM got wrong with the Z10 that they’ve subsequently tried to fix.

Of these, the keyboard features are by far the most impressive. In overall dimensions, the Q10 isn’t that much bigger than the most recent Bold – but it feels much, much bigger. That’s because RIM has done away with the traditional Green-Phone, Red-Phone, Trackpad and menu buttons – essentially, that entire horizontal row of physical keys has been cleared out to make room for more screen. But the keyboard has also been expanded. Although it’s only about 3 per cent bigger than the one on the Bold, the keyboard too feels more substantial. The horizontal steel frets between the rows of keys is thicker, and the keys themselves slightly wider.

The Q10 has, without a doubt, the best keyboard I’ve seen on any phone, physical or virtual. The larger keys make for fewer mistakes, and the phone comes with all the bells and whistles on the Z10 virtual keyboard. These include the predictive text options that pop up as you type (and, after a while, begin to guess what you’re about to type better than you can) and the auto-correct feature, which is quite good, but not perfect.

This, ultimately, is the problem with the Q10 keyboard – it could have been perfect, it came so close to being perfect, but it isn’t perfect. The biggest issue is the lack of physical backward and forward keys. On older-model BlackBerrys, if you got something wrong and didn’t notice it until 10 words later, you could navigate to the problem word with the physical keys. But those are gone now, so you have to use the miserably annoying touchscreen option to navigate. This is a problem on all touchscreen phones for one simple reason – no matter what gimmick the designers come up with, they can’t seem to fix the problem that your finger on the screen makes it very difficult to see where you are placing the cursor. On the Q10, there’s a big blue circle that surrounds the cursor and is supposed to solve this problem. It doesn’t.

The other annoying aspect of the keyboard has to do with spell-check. If you misspell a word, the familiar red squiggly line will pop up. But once you click on the word and don’t fix the mistake, the software assumes you want it to stay misspelled, so the squiggly line goes away. This is fine, but on many, many occasions, I clicked on a word to fix it, and the software assumed I was clicking to make the red line go away, which it immediately did. So I had to go back and fix the word manually, which is a waste of time.

As far as very specific keyboard concerns go, for some reason my delete key wouldn’t work unless I really hammered it with my thumb. But I’ll assume this was due to a defective review model, and not a wider problem.

Let me be clear, these are relatively minor concerns. The Q10 keyboard is fantastic. It’s just disappointing that it came so close to being perfect and then fell just short.

The Q10 also includes a keyboard-related gimmick called “Instant Actions” that allows you to perform certain tasks simply by typing. For example, if you type “tw Hello World,” the phone will understand that you want to send a Tweet saying “Hello World,” and will bring up a dialogue box to confirm this. The same is true if you type commands such as “text,” “call” or “facebook.”

(As an aside, RIM has for years had this annoying habit of hiding incredibly useful text shortcuts in their operating system without telling people. Anyone who has used a BlackBerry can tell you how euphoric it felt the first time they realized they could hit the “B” or “T” to skip to the bottom or top of a message – and if you’re just learning this now, you’re welcome. I recently asked a RIM rep why the company doesn’t do a better job of informing users about these shortcuts, and he said BlackBerry users like the “charm” of discovering the commands themselves. Personally, I think this is, at best, bizarre reasoning. Anyway, this is a long-winded way of saying there may be lots more Instant Action commands on the Q10, but I haven’t had the charming experience of figuring them out yet.)

In the months since the release of the Z10, RIM has also learned a few things about what its first BB10 phone got wrong. Low-light photography, for example, has been improved on the Q10 (improved, but still not great). Battery life, which on the Z10 felt fine (even thought the phone took forever to fully charge) has also been improved. This is in large part due to a bigger battery and the use of a darker colour scheme throughout the user interface (you can’t change the core colour scheme, by the way, so be prepared for a dark-coloured interface whether you want it or not). The Q10 still takes forever to get a full charge, though.

(Some of the software upgrades in the Q10 will soon show up on your Z10, because the Q10 runs on an upgraded version of the same operating system. That new version will appear as a software download for Z10 users shortly after the Q10 goes on sale.)

RIM has also come up with a neat auxiliary-battery accessory that you can plug into the phone directly as a kind of portable charger. It supports serial charging, so you can charge your phone off your auxiliary battery and charge the auxiliary battery off a power source all at the same time.

On the app front, there is only one major announcement to be made: BB10 now has Skype! This is a pretty big get for RIM, which is slowly convincing some big-name app-makers to hop on the BB10 platform.

Perhaps the most interesting surprise about the Q10 is how insanely fast it is. It runs on a dual-core 1.5-gigahertz processor, but the wildly variable software and hardware specs of most phones render numbers such as this pretty useless. What I did notice was that there was no touchscreen lag whatsoever, and even with eight apps open (after 8 apps, the operating system starts hiding them from the active apps screen), nothing felt slow. Somehow, RIM has managed to get the most out of this phone’s engine.

The Q10 is going to be a very important benchmark for the new RIM. This is the phone designed to win over the core BlackBerry demographic – people who are one forced battery-pull restart away from buying a Samsung Galaxy. If this phone doesn’t do well, it means RIM is losing its most loyal followers.

The good news, for RIM, is that the Q10 does nothing horrendously wrong, and in fact is an improvement in the most important category for many BlackBerry users – the keyboard. It’s not a perfect phone, but it is the BlackBerry-est of BlackBerrys – in a good way.

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