The BlackBerry Classic is a curmudgeonly phone.
That's not entirely pejorative: a curmudgeon can be a beloved figure with a kind of "damn 'em all" common sense that rejects newfangledness. Certainly there are many people who hate the overblown rhetoric on "changing the world" that other smartphone makers bray on stage. Most people just want a phone that works.
The not-great part of a curmudgeon is the eccentricity and petty obsessions. And the Classic certainly has a lot of quirks.
BlackBerry remains convinced that its hardcore enterprise users are crying out for the unique set of features only it can offer. But after using it for several days I don't think the Classic is old fashioned enough to please traditionalists, and its callbacks to a dead era of smartphone mobility are more than enough to cripple the device for new users.
The handset is styled and designed to evoke the Bold 9900, regarded by many as the best phone that runs on the original BlackBerry operating system ever made by the former Research In Motion. It came out in 2011, just as RIM's market share began to evaporate. The device is taller, wider and also thinner than the Bold, but it feels much heavier thanks to the stainless steel frame. The device has a solid, premium feel and will be available at Bell, Rogers and Telus for $50 with a two-year contract ($499 unlocked in Canada).
This new phone is designed around the reintroduction of the traditional BlackBerry control scheme: a trackpad and a belt of function keys that sit between the screen and the keyboard. The menu button, the back button, the pickup and hangup phone buttons are all back.
BlackBerry's Director of Software Product Management, Michael Clewley, told reporters at a media briefing last week that telecoms and carrier partners complained loudly about the lack of a home-screen key on BB10 devices. Fair enough, the three phone OS's (Android, Windows and iOS) that have overtaken BlackBerry in the last decade have always had home buttons. Under ex-CEO Thorsten Heins, BB10 launched with a swipe gesture to take users home, and even then "home" was the screen containing active apps, not the grid of icons users expected. It was too much change, and maybe the wrong kind, too fast. (The new buttons do the same thing, which is still unexpected for old-school BlackBerry users. Baby steps.)
Bringing back these navigation keys became one of BlackBerry CEO John Chen's top priorities when he arrived in 2013. But to accommodate these buttons and mouse-like trackpad, the gesture-driven BB10 operating system had to be rebuilt from its basic software frameworks. The benefit? BlackBerry says the trackpad is faster than it ever was, and I concur when it comes to BlackBerry apps and the Web (though sometimes it seems too fast and sacrifices accuracy and fine control).
But the new trackpad does not work so well on the library of Android apps that users can access through the Amazon App Store. And that's a problem because the Amazon apps were announced with great fanfare at this fall's Passport launch. You can sideload Android apps on the new BlackBerrys with all the risks to your phone's security that entails. The BB10.3 updates allowed easy access to the the e-tail giant's large library of popular consumer and productivity apps built for its Kindle and Fire devices (with the baffling exception of Netflix, which is not in the Classic's store). It's still not the full Google Play store, nor is it iOS's App Store, but 200,000 plus apps is a significant upgrade over BlackBerry World.
The Android operating system does not have the focus and highlight features needed to support the trackpad. The software that powers the trackpad allows you to see a cursor or highlight an app without activating it. In my tests I found some basic apps have somewhat compatible controls, while other more interactive or advanced apps ignored the trackpad and the back button completely, turning the Classic into a very small-screen touch device.
I question the wisdom of having parallel user interface schemes on a smartphone: There should be one method for doing stuff on a phone, not two mostly similar ways to do the same thing. But that becomes even more untenable when one of those interfaces breaks when using your largest source of apps. It's not like the company could ever really go back to an earlier OS, and many of the new features of BB10 are excellent: the much better web browser, the basic ability to play videos, new apps and improved messaging unity in Hub. The attempt to import control systems from a dead software platform forces the Classic into some awkward choices and tradeoffs.
Another one of those tradeoffs appears to be the removal of predictive text. This was a much-touted feature of BB10's software keyboards, the OS would guess what you were trying to type and those words would appear above your keys, available for you to add with a simple swipe. Perhaps it's the belt, or the small 3.5 inch screen, but those predictive options are no longer there. In contrast, Google and Apple are increasingly using predictive text, and also allow a much greater customization of keyboards (down to gimmick keyboards that type nothing but animated GIFs).
The other features of BB10.3.1 are welcome additions: Blend, the digital assistant, remains very promising for enterprise users. It's competent and quick, notifications are now much more granular (and easier to customize). The cameras are fine for a mid-range smartphone and the photo/video editing software is solid. The keyboard shortcuts are certainly welcome to long-time BlackBerry fans. Many of these upgrades were in the Passport, which for my money remains the best BlackBerry on the market.
But let's go back a step and talk some more about that keyboard, with its angled bezels and its alt functions crowding for space on the little black clusters of keys (yes, just like the eponymous fruit). I wrote the bulk of this review on the Classic to remind myself what there was to like about the famously productive QWERTY keyboard BlackBerry remains yoked to. (Disclosure, about two-thirds was written on the phone ... for rewrites, etc. it was a pain).
After only a few minutes my neck hurts from the familiar crackberry prayer hunch. The plastic back of this phone gets slippery fast and I am doing that awkward BlackBerry balance where you use the typing thumbs to hold the phone against your hands, so it bobbles slightly with every key punched.
I'll be explicit: I am in the mainstream when I say I don't prefer physical keys. The vast majority of the 1.3 billion phones IDC expects to ship in 2014 do not have physical keyboards, and about 84 per cent will be Android phones. In the third quarter BlackBerry made up 0.5 per cent of the market.
In that light perhaps "yoke" is too gentle a metaphor. BlackBerry's commitment to these core keyboard and trackpad lovers reminds me of the seahawk that is hammered to the mast of Captain Ahab's Pequod as the ship is going down following the cataclysmic final battle with the great whale, Moby Dick. Yes, there is no hope for the vessel: but if it is going down, this turkey is going down with us.