The last time I touched a Blackberry was before I got my first iPhone, the iPhone 3G. Before the days of the iPhone and Android army of devices, Blackberries were the “smartphones” to have, and myself included carried around a Blackberry Curve. But even then Blackberry felt uninspired, frustrating to navigate (I hated that damn trackball), and has nothing really to offer beyond email. Of course back then there was no App Store, HTML5, or high-powered GPU’s in phones. If there’s one thing I remember the most about my Blackberry Curve, it was the overwhelming joy I had when I tossed into the trash (or sold it on eBay, I forget) for my shiny, beautifully designed iPhone 3G.
Fast forward five years and five iPhone models later, and here I am again with not one, but two new Blackberry devices, the Blackberry Q10 and Blackberry Z10. Both run the latest Blackberry 10 OS on the inside, but on the outside couldn’t be more different. So after five years can Blackberry survive this year’s smartphone harvest?
Both the Blackberry Q10 and Z10 again feel uninspired with their hardware designs. Rather than reinventing themselves, the Q10 feels like an update to the tired design of the Blackberry Bold, and the Z10 feels like a slimmer version of the Blackberry Storm. Both are made of plastic, and both feel cheap in the hand when compared to devices like the iPhone 5 or the HTC One. The sleep/wake button for both devices is placed at the center on the top side of the device, which is definitely better than having it on the side of the device, especially if you’re a lefty like me. Neither device has any sort of navigation buttons – no home, back, or menu keys are on the device – which was done purposefully due to the design of the Blackberry 10 OS which we’ll get to in a minute.
The only real difference between the Blackberry Q10 and Z10 at first glance is one has the classic Blackberry QWERTY keyboard and a tiny screen (Q10) and the other has just a big glass touchscreen with no keyboard (Z10). The internal hardware on both devices – the processor, RAM, storage, Wi-Fi and cellular radios – are exactly the same. Both the Q10 and Z10 are LTE-ready, a first for Blackberry, and each support 802.11n wireless and contain a Bluetooth 4.0 chip.
The display on both devices are a Super AMOLED screen, with the Q10′s screen coming in at a paltry 3.1 inches and the Z10′s screen measuring a more respectable 4.2 inches. Due to its small size, the Q10′s screen resolution is only 720 x 720 pixels, where as its larger-screened Z10 brother has high-definition 720p resolution. Super AMOLED screens are typically found in Samsung smartphones, and offer some of the best color saturation and deepest blacks you’ll find on a smartphone screen. However, the Blackberry models unfortunately don’t match the Samsung models. The Q10′s small size makes reading anything difficult to do, and the larger Z10′s screen still lacked that pop that other leading smartphones like the Galaxy S4, HTC One, or iPhone 5 have. Text was crisp, but the screen felt too dark. Even with the brightness turned up all the way the Blackberry screen felt darker than it should be, only compounding the problem of trying to read a Super AMOLED screen in bright sunlight.
As for the Q10′s classic hardware QWERTY keyboard, maybe I’ve used a touch screen keyboard too long, but it is absolutely the most frustrating thing about the device, even more than its tiny screen. The keys are tiny, secondary characters and punctuation marks are difficult to type, and overall it just feels like again the same crappy keyboard from my Blackberry Curve five years ago. The Blackberry Bold’s keyboard was better, but unfortunately isn’t found on the Q10. Although the Z10′s keyboard is software based, I found that to be a much better experience. The new predictive typing is actually very useful. The Z10 software essentially guesses words as you type out letters, and a simple swipe up on these words which are placed above the row of the next letter can be inputted immediately. This predictive typing is easier than Android’s bar above the keyboard, or iOS’s one option only.
Both the Blackberry Q10 and Blackberry Z10 are powered by a dual-core 1.5 Ghz CPU. The Z10 uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, where as the Q10 uses the Texas Instruments OMAP chipset. The difference in chipset doesn’t really matter, as both performed as expected for devices with CPU’s in this class. Both devices ran smooth with no hiccups along the way, and were able to render graphics quickly. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find any benchmarking apps in the Blackberry World app store, so benchmark scores aren’t available. However, it’s more important to focus on real-world usability, and both performed very well. Both devices include 2 GB of RAM, which definitely helps out with performance as well.
Performance is only as good as how long it can last. Both the Blackberry Q10 and Z10 have very good battery life, something Blackberries have become known for. The Q10 may suffer from a smaller screen, but in return users will see battery life perhaps only the Droid Razr HD Maxx can match. Under normal usage which consists of light browsing, emailing, a few phone calls, and the occasional Facebook session I was able to get almost two days worth of battery life on one charge with the Q10. The Z10 with its larger screen unfortunately won’t last two days, but will definitely make it through a full day’s work.
Both the Blackberry Q10 and Blackberry Z10 are global phones and compatible with LTE bands across all four major US carriers as well as 3G bands (HSPA, HSPA+, and EVDO Rev-A). The Blackberry Q10 we tested ran on Verizon’s network and the Blackberry Z10 ran on AT&T. Typical with each of these networks, Verizon excelled in call quality but had slower LTE speeds, and AT&T’s call quality was not as clear but LTE speeds were lightning fast. Overall, there isn’t anything unexpected or that makes the Blackberry 10 devices stand out from the crowd when it comes to network quality or performance.
Both the Blackberry Q10 and Z10 come with an 8 MP rear-facing camera and a front-facing 2 MP camera. The rear camera is capable of shooting 1080p HD video, and the front-facing camera supports 720p video for “selfy” videos. Picture quality on the rear facing camera was very good, on par with the iPhone 5, and the front-facing camera’s HD capabilities will make video calling a much clearer experience. Both rear-facing cameras include a LED flash, location capabilities, autofocus, image stabilization, and face detection.
The biggest feature of the Blackberry 10 OS is their “Timeshift” camera mode. Timeshift essentially takes five seconds of video instead of a camera still, allowing users to move backwards in time up to capture the perfect pose, smile, or moment. In my tests, Timeshift worked well, and is great for anyone with smaller children who seem to not be able to sit still for more than a second sometimes. Timeshift is actually useful, unlike some of Samsung’s camera tricks on the Galaxy S4, and will become a favorite feature of Blackberry Q10 or Z10 users.
The Blackberry 10 OS makes its début on the Q10 and Z10, but after a few minutes with the operating system it’s quickly clear that it isn’t the major overhaul Blackberry touts. Instead, the Blackberry 10 OS feels like the company took their legacy Blackberry OS, updated its UI with a different color scheme, optimized it for touch, and in the process made it at times very confusing to understand. Like its predecessor, the BB 10 OS is laid out with a bunch of square icons across multiple home screens. While similar to iOS, the color palette feels uninspired, even more so than iOS 6 or earlier. There’s nothing about the user interface that “pops”, nothing to really draw its users in.
The BB 10 OS is designed completely around touch and gestures. While a step in the right direction, there’s still something natural about having a home button and back button, both of which do not exist on the device. Returning to your home screen is accomplished by a swipe up from the bottom of the device, but that means that users have to always be cognizant of where they are on the screen when wanting to scroll down a page. Put your finger too far down and instead of scrolling through a web page, you’ll be returning to home. Returning to the home screen doesn’t close an app, instead it is placed into another drab home page with all of your other open apps. Closing the app requires a simple tap on the “X” in the bottom right corner of its icon.
Perhaps the only saving grace for the Blackberry 10 OS is the new Blackberry Hub. Blackberry Hub aggregates all of your emails, text messages, updates, BBM messages, and more into one list for quick access. The UI is also uninspired, and looks an awful lot like the older Blackberry email app, but it does offer a quick and easy way to reach items that need your attention or ignorance. The underlying concept of Blackberry Hub is great, however, its execution in terms of design makes it feel outdated and uninspired when compared to similar software found on Android such as HTC’s BlinkFeed (which I’m admittedly not a huge fan of either).
Blackberry made a bold move when it announced that eventually the Blackberry 10 OS would support running Android applications. But after looking through the sparse list of apps available on Blackberry World, it seems it was more of the company taking advantage of Android’s open nature to hide the simple truth – developers aren’t interested in Blackberry anymore. The update to the operating system still hasn’t come, and users are still left with an app store that makes Microsoft’s Windows Marketplace look like it has the selection of Apple’s App Store or Google Play. Bottom line, if you’re looking for a smartphone that does more than email, and can do what all of your friends’ Android or iOS devices can do, then get an Android or iOS device. The Blackberry Q10 or Z10 isn’t the phone you’re looking for.
In the end, my memory of my time with the Blackberry Q10 and Blackberry Z10 is the same as it was with my Blackberry Curve. Everything about this phone is so forgettable and uninspiring, and my fondest memory of these devices is when I got rid of them. Ask me in a week what I remember about using these devices, and I’ll tell you to look here because in the end there’s nothing about these phones that excited me enough to really care. Blackberry had a real opportunity here to reestablish and reimagine the Blackberry brand with the Q10, Z10, and Blackberry 10 OS, but instead gave the market nothing more than a reskinned version of its outdated OS from the pre-iPhone era. Even if you’re a hardcore Blackberry fan, and I know you all still exist, do yourself a favor and give Android or iOS your money. The smartphone harvest has already came and went, and next year the only fruit that’s going to grow is going to be an Apple.