BlackBerry Q10 Review: Can the Keyboard Bring You Back?

PHOTO: The BlackBerry Q10 has a physical keyboard.
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I carry around two phones. Along with an iPhone, I lug around a BlackBerry Bold -- which many call a dinosaur -- for one reason and one reason only: the physical keyboard.

While most have moved to briskly typing on a piece of glass, I still love the feel of real keys. But over the last few years that hasn't been enough to stick with a phone. You know the saga: BlackBerry's software had become so outdated that the masses fled for modern phones with apps and browsers that actually worked.

The BlackBerry Q10 is supposed to change all that. Unlike BlackBerry's other new phone -- the Z10 -- the Q10 blends BlackBerry's new software with a traditional, physical keyboard. But is it good enough to be the only phone in my pocket? Is it good enough to replace all the iPhones and Android phones BlackBerry expats are using?

A Hard-to-Beat Keyboard
While the Z10 could be mistaken as any big-screened smartphone, there's no mistaking the Q10 – it looks and feels like a BlackBerry through and through, with a screen stacked above a keyboard.

But while it looks traditional, the phone has a freshened up aesthetic. The back of the device has a slightly curved shape and has also been spruced up with a soft-touch coating that's smoother than the plastic backs of previous BlackBerries. And don't dare call it plastic; BlackBerry says it's a "unique glass-weave material" that thinner, lighter and stronger than plastic. The 139-ounce phone is light, but not markedly thin. The 10.35mm phone is also noticeably thicker than the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S4.

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None of that detracts from the star of the show, though: the four-row keyboard. The QWERTY keyboard is everything you remember about BlackBerry keyboards – and much more. The keyboard is well-made and well-spaced thanks to the metal frets separating the rows of keys. It's also wider than some of the other models since the screen is now larger.

It's actually hard for me to write about the keyboard and not completely gush about it – the keys are the right amount of "clicky" and the perfect amount of firmness. It gave me an added level of confidence when typing. In fact, I wrote the first portion of this review on the phone while sitting on a train – it would have taken me twice as long on my iPhone and it would have had twice as many typos.

BlackBerry brought over some of the features from the Z10's virtual keyboard too. On the Q10 you can still get that predictive text function, to speed typing even more.

While the keyboard provides something very familiar to BlackBerry lovers, there's something that will take a bit of an adjustment with the Q10. A touchscreen. Sure, other BlackBerrys with keyboards have had touchscreens, but with the Q10 the software was actually made for finger swipes and touch input. It's also a much nicer screen than ever before: the 3.1-inch, 720 x 720-resolution Super AMOLED screen is bright, crisp and responsive to touches and flicks. However, the screen is smaller than I would have liked and I'll admit that at times I was looking for the classic BlackBerry trackpad.

Software and Apps
BlackBerry 10 was designed from the ground up for touch input and is a complete overhaul of the BlackBerry software you might have known. As in the case of Apple's iPhone, the BlackBerry 10 operating system is built around pages of apps. Swipe to the right and you will see pages of your applications, swipe to the left while on the first page of apps and you will see your open applications, or what BlackBerry calls Active Frames. Apps are minimized on this page and you can see a snapshot of what is happening inside the app, similar to Microsoft's Windows Phone or Windows 8 tiles.

Swipe left again from that page and you're at the BlackBerry Hub. The Hub is a messaging portal where you can view all your messages in one universal Inbox, including your emails, BBMs, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn messages.

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And yes, the phone still has the blinking red light to let you know you have a new message. If you'd rather not be distracted by your personal email, a feature called BlackBerry Balance will also allow you to separate work and personal applications.

Despite the physical keyboard, there are no physical buttons to control the software, which can be confusing. Instead of pressing a button, you use gestures to move around. As I said in the Z10 review, it all becomes second nature after a few minutes and it is one of the easier ways to multitask on a phone, but it requires adjustment and instruction.

What doesn't require adjustment is the speed of the browser. The BlackBerry 10 browser is snappy and swift to use. And in combination with AT&T's LTE network it's one of the best browsing experiences on any smartphone.

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But while browsing is satisfying, the app experience is still subpar. Yes, many of the key apps like Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare are there along with other media apps, but key apps are still missing like Instagram, Spotify, Rdio and a strong GPS or Maps app, like Waze or Google Maps. (BlackBerry's native maps app is still missing key points of interest.) Additionally, the apps aren't as robust as Android or iOS options. In my testing, the Twitter app was sluggish at times.

Speed and Battery Life
For the most part the rest of the Q10 experience, thanks to a 1.5GHz dual-core processor and 2GB of RAM, was snappy. Apps opened fast, scrolling was swift and running multiple apps at the same time was no problem. Periodically I did see some slow downs though.

But what might make this a deal breaker for some is the battery life. While the older BlackBerry's could last 1 to 1.5 days without a problem, the Q10 doesn't have that same kind of endurance. Similar to the Z10, by 6 p.m. on a day of moderate to heavy use, the Q10 was in the red.

Another feature that disappointed? The camera. Similar to the Z10, the 8-megapixel camera's photos aren't as crisp as the ones you'll get from the iPhone 5 or Samsung's Galaxy S 4, and suffers especially when taking low-light shots. The Timeshift feature, which captures a few shots at a time when you're taking a group shot, is a fun addition, but not enough to compensate for the lackluster photos.

Bottom Line
Everything I said about the Z10 can be said of the Q10. It is a fully modern BlackBerry – and not just by BlackBerry standards. It's fast, has a mobile browser that beats many of the others and an outstanding physical keyboard. No, its battery life and camera are not as strong as the competition, but its bigger issue lies with the fact that it runs a brand new operating system. While the software offers something entirely different than others, overall it and its app store lack the robustness of Google, Apple and even Microsoft's offerings.

Many who have been waiting for a new Blackberry with a keyboard and a real browser will find the Q10 to be the phone they have been waiting on for so long. As for me, I'd replace my Bold with the Q10 in a heartbeat, but ultimately it's not enough to become the only phone I carry.

Note: U.S. pricing and availability for the Q10 hasn't been announced yet. It is expected to launch in early May on AT&T and other carriers for around $249.

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