QWERTY keyboards. Remember them? Cast your mind back to the days when your grandfather would trundle past on his penny-farthing, top hat cocked at a jaunty angle, rattling off text messages, skillfully avoiding the snapping jaws of a tyrannosaurus rex outside the tobacconist. That, of course, was in the days before the meteor smashed into the earth, forever ending the reign of the physical keyboard. They were replaced by lighter, quicker, nimbler devices – ones with processors immeasurably superior; able to adapt to the brave new world of the web.
Nobody told the company formerly known as Research in Motion. Like Richard Attenborough in Jurassic Park, it has sucked the DNA from mosquitoes frozen in blocks of amber and brought the physical keyboard back from the dead. The Q10 is the sister phone to the fully touchscreen Z10, which launched in January (reports on how it is selling have been mixed). It looks like the classic BlackBerry Bold – the businessman’s phone of choice; the device that was, once upon a time, the perfect mobile email station. However, the Q10 probably has more in common with BlackBerry’s ill-fated Torch handset, which also utilised both a touchscreen and physical keyboard. The Torch failed partly because the touchscreen felt redundant. You could do almost everything on the qwerty so it was just for show, really, like an extravagant digital hat (it also failed because it was a badly made phone running a crappy operating system).
The Q10 solves this. The qwerty and the touchscreen work in harmony. The screen is mainly for navigation and selection (of icons and menus), while the keyboard is there to do the donkey work once you’re ready to start typing.
Counter-intuitively, the best feature – the smart predictive text – is switched off by default. It works out the three words most commonly used after the one you have just typed. You can write entire sentences using the phone’s suggestions (after typing the letter “H”, BlackBerry came up with this firecracker: “Hello again, the first place to find a job in London and have the opportunity for an interview for the first time in my life and times of crisis.” It sounds like it was written by the same Nigerian prince who keeps asking me to send him my bank account details so he can bestow his family’s wealth upon me). It’s a great feature and it means the keyboard gets less of a workout than you might expect.
When you do use the qwerty it’s as good as you remember – and just as well: if BlackBerry can’t get its keyboard right then it may as well pack up and go home. You can also use the keyboard as a shortcut to your networking apps – type “tw” from the home screen and you’ll be directed to the “compose tweet” page (fa = Facebook status; em = email).
It falls down on web browsing. The 3.1 inch screen is square, so there is no turning it around to get a better view. It’s a bit like squinting at the internet through a letterbox – you can just about make it out, but it feels wrong. If you’re used to browsing on a full length screen, it looks like someone has chopped the bottom off the internet.
The new BB10 operating system, which is also on the Z10, is a vast improvement. It has all the mod-cons you expect from a smartphone – web pages can be re-formatted to fit the screen without ads; the camera has some very cool features like being able to skip forward a frame if someone blinks (although the picture quality isn’t quite up to rivals like Apple or Nokia); you can keep up to eight apps running simultaneously.
It’s a decent phone. It’s a huge step up from where BlackBerry was this time last year. But somehow the whole isn’t as good as the sum of its parts. Niggling problems start to grind you down. If you can make the icons smaller so you can fit more on the screen, I couldn’t figure out how (this is important if you are a heavy app user). The in-built maps app is clunky. And, despite some growth, there still aren’t enough apps in BlackBerry World. These are things that will probably come in time, but the Q10 has been gestating for years: it really needed to be perfect out of the box.
In the Q10, BlackBerry has perhaps created the ideal BlackBerry: a brilliant portable email device with a smartphone welded on. If you want to write a truly 21st century novel using only a smartphone, it might be for you. But BlackBerry hasn’t reinvented the wheel – it has just made it a bit rounder.