When the iPhone first came out six years ago, it was widely derided for not having a physical keyboard, unlike then-dominant BlackBerry. A few years later, when Android smartphones first appeared, several sported physical keyboards as their key iPhone-killing feature.
Today, touch keyboards rule the smartphone world. Even among Android devices, the Motorola Droid 4 and Photon Q are the only real options left for physical keyboard lovers. So why is BlackBerry bothering with the Q10, a BlackBerry Bold-like device with a physical keyboard running the company's new, touch-oriented BlackBerry 10 operating system?
[ The BlackBerry Z10 review: The BlackBerry we've all been waiting for. | Review: The HTC One is the iPhone's real Android rival. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with InfoWorld's Mobilize newsletter. ]
BlackBerry execs I've spoken with are confident that the demand for physical keyboards on smartphones is huge. You see, physical keyboard lovers have merely been lying in wait, pining to escape the touch-only world of mobile devices. Or so goes the story told by David Smith, BlackBerry's enterprise executive vice president. Smith not only believes that the Q10 will ride this wave of liberated keyboard lovers but that their passion will excite other folks perfectly happy with touch, thereby boosting adoption of the touch-only BlackBerry Z10, a good smartphone -- the kind of upswell that BlackBerry needs to reverse its failing fortunes.
If wishes were fishes, no one would starve. But I suspect the BlackBerry dreamers will go hungry. The Q10 will definitely appeal to keyboard purists, but to no one else. I believe the number of people pining for the old-style physical keyboard is little larger than the number of people pining for typewriters -- a few old-timers too rigid to adapt or too nostalgic to move forward.
An intuitive melding of touch and typeFirst, I need to be clear that BlackBerry didn't make a mistake I dreaded it might with the Q10. Having both a physical keyboard and a touchscreen can lead to an awkward switch between two dissimilar interfaces, as we saw in the BlackBerry Bold 9900 a year and a half ago.
The BlackBerry Q10 avoids that awkwardness. Yes, you need to use the touchscreen to confirm many options and tap buttons for what you enter on the physical keyboard, but BlackBerry has done a good job to limit the keyboard to text entry (there are no navigation controls, as the Bold 9900 had); its relationship to the touchscreen controls essentially is no different than that between an all-touch device's onscreen keyboard and the rest of the touchscreen's controls.
You can initiate some actions from the keyboard, which keyboard purists will like. For example, typing in the App screen will open the search bar, and apps and actions that match what you type will be displayed (type "tw" and the Twitter app and Post a Tweet action appear). It's similar to how Windows 8 lets you initiate actions via typing from the Start screen, and it works just like the BlackBerry Z10's Search feature.
The keyboard's feel is very crisp and certain when you press keys, and I suspect keyboard lovers will be pleased with the feel and responsiveness. The keys are quite readable, as are the device's Alt key options (such as numeral keys) -- a nice change from the often-unreadable keys on other devices' physical keyboards.
But I experienced problems when switching from the physical keyboard to the touchscreen. The screen often did not respond to my taps to select text, position the cursor in text, or activate a text field so that I could enter or paste text. I experienced the same selection issues in the BlackBerry Z10, but not the other two issues, so perhaps they're specific to my Q10 loaner unit, not to the Q10 overall. Just be sure to test such interactions thoroughly yourself while you can still return the device.
Let's get physical: The Q10's Achilles' heelThe BlackBerry Q10's biggest draw -- its physical keyboard -- is also the phone's biggest drawback.
First, it's hard to use one-handed. When you hold the BlackBerry Q10 in one hand, you need to orient your thumb to the center of the touchscreen to be able to use it effectively. But then the keyboard is too low to easily reach, especially for keys on the opposite side. The center of gravity is also off, so it's hard to press the keys confidently, as the device bounces back as you type. As a result, typing grows very slow and inaccurate.
You need to use two hands to type with the BlackBerry Q10. You could hold it in one hand and type with the index finger of the other, but that's not as fast or as easy as the method I suspect most legacy BlackBerry users already use: holding it with both hands and typing with your thumbs.
In that orientation, the thumbs are positioned well for typing on the physical keyboard but can also reach up to the screen for touch operations. That may explain why the keys' ridges, which help guide your fingers, seem designed for dual-thumb typing; when you hold the Q10 in other ways, they are less effective in guiding your fingers or thumbs to the right spots.
Having to operate the BlackBerry Q10 with both hands makes it harder to use in certain situations, like when standing on public transit or when carrying an item in the other hand. Even when walking, use the BlackBerry Q10 is a little tricky. By contrast, iPhones and most other smartphones -- the Samsung Galaxy Note II is an exception because of its humongous size -- work well when operated with one hand, so they're a little more effective for use when you're truly on the go.
The keyboard's fixed location also means that the BlackBerry Q10's screen is small: 3.1 inches in diameter with a 720-by-720-pixel resolution. You can't operate the Q10 in landscape orientation, as you can with an all-touch device.
The BlackBerry Q10's screen while peeking at the Hub (left) versus the Z10's screen (right).
Because the Q10's display is square, rotating it doesn't help address the small-screen problem, whereas other smartphones with physical keyboards have deeper screens that provide a wider viewing area well suited for videos and Web pages when rotated.
The bottom line is that anyone who uses a non-BlackBerry smartphone will quickly hate the small, inflexible screen. It's simply too undersized to be useful for most activities one does on a smartphone. You end up with either too little space to operate on screen or, in the case of Web pages, impossibly small items that you can't read or interact with. Forget about visiting Web pages or using apps for video editing, photo editing, slideshow editing, text formatting, game playing, or the thousands of tasks an iPhone or Android smartphone can handle.
Even basic Web pages and communications-oriented apps can be hard to use, given how little you can see at any one time and how small text is. I'm talking about email, Twitter, Facebook, and the like. That tiny, nonrotatable screen essentially relegates the Q10 to being a texting device (BlackBerry Messenger, Twitter, email, and so on) -- not a real smartphone. If all you want to do is communicate via text and read very basic info like sports scores, headlines, or stock figures, the Q10 is fine -- but why limit yourself or pay full data rates for a subset of uses?
Tapping into the strengths of the BlackBerry Z10Outside of the strengths and weaknesses of the physical keyboard, the BlackBerry Q10 works the same way as the BlackBerry Z10, with the well-designed and useful Hub all-messages view, the handy Peek and Flow user interface for switching among apps and checking for new messages, and BlackBerry's multiple levels of security.
The Q10 delivers those three BlackBerry 10 OS capabilities very nicely, despite the very different screen size and the use of the physical keyboard.
At the end of the day, the Q10's physical keyboard limits its utility to a subset of what's possible on the Z10. Even if you're a diehard keyboard purist, you should rethink limiting yourself to the physical keyboard. You lose too much, and most people have discovered that they can adapt after a week or two to the onscreen keyboard. There's a reason touch-only devices account for nearly 100 percent of smartphone sales.
The BlackBerry Q10 costs $580 without a contract from AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless; AT&T and Verizon offer it for $200 in exchange for a two-year contract. (The AT&T model is expected to ship on June 18; the other carriers offer it now. Sprint plans to offer the Q10 later this summer.)
The Q10 comes with 32GB of internal storage and sports a MiniHDMI port in addition to the usual MicroUSB port. The back cover is removable so that you can replace the battery or use a higher-capacity battery sled. And it has a good-quality 8-megapixel camera with basic image-settings controls and decent retouching and editing capabilities.
Don't let nostalgia for the 1990s' form of mobile or your own stubbornness cause you to miss out on what a smartphone can really do. But if you just want a messaging device, then go for the BlackBerry Q10 -- it's good at that.
This article, "BlackBerry Q10 review: You'll either love it or hate it," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.
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