It's been a while since BlackBerry released a phone with a physical keyboard, and the touchscreen-only Z10 released earlier this year fanned fears the company was abandoning its roots. The Q10 assuages those fears somewhat, though the phone feels more serviceable than revolutionary. It's a solidly built piece of hardware that will please those who've waited for a new physical-keyboard BlackBerry, but the Q10's small screen and limited app support will keep many away.
A return to form
The BlackBerry Q10's form factor is packaged nostalgia. BlackBerry isn't as omnipresent as it used to be, but the shape of the Q10 is still iconic of a time when the company reigned over the corporate market. For BlackBerry diehards, that alone might be enough. After all, there aren't many options left.
The Q10's screen is larger than its BlackBerry Bold ancestors, and is incredibly sharp and responsive, but still measures a mere 3.1-inches. That might not matter if you're itching for a new phone with a physical keyboard, but anyone who's debating moving down in size might want to reconsider.
Browsing anything besides pure text is a bit claustrophobic on the Q10: Videos are minuscule and Web pages without dedicated mobile sites are a chore to navigate. You can zoom, but the narrow screen requires constant horizontal scrolling to see anything. There's no landscape mode to save you, so browsing some sites feels overly tedious.
One of my biggest complaints about the Q10 is the lack of a dedicated home button. Just like the Z10, you swipe up from the very bottom of the screen in order to exit an app. However, the Z10's longer screen gives the user more screen real estate to scroll and navigate apps without ever going near the activation point. On the Q10's smaller screen I constantly exited apps unintentionally, the system interpreting my attempt to scroll through a lengthy article or my Twitter feed as a cue to return me to the home screen.
It's also possible, with the default settings, to turn the phone on in your pocket. Waking the screen up is as easy as swiping up from the bottom of the screen rather than requiring a button press, so I kept turning it on accidentally while the phone was pocketed.
The biggest problem for the Q10 is apps. People complain about fractured hardware on Android , but compared to the Q10/Z10, Android hardware seems monolithic.
While most phone displays are at or near 16:9 aspect ratio, the Q10's screen is almost square. This presents a conundrum for BlackBerry, as now developers need to create an entirely different version of their app which functions correctly on a square display.
I don't know how the market will evolve--maybe developers will flock to the Q10--but during our review there were clear issues with BlackBerry's marketplace. I downloaded a bunch of apps from BlackBerry World's Top Grossing Apps and Games for testing. Upon opening, I found a number of them ran in a bastardized form: UI elements got cut off by the edges of the screen, like a terrible pan and scan version of the original 16:9 app. There's not enough screen real estate to display landscape-only apps on the Q10 without distortion.
While BlackBerry requires native apps to code for the Q10 specifically before they're shown on the market, Android ports are not subject to the same rules. It's frustrating to download an app only to launch it and find out it's broken.
And we haven't even begun to discuss how many standard apps are still missing from BlackBerry, including Netflix and Instagram.
Why you don't care
Let's be honest: you don't care about any of this if you're contemplating the Q10. You just want a phone with a physical keyboard. The Q10 certainly delivers, insofar that it's pretty much the only smartphone currently available with a physical keyboard.
The Q10 is solidly built--it feels like a phone made for work, made to take a beating from stressed executive thumbs pounding away all day. The keyboard is still much faster to type on than a touchscreen, and the ridged keys make it a snap to get oriented. I typed an entire story on the device without any hand fatigue, and the keys are wide enough to accommodate even my fat thumbs.
Keyboard shortcuts also return to the Q10, which will help you navigate the phone faster--provided you're able to memorize them all. The only drawback is there's no way to customize your shortcuts, as far as I can tell.
The Q10 services a very specific need, and we'll see whether that's enough to keep it relevant. If you've held off purchasing a new phone to find one with a physical keyboard, the BlackBerry Q10 is probably the best of a dwindling number of options. On the other hand, with the Q10 retailing for more than the cost of a new iPhone or Windows Phone, I'd give it a pass. Despite the keyboard, app support is tepid and there are better and more affordable phones on the market.