Have you come across an operating system (OS) on a phone which works well with QWERTY keyboards as well as touch screens? Android phones with physical keyboards were (and still are) an unmitigated disaster; older versions of Windows Mobile and Palm OS did work (but touch was like an add-on feature); one can't imagine iOS with a physical keyboard and the same goes for Windows Phone 8.
One OS which seems to work well with both form factors is Nokia's Asha, but it's not a smartphone line.
That leaves us with BlackBerry - the same company which gave workaholics what they always dreamt of - an office on the go. The older OS 7 was used on both QWERTY and touch devices, though it was geared towards keyboard addicts. Hybrid devices were a mixed bag.
When the BlackBerry Z10 was launched, we found the new BlackBerry 10 (BB10) OS a solid performer on an all-touch device, though with limited apps in comparison to the competition. But that left out a majority of users, QWERTY addicts, in limbo. Would the Q10 be able to do the impossible - marry touch and type seamlessly? Let us find out
Look and feel
As we've said earlier, the Q10 looks and feels very much like the Bold 9900. The same curves (though the 9900's edges are more tapered); the same glass-weave panel on the back (the 9900's panel at the centre has the design while the Q10's entire back cover has the design); the same type of keyboard (four rows of keys with metal frets separating them to prevent accidental presses, though the 9900's curved layout is discarded for straight lines on the Q10) and roughly the same size. But the 9900's metal rim running around the device is missing in the Q10. And the new device feels lighter.
The Q10 has the power/lock key, the headphone jack and two noise-cancelling microphones on top, the volume rocker/play button on the right, the micro-USB and micro-HDMI ports on the left and its speaker and microphone at the bottom. It has an eight-MP camera with LED flash on the back panel. A metal rim separates the fixed and removable portions on the back cover.
The back cover, which features the logo and contains the NFC antenna, opens to reveal slots for the micro-SIM and micro-USB slots, as well as a removable battery.
The front face of the phone features the notification LED and the two-MP front camera on two sides of the earpiece, placed just above the branding.
One noticeable difference between the 9900 and the Q10 is the absence of the d-pad , answer, reject, back and BlackBerry buttons on the latter's keyboard. BlackBerry obviously wants users to make use of the touch screen for those functions and it seems it is confident its OS will perform seamlessly.
The Q10 exudes class with its understated looks and provides a good grip. It also seems tough and can survive drops (as was evident after an unplanned fumble) without damage. And the unbreakable back cover passed the stress tests we subjected it to.
The Q10, which has identical hardware to the Z10, took nearly a minute to boot up, which is comparable to the Z10 and a whole lot faster than older BlackBerrys. But comparable phones in the segment which run on Android or iOS boot up faster. That said, BB10.1, which the Q10 runs, is a whole lot more stable than Android.
Incidentally, the BB10.1 update had been rolled out for the Z10 sometime earlier and besides Skype (which we had spoken about earlier), the other big change we noticed on the Q10 was the ability to use the keyboard to search for apps from the home screen. For example, when I typed "BBM" and my wife's name, I was given the option of sending her a message. One touch and I was able to compose a message. Similarly, if one types in "text boss" at the home screen, one can go directly message one's boss.
The latest version of BB10 includes all the key gestures - swiping up from the bottom bezel wakes up the screen, swiping left to right brings up the Hub while right to left brings up the app menu and swiping from top to bottom brings up options.
Swiping up from the bottom bezel to minimise running apps will take some getting used to - the screen is placed so close to the keyboard on the Q10 that one might be make a few false swipes. The key to get it right, we found, was to swipe up from just below the top metal fret of the keyboard.
The Q10 provides an excellent calling experience. We experienced no dropped calls even in areas known to have a weak signal. The speaker on the Q10 is louder than that on the Z10 and we faced no hassles talking on the speakerphone. In fact, we used Skype on the Q10 and it was a satisfactory experience over Wi-Fi with the speaker turned on and the front camera used for video.
Swiping through screens and opening/closing apps are as good as on the Z10, that is, for most parts, seamless.
We could run multiple apps in the background without any apparent lag. As with the Q10, multi-tasking is a breeze. The OS update also adds the option of downloading email attachments on the Q10, a necessary feature which was absent in the older BB10 OS.
The USP of the Q10 is obviously its QWERTY keyboard, which most of us junkies have been more than keen to give it a go. Getting the keyboard back on the Q10, at least for me, seemed to be getting back a body part.
In no time, my fingers were sailing over the familiar keys and I was typing away to glory. Of course, BB10's intuitive predictive text did give me options to flick up words, but I mostly ignored them as that would have hampered my flow. The bevelled keys also let me touch type.
A friend reminded me that I had gone gaga over the Z10's touch keyboard after it was launched. I had said, he reminded me, that the touch keyboard was so good that I was seriously considering using a touch screen as my primary phone. So was I going back on my word?
I thought the best way to find out would be to do a comparison. We got hold of a Z10 and then tried out a test. Despite the absence of a physical keyboard, I managed to type out a text much faster on the Z10. But when I had to send an email, the Q10 was faster. This was because in an email, we needed to put in special characters such as "@" while we weren't using special characters while texting. On the Z10, one needs to hit a key to get to special characters while on a Q10, all one does is hit "alt" and the key.
All said and done, the QWERTY keyboard on the Q10 is possibly the best in the current range. And combined with the intuitive BB10.1, makes for a killer workhorse.
The Q10 features a 1:1 portrait 3.1-inch screen, which I suspected could be its Achilles' heel. The screen is bright and colours are reproduced well, but frankly, this screen isn't geared to consume media other than an occasional video or two. While some games worked fine, others, possibly designed for the Z10, show just part of the game's screen.
The touch screen, otherwise, works well. It might appear a bit dull in sunlight but is surely usable. I didn't have any issues checking my emails in sunlight. While browsing on the Z10 is more fun, the keyboard is a godsend while running a search and the quick access to shortcuts, too. Browsing over 3G was quite fast.
The Q10 features cameras identical to the Z10 - an eight-MP snapper at the rear and a two-MP one in front. Photos clicked in low light by the rear camera, especially without using the flash, turned out surprisingly well. Outdoors, the camera performed very well. Indoors, in dark spaces, the flash tended to slightly "wash out" the captured photos.
The Q10 features all special modes of BB10 and the updated OS also brings with it the high dynamic range (HDR) mode, which helps enhance detail of shots taken in low light under natural conditions. However, this comes at the cost of contrast. The Q10 also features a full suite of photo editing tools.
With heavy email, moderate calling, moderate browsing and some music, the Q10 lasted us through the day and still had juice to carry out essential functions such as email. In fact, after we turned off NFC, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and updates from social media, we were able to get through without charging for a day and a half.
QWERTY junkies (myself included) in India, frankly, don't have much of a choice. One can either go in for feature phones with such keyboards, some low-end Androids (an operating system not optimised for a keyboard) or get a BlackBerry. The BlackBerry Q10, with a hefty price tag of Rs 44,990, happens to be the only QWERTY smartphone with an updated OS available in the market today. Of course, one can still go in for cheaper BlackBerrys running OS 7.1, or wait for the Q5 to launch. For someone who can't do without a QWERTY and is looking for a top-end smartphone, this is the one to go for. Do remember, if you want to consume media as well, the Z10 is a better choice.
Price: Rs 44,990
Screen: 3.1-inch 720x720 Super-AMOLED multi-touch panel
RAM: 2 GB
Processor: 1.5-Ghz dual core
Memory: 16 GB, expandable via micro-SD (up to 32-GB cards supported)
Camera (rear/front): 8 MP /2 MP
Battery: 2,100 mAh