After a number of delays and setbacks BlackBerry 10 finally arrived in January and BlackBerry’s new mobile platform has already witnessed its major first update in its life cycle with BlackBerry 10.1 now available on all three BB10 devices.
We’ve explored the new version of the operating system and have updated our BlackBerry 10 review accordingly – you lucky, lucky people.
The BlackBerry Z10 kicked off the Canadian firm’s renewed onslaught on the mobile market, but it has since been joined by the QWERTY keyboard toting BlackBerry Q10 and more recently the budget focused BlackBerry Q5.
While in the short term focus will be put on the devices it’s the software the handsets are running that is really the key to BlackBerry’s long term success, or ultimate demise.
The BlackBerry smartphone range has been in desperate need of a reboot for a while as the likes of iOS 6, Android Jelly Bean and Windows Phone 8 have outstripped the extremely outdated BB OS7 platform.
Whereas the other systems have witnessed incremental upgrades, BB 10 is a totally new offering – the BB OS7 base has been completely scrapped and the new platform rebuilt from the ground up.
BB10 sees the implementation of a whole new user interface, doing away with the familiar BlackBerry system we’re all used to in favour of something that resembles the likes of Android and iOS, although with its own unique features thrown in for good measure.
BlackBerry 10 has merged homescreens, widgets, app lists and a unified inbox into one slick interface, offering up an easy-to-navigate user experience.
The first thing you’re greeted with on BlackBerry 10 is the lock screen, which not only shows the time and date, but also notifications, unread messages and upcoming calendar events.
There’s a button to launch the camera straight from the lock screen to grab a quick snap, just hold down on the icon for three of seconds.
It’s slightly longer than we’d like and the simple slide action on some Android handsets is quicker.
To unlock a touchscreen BB 10 handset you need to slide your finger up the screen. As you do, the homescreen below will begin to appear, giving you a sneak peek of what’s underneath.
What you can’t do from the lockscreen is jump straight into a new message, email or other notification. Instead you’ have to unlock the handset in the normal way and then slide into the BlackBerry Hub.
It’s not a huge issue but it’s something we’d like to see crop up in a future update as it will further enhance the fluidity of BB 10.
When viewing the lock screen you can drag down from the top of the display to show the night time clock mode – which has a lovely analogue clock face and a toggle for your alarm.
The black background and red highlights mean when you check the time in the middle of the night you won’t be blinded by a bright display, which is always a bonus.
The main BlackBerry 10 homescreen is comprised of ‘Active Frames’, technically mini-applications, which give you an overview of information from a particular app and launch the full version when tapped.
BB10 will display up to eight of these active frames, showing your most recently used apps with the latest app appearing in the top-left position.
Only four of these panes can fit on the screen at one time, so you’ll need to scroll down to see the rest – which all seems a little pointless, since you can just as quickly swipe sideways to access the app list and launch the app you want from there.
For those of you who may be concerned that these ‘Active Frames’ could be both data and battery-intensive, BlackBerry assures us that this is not the case, with the QNX core of BlackBerry 10 providing efficient power management, and the frames only downloading the minimum amount of data required for them to update.
To be fair we’ve seen pretty good battery life from both the BlackBerry Z10 and Q10 during our in-depth review process, so we’re inclined to believe BlackBerry’s claims.
If you get fed up of seeing a particular frame then you can easily close it by hitting the small cross in the bottom right corner and if you close all the panes you’ll be taken by default to the first page in the app list until you open another.
When you’re in an app there’s no back button on screen to help you exit. This brings us to another key feature of BB10, as it encourages you to use a gesture to quit applications by running your finger up from the bottom of the screen, returning you to the active frame view.
While this is easy to do on the Z10 and Q5 it’s a little trickier with the Q10 which doesn’t provide any additional space between the bottom of the display and its QWERTY keyboard.
Those who are already familiar with other smartphones will find the action pretty unnatural and it takes a while to get used to the new way of doing things on BlackBerry 10.
Swiping from right to left on the homescreen will take you to the app list, with 16 apps on the screen at any one time if you’re using the fully touchscreen Z10, while the 3.1-inch display found on the Q10 and Q5 only manages to squeeze 12 on at a time.
If you have more than 16 (or 12) apps, additional pages are added and can be accessed by swiping the same way again, which is familiar territory for iOS and Android users.
You can manage your applications by creating folders, which will reduce the number of pages you need to sift through – which is especially useful on the smaller screened devices.
Hold down on an app any they’ll begin to pulsate. Simple drag one on top of another to create a folder (sound familiar?), which you can then rename to some relevant.
There’s also the option to uninstall apps in this throbbing view, with a small trash can icon appearing in the top right of each app icon – although stock apps such as contacts, browser and calendar cannot be removed. No huge surprise there.
There’s a pleasant fading animation as you flick between pages, and you’ll see the previous page of apps fade away to the side of the screen, to be replaced by the new page.
When you select an application from the list BlackBerry 10 doesn’t automatically open it up. What you get instead is a short animation which sees BB10 zoom to the active frame page where the app appears and then enlargers to fill the screen.
It may be a nice visual effect but it has absolutely no practical advantage and all it does is slow you down, adding another second or so to the app’s load time.
At the bottom of both the homescreen and app list you’ll notice a shortcut bar, with quick links to the phone and camera applications, enabling you to quickly jump to these regularly used features.
These shortcuts cannot be changed which is a little annoying as we’d like the flexibility to be able to put our most used apps in this handy space.
If you’re rocking the Z10 you also get a search link here which isn’t available on the other handsets as search is conducted by simply tapping out what you want on the physical keyboard.
For those of you who are a fan of quick settings you’ll be pleased to learn that BB 10 delievers in this department.
Slide down from the top of the screen when you’re viewing the homescreen or app list and a bar will pop down – in a similar vein to the notification bar in Android – giving you toggles for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, alarm and silent mode.
Tap the icon to turn a particular service on or off, or if you want to fine tune one tap it’s name instead you’ll be propelled to the relevant area of the settings menu.
A slight annoyance with BlackBerry 10 is the fact that you can only set one alarm, so unless you’re good at getting up promptly or adept with the snooze button you may find yourself oversleeping if you’re relying on a BB10 device.
This is something which should be able to be tweaked in a software update, but it hasn’t arrived with BlackBerry 10.1, so the wait continues.
Something which did arrive with the BlackBerry 10.1 update is the ability to customise your notifications for various accounts.
The famous red notification LED is present on all three of BlackBerry’s new handsets and you can now control this along with ringtones and vibration on an account by account basis, and even contact by contact.
We’d have liked it if the LED in question was multi-coloured so you can have it flash, for example blue for a Facebook update, red for a message and green for an email.
Peek and Flow
Peek and Flow are two core aspects that come heavily baked into BlackBerry 10 and they dictate the way you use the system.
Flow refers to the way the whole of BB 10 operates, as you glide between applications and screens with no hard navigation tools such as the back or home buttons that are found on rival handsets.
It’s very different to any system we’ve experienced before, so it took us a few days to get our heads around the various gestures required to effectively use BB10.
At times we wished there was a simple back button below the screen, since it wasn’t always clear how to return to the previous screen. But the more we used BlackBerry 10 the more we became used to the way it should be used.
Our concern here is that BB 10 requires a relatively steep learning curve for everyone, even those who have owned BlackBerry handsets in the past.
It becomes easier once you’ve played with BlackBerry 10 for a few days, but we fear customers may be turned off in-store when they preview a handset.
Onto Peek and this is a smart little gesture enabling you to check your latest notifications and messages without having to exit the current app you’re using.
As you swipe up over the screen, BB10 will minimise the pane you’re viewing and display notification icons down the left side.
This includes icons for new texts, emails, BBMs, social updates and missed calls, and if any of these pique your interest then continue your finger’s motion to the right and the screen will slide over to reveal the BlackBerry Hub so you can see who the message is from.
If it’s just a boring newsletter you can return to the app, video or game (which are automatically paused) you were viewing without having to go back to the app list and navigate to it. Unless it’s the TechRadar newsletter, which you’ll obviously want to read straight away.
This action can be sped up it you want to get straight to the Hub view, just start your finger to the left of the base of the screen and drag diagonally up, which will see the peek movement streamlined.
The whole BlackBerry 10 interface does appear to be very smooth with no sign of lag on any of the three handsets, which makes for a pleasing user experience – once you’ve worked out the various gestures required to get around, that is.
BlackBerry Hub, BBM and keyboard
The BlackBerry Hub is the universal inbox found on BlackBerry 10, and it pulls in all forms of communications from calls and texts to emails, BBMs and social updates.
A new addition to the Hub in the BlackBerry 10.1 update is pin to pin messaging, allowing you to communicate directly with other BlackBerry smartphones in a secure fashion.
Of course with so many accounts feeding into the handset, the more popular among us will be quickly inundated with notifications from various different channels, and this is where the Peek idea makes it easy to see when you’ve got anything new to look at.
To make the reams of messages easier to manage, tap the title in the bottom-left corner of the message centre to reveal a list of all the accounts you have linked up, and then select the one you’re interested in – this will then populate the Hub with notifications from just that source.
There are also various options which can be selected for a particular message, hold down on the communication in question and a slim column of tools will pop up to the right for you to choose from, including reply, forward and delete.
For example you can hit "R" to reply, "L" to reply all or "F" to forward the email you’re currently viewing on screen.
You can start tapping out a text, email, tweet or Facebook post from the homescreen on the Q10 and Q5, as the BB10 integration has the smarts to detect what action you want.
While the BlackBerry Z10 cannot benefit from these shortcuts it has the advantage of packing a larger screen, allowing more content to be displayed at once resulting in much less scrolling for you.
The amount of scrolling on the Q5 and Q10 really bugged us at time as it’s frustrating that you can only see four messages at a time.
Drag down from the top of the message centre and the BB10 Hub will automatically pull in your calendar events for that day in the top half of the screen, enabling you to quickly see what you’ve got on without having to launch the full calendar app.
It’s an impressive setup and we reckon other platforms may be looking at the BlackBerry Hub with a little bit of envy.
It’s not without its faults though and one of our biggest bug bears is its integration with the peek gesture.
If you read a message and then immediately exit the Hub without returning to the main overview next time you want to peek at your inbox you’ll see the message you last read, instead of your new entries.
The way round this is to remember to hit back once you’ve read/replied to someone, but it feels like a bit of a waste of time and a little unintuitive.
BBM, or BlackBerry Messenger, has been a cornerstone of the BlackBerry experience for years, and it gets a revamp with BlackBerry 10.
The dedicated application has been given a lick of paint, with easier navigation and a new feature called BBM Video.
BBM Video joins up with BBM Voice, which launched recently on BB OS7, to bring both voice and video calls to the BBM application on BlackBerry 10.
The days of the BlackBerry bolt-ons on phone tariffs have been and gone, with all your BBM activity coming out of your data allowance if you’re not connected to Wi-Fi. So you’ll need to keep an eye on your data usage.
Adding contacts is easy and within the BBM app you have the choice of tapping in your friend’s pin, or scanning their QR code.
You can send, receive and reply to BBMs from the BlackBerry Hub but if you want the full range of options you’ll need to fire up the dedicated application.
BBM is set to roll out on iOS and Android this summer which makes it an even more attractive proposition as all your friends will be able to use no matter what phone they’re rocking – apart from those suckers with a Windows Phone who aren’t getting treated to the social messaging app.
Now all this messaging capability is nothing without an input method, and keyboards are arguably the thing BlackBerry handsets are most known for.
BlackBerry has spoken in length about how it has engineered its on-screen keyboard to bring users the experience they get on the physical version with the all-new touch offering.
Straight up, we can say the BB 10 keyboard on the Z10 is miles better than the pitiful attempt that adorned the Torch range of BlackBerry handsets, but it’s not perfect.
The keyboard sports the silver frets that can be found on the Bold 9900, providing additional spacing between lines and allowing for better travel between keys.
These frets also act as the space for the next word prediction, and the more you type the more BB 10 learns and offers smarter suggestions.
We were able to type at a reasonable pace, but we found the next word prediction if anything slowed us down, since the font is too small to easily see, and we found our fingers were covering most of the suggestions anyway.
It’s a different story over on the Q10 and Q5 where BlackBerry’s prowess in physical keyboards are once again brought to the fore.
While there’s no dynamic suggestions popping up above each key you do still get spell check and predictions on screen to aid your typing experience.
In the BlackBerry 10.1 update text manipulation has been greatly improved, making it a lot easier to highlight text on screen, leading to an easier way of editing your missives as well as copying and pasting.
BlackBerry is calling it Fine Cursor Control, and a blue circle will pop up on screen when you hold down on text, allowing you to place the cursor where you want, and also highlight various words and characters.
Camera, browser and more
BlackBerry is making a big song and dance about its BB 10 camera application as well, especially the ‘Time Shift’ feature, which enables you to select the perfect smile of your subject after taking the photo.
Fire up the camera app (from the lock screen if you so wish), select ‘Time Shift’ mode and snap your subject, and the app will then search for faces in the image.
Once a face is located in a photo, you can tap it and literally roll back time to find the point at which your friend had their eyes open and the perfect grin.
If there are multiple people in your snap, you can individually adjust each person, however during our demo we found ‘Time Shift’ struggled in lower lighting conditions – subjects’ faces need to be illuminated well for the camera to detect their mugs.
‘Time Shift’ did take a couple of seconds after the photo was taken to detect faces and offer us the chance to tweak the image, but this could be down to the fact it’s running on a development build of the BB10 software, and speed could be improved in the final product.
Of course the camera can take standard photos and record video alongside the ‘Time Shift’ function, which itself is an impressive function, but we wonder how much we’d actually use it day to day.
In terms of other features the BB10 camera app is pretty sparsely populated, offering you flash and aspect ratio toggles, the ability to switch between front and rear cameras and a handful of scenes and shooting modes.
A new shooting mode which arrived with BlackBerry 10.1 is HDR, although the lower-end BlackBerry Q5 hasn’t been gifted this fancy camera tech with the feature appearing to be reserved for the higher end Z10 and Q10.
We found the auto-focus could be a little tardy at times which resulted us in missing a shot or blurring the image, but the ability to use the volume keys on each of the handsets as a shutter button is a welcome bonus.
The BlackBerry browser has also had a refresh for BB10, bringing it in line with the minimalist style of current offerings on other devices. The location of the URL bar at the bottom of the page is reminiscent of Internet Explorer on Windows Phone.
Even though Adobe has already ditched future support and upgrades of its Flash platform, BlackBerry has made sure it’s built in support for the dying format in BB 10, enabling you to access all your favourite Flash-built sites and videos of Korean men dancing on invisible horses.
Sweep from left to right while in the browser and the Peek functionality comes into play again, this time showing various internet-centric options such as History, Bookmarks, New Tab and your currently opened tabs.
There’s also a Reader mode built into the new browser, which lifts article text and images from a web page and displays it in a more manageable and easy to read format, stripping out fancy ads, menu bars and any other clutter that gets in the way of actually reading something.
Reader mode is especially useful on the Q10 and Q5, as their peculiar screen sizes don’t work particularly well with regular sites, so having the ability to pull the text out by itself makes it a far more pleasing experience.
The key browser boon however is speed. We found that on all three BlackBerry 10 devices websites loaded in a blink of an eye and it’s one of the quickest browsers – if not the quickest – currently on the market.
All three handsets come with 4G connectivity (although the Q5 will be available as 3G only in select markets) which boasts load times when you’re out and about and of course Wi-Fi is fully supported as well.
Then there’s Cascades, a new navigation system cooked up by BlackBerry especially for BB10, enabling quick multitasking from within applications.
The example we’ve seen is in the messaging app – open an email and it will display full screen, but drag your finger from left to right and the message will slide with you, revealing the inbox below.
This means if you get a new message in the middle of reading an email, you can check who it’s from without having to close the application – similar to the notification bar on Android and also now on iOS.
If you were to open an attachment from the email – a PDF document in the case of our demo – pulling to the side to view the Cascade will show the app’s layers stacked up. It’s a more visual paper trail, if you will.
It’s certainly an intuitive feature that we found worked smoothly on the development handset – but it will be interesting to see how this feature is embedded into other applications and if it will have the same pleasing results.
Apps were a big talking point in the run up to the launch of BlackBerry 10, with BlackBerry assuring everyone that it had loads of developers creating applications especially for the platform.
BlackBerry World launched with over 70,000 applications in the store and within just a few months that has grown to 120,000 which is pretty impressive and big names like WhatsApp and Skype have finally made it on after being promised at launch.
While 120,000 doesn’t sound like a lot when you compare it to the likes of Android and iOS which boast over 700,000 apps each, BlackBerry reckons it’s the quality not quantity in BlackBerry World that makes all the difference.
It’s good to see strong growth in the BB 10 app store, although it still has a long way to go and there are numerous high-profile absentees which will put a lot of consumers off.
BlackBerry Word itself isn’t our favourite app store in terms of design and navigation, with a confusing list of various apps, music and videos on the main page making it difficult to digest all the information.
You can refine your search by categories, which goes some way to working out what’s on offer, but there’s no option to view just free apps, for example.
The way you go about updating applications has been improved in the BlackBerry 10.1 update, with a notification popping up in the BlackBerry Hub to alert you when a new upgrade is available.
It’s not yet at the stage to challenge these two big players, but BB 10’s firm foundations means it’s more than capable of taking on Windows Phone 8 for the coveted third spot.
The BlackBerry Hub is an excellent messaging manager tool, giving you total control over all your accounts and it makes it quick and easy to respond to urgent things, while allowing you to ignore others without disrupting what you’re currently doing.
We’re also seriously impressed by the BlackBerry 10 which offers super some super fast surfing speeds which puts in on par with the best.
The gesture based interface provides an attractive and novel way of controlling the smartphone, but BB10 risks confuses customers as it requires users to operate their handset in a very different way.
Applications will be a big sticking point for many, since most people will take the vast offering on Google Play or the Apple App Store over the undernourished BlackBerry World.
Of course it’s still early doors for BlackBerry 10 and the app store has seen significant growth since its launch, but its late arrival to the market has seen rivals amass libraries which could be almost impossible to match.
It’s great to see Skype and Whatsapp finally land on the BB 10 platform, but there’s still many big name apps missing from the line up, and that could be its undoing.
While BB10 provides the Canadian firm with a good start it’s still a work in progress and minor niggles which crop up around the operating system can jar at times, reminding you that this is still a fledgling offering.
Some areas of BlackBerry 10 appear to be lacking in terms of features, with budding photographers likely to be disappointed about the lack of options in the camera app, while the ability to set just one alarm is baffling and rather frustrating.
The way you navigate round BB10 is very different to its rivals, and it requires the user to spend a decent amount of time with it to fully understand its complexities.
Once you get to grips with BlackBerry 10 you’ll find it’s a quick and fluid user experience that enables you to get to the main features quickly without getting lost in various menus and settings.
The thing is, it just doesn’t feel as complete an offering as iOS, Android or even Windows Phone, and we reckon BlackBerry 10 has a bit of an uphill struggle if it’s to steal users away from those three.
By John McCann, TechRadar