According to BlackBerry representatives, 80% to 90% of BlackBerry's 76 million subscribers are still using older BlackBerry smartphones with physical keyboards. That's a lot of people who will likely be delighted by the new BlackBerry Q10, with its stylish qwerty keyboard, vivid Super AMOLED display and updated BlackBerry 10.1 software.
The next question, however, is whether people who currently use smartphones with virtual keyboards (including the recently introduced BlackBerry Z10), will feel comfortable going back to (or trying for the first time) a qwerty keyboard device.
Currently, BlackBerry says that the major U.S. carriers will make the Q10 available in late May at a suggested price of $249 with a two-year contract. It will be available on Canadian carriers May 1.
I had the opportunity to test the Q10 and find out for myself.
More than another qwerty
At 4.9 oz. and 4.7 x 2.6 x 0.4 in., the Q10 is a tad heavier, thicker and wider than the Z10 -- although it is shorter.
The Q10 has rounded corners and a gently curving top and bottom edge that are actually seductive -- especially when placed beside the boxy and rectangular Z10. It feels great in the hand, with beveled edges all around the plastic back. There is a black steel edge around the entire device and a glass front above the keyboard. The back comes with a gray tweed-over-black pattern. (The Q10 will be available only in black for some U.S. carriers; there's no word yet which carriers will also carry the white version.)
In fact, the profile of the Q10 is reminiscent of various BlackBerry Curve models of days gone by -- the Curve 8520 being the closest. These days, however, designers have pushed the 35 hard keys into three full rows with a partial fourth row at the very bottom for the spacebar and command keys. Naturally, because of the touch screen, there's no need for the iconic BlackBerry roller ball or track pad above the keys to navigate with.
The keys are not arranged in curving rows as with older Curve models and instead are in straight rows, separated by polished stainless steel frets, not unlike a guitar. The appearance is elegant.
The keys are slightly beveled to make them easy to handle. I found that, after several days of use, I gradually went back to my old way of two-thumb fast typing, the way I used to work with an older BlackBerry (instead of pecking with my right-hand index finger while holding the phone with the left hand, which I do with modern virtual keypads). Maybe I've lost something by going virtual? With the Curve, I could type entire stories by thumbing along at a fast pace -- a real advantage while covering crowded trade shows.
Aside from the keyboard, controls include a power button on the top edge and three buttons on the right for volume and other functions, the same as the Z10.
The back of the Q10 has another steel fret running horizontally just below the camera and flash ports. This rear-side fret is not flush with the plastic back cover, and rides a tad higher: According to Michael Clewley, director of handheld software product management at BlackBerry, designers created it this way to keep the back cover from getting scuffed from constantly being laid down and picked up from a desk or other surface. It's a neat design idea, although it's hard to say if it will work in the long term.
Hardware by the numbers
To accommodate the keyboard, the Q10 has a 3.1-in. display, which is 25% smaller than the 4.2-in. display on the Z10 (and also smaller than the displays of most competing smartphones). I noticed this reduced real estate immediately when reading Web pages and looking at longer emails and documents (although it didn't matter at all for instant and text messages). The smaller screen doesn't invite you to watch videos or play games either, although neither is impossible.
Why? Because even at the Q10's 3.1-in. screen size, BlackBerry made a good choice by going with Super AMOLED (which is not quite full HD). The 720-x-720-resolution (330 pixels per inch) display shows images brighter and crisper than does the LCD screen of the Z10, and I found it especially good for watching video and reading websites with images.
Aside from differences with the keyboard and display, the Z10 and Q10 offer pretty much the same hardware. Both run dual-core 1.5GHz processors, which provide snappy performance for touches, swipes and other inputs in various applications. Both have 2GB of RAM, 16GB of storage and a microSD slot under the back cover for adding up to 32GB. Also, both have 8-megapixel rear cameras and 2-megapixel front-facing cameras. Both contain NFC chips for file exchanges and support for mobile payments.
However, the Q10 has a 2100mAh removable battery, considerably bigger than the 1800mAh battery in the Z10. The choice to have the larger touchscreen device run with a smaller battery might seem counterintuitive, since the larger screen will probably be used for viewing more power-sucking videos and games. But having the larger battery in the Q10 points to one of BlackBerry's underlying missions with the Q10: To give (hopefully) more than a full day's charge to the executives, stockbrokers, lawyers and other busy people who were the original users of BlackBerry devices.
BlackBerry rates the Q10's battery life at up to 9 hours for video playback and up to 61 hours for audio playback, with up to 13.5 hours talk time on 3G. However, I was running the Q10 on 4G HSPA+ from AT&T (LTE is not yet available where I live) and found that I could barely get a full 8 hours on a single charge after a day of using it for a variety of tasks (including some admittedly power-sucking tasks like voice commands, video and audio).