The new BlackBerry smartphone is here, and it’s a fine piece of work — light, sleek, and thin, and featuring the classic pushbutton keyboard. It’s exactly the phone I needed two or three years ago. But today? Not so much.
I speak of the Q10, available from Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc. for $199 with a two-year contract, or $99 down and $20 a month for two years from T-Mobile US Inc. A version for customers of Sprint Nextel Corp. should roll out later this year.
BlackBerry, of course, was once a leading smartphone brand, famed for its robust corporate-grade software and its excellent physical keyboard, the best ever fitted to a pocket-size device. But then came Apple Inc.’s iPhone, with its touchscreen “virtual” keyboard and huge library of software apps, followed by a horde of phones running Google Inc.’s Android software. Meanwhile, BlackBerry’s operating system became obsolete, an upgrade planned for early 2012 was delayed for over a year, and millions of customers abandoned the devices. From 20 percent of the global smartphone market in 2009, BlackBerry has plummeted to less than 3 percent, according to the market research firm IDC.
But 2013 is supposed to be different. The new operating system, BlackBerry 10, is finally here, having made its US debut a few months back on the keyboard-less, all-glass BlackBerry Z10.
It’s a first-rate product, with smart multitasking for managing multiple apps, and a very good integrated e-mail and messaging system. In all, BB 10 software makes BlackBerry a worthy rival to Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, and Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Phone software.
I’ve enjoyed BB 10 on the Z10’s 4.2-inch touchscreen. But what happens if you squeeze this software into a mere 3.1 inches of real estate, accompanied by a classic BlackBerry keyboard? You get the confident solidity of old-school keyboarding, along with some inevitable disappointments.
Most phones at this price point carry quad-core processors. The Q10 settles for a dual-core chip. But not to worry; despite the lower-powered chip, the apps I tested loaded quickly and ran well.
The Q10’s keyboard-constrained screen is sharp and colorful, and I would have been satisfied with it three years ago. Today, it seems almost claustrophobic. You can watch a movie on it, but only if you squint.
I found an app called Popcornflix that streams obscure low-budget movies and used it to give the Q10 my standard battery test — streaming four hours of video over Wi-Fi. At the end, the battery still had 52 percent power, suggesting a typical user will make it through an entire day with little trouble.
I’d have rather punched up a streaming video via Netflix, but that company doesn’t make a BlackBerry app. In fact, there are only about 100,000 BB 10-compatible apps, compared with about 750,000 Android apps and about 850,000 for the iPhone. The research firm Canalys found last month that only a fraction of the most popular iPhone and Android apps are available on BlackBerry.
Then there’s the keyboard. Sure enough, it’s BlackBerry at its best. The haptic vibrations and onscreen letter previews found on touchscreens are a poor substitute for the firm, decisive clicks of each Q10 keystroke. My first smartphone was an old BlackBerry Bold; it was good to get hold of a real keyboard again.
But the pleasure soon faded. I’ve become accustomed to virtual keyboarding, especially with the help of Nuance Corp.’s wonderful Swype software, which lets you spell out words by dragging a finger across the keys. It works remarkably well on my Android phone, and it’s supplemented by an accurate speech-recognition feature.
These days, I often speak my texts and e-mails; it’s faster than Swyping or typing, even on a BlackBerry. Indeed, the Q10 itself does speech recognition so well that the keyboard can seem almost superfluous.
That’s not just my opinion. Demand for keyboarded phones remains strong in much of the world, but it has cratered in the United States. According to IDC, the Framingham tech research company, 33 percent of cellphones sold to Americans in 2010 had keyboards; last year, it was just 15.5 percent.
Of course, this is partly because the new Q10 was so long in coming. The company expects a healthy spike in sales as keyboard-craving loyalists re-up with Blackberry. There are probably a lot fewer of them than there used to be; you can certainly count me out. But for smartphone users who think with their thumbs, happy days are here again.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.