- Review Date: 6/18/2013
- Bottom line: As expected, the BlackBerry Q10 for AT&T sets the bar for QWERTY messaging phones, but it can't quite compete with other smartphone leaders.
- Pros: Classy design. Impeccable QWERTY keyboard. Sharp screen.
- Cons: Very few third party apps. Mediocre camera.
There's nothing like the BlackBerry Q10 ($199.99-$584.99 at AT&T). It's a messaging monster. If you're one of those "keyboard people," the Q10 is the answer to your prayers: a well-built, modern smartphone with the best physical keyboard you can get your thumbs on. And even though the Q10 doesn't lead the pack in terms of other features, its near-perfect little keyboard may be enough to keep BlackBerry alive.
Physical Features, Keyboard, and Voice Calling
The BlackBerry Q10 looks like the BlackBerry Bold 9900, but improved. At 4.7 by 2.6 by 0.4 inches (HWD) and 4.9 ounces, it's very clearly designed for both one-handed and two-handed use. It's shorter than the full-touch BlackBerry Z10, and still narrow enough to use in one hand. The back is a soft-touch, carbon-fiber-like material that RIM calls "woven glass," with a subtle gray-and-black pattern. (There's also a white model.) The front of the phone is evenly balanced between a 3.1-inch, 720-by-720-pixel display and a physical QWERTY keyboard that's similar to the Bold's, but better. A traditional BlackBerry notification light blinks up by the earpiece.
The four-row keyboard is 30 percent wider than the Bold's, stretching almost edge to edge. Each row is separated by a fret, which makes for a fast, accurate typing experience. My only complaint is that the Shift and Alt keys are swapped from where you'd instinctively find them, but it's easy enough to get used to that. Your fingers absolutely fly on these keys.
I feel like I need to devote more space to the sheer physical relief of being able to type on a 'real' keyboard, but if this is one of the things you get instinctively, you'll get it. AT&T doesn't sell any other recent QWERTY phones. If you want the keyboard experience on AT&T, you might as well stop reading now. Nothing else will satisfy.
The Q10's screen, albeit small, delivers the deep, punchy colors of AMOLED technology and clocks in at 328 pixels per inch, almost exactly the same density as Apple's iPhone 5 but less dense than the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S 4. In any case, text is very sharp down to very small sizes.
The Q10 is an okay voice phone, but I expected better. Earpiece volume is moderate and there's just a touch of muddiness at top volume. And there's some sidetone, which I like. Transmissions also sound good but not spectacular; noise cancellation generally works, but lets a bit of background noise through. The moderate-volume speakerphone also lets some background noise through. Both the HTC One and especially the Samsung Galaxy S 4 offer better call quality. Voice commands can be activated over a Bluetooth headset, but the Q10 had trouble recognizing my family's (admittedly odd) names, including my own.
This model of the Q10 supports AT&T's LTE network, as well as global HSPA+ networks. It supports Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, as well as Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, NFC, and mobile hotspot mode with the right service plan. I saw 10Mbps down using the Flash-based speedtest.net speed test, a decent speed on AT&T LTE in New York City.
I got pretty good battery life on the AT&T Q10, with 11 hours, 6 minutes of talk time and 4 hours, 14 minutes of LTE video streaming. That falls short of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S 4 (as well as the Verizon version of the BlackBerry Q10), but it isn't shameful and still predicts a day's use before recharging.
BlackBerry OS and Performance
The BlackBerry Q10 runs BlackBerry OS 10.1, a minor update to the BlackBerry 10 OS with a few new features and bug fixes, so check out that review for an in-depth look at the Q10's operating system. In short, the Q10 has a modern, competitive Web browser with Flash support; a unified inbox called BlackBerry Hub that also integrates Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; and an excellent note-taking app called Remember that syncs with Evernote, among other things.
The keyboard and the 10.1 OS update make the Q10 even better for messaging and office work. The most dramatic new feature is Instant Actions: Just start typing, and the BlackBerry will try to figure out what to do with what you're typing, whether it's a contact's name, the name of an app, or something you want to search on the Web. The feature reminds me of WebOS's beloved Just Type, and it's excellent.
There are hotkeys in many of the built-in apps. For instance, type a 'T' to go to the top and a 'B' to go to the bottom of lists. You can now customize notification sounds by account and contact. But a few of my peeves haven't been fixed, like the lack of invitee support on Google Apps calendars.
The Q10 uses a 1.5GHz Qualcomm S4 Pro processor, and performance on the Browsermark and Sunspider Web browsing benchmarks was similar to midrange smartphones like the HTC One SV and VX. The latest, hottest devices like the Samsung Galaxy S 4 are using a new generation of more powerful processors, but they're also driving higher-resolution screens than the Q10 has. I couldn't find any slowdowns that I was willing to attribute to the processor rather than to poorly programmed third-party apps.
Apps: Still Not Up To Par
BlackBerry 10 OS now has well more than 100,000 apps, and the Q10 and Z10 are approaching parity: 22 of the top 25 Z10 apps and 17 of the top 25 Z10 games are available for the Q10. But those reassuring numbers don't change the fact that you can't simply assume every app you hear about is on BlackBerry 10.
For instance, I like to load up my phone with news apps. The Guardian, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal are available for the Q10, but AP Mobile and Pulse aren't. I spend a lot of time on transit, too. There's a New York subway app for the Q10, but no Hopstop or Uber. I like to eat, and I have celiac disease. Neither Yelp, Zagat, Leloca, nor the various celiac-restaurant apps I know from Android show up on the Q10. Want music? You get Slacker and Deezer, but not Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, or Amazon MP3.
BlackBerry Maps is also far inferior to Google Maps. I found it fell short on general searches (like "pubs"), it doesn't give you rich data on locations (like reviews and ratings, for instance), and it only provides driving directions, not walking or transit.
The Q10's excellent Web browser, which supports Flash, can get around some of these problems. For instance, the Web version of Google Maps works just fine on the Q10. But that's a bit slower and clunkier than a native app, and there's no way to turn it into a persistent icon.
There are entertaining games for BlackBerry 10, if you don't care about being up to the minute with the latest releases on iOS or Android. Beach Buggy Blitz, Robotek, Doodle Jewels, and the Where's My? games are fine commute companions, and Bard's Tale brings a relatively rare richer adventure experience.
The BlackBerry Q10 comes with 16GB of memory (11.5GB free) that fills up pretty quickly, but fortunately there's also a microSD slot supporting up to 64GB cards under the back cover. You sync with a PC using BlackBerry's own Link software, via cable or Wi-Fi. Without Link, MPEG4, H.264, WMV, DivX, and Xvid videos all played fine, as did MP3, AAC, WMA, and OGG-formatted music files.
Music and video playback are both very good; the Link software translates non-DRM music and videos into the appropriate formats for the device, and there's a surprising amount of bass when used with the right headphones. You can buy TV and movies from BlackBerry World, although there's not much in terms of third-party legal media options. I had no trouble listening to music or videos through a Plantronics Voyager Legend Bluetooth headset or wired headphones, and you can also play videos (or show office documents) on a big screen using the micro HDMI port on the side of the phone. Beware, though, that anything output through HDMI other than videos appears in a square box in the middle of your TV screen, to match the Q10's square aspect ratio.
The Q10's two cameras aren't standouts, but they get the job done, and the new HDR mode is welcome. Both the main 8MP camera and the front 2MP camera have trouble in low-light conditions, with images getting very soft due to low shutter speeds. This can even impact sharpness in cloudy outdoor situations.
1080p video recording on the main camera also had some sharpness and wobble problems in low light. Although frame rates stayed steady at 30 fps, 720p videos were sharper. Indoors, the video camera gets noisy rather than dropping frame rates. The front camera also recorded 720p video at 30 frames per second indoors and out.
The BlackBerry Q10 is a specialty device: It's the best messaging smartphone on the market. Everything else it does is fine, just fine, but oh! That keyboard! For writing emails and typing notes into BlackBerry's spectacular Evernote-connected Remember app, there couldn't be anything better.
The Q10 isn't the world-beating QWERTY phone it could be, though, because of BlackBerry's still-rocky relationship with third-party software and developers. Ultimately, AT&T customers have to make a choice: Do you want a physical keyboard, or the third-party apps that define the smartphone experience for millions of people? I wish you didn't have to make that choice, but you do.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.