Email addicts, IT managers, and fervent multi-taskers will find much to love about BlackBerry 10, the new OS from the once-leading smartphone firm that drags the venerable BlackBerry line into 2013. BlackBerry 10 maintains some of the core themes that got so many users addicted to their "CrackBerries," while taking full advantage of the latest hardware and web technologies.
The company now known simply as BlackBerry is aiming at a specific market: Productivity-focused multi-taskers. That leads to some positive breakthroughs, like a user interface that makes it really easy to flip through running apps. But BlackBerry 10 tends to lack many game and entertainment service apps that are available on other platforms, and it isn't as user configurable as Android or Windows Phone.
Were the smartphone market not dominated by two major players right now, I'd say that this sleek, flowing new OS would attract a lot of fans. But with iOS and Android owning 90 per cent of the market, BlackBerry 10 has a heavy rock to push up a steep hill.
If you're curious about the first BB10 phone, check out our review of the BlackBerry Z10, the handset I used during my review of the OS.
The key idea in BlackBerry OS 10 is "flow." There's no back button; you're always moving forward. The BB10 experience pivots around a page of your eight most recently used, minimised apps called the Active Frame. Swipe left to go to the BlackBerry Hub, or the universal inbox; swipe right to go to a very iPhone-like set of application panels.
If you're doing something, and you want to do something else, you swipe up, minimising your app, to return to the Active Frame where it's easy to jump into another app. At the bottom of every screen, there's a virtual Phone button, a Universal Search button, and a Camera button.
BlackBerry OS 10's home screen, to some extent, customises itself: Those eight recently used apps can update their pages as new information comes in, potentially making them a little like Android's widgets or Windows Phone's Live Tiles. You can't move them around, though: They're just the most recent ones you've used. On the icon pages, you can move the icons around and form folders just like in iOS, but you can't add widgets or individual contacts as icons the way you can on Android and Windows Phone.
I've spent most of my time over the past few years with Android, Symbian, and Windows Phone. I find the inability to "arrange my furniture" on BlackBerry 10 frustrating: I always want to be able to see the weather at a glance and to be able to text my wife easily. This will be less of a problem for iOS users, who have never been able to truly customise their phones.
Apps can't pop up alert badges as with Android and iOS; instead, they send messages to the Hub. While listening to a radio station, I found the station’s app periodically dropped a message in my Hub telling me which radio station I was listening to.
Keyboards and input
As I've used a BlackBerry Z10 over the past few weeks, I've come to the conclusion that the best feature of BB10 is keyboards – two of them, actually. BlackBerry says it has the best touch keyboard in the business, and it's right. In my experience, the BlackBerry Z10's touch keyboard design is considerably easier to type on, with fewer errors than both iOS and Windows Phone keyboards. There are a lot of different Android keyboards and I doubt I've tried them all, but I'm confident in saying that BlackBerry's is in the upper echelon.
I'm even more excited about the BlackBerry Q10's upcoming physical keyboard. Few other firms besides BlackBerry are doing high-end phones with physical keyboards, and the short time I've spent with the Q10's keyboard made me think it'll be the best of its kind. BlackBerry 10 will include the familiar BlackBerry keyboard shortcuts, too, letting you fly even faster across the UI.
There's one caveat: If you have large fingers, you may prefer a larger Android device such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 2. You can only get keys up to a certain size on a 4.3in screen.
The Hub, Email and Calendar
Out of the box, you'll set up your accounts; BB10 works with most email services as well as BlackBerry Messenger, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Evernote (that last one is for integrating with the built-in notes app, called Remember). I have two Google Apps accounts, a personal one and a corporate one; the latter had to be set up as a Microsoft ActiveSync account to work correctly here.
The most "BlackBerry" thing about BB10 is the Hub, the unified inbox that has been at the heart of the BlackBerry experience for a decade. When you have a new message, a little red LED above the screen blinks, and you can jump to the Hub by swiping up and to the right in many apps. The gesture only works in portrait mode, though; if you swipe up on an app in landscape mode, it just minimises.
The Hub stacks and combines all of your accounts (including Twitter mentions and Facebook messages) into a single stream, which can be a lot. You can easily sort through all this by individual account, or turn off particular streams, though. I'd actually suggest turning off Twitter, as you get way too many notifications and they often arrive late. The Hub supports folders, but not Gmail labels.
Instant messaging support is thin on the ground; the Hub supports BBM and Facebook messaging, but not Google Talk or AIM.
BB10 supports HTML email messages as well as Microsoft Office and PDF attachments. If an email message is in plain text, it'll be properly formatted for the screen, but HTML tables tend to require a lot of horizontal scrolling.
In my tests, the OS was able to draw and merge contacts from my various email accounts, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, but image support was uneven: It grabbed some contacts' Facebook profile pics but not others. An Updates tab on each contact card shows a person’s most recent social networking updates, while a useful "activity" tab runs down your most recent correspondence. While you can attach three "speed dial" contacts to the dialler, there's no obvious way to pin a contact up for easy access the way you can on Android and Windows Phone. On a messaging-centric device, that's disappointing.
Calendar support is pretty solid. I loaded in Google, Facebook, and ActiveSync calendars. I could create events on the Google and ActiveSync calendars, but only invite participants on the Google Calendar, not on ActiveSync. And I couldn't see the participants' free/busy status. You can view by "working week," which is convenient, but you can't view multiple time zones, something I'd love to see in a business-centric OS.
BBM, BlackBerry's in-house social network and IM system, demands another paragraph here. BBM comes with every BlackBerry phone and reaches well beyond simple IM. On BlackBerry 10, it includes seamless VoIP and video chat – both of which worked very well over both LTE and Wi-Fi – and screen sharing, which lets you show a presentation remotely. These two features are great reasons for a company to standardise on BlackBerry 10, but as BBM is a BlackBerry-only feature, the BBM advantage fades when you're dealing with a group of friends who have a mix of iPhones, Androids, and BlackBerry devices. (Yes, I have the same problem with Apple's FaceTime).
The web browser
The new BlackBerry web browser is WebKit-based and uses technology from Torch Mobile. In testing, it proved to be the equal of other leading browsers. BlackBerry is no longer behind in terms of web technologies.
The browser opens up to a scrolling, minimised set of your most recent eight web pages. When you load a page, it opens up in the right view to avoid horizontal scrolling. You can have multiple tabs and bookmarks, and add specific pages to your set of app icons. There's a "reader" mode that strips out ads and formatting from articles, and – whoa! – the browser supports Flash, smoothly, by default, without complaining. Hallelujah!
Other options include a private browsing mode, desktop view mode, and settable default search engine (it defaults to Bing, but you can change that). Google Maps works fine in the browser.
Multimedia and syncing
BlackBerry 10 has vaulted to the forefront with multimedia, which is pretty surprising when you consider how far behind it was for so long. BB10 supports the widest range of file transfer methods and the widest range of media formats of any mobile OS I've used. Its Achilles heel, though, is a lack of support for third-party streaming media and media stores.
You can sync via a number of methods: By removing the memory card and plugging it into your PC, with a USB cable via USB Mass Storage, over Wi-Fi as a shared drive, or with BlackBerry Link software. Running BlackBerry Link on both Windows 8 and Mac OS X 10.8, I easily synced music, videos, and documents, but note that it can't be used to sync PIM data locally.
The built-in music and video players handled MP3, AAC, and WMA music files as well as MP4, H.264, DivX, Xvid, and WMV video up to 1080p, outputting through headphones, Bluetooth, DLNA, or HDMI without a problem. The only criticism I have is that the Pictures app doesn't show your friends' Facebook libraries as is the case with Android and Windows Phone.
BlackBerry runs its own media store, with albums, movies, and TV shows at typical prices. The company sent me its list of video rental and download partners, and it includes all the major TV networks and movie studios. I rented the movie Catfish and it came through as a 1.35GB download, razor sharp.
Here's the problem, though: Outside BlackBerry's own selection of movies, music, and TV shows, there are none of the popular streaming services – you won’t find Netflix here, for instance. And that’s a bit of a downer.
The camera app has one hot feature to crow about: TimeShift, which lets you fix group photos so everyone's eyes are open. It's a tour de force of image processing – it takes a bunch of shots as a burst, detects the faces, and then lets you paste in different faces from different shots so everyone looks their best. I'd love to see this as the first of several computational photography options, like the "lenses" available for Windows Phones, but the OS doesn't seem to be extensible beyond this.
BlackBerry Balance, Safeguard, and Server
A bunch of integrated features make BlackBerry 10 built for businesses in a way that neither Apple nor Android manage to get near. One of them is BlackBerry Balance, which sets up a sandboxed work area within your phone. This is similar to what third-parties like Good have done on Android and iOS, but here, it's baked in and more seamless. The "Work" area stays encrypted and under your IT department's control; the "Personal" area is all yours.
BlackBerry Safeguard includes remote device location, locking, and wiping, along with parental controls you can alter even at the individual application level. All of this works with or without BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10, the new server software which lets IT managers control BlackBerries, iOS, and Android devices. BES 10 replaces both earlier versions of BES as well as BlackBerry Mobile Fusion.
More integrated features
My Z10 review unit came with some other apps that look to be standard for the platform.
BlackBerry Maps is probably the most important. However, the bad news is it's sorely short on points of interest, and also on additional features. There's no transit directions, no walking directions, no restaurant reviews like iOS, Android, and Windows Phone all do, and no suggestions of things nearby. It's a very basic system with locations and driving directions only.
The three official social networking apps, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, seem on par with their counterparts for Android and iOS. The Facebook app lets you look at groups, lists, and photos, but I'm confused by the news feed; it isn't in chronological order, and I can't figure out why. Twitter has the main feed, your mentions, and trends. To write a direct message, you're supposed to use the Hub, and you can't do anything like custom searches, lists, or multiple accounts. The one third-party Twitter app now available, Neatly (£2) does a superior job, integrating DMs, lists, favourites, trends and search.
Remember, the notes and to-do-list app (pictured above) syncs beautifully and seamlessly with Evernote, and the platform claims to do so with Exchange as well. Docs To Go (see the image below) is an excellent Microsoft Office document viewer and editor which can create Word and Excel files, and read PowerPoint presentations. Story Maker auto-generates videos with titles and music from footage you’ve recorded with your camera and your MP3 library. There's also a weather app, an alarm clock with timer, a calculator, a compass, and a file manager.
BlackBerry World is a combination app, music, movie and TV store built into the platform. The last two are critical because, as I mentioned earlier, there's no other way to get legal, big name movie and TV content on BlackBerry 10 devices via the likes of Netflix.
App descriptions show screen shots and reviews, but there are no free trial periods and no return policy: "All sales are final," the store says. In general, BlackBerry App World seems to have a higher proportion of paid to free apps than any of the other major stores; many apps also advertise that they have in-app purchases.
While BlackBerry says there are now 100,000 apps in the World, many big names from other platforms are missing. In a recent analysis, I found that only 34 per cent of the top 102 apps on iOS and Android are currently available for BlackBerry 10. Again, the store is thin on major video brands, and spotty on trendy games. I couldn't find prominent GPS apps such as Garmin, although Waze is available. For social, there's a Reddit app but no Pinterest. News, weather, and sports are well represented though.
APIs aren't the problem here. BlackBerry has been running a very aggressive developer's program with "BlackBerry Jam" events nearly every month. Devs can write for a native SDK, Adobe AIR, HTML5, Android Java, and for all we know there's an SDK involving construction paper, tongue depressors, and string. The company is also enticing developers, saying that if they submit an app that passes certain criteria and makes $1,000 (£660) but not $10,000 (£6,600), BlackBerry will pay them the remainder of the $10,000.
Rather, it's just a matter of market size and demand. Some of the BlackBerry fans responding to our news coverage have said: "What do I need apps for? I mostly do messaging." If that's the case for BlackBerry users as a whole, the apps won't come to this platform, and it may never matter.
So why choose BlackBerry 10? The first obvious reason would be to have a smartphone that enterprise IT managers can control but that workers won't reject as hideously outdated. Samsung is having a similar stab at such a concept with Safe/Knox, but that hasn't really hit the market yet. BlackBerry is a stable, secure and reassuring brand for business.
For consumers, on the other hand, it's much harder to explain why they should veer over to BlackBerry 10. The Hub is great for messaging, but Windows Phone and some Android devices have similar features. BBM is powerful, but so are FaceTime, Skype and Google Talk. Peek and Flow make it easy to flip between apps and the Hub, but it's much easier to set up quick access to your most-used contacts and items on Android.
BlackBerry 10 isn't a bad product. It does fine in isolation. It's just way behind its more established competitors in terms of an entire ecosystem. Apple has much more impressive third-party apps. Google has a huge array of devices at every price point. Microsoft has integration with the powerful Xbox, Office, and Exchange brands.
For consumers, this is a niche product. If you're all about texting, calling and emailing, you'll appreciate the excellent touch keyboard on the Z10, the physical keyboard on the Q10, and the BlackBerry Hub. The relatively light dusting of games and compelling apps will keep you occupied if you're not trying to compete with friends' phones on other platforms. But BlackBerry 10 just doesn't offer compelling enough features to drag the masses away from Android or Apple.