After a number of delays and setbacks, BlackBerry 10 is finally here, and BlackBerry’s new mobile platform can finally take its first breath as it steps out into the mobile market.
Kicking off the BB10 revolution is the BlackBerry Z10, a phone tasked with reigniting the ailing fortunes of the Canadian firm. But it’s the software the handset is running that is really the key to BlackBerry’s 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a reboot for a while as the likes of iOS 6, Android Jelly Bean and Windows Phone 8 have outstripped the now extremely outdated BB OS7 platform.
Whereas the other platforms have witnessed incremental upgrades, BlackBerry 10 is a completely new offering – BlackBerry has scrapped the BB OS7 base and rebuilt from the ground up.
BB 10 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.
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 a couple of seconds.
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.
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 active frames can fit on the screen at a 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.
When you’re in an app there’s no back button. Instead, with BB10 you use a gesture to exit applications by running your finger up from the bottom of the screen.
While this is easy to do, 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 will take you to the app list, with 16 apps on the screen at any one time.
If you have more than 16 apps, additional pages are added and can be accessed by swiping the same way again, which is familiar territory for iOS and Android users.
At the bottom of both the homescreen and app list you’ll notice a shortcut bar, with quick links to the phone, search and camera applications, enabling you to quickly jump to these regularly used features.
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.
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 needs to 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.
Now onto Peek, which is the 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 or video 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.
The whole BlackBerry 10 interface does appear to be very smooth with no sign of lag, which makes for a pleasing user experience – once you’ve worked out the various gestures required to get around, that is.
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.
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, place your finger on the title in the bottom-left corner of the message centre and pull across 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.
Drag down from the top of the message centre and the 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.
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.
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 BlackBerry 10 keyboard is miles better than the pitiful attempt that adorned the Torchrange 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.
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.
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.
The browser is certainly much, much faster than before, and users will be impressed at the upgrade.
Comparison tests have shown the BlackBerry 10 web browser to be faster than its equivalent on Apple’s iOS 6 and the new version of Windows Phone – we’ll reserve full judgement until we have a final handset in our sweaty palm, but at least this is a positive sign.
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 have been a big talking point in the run up to the launch ofBlackBerry 10, with BlackBerry assuring everyone that it’s got loads of developers creating applications especially for the platform.
BlackBerry World launched with over 70,000 applications in the store, and while big names such as Whatsapp and Skype were banded about during the BB 10 launch event, the apps are yet to make an appearance on the platform.
While 70,000 doesn’t sound like a lot, especially when you consider the likes of Android and iOS boast over 700,000 each, BlackBerry reckons it’s the quality not quantity in BlackBerry World that makes all the difference.
We’ll update this section regularly as the big firms release killer BB 10 apps for a platform that desperately needs them.
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.
When it comes to messaging and web browsing, BB 10 is second to none and can happily take on the stalwarts of the mobile world, but it’s not the perfect operating system.
Applications will be a big sticking point for many, since most people will take the vast offering on Google Play or the App Store over the tiny on comparison BlackBerry World.
There are a lot of big names missing from BlackBerry World at the moment, and while many have promised their commitment to BlackBerry 10, the fact they are not there at launch is a little confusing and is likely to put some punters off.
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