That's right, it's finally here. After months of setbacks, Research In Motion—now re-dubbed as the more recognisable 'BlackBerry'—has launched its new OS, BlackBerry 10 ('BB10'), with a new smartphone in tow, the Z10. BB10's missions are clear: to ease fans into a painless break with the past by drawing inspiration from the achievements made on the PlayBook's Tablet OS, and to cater to the needs of both the business world, which gave BlackBerry its name, and the new generation, which has helped the name survive over the past several months.
BB10: Coup or copycat? With new OS in hand, BlackBerry is finally in a position to play ball with iOS, Android and its most direct competitor, the one it has the most in common with, Windows Phone. So, what is BlackBerry 10? What are its standout features? Most importantly, will it give the Canadian firm the new lease on life it so desperately needs?
The smartphone it comes with: BlackBerry Z10
BB10 is BlackBerry's best bid at a mobile platform for the touchscreen era, and at showing the world that the company can keep up with the times. Let's see if it does!
Leaving behind the rigid system of years past, BlackBerry OS has finally changed face and is now fully tailored for a touchscreen. BB10 wipes the slate clean, offering an interface that navigates not just vertically, but horizontally too.
The homescreen (below left) slides left to open your list of apps (below right), which holds up to 16 icons laid out in four rows of four apps. At the bottom of the screen are three touch-sensitive buttons that take you straight to the phone, search and camera functions. These are handy, but unfortunately you can't choose different functions for these buttons.
Every time you exit an app in BB10, the app remains active, turning into what BlackBerry calls an 'Active Frame' on the homescreen. Remember, these aren't widgets or icons—the app is actually running. For instance, in the Facebook window in the image above, you can see the page loading. If it's a movie, you can see the video playing, as you would on the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. You can have up to eight apps open and running at a time (any more would sap the phone's resources). To close an app you just tap the X on the bottom right corner of the mini-app icon.
The Hub and menus are more sedate than the homescreen and app list screens, a reminder of BlackBerry's former visual style, in which heaps of information and settings were arranged in a decidedly risk-averse, linear fashion. On the upside, it's sober and easy to understand. The phone function is visually pleasing, clean and minimalist. Stylistically speaking it may be a bit cold, but it's a welcome change.
The camera interface isn't cluttered with tons of options. To take a picture you simply touch the screen, and to use the selective focus you just sweep your finger to the point where you want to focus.
BB10 has a voice assistant, but no name for it. Like Apple Siri, it does web searches for you, calls contacts, launches apps, and so on. It's fast and you don't have to scream your lungs out to get it to understand you.
BlackBerry Balance is a feature that separates your professional and personal lives. You can even change the whole look of your phone for each context in a single swipe, clearly demarcating your two worlds. (Before you can use Balance, you need to install BlackBerry Enterprise Service, which is typically something your company's IT department will do.)
While BB10 introduces a lot of innovations compared to BB7, you could also call the OS a (good) amalgamation of several thinly veiled influences. Here are some of the most obvious:
- The design of the app icons is clearly inspired from webOS cards.
- Generally speaking, the way in which you navigate through the phone, the horizontal movements and vertically arranged active multitasking 'tiles' all come practically straight from MeeGo. The difference is that MeeGo allows you to have an unlimited number of active apps open, which can seriously drain your phone's performance. BlackBerry hit the right idea by limiting it to eight apps.
- The quick-access drop-down menu (for Settings, Screen Rotation, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Alarm and Notifications) is almost identical to the one on Android 4.2 Jelly Bean.
- Some of the pictograms, such as the one for the volume, look suspiciously similar to some of the ones found in iOS and Android.
Bottom line: BlackBerry successfully drew inspiration from its competitors to design an operating system that looks good, is highly responsive and that fully exploits the benefits of touch technology. In fact, it's so well calibrated for its medium that some of the touch gestures absolutely require a border around the display like the one the Z10 has. Unless you changed the interface altogether, you couldn't even use BB10 on a smartphone with a thin border.
BlackBerry 10 is a brand new universe with its own touch language. To use even the most basic functions in BB10, you have to get used to a few new gestures:
- An upward swipe from the bottom of the screen brings you back to the homescreen.
- When you're in the homescreen, Hub or app lists, a downward swipe from the top of the screen brings down the quick-access window.
- On the homescreen, a swipe to the right opens the Hub.
- On any open page or app, including the web browser, an upward curve to the right opens the notifications screen.
- Swiping left and right from the homescreen navigates you through the app list screens.
- On the homescreen and app screens, a downward swipe from the middle of the display switches to and from your personal and professional lives (as long as you've activated BlackBerry Balance).
You can also create app folders like you do in iOS and Android by holding your finger on an icon and then moving it onto another, at which point you can name the folder however your heart desires.
One thing that's annoying about BB10 is that you can only open the quick-access menu from the homescreen, app screens and Hub. In the web browser, texts or e-mails, for example, it would be helpful to be able to bring down the menu in a single swipe.
In cases like these, BlackBerry overcomplicates things with unneeded gestures. For example, to delete an e-mail or text message, in the latest version of iOS and Android you can just swipe your finger to the right and then confirm. Here, you have to hold your finger down on the message or e-mail, which opens up a sub-menu containing a Trash icon, which you have to select and then confirm. Another way is to open the SMS menu or e-mail function, tap Select, choose the message you want to delete, and then confirm. When you have more than one e-mail account with a lot of traffic on it, all this back-and-forth can get tedious.
It's a shame BlackBerry didn't include some of the gestures from Tablet OS, such as the upward swipe to close active apps, or the left-right sweep from the edge of the screen to switch between open apps (the same gesture you find in Windows 8 and RT).
A new touch keyboard
Both sold and awaited as a sort of mini-messiah, BlackBerry's new touch keyboard promises a lot indeed. The supposedly super-advanced predictive text function shows the predicted words in the spaces above the letters on the keyboard, and all you have to do is glide the word you want upward and the word appears in the text field.
To delete letters, there's always the backspace, but what's even neater is that you can just sweep towards the left on the keyboard to erase the whole word.
All in all, this is a great keyboard. Unfortunately, the words the predictive text function suggests aren't always the most relevant. Often, the word you want is actually the last on the list, shown on the space bar. Also, the way we see it, using the swipe method you end up making more trips from the keyboard to the text field and back than you would on a 'traditional' smartphone keyboard. Maybe it's just a question of habit. Then again, after ten days we still feel the same about it...
But our hats go off to BlackBerry for creating a system in which you can type in multiple languages without bungling up the system. When you switch between languages in the middle of a sentence (for example, if you throw a Spanish word into an otherwise English text message), the predictive text doesn't bat an eye.
Either way, no matter how you feel about the new keyboard, there's one thing you can't deny: it's incredibly fluid.
On paper, the Hub is a great idea, and if any company could have successfully pulled it off, it's BlackBerry. The Hub is a window that collects your various phone and Internet communications and puts them all in one window. Like the Windows Phone 8 homescreen, in which the active tiles change to give you visual information about your activities, BlackBerry Hub updates your interactions (texts, calls, e-mails, Facebook notifications, retweets...) in real time.
The problem with this feature is the nature of the Hub itself. BlackBerry Hub is a whirpool of notifications that sucks in e-mails, tweets and voice messages to the point of overflow. You quickly feel overwhelmed, and it isn't always clear how to effectively manage all the information.
It's a great idea, but it needs time to mature. Case in point: on the lock screen there are these little icons for each type of notification (Facebook, e-mail, phone call, etc.) that show you how many messages you've received; but, annoyingly, you can't just go straight to the message by, say, selecting the icon and swiping to exit the lock screen. Instead, you have to go through the regular channels, which takes longer.
BlackBerry has already announced an update for developers that apparently makes it easier to deport Android apps to BlackBerry OS. Let's hope the update will also correct some of BB10's 'errors of youth', because it's a good OS that merits consumers' attention—as long as the hardware is up to snuff.