By Steve Morris, 31 Jan 2013
BlackBerry, the company formerly known as Research in Motion (RIM) has finally unveiled its new operating system, BlackBerry 10. It has also showcased the first two devices to run BlackBerry 10 - the touchscreen Z10 and the Q10 with a physical QWERTY keyboard.
Touchscreen user interface
BlackBerry 10 is a touch-based operating system, but it also supports a range of phones with physical QWERTY keyboards, which is the company's key historical strength and what it is best known for.
The user interface is similar to that used on the BlackBerry PlayBook and incorporates swipes and gestures. To unlock the lock screen (which shows a wide range of useful info such as missed calls, messages and calendar events), you swipe up from the bottom frame.
The OS is capable of multitasking with up to 8 apps running at any time, of which 4 can appear simultaneously in small windows on the screen, called active frames. This is intended to create a way of working based on what the company calls "flow", rather than jumping between apps. According to BlackBerry, apps work together seamlessly to help you complete tasks faster.
The home screen shows 4 active frames (see photo on right). The active frames showcase key information from the app. You can swipe right from the home screen to access the BlackBerry Hub (see below), or swipe left to access more apps. Swiping down from the top frame gives you access to the phone settings.
Generally speaking, the flow user interface seems to work well once you get used to it. It's primary focus seems to be on multitasking, and it will be heavy users of the phone's features that derive most benefit from it. It's logical, but quite complex to use. Casual users won't benefit from the multitasking and may get lost amongst the multitude of gestures needed to swipe around the various apps. The interface isn't as obvious as iOS 6 or Windows Phone 8.
The new keyboard is one of BB10's strengths. It learns how you write and adapts to how you type, enabling you to write faster and more accurately. For example, the keyboard will learn commonly-used words and phrases, which can be selected from a list of suggestions as the user types. It's a more powerful system than Android's word completion suggestions. It will also learn the user's most common mistakes and correct them.
Shortcuts can be defined through the Settings menu, such as double-tapping the spacebar to end a sentence.
There's also a voice recognition feature that converts speech to text. Basic voice control is also available.
The new BlackBerry Hub provides constant access to emails, texts, notifications, feeds, and calendar events.
From the Hub you can view messages and calendar entries together, and can literally "flow" into contacts, social media updates and so on. You might find that you spend most of your time in the Hub and don't need to switch to other apps very often, in which case the gesture-based user interface starts to feel much more intuitive.
As the Hub is so central to the way BlackBerry 10 works, you can access it from within any app by swiping up and then to the right. To return, you swipe left and then down, reversing the gesture. An LED above the screen flashes to notify you when there's a new notification waiting for you in the Hub.
BlackBerry hasn't abandoned its still loyal user base. Its core product - BBM - is just as important in BlackBerry 10 as it ever was. It now also supports video chat. Screen Share lets you share what's on your screen with another person's device.
In the past, the number of apps available to BlackBerry users has been very limited compared with iPhone and Android phones. In a concerted effort to tackle this, BlackBerry has added more than 70,000 new apps including popular apps like Skype, Angry Birds, Facebook and Whatsapp.
Keeping work and play separate
BlackBerry Balance lets you keep personal apps and information separate from work data - ideal for professionals who want to use their smartphones for both work and personal use.
A new camera feature called Timeshift helps to improve group photos. The feature will take several shots in sequence and then let you select the best shot for each face that the camera detects. You can choose the moment when one person smiled and another moment when another person wasn't blinking, etc. While this can avoid common problems with group photos, it does feel like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
An improved browser
Browsing has tended to be a weakness in older BlackBerry phones, but BB10 has greatly improved the experience. The new browser is fast and supports multiple tabs. Again though, we feel that the browser is quite complex and less intuitive than rival browsers in other mobile operating systems. There are so many options!
Search results are provided by Bing by default, although you can switch to Google or Yahoo.
BlackBerry 10 is certainly a big step up from BlackBerry 7. As a result there's a lot for users to learn, but at least data can easily be transferred from your old BlackBerry device to a Z10 or Q10 via a media card or a PC. It continues to support key features such as BBM and email, and introduces power features like the new keyboard, Hub and BlackBerry Balance.
But while BB10 brings the brand into the modern age and provides power users with a flexible multitasking user interface, it lacks the intuitive obviousness of Apple's iOS or Windows Phone 8. Many of the gestures are not obvious to first-time users, and the interface will probably take longer to learn than most rival systems, and won't be ideal for casual users.
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Comment by Mark from UK on 18th Jan 2013