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Review: BlackBerry 10 still wears a suit, but finds time for happy hour

BlackBerry 10 OS Review

As a company, the newly named BlackBerry (formerly called Research in Motion) badly needs to stop its slide into irrelevancy. The BlackBerry 10 operating system is its big bid to do just that. The new OS will launch on two phones and hit up to six by the end of this year. This platform represents a major overhaul in design and in thinking at the company. BlackBerry clearly asked itself: what is most important to our audience? What do they care about?

The answer: an interface that prioritizes messaging, contextualizes communication, and doesn’t slow users down with useless nonsense.

(For information about the first BlackBerry 10 handset, read our full review of the BlackBerry Z10.)

Flow Interface

BlackBerry calls the BB10 interface Flow with good reason. It’s all about the gestures with nary a button necessary. It reminds us of Windows 8 with all the swiping from the edges you have to do. But in BB10, it feels natural.

The gestures and swipes are easy to learn and remember, so the learning curve isn’t that steep. The main move to remember is swiping up from the bottom. This unlocks the device, activates peek, and also minimizes apps and returns you to the Home screen. Swiping up and to the left opens BlackBerry Hub from any app or screen (except the Lock screen). In apps with settings, swiping down from the top brings up those options. On the Home screen and in the Hub this gesture gives quick access to often used settings and wireless radio toggles. In the Hub and on the Home screens it’s all about swiping left and right to get where you want.

And that’s it. If this seems simple, that’s the point. The interface is mostly efficient and lacks the kind of complexity that can lead to confusion.

BlackBerry 10 interface

There are aspects of this that aren’t so efficient. For instance, each time you swipe an app to get back to the Home screen area, you always land on the Active Frames (open apps) screen. If you’re switching between apps and the second app isn’t a recent one, you still have to swipe from the right to get back to the list of all apps. This is a minor thing, but the more apps you use, the more this is annoying. It’s equally annoying that you can’t launch an app from BlackBerry World once it’s installed.

That said, the Active Frames screen is very useful. It’s the heart of BB10’s multitasking features and makes it easy to get to the most recent apps. The reason these little windows are called Active Frames is that, like widgets in Android or Live Tiles in Windows Phone, they can display changing information, such as an update to the weather, a reminder, or the time. The concept is useful even if the functionality isn’t robust as the widgets in Android.

BlackBerry Hub, Peek, and Calendar

The Hub is the centerpiece of BlackBerry 10 and its importance is key to understanding who BB10 is actually for. BlackBerry appeals to people who want or need to keep on top of their messages. And the Hub recognizes that important messages aren’t limited to your email or BlackBerry Messenger. They also come from social networks and chat services, too.

BlackBerry 10 HubAll of these messages come to the universal inbox that is the Hub. Yet somehow it doesn’t feel cluttered and disorganized. The interface design strikes a balance between offering enough at a glance information — not just who a message is from but where it’s from – and not overloading the screen with too much. Plus, you can always filter the inbox by service, viewing email or BBM or Twitter only.

It’s possible to reply or create new messages or status updates right from the Hub, which comes in handy. It still has some odd quirks, however. For instance, the Compose button is strictly for messages to people, not for status updates, which isn’t readily apparent. To post a status update, you have to filter for that network and then the Status button appears.┬áHub also pulls in information from the various services for context, though viewing full profiles on social networks does require going to the app.

Even people who appreciate this comprehensive approach to messaging won’t want to open the Hub every time a new message comes in. Facebook may not be as important to you as email, or you might be able to ignore email for a while but not BBM. That’s where the Peek feature comes in. You can shrink the main window with a gesture to see notification icons showing how many unread messages you have from which accounts. Another small movement allows you to take a peek at the actual Hub and decide if you need to go in and answer messages right away or go back to the app and deal with them later, all without really leaving the window.

The Calendar is also contextually integrated. For each entry, it will bring up info on other participants (if there are any) as well as related emails. The system guesses which emails are associated with the event and in our testing has been fairly accurate.

Like the interface itself, this all flows together very well. It’s not just about keeping up with messages and appointments, it’s also about providing context for your digital interactions.

Predictive Keyboard

BlackBerry is going forward with both touchscreen-only and physical keyboard devices. Both types of phone will benefit from BB10’s new predictive text engine, though the implementation is different for each.

BlackBerry 10 keyboardOn touchscreen devices like the new Z10, the keyboard looks like a virtual version of the classic BlackBerry keys, including the frets between rows. The keys are big and clear and easy to tap even if you’re not the most accurate typer. As you type, word predictions appear on the keys and you can just flick them up to choose. The space bar provides a single autocorrect option in case you don’t feel like flicking. Over time, the keyboard will learn from your typing and offer better predictions.

At first, the predictions aren’t going to be as much use. The suggested word text is very tiny and can be hard to see. By the time you suss out the word you’re trying to type, you might as well have typed it. Speed demons will easily outpace the tiny text. Only later, after the keyboard knows you better, will the tiny words finally match what you want to say well enough that you can flick most of your words. It also helps that the words appear floating over the letter you’ll probably type next.

Some can’t deal with itty bitty, hard to read text. At least the touch keyboard itself is accurate, even when you’re not. We also like that you can swipe backward to delete a word and swipe down to access punctuation beyond the comma and period.

On phones with keyboards, the predictive text appears just above the top row. To choose one, just tap it. Again, at first this won’t be natural to do and speedy typers will probably ignore the suggestions unless they’ve badly misspelled a word. When the predictions get better, tapping to compose a sentence could replace typing in many instances.

Voice Commands

BlackBerry 10 voiceBlackBerry 10 includes another good way to enter text: voice. The Voice Commands app can launch apps, update your social network status, make calls, and perform other Siri-like features. The engine isn’t as robust as Siri because it lacks some of the natural, conversational commands, but in practice, it’s about on par in terms of accuracy. It understood what we wanted “make a call,” “tweet,” etc., yet had trouble with our pronunciation of some contact’s names. The voice-to-text engine has to upload to a server to translate and won’t work while offline.

BlackBerry Messenger

For BB10, the company added two new features to this popular core service: video chat and screen sharing. The quality of video chat depends heavily on the network or Wi-Fi connection and the camera.

Screen Sharing is just what it seems. Once on, the person on the other end will see what you see hen navigating your phone. In this way you can show a presentation, pictures, or pretty much anything except video. This will appeal to business users as a quick collaborative tool.

BlackBerry Balance

Another much touted feature of BlackBerry 10 is Balance, as in work/life balance. This allows users to have a separate personal profile with different apps, messaging accounts, even backgrounds (so it’s easy to tell when you’re on the Personal or Work sides). We did not get a chance to play with this for long because it’s not active on our review device. It’s not active because the device isn’t administered by a corporate IT department.

Balance is only available to companies that utilize BlackBerry Enterprise Server 10. That leaves out mainstream users and probably some small businesses as well. The technical reasons for this make sense, it just seems odd that the company touted the feature so much when it’s not available to everyone. It’s one of the aspects of BlackBerry 10 that really brings home that the company designed this platform for its base: business users. Mainstream users are welcome – some might even say needed – but important aspects of the operating system are geared toward business use, if not restricted to it.

Apps

BlackBerry 10 World app storeThat said, you might not guess BlackBerry 10 is a BB platform from the apps available. We’re impressed that the platform launched with 70,000 available apps. A good app store isn’t just about quantity, but quality. There are some apps missing we’d expect to see here, and a ton of apps that make us ask “Why is this here?” Apps for preschoolers and other young kids are present yet there’s no Yelp, no Netflix. Still, what is here is highly impressive for an operating system that is only available in Canada and the UK as of this publication (it should hit the U.S. in March).

Core productivity apps are also present, such as Docs To Go, Print To Go, File Manager, various cloud services, and a digital newsstand.

Conclusion

BlackBerry 10 is an efficient, well-designed operating system. It prioritizes messaging and tries to bring organization to an often chaotic digital world. It’s a great platform for business users and for mainstream consumers who care about communication. We’re not sure yet how broadly BB10 will appeal. It is, after all, called “BlackBerry,” which could limit its appeal to mostly business types, but the OS is well-rounded and complete for a first-generation release. BlackBerry has a lot of catching up to do, but BlackBerry 10 is a great leap forward for the company. If you have a chance, we strongly recommend you give BlackBerry another look next time you’re buying a phone.