With Q10, BlackBerry makes a last stand for agency users

With an old-school keyboard, BlackBerry security and new management features, the Q10 meets government's twin demands for productivity and personalization.

Even in the still-young era of mobile technology, a number of trends have long come and gone. There was a time when the market was dominated by Palm. Before long, BlackBerry became all the rage. From President Barack Obama on down, everyone in government seemed to use one.

Now it seems the company, formerly known as Research In Motion, is in trouble, and even government is starting to look at other devices. From agency-issued Apple iPhones or Androids to “bring your own device” programs that allow users to work with whatever they want, many government users are straying from familiar ground.

But BlackBerry seems unwilling to abandon the government market and is making a fighting stand to recapture lost ground with two new models of smart phones. The Z10, released in January, is an all-touch phone. And in June, the company released the Q10, featuring a physical keyboard just like the BlackBerry devices of old but with the new features that Version 10.1 of the BlackBerry OS offers.

So does the Q10 have what it takes to keep old and attract new users? Recently we took it out for a spin to test its power to perform for a government crowd.

The Q10 we reviewed was running on the Verizon Wireless network and was available for $199 with a two-year contract. It is also available through T-Mobile for $99 and $20 per month on a two-year contract.

In the Washington, D.C., area, with its high concentration of government offices (including GCN’s), we were able to tap into Verizon's 4G LTE network, so download speeds for the Q10 were incredibly quick.

The Q10 is a good size, and at 4.7 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide it is easily portable in one hand. That’s great news for thumb-typing QWERTY keyboard experts. The keys form a solid, straight grid, so the edges of the keys don’t curve around to fit the shape of the phone. Each key is uniform and easy to get to. And all the buttons are raised up a bit, making it a breeze to find a key and solidly press it. For those who have never adapted to the tactile shortcomings of touchscreen keyboards, the Q10 could be a lifesaver.

Security has always been one of BlackBerry’s strong suits, and the Q10, like the Z10, also includes Balance, which lets users separate work and personal data and apps, easily moving between them. The work container can be set up to allow only apps approved by an administrator. 

At only 3.1 inches, the Q10’s screen may seem a bit small, especially for those accustomed to monster-sized phones like the Samsung Galaxy. And the resolution is only 720 by 720, so it’s not close to full HD. However, things look surprisingly good on the screen. While some very fine details on some Web pages may not be all that clear, the Q10’s OLED technology offers distinctive contrasts, practically a 180-degree viewing angle and nearly perfect black levels. Watching a video on the screen is a joy.

Some of the screen area above the viewable space is taken up by a front-facing 2-megapixel camera, which proved acceptable for video conferencing. The Q10’s rear-facing 8-megapixel camera is impressive -- a result of a high dynamic range [HDR] mode that really makes photos pop.

The HDR mode works by snapping three pictures each time the "snap photo" button is pushed: a high contrast version, a low contrast version and a normal photo. Then it uses imaging software to lighten up dark areas and darken down areas that are too bright, while leaving parts of the photo that are just right alone. This delivers highly realistic looking shots, even for photos taken off a television as well as outdoor shots snapped in bright sunlight or dim twilight settings. If photography is important, the Q10 will deliver.

In terms of software, the new 10.1 OS has been designed with productivity in mind. For example, everything important from e-mail alerts to notifications from apps or OS updates gets channeled into the BlackBerry “Hub.” Users can browse through the Hub as with a standard inbox, but it also can alert users to other updates and notifications. The Hub ensures that nothing the user considers important is missed, whether directly related to the Q10 itself or an externally focused app. In fact, the Hub feature puts the Q10, as well as the BlackBerry 10.1 OS, ahead of Android and iOS devices: It is the phone’s big productivity gem by far.

There are a few other features the BlackBerry adds that might interest some users. The phone tries to anticipate what users want to do, while they are doing it. Typing “tweet” for example, will bring up Twitter or a favorite Twitter management program automatically. An advanced clock feature makes sure email notification chimes are silenced when the user is asleep.

The Q10 is powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core processor, which delivers performance that seems quite good. Running several apps at once doesn’t slow down performance. For instance, four apps actively running did not slowdown e-mail checking. The Q10 does take a long time to boot up. If the device is all the way off, it will take it a minute and 19 seconds to come back on. The flip side to the long boot time is the fact that users can't accidentally turn the device off. To power the Q10 down, users have to hold the power button for three full seconds, which will help prevent accidental shutdowns.

Even so, there is little reason to shut down the Q10 very often. Perhaps because it has a somewhat weaker processor compared to some other phones, the Q10 has great battery life. We ran a movie on the screen for over 14 hours before the device finally called it quits. Normal usage could go for days on end before a charge is needed.

Call quality is good to excellent in most respects, though the 3.5mm headphone jack seemed to under-perform. We tested the Q10 alongside several Android phones also running on the Verizon network and found that the Q10 matched them in call quality and surpassed them when using the speakerphone: a person we called via the speakerphone on did not even know we were using the speaker feature until we told him.

Downloading and installing applications is also quick. We were able to pull down 30MB apps in about 30 seconds and install them in about half that time. Compared to other phones, the Q10 can certainly hold its own in the download and webpage surfing departments.

Overall the Q10 seems to make messaging and e-mail its main priority. It even loads most of its functions and alerts into the Hub so users get used to a single e-mail-like interface. If it had stopped there, the Q10 might appeal only to a small group of users. However, with features the 10.1 OS offers like secure containers, multitasking apps, HDR photographs and clock management, the Q10 becomes a robust gadget that not only drives productivity but is a great fit for government.

Whether or not the Q10 will bring BlackBerry back into government favor is anyone's guess. But if the reasonable price and great features can't accomplish that, then nothing else really will. I found that after a couple weeks, I was using the Q10 a lot more, and the iPhone and Galaxy Tab a bit less. With its old school keyboard, BlackBerry security and new management features – especially the Hub – the Q10 is just too good to resist. 

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