You're going to love the BlackBerry Q10 (or hate it)

June 23, 2013: 10:24 PM ET

A smartphone with physical keyboard? The Canadian company believes there's still a place for its new device in a market dominated by touch.

BlackBerry's new Q10 smartphone has a pretty unique feature that can't be found on most of its current competition: a physical keyboard. Credit: BlackBerry

The BlackBerry Q10 sports something many of its current competitors lack: a physical keyboard. Credit: BlackBerry

FORTUNE -- Confession: I use a BlackBerry.

Or well, I have a BlackBerry Bold 9930 for my work email (my choice) and an iPhone 5 for everything else. And you know what? It works. I've enjoyed my iPhone's many strengths over the years -- industrial design, app selection, etc. -- but the one thing I've never totally loved is the touch-typing. I've become adept at rapidly tapping texts, Facebook (FB) status updates, tweets, and brief emails on-the-go, but I still make too many typos for my liking.

The opposite holds true when using my Blackberry (BBRY), which I've had for more than a year now. Typing out emails is easy and brisk, and errors caused by hitting the wrong key are rare. Still, while I love using it for email, I hate using my BlackBerry for everything else. Many of the apps on my iPhone -- Spotify, Nike+ Running, Uber -- aren't available for my BlackBerry, still running BlackBerry OS 7.0. And what is available looks rough: the Facebook app being one prime example -- and that 2.8-inch touchscreen display feels really cramped by today's standards. Even opening and viewing basic PDFs -- a standard file type that turns 20 this year -- is a grinding chore.

For loyal BlackBerry users who still crank through tens, if not hundreds of emails a day, the company hopes they'll find the Q10 -- available from AT&T (T) last week, and Verizon (VZ) and T-Mobile (TMUS) earlier this month -- worth an upgrade. It tries marrying that trusted BlackBerry physical keyboard with newer smartphone luxuries-turned-standard features. There's a larger, brighter 3.1-inch touchscreen with 720 x 720 resolution, a 1.5 gigahertz dual-core processor, 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB of built-in storage, an 8-megapixel camera, and 4G network speeds where available. It's also just the second BlackBerry -- the first being the keyboard-less Z10 -- to run the new BlackBerry 10 operating system.

So how is it?

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Loyal BlackBerry users will appreciate the Q10's expanded screen, and the lighter, but extremely durable body, which feels like it could easy take a few tumbles and still keep going. Then there's the keyboard itself. Previous BlackBerries offered a very similar layout, but the keys were arranged on a slight curve. On the Q10, the keys are arranged on a perfect horizontal axis -- it doesn't affect typing, and users will quickly get used to it.

BlackBerries have been historically strong when it comes to call quality, and the Q10 keeps the tradition alive with clear calls around San Francisco and calls on speakerphone are also crystal. Volume is also good enough for playing back music and videos, though bass was predictably missing. Apps and screens load pretty smoothly. And battery life, another typical BlackBerry asset, is here, too: With casual use, I went two days before I needed to even think about charging.

On the software side, the company has also made some big strides with BlackBerry 10, although some would argue it's more BlackBerry playing catch-up than being "innovative." They're sort of right.

BlackBerry calls the new interface "Flow" because users ought to be able to get around most of the time with simple gestures. Swiping from any one of four directions brings up something different. Swipe up to view "active frames," or real-time updating shortcut tiles to apps that are currently open. Swipe down to check settings. Swipe left to right bring up the "BlackBerry Hub," a sort of master inbox that conveniently merges emails, Facebook updates, and other communications. And swiping from right to left sometimes brings the user back to their previous task, app, screen, etc. It takes a few minutes to get used to it, but soon enough I found myself swiping up and juggling between apps quickly and efficiently. The Hub also proved a nice way for me to scan all my emails, previous calls, messages, Tweets, and other things all at once.

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Still, the Q10 could have been better, and I'm not talking about the average quality photos it snaps. As Samsung pushes the boundaries of what constitutes a traditional "smartphone" with larger and larger screen sizes that top 5 inches, the Q10's still pint-sized screen looks quaint, even unintentionally antiquated. Of course, the Z10 offers a 4.2-inch screen, and there's something to be said for the Q10's portability, but while scrolling through cramped-looking websites, I wished BlackBerry had just designed bigger. Why sacrifice so much screen for that keyboard?

The app selection is also a real issue. As of this May, there were 120,000 BlackBerry 10 apps, a mix of programs designed from the ground up and ones ported over from Google (GOOG) Android. That's a fraction of what's available on Android and iOS -- though just shy of Windows Phone's 145,000 apps -- which have been around longer, but nonetheless offer far richer ecosystems. My own favorite apps like Spotify, Nike+ (NKE) Running, and Evernote remain nowhere to be found. That may change, but the small app selection doesn't do BlackBerry any favors.

Put simply, people will either love or hate BlackBerry's latest. BlackBerry users seeking an upgrade will probably see the Q10 as an improvement over what they have now, and they likely won't be disappointed. But most everyone else, particularly smartphone owners spoiled by the nimble competition, just won't be convinced by that small screen or app catalog. BlackBerry's silver bullet? Not quite.

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About This Author
JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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