Review of the BlackBerry Q10


The Q10 is the BB10 device that old-school users of any past BlackBerry model with a built-in keyboard have been waiting for.

Last Updated: 19-Jul-2013

I should start by noting that Iíve personally never been a fan of BlackBerry phones and that hasnít changed any as a result of the release of BB10. However, I will refrain from critiquing the operating system in this review, as I'm not interested in getting caught up in a religious war over which O/S is better. I will focus solely on this phone's hardware performance compared to the competition. My primary device-of-comparison will be my Samsung Galaxy S4, as that is my current phone (and they are comparable in price).

I should warn you up front that this review is going to be a HUGE DISAPPOINTMENT to fans of this phone. I'm fairly sure that most users who want this device are willing to settle for whatever compromises they are required to make and they probably don't consider it a hardship as they get the one golden feature they can't get anywhere else, which is the physical keyboard. This review is really for the rest of us, those who don't have an automatic affinity to a keyboard and just want to know how the Q10 stacks up again the competition.

Before reading this review, please read Some Thoughts on Phone Reviewing.

Keyboard

This particular section of my reviews has all but disappeared of late, as most phones I test are full-screen devices that only have a virtual keyboard. The Q10 is an exception, and in fact the keyboard is pretty much the entire reason that youíd even consider buying this phone at all. Even if you were a huge fan of BB10 you could always opt for the full-screen Z10 model. So the bottom line for any buyer will be, ďdo I want or need a physical keyboardĒ. If the answer is yes, then the Q10 is pretty much the only choice for you.

I donít have previous experience with BlackBerry keyboards, and so I donít really have anything to compare this one to. I can however say that my experience with it was very positive, in that the keys have nice tactile feel and there is uniformity-of-feel across all of the keys. The only thing that constantly annoyed me was the necessity to press the ALT key to get at the period. Of all the non-alpha-numeric keys in the universe, the period key is easily the most used. Surely they could have figured out a way to put the period on a non-shifted, non-ALT key. Iím told this is a long-standing ďfeatureĒ of BlackBerry keyboards.

I also found that while I clearly needed to gain a certain degree of competence with the keyboard, I really missed the ability to swipe words the way I do on my Android phone. The Q10 doesnít even have the word prediction that comes with the Z10 virtual keyboard and that means youíll have to type each and every word in your message. However, Iím sure that anyone who actually wants the physical keyboard is quite aware of this limitation and is quite at peace with it.

Display

Because the Q10 needs to allot a large amount of space for its keyboard, and because it would be incredibly tall if they tried to combine that keyboard with a full-sized screen, the Q10 comes with a square display that is actually rather small. It has fairly good resolution with a pixel size of 720 x 720, but physically it is only 3.1 inches diagonally. This translates to very little screen real estate and I was totally shocked at how annoying it was to work with a screen of these dimensions.

Some apps, such as those that list things, adapt reasonably well to the screenís odd 1:1 aspect ratio, but pretty much everything else is a huge compromise. Watching videos is especially problematic, because most of them these days are 16:9. As the video has to fit inside the 720 pixel width of the screen, they are only 405 pixels high (leaving a lot of black space at the top and bottom). Physically videos are just 2.19 inches wide and 1.23 inches tall. Compare that with 4.31 inches wide by 2.44 inches tall in the Galaxy S4. The Q10 is clearly not a phone youíd choose for watching videos or looking at pictures.

Surfing the web is equally frustrating, as you must scroll almost constantly to see any reasonable amount of the web page. I couldnít believe how often I had to scroll. Additionally, doing pinch-to-zoom gestures was also problematic. Thatís because itís unnatural to twist your fingers to do a side-to-side pinch. Up-and-down pinching is usually limited by headers and footers on the images you are zooming that leaves with very little space to make the pinch or spread maneuver.

The Q10 uses a Super AMOLED display, which Iím normally a big fan of. AMOLED screens have much deeper blacks and they are usually more vibrant (though purists will often complain that for viewing photographs they arenít quite as true-to-life). However, AMOLED screens can experience a small degree of color shift as the viewing angle changes, even though screen brightness is usually unaffected. The screen on the Q10 suffers from a surprising amount of blue shift when you donít view it straight on.

This strong color shift means that white turns decidedly blue when you go beyond approximately 30 degrees off of straight. I used to notice that in my S2 LTE, but even compared to it the problem on the Q10 is markedly worse. This severe blue-shift might explain why BlackBerry chose a pinky-yellow hue to the whites on this phone. Starting out at that end of the spectrum means the severe blue shift doesnít look quite so bad.

I cranked the screen brightness to full on both the Q10 and my S4 (remember, the Samsung is hardly the benchmark for super-bright screens), but the Q10 looked decidedly dimmer. Surprisingly however, in Howard Chui's review of the Q10 on HowardForums, Howard thought the display worked better than the S4 outdoors, and so I decided to examine the screens under different lighting conditions.

In bright sunlight the Q10 does indeed seem a little clearer, especially when there is a preponderance of white background, such as on a typical web page. Neither of these phones is really that much better than the other and both are fine for reading except under extremely bright sunlight. Even then, I found it to be strong reflections from the screen that were the problem.

In the end, the screen is the biggest compromise you must make to accommodate a physical keyboard, and I suspect that only old-school BlackBerry fans are really going to be attracted to the Q10 as a result. Anyone already accustomed to full-screen phones will be better served by opting for the Z10 (or the upcoming A10).

Size

The Q10 is a surprisingly large phone given the small size of the screen. Compared to the Galaxy S4 (which most people perceive as a gigantic) the Q10 is a scant 3 mm narrower. When it comes to gripping a phone in your hands, this is the dimension that will matter the most. People with small hands who find that gripping the S4 is a problem aren't going to find that Q10 much of an improvement. The phone is however 17 mm shorter, but at the same time it's a rather bulky 2.5 mm thicker. And in terms of weight, the Q10 is 9 grams heavier than the S4, despite that phone's gargantuan 5-inch screen and big 2,600 mAh battery. The size of the phone only makes the small screen seem like more of a compromise.

If theyíd added 17 mm to the height of the Q10 and dedicated all of that extra space to the screen they could have increased the resolution to 720 x 940. Thatís actually fairly close to a 4:3 aspect ratio, but it would have been a portrait screen and theyíd have had to support rotation. However, the keyboard would only be useable in portrait mode, so I can see why theyíd opted to avoid this. It once again underscores how much you have to compromise to have a keyboard.

RF Performance

Click on this link for a full description of RF Performance, and how to interpret it.

Back in the old days, RF performance was tested by comparing how well each phone in the test could hang onto a phone call as the devices were slowly walked into an increasingly-weak area. These days the focus has shifted to data performance, where there is a direct correlation between data speeds and the quality of the connection.

When I test Android phones I just load up the trusty speedtest.net app, but it doesnít exist in the BB10 ecosystem. I had a look at the various free speed test apps in the BB Storefront, but none of them were worth even considering. Fortunately BB10 continues to support Adobe Flash in its browser, which allowed me to use numerous online speed meters such as speedtest.net and speedtest.primus.ca. They worked exceptionally well.

To test RF performance I headed over to Square One shopping mall in Mississauga as I always have. Testing on Rogers there is a little difficult because they have such excellent coverage throughout the mall, but there was still enough weak spots to test data speeds. The results were a bit of mixed bag. On HSPA the Q10 would usually get slightly better speeds, but on LTE it was never quite able to keep up with the S4.

According to the Rogers web page the Q10 they sell (which was the one I tested) supports LTE Max (Band 7), but at no time did I see speeds that suggested I was on Band 7. Out at the center court in the mall, where LTE service is quite strong, my S4 easily switched to Band 7 and I saw downlink speeds of around 55 Mbps. At the same location, no matter how many times I tried it, I couldnít get faster than 18 to 19 Mbps on the Q10. I wondered if the Q10 was switching to band 7 at all, and so I forced my S4 over to Band 4 and I ran the speed test again. I saw downlink speeds of 22 to 24 Mbps, which was still faster than those on the Q10. In weaker LTE situations the same general speed difference was evident.

Thereís still some merit in testing how well a phone call hangs in there, and so I managed to find locations where the HSPA service got quite weak. Both phones performed about equally as far as making phone calls were concerned, which suggests the actual RF sensitivity is approximately the same. I hadnít expected to see much difference anyway, because both phones use a Qualcomm chipset (as do virtually all the LTE phones sold in North America).

WiFi Performance

Normally I donít do a dedicated test of the WiFi performance in a phone, but the gentleman who loaned me the Q10 for this review said heíd heard that the Q10 had really good WiFi performance. I therefore decided to do tests of the WiFi and it struck me as such a good idea that I will definitely continue to do this on future reviews.

Testing WiFi performance is pretty similar to testing RF performance, but I donít have to stray far from home. To gradually weaken the WiFi signal I need only walk a few doors down my street. The comparison was made to my S4 of course and the key metrics were the ability for the WiFi radio to hang onto the signal, and the data transfer rates it could sustain in a given situation.

The results were a bit of a mixed bag (just like with RF), as in some cases the S4 seemed to provide the best speeds, while in other cases it was the Q10 that came out ahead. In the end Iíd have to give the nod to the Q10 for sustaining slightly more useable service under severe conditions, but both phones hung onto the WiFi signal for about the same distance away from my router. So it doesnít look like the Q10 is a WiFi powerhouse, but it certainly seems to have pretty good WiFi performance.

Audio

Click on this link for a full description of Audio Performance, an how to interpret it.

Incoming audio on the native earpiece of the Q10 is actually very full-bodied and clean. It sounds a little better than the S4, but overall Samsung phones have fairly good incoming audio quality. Past BlackBerry phones however have a reputation for processing super-good audio, but either this is no longer the case or Samsungs just happen to sound really good. Nonetheless, the Q10 is still markedly better-sounding than most of the smartphones Iíve tested in the last few years.

Outgoing audio is a similar story. Itís almost identical to what I heard from the S4, especially when there is very little background noise (just computer fans). In a noisy environment (such the food court over at Square One) things donít change much. Both phones do an excellent job of suppressing background noise while sustaining fairly decent (though hardly stellar) outgoing audio quality. The S4 is certainly louder by 2 or 3 dB, but that's about it. Neither phone seems to suffer from all that much degradation in audio quality as a result of suppressing background noise (unlike many smart phones Iíve tested in the past).

The speakerphone was a bit of a surprise though. Iíd expected it to be at least as loud as the S4 (if not louder) and with detectably superior audio quality, but that wasnít the case at all. While Iíve tested much worse speakerphones in the past, the Q10 falls short of the Galaxy S4 in both volume and overall quality. Volume-wise itís at least 3 or 4 dB softer at maximum volume and the sound has a scratchy quality to it that just doesnít seem to afflict the S4ís speaker.

For multimedia applications however, the speaker in the Q10, which is located on the bottom of the phone, provides slightly richer sound than the speaker on the back of the S4, but they both provide approximately equal volume. However, we now live in a universe where the HTC One has raised the bar for multimedia audio performance and the Q10 just doesnít come close to HTCís BoomSound speakers. So while the Q10 sounds somewhat less tinny than the S4, they both sound like yesterdayís technology compared to the HTC One.

I made extensive comparisons between the S4 and Q10 playing the same music sources over both stereo earbuds and through my home sound system. The Q10 sounds nice enough, but it just doesnít have the quality of sound you get from the DAC in the S4. I found that it was high end that suffered most in the Q10, while the low end was generally comparable.

Ringer Volume

As Iíve often noted in these reviews, the volume of the ringtone on modern phones is directly a function of the loudness of the multimedia/speakerphone speaker, as phones no longer use dedicated ringers. That continues to be the case with the Q10, but BlackBerry has done an excellent job of providing stock ringtones that provide the best performance from the speaker.

Maximum volume alone isnít always the main criteria for a ringtone that can cut through the background noise. BlackBerry apparently understands this better than most companies who by-and-large provide musical ringtones that are great in quiet environments, but poor in noisy ones. You can put custom ringtones on the Q10 just like everything else, but the stock tones are a study in how these things SHOULD SOUND.

Camera

The Q10 comes with an 8 megapixel camera which is reputedly the same piece of hardware that was put in the Galaxy S3 last year. It takes pretty good photographs when there is plenty of light, but its low-light performance (especially compared to the HTC One) is only so-so. Flash performance is acceptable, but unless the subject is fairly close to the flash, noise is still a problem.

However, the big issue with the camera is that it lacks all but the most rudimentary features. Perhaps Iím spoiled by the camera software in the S4, but even compared to previous phones Iíve owned the camera capabilities of the Q10 are just plain pedestrian.

Another issue is the screen, which (as with videos) forces you to view your pictures in a letter-boxed fashion on what is already a rather tiny viewing area. Oddly the Q10 offers a 1:1 aspect ratio for pictures (along with the usual 4:3 and 16:9 ratios). This seems well-suited to Instagram, if only there was an Instagram app for BB10 (sideloaded Android ports notwithstanding).

To be fair, it does offer one "cool feature" in the form a time-shift. That's just BlackBerry's fancy name for a Best Shot feature that takes multiple exposures and lets you choose the one you feel turned out the best. However, the feature is fairly rudimentary, in that it doesn't pre-scan the images to identify the one it believes to be the sharpest. Additionally you only appear to be able to select only one of the pictures.

The camera can shoot acceptably good 1080p videos with both the rear and front-facing cameras. However, like the still photograph mode there are virtually no features. You can turn on the LED and you can enable electronic stabilization, but thatís pretty much it. As for the quality of the videos, thereís no question they come from a cell phone. They have all manner of sheering and bending in them as they are panned and their quality is far short of what you get from the S4 or the HTC One.

So the bottom line here is that the Q10 comes with a camera thatís behind whatís available in the competition, but at the same time it's probably far better than any camera ever offered on a BlackBerry before (the Z10 notwithstanding). For snapping quick pictures to add to your social media streams it does an acceptable job, but beyond that you arenít likely to use it as a replacement for a dedicated point-and-shoot camera.

GPS

Iím not sure what to say here, except shame on you BlackBerry. Over the last couple of years the quality (and sensitivity) of GPS chipsets in phones has been getting progressively better. Itís been quite some time since I have been unable to take a test phone into my basement and not get a lock on the GPS satellites.

I started out by installing an app called HelloGPS that displayed the signal levels on individual satellites and reported the accuracy of the lock in meters. On my first try I took the phone into the basement and I started the app. After about 2 or 3 minutes the phone finally defaulted to finding the location via WiFi, rather than GPS (with a reported accuracy of +/- 73 meters).

Next I headed upstairs to allow the phone to get a GPS lock (with a reasonable accuracy of +/- 6 meters), and then I returned to the basement to see what happened. One by one each of the one the satellites dropped off the list and accuracy went up and up until it was +/- 180 meters. At that point I had only 2 satellites locked, which isnít enough to compute a location. The phone therefore decided I was better off estimating my location using WiFi, and so it switched to that.

I repeated these tests numerous times, but the results were always the same. The GPS works fine on the main floor of my house, which is actually quite a feat compared to what we used to get with dedicated GPS devices just 5 or so years ago, but it doesnít hold a candle to the sensitivity of GPS receivers on virtually every single phone Iíd tested over the last 2 years. My S4 can easily lock on 12 to 14 satellites in my basement and provide accuracy of +/- 7 meters. It always gets the lock almost instantly down there.

I guess thereís the possibility that the GPS chip (or its antenna) was faulty in the unit I tested, but I rather doubt that it would have worked as well as it did on the main level of my house if that were the case. So, if this is typical of the sort of GPS performance you can expect from the Q10, I sadly have to rate it the worst GPS Iíve seen in ages.

Processor and Chipset

The Q10 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 dual-core processor clocked at 1.5 GHz. As powerful as this is however, thatís last yearís spec. Newer phones have moved on to quad-core (whether or not you see this as a necessity) with processor speeds of 1.7 GHz (for the HTC One for example) to 1.9 GHz (for the S4).

To its credit however, the Q10 does come with 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB of built-in storage, and the option to expand that storage by as much as 64 GB with a MicroSD card. This is certainly up to current standards and it matches the S4 in each case.

Conclusions

Thereís no question that the Q10 exists only for one small niche market, and thatís old-school BlackBerry users whoíve been hoping for a new BB10 device with a keyboard. Hardware-wise the Q10 appears to be packed full of older technology, but is sold at a price similar to the current high-end models with the latest technology. That alone should raise red flags for you, unless you're desperate to get a physical keyboard.

The bottom line is that EXCEPT for keyboard aficionados, I couldn't in good faith recommend this phone to anyone else. The high price, lack of cutting edge technology, and numerous severe compromises (not the least of which is the screen) make it a poor choice. Even if you have decided that you want a BB10 phone, BlackBerry offers a better choice in the form of the full-screen Z10 and the more-powerful upcoming A10.

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