Monday, December 30

Dvorak the Q10

My new phone, a BlackBerry Q10 I’ve christened Dvorak (after the dated-looking but still very sensible regular guest on This Week in Tech), is the ugly duckling of smartphones. It’s stout, unsexy, and relatively boring. Its voice will go unnoticed in the middle of the cacophonous iOS-Android wars. I can use it to call, text, tweet, post to Facebook, and send an email, but really, nothing more than that.

And that’s why I chose it.

It’s pretty simple as far as phones go. The top half of it is dominated by a square multitouch OLED screen, and the bottom half, by a beautiful backlit QWERTY keyboard. This form factor is what BlackBerry became popular for, although I doubt anyone born later than 2002 could ever guess that “persistent” keyboards on phones were ever de rigueuer. When I want to call someone on it, I look for their name on my Contacts list, or type in their number then tap “Call.” When I want to send someone an email, I open up BlackBerry Hub, type out my message, and hit “Send.”

In fact, I’m willing to bet that the Q10 is the best smartphone on the market, if we use the outdated definition of a smartphone as a device that allows you to communicate with others by calling, texting, emailing, tweeting, and Facebook-messaging them. At least one online review describes call quality on the Q10 as being comparable to that of landline phones. The BlackBerry Hub provides access to all your messages from different accounts, from anywhere in the OS, with a single gesture. And did I mention the QWERTY keyboard? It feels like I’ve grown little touch-typing fingers on my thumbs.

But sadly, no matter how excellent the call quality is on this thing, and no matter how easy it is to send an email or text, it still can’t compete on the market with the likes of the iPhone 5S or the Samsung Galaxy S4. You can still see individual pixels on the screen if you look for them. The tiny square display means you won't be able to stare into Bobby Flay’s freckles when you’re watching Iron Chef. And God help you if you ever have to put up with a phone that doesn’t let you flip through photos just by waving your hand over the screen. The “smartphone” isn’t what it used to be, and BlackBerry never got the memo.

When did phones need to be the panacea for all our digital wants? When did my communication device start to need to have a four-stroke engine?

Sure, Dvorak has deficiencies that often become glaring. The battery life, while better than my previous phone’s, is nowhere near what I had hoped it would be (although I suspect it’s a problem that’s unique to my unit). And the app ecosystem is just downright depressing, even with Android sideloading. On some days, the thought enters my head that I should have just sprung for the Samsung Galaxy S4, with its big screen and its wide range of app choices.

When I start to think like that, I remind myself that although it’s easy to point out the features lacking in Dvorak that seems to be standard in the competition, it’s much more satisfying to appreciate how the Q10 can stand without all the trinkets of the common modern smartphone. In a world where mobile phone makers are trying to outdo each other year in and year out with higher PPI counts and “bigger pixels,” BlackBerry has managed to make a phone that’s just right. Dvorak will leave it to the Samsungs and Sonys of the world to battle it out for the title of the “Next Big Thing.” The Q10 has achieved smartphone zen. It doesn't have to be glamorous. All it has to do is be.

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