Tuesday 12 July 2016

BlackBerry 10 Smartphones are Better Than You Think

Given my goal to present alternative tech options to people, I thought it fitting to post about BlackBerry. Stay with me...

I Love BlackBerry. Yep, I Said It!

Well, I should be specific. I like BlackBerry 10 phones, especially the keyboard models (I've used the Q5 and currently use the Q10).

As a company, they've made questionable choices over the years, stemming back to resting on their laurels when the iPhone first rose to notoriety. But I'm going to curb that topic in this post. One thing for certain is that they make easy to use, good quality smartphones (yep, smartphones!).

What I want to convey is: BlackBerry 10 phones are great. They are likely better than you think.

Some tired arguments are: they're for dinosaurs, they're yesterday's news, they don't have apps, they are no longer relevant, "I didn't even realize they still exist and create phones!"

I thought all of these, too. Actually, more accurately, I didn't think much of them.

My first smartphone was an Android phone (LGP500). It was solid, did lots of cool stuff, and in general I really liked it. Except typing on a touchscreen keyboard never felt right to me. I never got used to it, but figured I'd adjust.

I never did. But I managed to get three years out of the phone. All the while, I had a BlackBerry PlayBook (their misguided attempt at a tablet). I always liked it, in spite of its shortcomings. Owning that device paved the way for my foray into using more devices by BlackBerry.

For my next smartphone, I decided to go with a BlackBerry. I never was an avid app user; I'd try new ones that seemed "cool" at the time, but really I kept using the basics -- email, browsing, texting, that sort of thing. I figured, even if the phone just did the basics, I'd enjoy typing on a real keyboard again.

I got the Q5 in 2014 off of Kijiji for $60. I immediately fell in love. This phone did the basics but also most anything any other smartphone could do. And it felt more intuitive, integrated, and "natural" than others phones I'd tried. I just got a Q10 for $25 (yep!) on Ebay and I love it even more. They have touch screen options, but I just had to go for the keyboard, and will continue to do so as long as I realistically can.

But, What About Apps?

What about them? :) Contrary to popular belief, apps exist for BlackBerries. But when I hear "apps", I sometimes translate that in my head as "gaps." In other words, the reason for a plethora of apps is to make up for gaps in the operating system.

BlackBerry 10 (their newest and wrongly overlooked operating system) had no noticeable gaps. There are great native apps, you can make shortcuts to mobile websites (and really, are they that different from an app, people?) You can even get a sizable amount of Android apps to run; BB10 has a built in Android emulator, and while it's limited, I've been able to take advantage of many Android apps that way. As with my old phone, I typically try out an app and unless it grabs me or is truly useful, I delete.

As a test, I just installed the Blogger app from the Google Play Store (yep, you can get the store working, for now). It works like a charm; I'm typing this paragraph from there.

If you want a full keyboard but you really want the app ecosystem to go with it, you could always consider the BlackBerry Priv, their latest smartphone that uses the Android operating system (ships with Lollipop 5.1.1 and recently got updated to Marshmallow 6.x). It's an option, though I feel Android is a bit fragmented and not as "user friendly" off the bat as BB10.

The Good and the Bad About BlackBerry 10

The things I immediately loved about the BB10 phones I've used:

  • The keyboard -- so, so good for all communication.
  • The operating system in general -- instantly intuitive, fast, snappy, great at handling multiple apps/browsers. I often stream music while jumping from window to window.
    • The built in browser -- simple yet elegant, and SO fast.
    • Reader mode (part of the browser -- hit the "R" key and get a text-only view of a news article, blog post, etc.
    • The email/text/other messaging integration by way of the BlackBerry Hub (IMO, their finest work)
    • In spite of a small screen, I could read on it forever (cf. reader mode comment above)
    • ALL gesture based; no clunky back buttons; just swipes and nothing more. It's to the point where I try to swipe on other devices I have and am disappointed that it doesn't work!
  • For the Q10: removable battery. This has become a dying art in mobile devices. When the battery life degrades, I can simply buy a new part, not a whole new phone -- what a concept!
  • Fongo (I wrote about them in my first blog post) works great! Side note: it's an Android port and it's fully functional on BB10.
  • Youtube works with the screen off -- great if you just want to hear audio from there and save battery (try it out on an iPhone or Android phone for comparison!)
  • Built in FM radio (I never said I was hip and with it :))-- not streaming; a real radio! Picks up local and national radio beautifully; no need to use data.
What they're not good at:
  • Video -- I watched the occasional Youtube video, but it's not ideal on the 1x1 aspect ratio of the screen.
  • Support from third party developers. As of late, some fairly big names, like WhatsApp, are retiring their apps. Not that I use much of these anyways, but I can see it being a negative for some people.
  • ...that's about it!

I Still Like The Occasional App

There are of course apps on my phone beyond what's built in. I use it heavily for podcasting, for example (and there's always the FM radio tuner if I forgot to download something over WiFi before heading out the door with my dogs!). I also use it to track some of my running. What else? GPS navigation (offline maps). Let me list off a few that I have, at the time of writing (I'll put asterisks by Android apps):
  • Antennapod* (podcasts)
  • Fongo* (VoIP/alternative to cell service, as covered in my first post)
  • NavFree (offline navigation/GPS. Works great! And yes, Google maps will work on the phone too)
  • Evernote (Preinstalled. Great note taking app that syncs on all your devices)
  • gNewsReader (RSS feeds through Feedly)
  • CascaRun Pro (fitness tracker)
  • The Weather Network
  • Shoppers Drug Mart/PC Plus* (For collecting shopping points, of course!)
  • Blogger* (Hot off the press!) 
I can install IM/persistent chat apps for my work too, as needed. The rest is simply whatever's built into the phone or a shortcut to the web page (in the case of online banking or CBC news, for example). 

If I'm looking for new functionality for my BlackBerry 10 phone, here's the general path I take:
  1. Search for a native app in BlackBerry World (their app store). If none exists...
  2. Try the mobile site, and add it to my homescreen if it's acceptable. If it doesn't work...
  3. Try to install an Android app. (It may need to be patched using Cobalt's Play Store method, a slightly tricky but doable process documented in this thread.)
That's just how I use the phone. Generally, the web or native apps work, and a good number of Android apps will work as mentioned.

(Though, at the time of writing, there are a lot of threads popping up with people trying to get Pokemon GO working on BB10 devices and they're having trouble. No skin off my back, but if you are looking to play that game, a BB may not be for you.)

Why BlackBerry?

Why am I posting about BlackBerry 10 phones? Because they don't get a fair shake and people tend to write them off. I mentioned to a coworker that I had a BlackBerry, to which she responded "poor you"; clearly, a stigma about them persists.

It doesn't help public perception that the company is struggling and they've all but moved their device production to Android offerings. But so what?

What matters is that they made great devices in BB10 phones. And what matter the most is what YOU want. In my humble opinion, they are worth a shot, and I'm willing to bet people would enjoy them if they just put aside the "BB is dead/for the birds" thoughts and just tried one out. Try typing on a keyboard again; you might be pleasantly surprised. Check out what's built into the OS; it's well designed and very easy to navigate. Take it for a test drive -- as with all of the alternatives I've posted about on my blog to date, you just might be pleasantly surprised.

If you get a BlackBerry, be sure to head over to the CrackBerry community. Their forums have lots of  great contributors and you can find a lot answers to common questions, tips, tricks (like the Cobalt Google Play Store method).

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