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REVIEW: BB10 / BlackBerry 10 OS - an in-depth look at the new operating system

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blackberry_10_top-logo.jpgreview-line.JPGName: BB10 / BlackBerry 10 OS

Type: Mobile operating system for BlackBerry devices

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RIM are renamed BlackBerry, and with the company name change comes the launch of BlackBerry 10, the company's great hope for making a dent in the smartphone market dominated by Apple's iPhone and Google's Android OS. It's a unique take on mobile interfaces, and a slick one at that, but is BB10 compelling enough to claw back users from the competition? Read on to find out!

review-line.JPGThough once a major player in the smartphone space, Canadian mobile giants RIM (now re-christened BlackBerry) focussed too long on creating QWERTY-keyboard packing handsets while the market moved towards touchscreen devices. Their outgoing operating system, BlackBerry 7 OS, therefore suffered as RIM attempted to shoehorn touch features into the mix, struggling to populate the BlackBerry App World store with attractive applications.

BlackBerry 10 (hereafter referred to as BB10), announced last year and officially revealed yesterday, marks a line in the sand for the company then, after which there is no turning back. Built from the ground up with touch and gesture controls in mind, it's a "re-designed, re-engineered, re-invented " operating system upon which all of BlackBerry's future smartphone hopes rest. It's packed full of features, some familiar and some unique. We'll be going over the main points in depth here.

Gestures
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BB10 is a touch-focussed OS, meaning that all navigation of the software is controlled by taps and swipes of your finger from the outside edge of the screen. Swiping up from the bottom edge of the screen unlocks the phone and closes applications; swiping down from the top edge opens settings from the home screen and options within apps; swiping from the right edge to the left lets you browse open apps and grid-pages of installed apps from the homescreen, while going from left to right lets you access notifications and messages collected in a unified inbox called the BlackBerry Hub, as well as checking further options once within an app.

It's a mixture of controls that are familiar with those that are new. Swiping down to access settings is similar to what's found in Android, and the pages of apps organised in a grid (showing 16 apps per page), will be familiar to both iOS and Android users. Closing apps with a swipe up takes some getting used to (it's quite easy to do it by mistake when first getting to grips with the OS), but we liked swiping to the side to get a look at our messages.

What's more confusing though is the lack of an obvious, or at least consistent, "back" control within apps. Some offer a virtual button, others require a swipe from left to right from the edge of the screen, some allow for both. It can be frustrating to think you're going back one navigation step, only to realise the gesture you used has thrown you instead back to the homescreen, or simply does nothing. A unified approach to this is something that BlackBerry will have to encourage developers to adopt going forward if we're going to be saved a few headaches.

Despite a few hiccups, it doesn't take too long getting to grips with the BB10 gestures.They're the first step towards setting BB10 aside from the competition, and though there's a slight learning curve for those raised on Android and iOS, it's quite easy to get up to speed with. Sensibly, first time users are greeted with a short tutorial upon first firing up a BB10 handset, and this goes some way to explaining its quirks and unique controls.

Lockscreen
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The BB10 lockscreen by default has a static electric blue graphic as its background, on top of which is laid a few snippets of information for you to check at a glance. These include the date and time, battery levels, connectivity strength with mobile and Wi-Fi networks, as well as how many emails, SMS messages or social networking notifications you have awaiting your attention.

Swiping down from the lockscreen lets you access alarm and night-time settings (letting you switch off audio notification alerts for a restful night's sleep), while swiping up brings you to the BB10 homescreen or list of active apps if you have any open. The lockscreen also has a small camera icon in the bottom right corner, which lets you fire up the snapper without having to scroll through a list of apps first. However, as this requires a few moments to activate, it defeats the purpose of having a quick-launch shortcut here.

Also frustrating is the fact that you cant quickly launch any awaiting notifications from the lockscreen, nor are you offered a preview of any awaiting text messages. There's room for more information to be offered here at a glance.

Homescreen and Active Frames
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After unlocking your phone, you'll be greeted with one of either two views, depending on how you've been using your phone. If you've yet to open any applications, you'll be met with a grid of installed applications, numbering 16 on a page, and spreading across multiple pages that can be swiped through right to left depending on the number of apps you have installed. In this view, BB10 looks much like its Android and iOS counterparts.

However, if you've opened any apps, you'll land on the Active Frames view. It's a cross between a multi-tasking hub and Windows Phone's Active Tile view. You'll be presented with up to eight recently opened applications (showing four tiles at a time onscreen and scrolling down to see the next four), organised by the most recently used sitting at the top. These miniature frames offer a sneak-peek at what's going on in the app they represent, and can offer live information (say, incoming messages) updated as they hit the phone. If you're worried that this is a potential battery and drain, BlackBerry promise that all Active Frames use only minimal power and draw only tiny amounts of data to run. Swipe right from the Active Frame view and you're back in the familiar app grid view.

Underneath both the app grid views and Active Frame views are a trio of static software buttons; one for accessing the phone dialler, one for searching through everything on the phone, and one for accessing the camera. The search tool is particularly useful as it's universal across all functions of the device, letting you search for contacts, settings, apps, notes, calendar schedules, messages and more all from one place. It'll be a godsend for those looking to keep track of BB10 phones packed full of documents, friends and apps.

BlackBerry Hub and Peek View
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BlackBerry Hub is one of our favourite things about BB10. Accessed by swiping through from left to right on the Homescreen or Active Frames view, it's a universal inbox that aggregates all messages from multiple email accounts, social networking feeds, SMS messages, calls and BBM messages.

Swiping to the "far left" (virtually speaking), shows a list of all your incoming messaging sources. Hitting an individual source lets you filter out messages from just one place, allowing you to, for instance, separate out Facebook messages from your Twitter, LinkedIn and email accounts. Opening a message throws it up full screen, with a "Cascade" view letting you drag left to right to reveal again the inbox sitting below. (Cascade view is used throughout the OS, offering different information depending on the app you're in - a file manager for instance could use Cascade view to show all documents housed within a folder while the fullscreen view shows the document you have open).

Hitting individual messages from social networking accounts however doesn't automatically send you to their respective apps. Rather, you're able to reply to messages directly from the BlackBerry Hub. This is a useful time saver, though you'll need to hit an additional "View Post" button should you want to launch each individual app from the hub.

If you get a notification come through while you're in the middle of something else, you can activate the "Peek" view. When in an application, rather than dragging from the bottom to the top of the screen to close the app, you can drag just halfway up to activate Peek view. This shows icons on the left hand side identifying awaiting notifications; when in this view (and without lifting your finger from the screen), you can swipe to the right to quickly jump to the BlackBerry Hub to check the notification, swipe back down to go back to your currently open application if the notification isn't of interest, or swipe all the way up to close both Peek view and the application and move onto something different entirely.

BlackBerry Hub, together with the Peek view and Active Frames, represents a very fluid form of multitasking then. At a glance you can quickly view all the comings and goings of your smartphone, and quickly jump between the information you need from anywhere within the OS. Mastering all the gesture shortcuts may take a little while, but once you do it's a powerful OS that puts you in control.

BlackBerry Balance

The BlackBerry brand is one that has always been known for courting business users thanks to its security and messaging abilities, and BB10 continues this approach with BlackBerry Balance, a feature that allows a BB10 handset to be used for both work and personal use. It's a feature that requires a corporate-activated handset to test (something that we haven't had access to), but we'll describe what the feature offers, and what makes it such a useful tool.

In effect, BlackBerry Balance splits the phone in two, separating work emails, messages, apps and documents from personal ones, keeping all work related information securely locked behind passwords, should you misplace or have the device stolen. BlackBerry Balance is activated by dragging up from the centre of the homescreen, which then presents the option of switching between work and personal profiles, keeping the two completely separated - no files can be shared between each profile, meaning sensitive data stays exactly where it should.

With the growing "BYOD - Bring your own device" trend in the workplace, BB10's one-device-to-rule-them-all approach here will be very attractive to those looking to avoid having to carry multiple devices around at once. You can view the concept in practice on older BlackBerry devices in the video above.

BlackBerry World and Apps
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BlackBerry World acts as the shopping portal for all app, video and music purchases on BB10. Think of it like Apple's App Store and iTunes combined.

It's not the most simple store to navigate - though a scrolling list of editorially chosen apps sits at the top, and a familiar array of best selling apps are listed below, it's difficult to quickly jump to a specific product category that you like. For instance, there's a lack of consistency when hitting the navigation controls - tap the "Categories" button and you'll be presented with options for applications, games and music, but no link to videos, while hitting the "All" button does show video content. The design here could be more economical; I'd rather just have the "All" button rather than the "Categories" button too, especially if the "Categories" button breaks down content into only three broad areas, and fails to even present a whole section of the store at all.

For a brand new platform, BB10 is off to a good start on the app front. Numbering 70,000 in total, big names such as Kindle, Where's My Water?, Jetpack Joyride, Angry Birds, Skype and more all feature. It's nowhere near the hundreds of thousands of apps available on iOS and Android devices (and some very popular apps like Spotify, Netflix and LoveFilm are notable in their absence), but for the most part you should find your app desires covered here.

While the music store seems well populated (at least as far as our searches for obscure indie bands went) and reasonably priced (between £5 and £8 for an album and £1 for a single track), the movie store was missing big titles like The Avengers and Drive, and shows like Mad Men and Game of Thrones. Movie purchases and rentals were expensive too - for £15.99 we could buy the Blu-Ray copy of Prometheus, and get all its added extras as well as a digital copy to boot. BlackBerry may want to rethink this area of the store if they want to take on iTunes, and we'll be keeping a close eye on how they look to court customers here in the future.

What we did like though was the setting screen that allowed us to pick between credit cards and PayPal for our default payment setting. We use PayPal almost exclusively when shopping online, and it was great to see it integrated here.

BBM, video chat and screen sharing

BBM, or BlackBerry Messaging, has been a staple in BlackBerry phones for an age, letting you send free instant messages to other BlackBerry users. BlackBerry recently introduced free voice messaging to the service, and with BB10 the company have added video calling. When in a BBM conversation with a contact, you'll now have the option to fire up a video chat as well as text or voice based messaging. Though it's limited to just BB10 users, the new BBM functions (as with all previous incarnations of BBM) are free, making it an inexpensive way to communicate with pals, providing you've got a Wi-Fi connection or data plan to cover the interactions.

Similarly, BB10 now offers screen sharing, just as you'd find with a remote viewing application on a desktop PC or Mac. With it, you're able to wirelessly share exactly what you're doing on your phone fullscreen on another BB10 user's handset. It looks set to be a great way to collaborate and share over the new devices, and providing your data connection is up to scratch, it's more or less seamless.

Contacts and Dialler
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BB10 automatically populates your contacts book with any contacts associated with the sources you dictate through the BlackBerry Hub. This is great, quickly pulling together all your Facebook and Twitter pals, and tying a profile picture where available automatically too. Of course, all accounts pooled together are optional, so you can keep out those you really call. It's really nicely done, with individual contact cards displaying links to social networking profiles (though recent posts sit beneath a separate tab) and even suggesting you connect with each other if you're both signed up to the same service but not yet linked together. You can search through all your contacts, while adding a new contact is as simple as hitting the "Add+" button at the bottom. It does have a tendency to duplicate contacts though, so you'll have to keep on top of exactly how you organise contacts in your various social networks to avoid duplicates.

The dialler is a standard white-on-black affair, with big buttons that are easy to hit. Simple, and effective.

Browser
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The BB10 browser pops the URL bar at the bottom of the screen - a sensible, easy to reach spot that we wish was used in more mobile browsers. Though Adobe have given up on Flash for mobiles, BlackBerry have managed to nab their support one last time to have Flash baked into the browser here, which is good news, further setting apart BB10 from its Apple counterparts.

Hitting an icon in the bottom right corner throws up options including access to downloaded files, search, bookmark adding and a neat Reader view that strips unnecessary formatting and adverts from a page to just present you with text and images. Hitting the bottom right icon lists open tabs, history and bookmarks.

When browsing, pinch-to-zoom functions can be accessed, while long-pressing on text lets you copy and paste. There's no text reflow though, so if you zoom in close you're going to have to scroll around the page to read everything.

On the whole its a very speedy browser, with pages rendering faster than on the iPhone 5 or comparative Android handsets.

Maps

Mapping on BB10 is provided by default by TCS, using TomTom data. It's a pretty barebones offering when compared to Google Maps, and even Apple's beleaguered Maps app (though it's more accurate than the latter). Offering simple overhead 2D views of maps (no Streetview or 3D views), the mapping app doesn't offer local amenities or business information. What you do get though is accurate directions and turn-by-turn spoken navigation, but it looks aged and lacking in comparison to Google's superb offering.

Keyboard

The touchscreen keyboard offered by BB10 is pretty standard fare, offering soft-keys in a QWERTY array to tap out messages with. Where it differs from the competition is with its predictive text - tapping in a number of letters lets you confirm the the suggested potential next word by hitting the space key, or alternatively by flicking up other small suggested words that float over the keyboard into the body of the text. On paper it's a good idea, but in practice a bit finicky - the floating words are so small it can be hard to read them, let alone accurately flick them to the main body of the text without hitting a letter key below. We found ourselves just sticking to using the main predictive word on the space button rather than fishing out the tiny text in the keyboard. It just kind of gets in the way.

Camera and Time Shift

BB10 also does some interesting things with its camera application. Best of all is Time Shift mode, which acts a bit like a burst-shot mode on a digital camera by snapping a selection of shots at once. Time Shift then presents these photos, shot milliseconds apart, on a timeline that you can scrub through, highlighting individual faces and letting you pick the precise moment where everyone had their best smiles on. It's a little difficult to explain in just words and pictures, so hit the official video from RIM above to see exactly what we mean.

Shots snapped on the new operating system can also have all manner of filters applied, and there are manual controls for editing brightness, white balance and framing styles, as well as crop controls through the Artistic app (itself tied into the Camera app).
Images, videos and music can be pulled together into short clips through the Story Maker app too. It's a neat video creating tool that adds transitions and credits to your curated mixture of pictures and clips, doing all the hard work for you before letting you share the results via email or social networks. You won't be able to make an Oscar contender with it, but it's a nice way of sharing a selection of media quickly hacked together with your pals.

review-line.JPGVerdict:

BB10 succeeds in feeling unique against its strong competition. Though it takes some getting used to, its gesture controls and multitasking chops are comprehensive, and the whole OS flows together well and looks smooth. BlackBerry Hub is a great messaging centre, and the Peek and Active Views work well. The number of apps available is relatively small, but on the most part the quality is good, even if the mapping app leaves a lot to be desired. Media content is a little patchy though with the video store in particular lacking big names, and is overpriced. More frustratingly are the inconsistencies in interface and navigation design. It's frustrating to be struck in an app and be unsure of how best to jump to the area you're looking for next.

This is however the first iteration of the software, and if BlackBerry can move to quickly iron out the creases here with updates, we'd be left with little to complain about.

It's not a bad beginning by any means for BlackBerry, but they're fighting an uphill struggle. Even if you have the best OS in the world (which BB10 regrettably falls short of being) it's hard to convince the average user to learn a new system when they've already got used to one or two others, not to mention the money they may have invested in alternative app stores that will be meaningless here.

It's a promising start, and everything suggests a conscientious approach from BlackBerry. But it's late to the game, and the damage may already be done.review-line.JPG

3.5/5

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