Monday, 14 October 2013 15:58

Blackberry Q5 Review

This is probably the most important smartphone that BlackBerry will launch in 2013. You see, the Z10 and Q10 were designed for diehards, gadget lovers and those who desired a like-for-like replacement for their aging Bolds. Unfortunately for CEO Thorsten Heins, those people were never the total sum of RIM's (now BlackBerry's) customer base.

After all, it was the budget-conscious crowd that embraced BBM to the point where London's 2011 civil unrest was nicknamed the "BlackBerry riots," not to mention the company's popularity in the developing world. Given that the business most recently posted an $84 million quarterly lossand has only managed to ship 2.7 million BB10 devices, it'll be these customers, then, who the company will need to win back in order to keep its head above water. Unlike its struggling rivals, however, BlackBerry does have one thing its rivals do not: a pedigree in QWERTY keyboards that offer a real alternative to the legion of Android and Windows Phone touchscreens out there. That's where the Q5 comes in -- a portrait QWERTY handset with a 3.1-inch display described as "youthful" and "fun," designed for markets outside of the US, with a variety of color options. But is that enough to tempt back the text addicts of Latin America and the disenfranchised voters of London? It's available for ($490) off-contract in the UK, or free on plans from ($32) per month, but is it enough of a handset to justify its mid-tier price? Can this form factor work in a world where even the cheapest phones can offer 4-inch, pixel-rich displays and broader app support? Is this the handset that BlackBerry needs, or the one it deserves?

We could tell you at the top here, but that'd kinda negate the point of the following 2,613 words. HARDWARE Despite being part of BlackBerry's "Q" range of handsets, the Q5 bears little resemblance to the Q10 it's meant to sit beside. While the layout and button placement are the same, this really doesn't feel like a BlackBerry handset at all. On paper, the phone has nearly identical dimensions to its bigger brother, being only 0.8mm narrower and 0.45mm thicker. But in reality that difference is palpable. Despite being designed as an upgrade to the mid-range Curve models in the company's product range, the Q5 feels rounded, hefty compared to the Curve 9320. Diehards will be surprised to see that the company has ditched the removable battery and glass-weave backing, opting instead for a matte plastic chassis. Users will now have to access the micro-SIM and microSD card slots via a flap that runs down the left-hand side, next to the micro-USB port. Up top, you've got a 3.5mm headphone jack nestled next to the display / power button. On the right is the three-way volume / mute rocker, which also doubles as the voice control and camera shutter switches. Meanwhile, the speaker runs along the bottom lip.

The BlackBerry logo sits between the 3.1-inch, 720 x 720 display and the island-style keyboard, saved from jostling for space with the speaker, 2-megapixel front-facing camera and LED light at the top of the unit. The square display means that consuming video content is a choice between heavy letter boxing or blowing the picture up and panning-and-scanning (with your finger) like the VHS tapes of yore. Flip the phone over and you'll see a plain back dominated by the "seven flying D's" symbol, set between the camera / LED flash and the removable FCC sticker. Internals-wise, the Q5 is packing 8GB of storage, of which 4.3GB is usable out of the box, so we'd suggest grabbing a microSD card (up to 64GB) if you're planning to use this as your primary media player. KEYBOARD Now we come to the keyboard, without doubt the single most important feature this phone has to offer. Our fingers may have lost their strength thanks to the softening effect of touchscreen devices, but we were excited to spend some time using a physical input device we could feel. Unfortunately, it looks as if this feature was the one where the company was most eager to differentiate the Q5 from its higher-priced sibling. Swap out "Bold" for "Q10" and "Curve" for "Q5" and you've got exactly the same setup here. Back in the day, BlackBerry's top-end Bold line had a sumptuous, confluent keyboard, while the budget range of Curve handsets had an island-style QWERTY layout that was nowhere near as comfortable to use. Swap out "Bold" for "Q10" and "Curve" for "Q5" and you've got exactly the same setup here.

The membrane beneath the unit is sufficiently weak that when pushing down the F key, the G and R keys move along in sympathy. Now, while this problem doesn't create any accidental entries, these little flaws don't fill you with confidence in the hardware. In fact, we can only imagine how bad the materials will deteriorate at the tail end of a two-year deal. Furthermore, as the keys are nearly flush with the chassis, there's a limited amount of travel, but what little there is feels mushy and imprecise despite a mechanical click that lets you know you've landed. We should add, however, that we did put the Q5 in the hands of a BBM-addicted tween, who felt that the phone's keyboard was an improvement over the 9320, but they were the only one in our usual sample group who expressed anything other than annoyance at the keyboard's build. This may be a little redundant in the modern age, but the tweaked fonts and subtler keying means that the numerical keypad (which sits inside the keys) has become very easy to miss. We're not sure if we'd like to see a return to the two-tone stylings of the Curve 8520, or the differently colored letters of the Bold 9650, but it does feel as if we're not expected to make any phone calls at all with this device. DISPLAY We'll admit, it's been a very long time since we fixed our eyes on a 3.1-inch IPS LCD display for any meaningful period of time. Sadly, it's hard not to feel as if this is a regressive step, even if we can understand that it is the only way to accommodate the keyboard without adopting a slider mechanism. Unfortunately, the trade-off here is that everything's a little too cramped, with a claustrophobic environment that means even if you kick the font size down to 5pt, you'll only be able to see four or five emails per screen -- not to mention only being able to see one Facebook post at a time.

On the upside, the Q5 at least makes the best of its 720 x 720 screen, with a pixel density of 329 ppi to prove it's not the size, but the quality that counts. One thing we can't fault this phone for is the strength of its backlighting, which made things clearly readable in the harsh noonday sun even at half power. Then there are the strong viewing angles and the better color temperature compared to the Q10, so while we were wary of watching movies on this thing, it turned out to be a rather enjoyable experience nonetheless. CAMERA The Q5 comes with a 5-megapixel primary camera with a four-element, f/2.4 lens, plus 1080p video capture and the Scalado-powered Time Shift feature to help you correct errors in group photography. Before we talk specifics, however, it's worth mentioning two quirks in BB10's camera software that may blindside new users. First up, rather than tapping to focus, you've gotta drag around the targeting reticule in order to focus your images before pressing the screen (or the volume down button) to take the snap. Secondly, users can choose one of three aspect ratios for their images -- 1:1 is a square picture, which is equal to the Q5's screen with a relatively narrow focus. The 4:3 option crops off the lower quarter of the image and zooms out a little further, and 16:9, which heavily letterboxes the image, zooms out a fair way to give you a far greater depth of field. There's even a high-contrast Whiteboard mode to preserve your dry-erase marker scrawls in preparation for next week's TPS report The camera app is surprisingly powerful compared to Windows Phone and iOS 6, which will make you miss the absent first-party Instagram client that little bit less. There's a choice of creative photo filters, which you can add after the fact, adding sepia tinges -- there's even a high-contrast Whiteboard mode to preserve your dry-erase marker scrawls in preparation for next week's TPS report.

Styles offer users the ability to add creative borders to their images and there's also a good set of editing tools including cropping, rotation, red-eye reduction and flipping. As the Q5 ships with BB 10.1, you have the ability to take HDR images, although it's important to keep the handset perfectly still when taking them, as it was pretty easy to create ghosted images if you're not careful. On the downside, there's no macro or panorama mode, which disappoints anyone who is looking to use this as a device that'll capture those special moments no matter the circumstance. The Q5's 5-megapixel camera is one of the better shooters we've tested over the last few months. On a bright summer's day, images come out with very little noise, along with plenty of detail and strong colors. However, while wandering around on an overcast afternoon, we found the grey skies tended to wash out colors. The HDR mode is similarly so-so, with strong daylight shots coming out really well, though, as we mentioned, be advised how still you have to stand, as even the slightest movement creates ghosting. Meanwhile, shots taken in weaker light are probably destined for your desktop's trash bin. On the video front, users have a choice of recording clips at 720p or 1080p with an additional stabilization mode. When using this latter mode, we found that every now and again, the video would kick in odd ways as it tried to compensate for a dropped frame. As you can see in our sample footage, it's very much a fair-weather camera, producing serviceable clips with strong sound, but only when conditions are in its favor. Compare the daylight tromp to the journey in the tube and you'll see it struggled to maintain focus and produced grainy, blurred footage when indoors. SOFTWARE We won't cover the same ground here as in our BlackBerry 10 review, but we can talk about what this OS is like to use on a daily basis. The handset is running version 10.1, same as was found on the Q10, which provided a number of minor tweaks including downloading email attachments, pin-to-pin messaging in BBM, pasting numbers into the dialer and HDR photography. Once you've gotten used to the gesture-based navigation system (up to return to the home screen, down for settings, left for your emails), getting around the device is pretty easy. In addition, thanks to its bigger bezel, it's actually easier to make the swipes compared to its comparatively cluttered bigger brother. BlackBerry has also seen fit to add native Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and LinkedIn apps to the home screen, as well as, Dropbox and Adobe Reader support for power users. On the downside, there's no native YouTube app; just a shortcut to the browser. The only other big differentiation point between BB10 and other operating systems is the hub -- the company's one-stop shop for your email, Twitter and everything else. If we're honest, we didn't enjoy using the hub, primarily because we prefer having our social feeds and our emails not intertwined as one, but we're sure plenty of business users will disagree with us. PERFORMANCE AND BATTERY LIFE The Q5 packs a dual-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 with 2GB of RAM, but as BB10 still lacks the requisite hardware-taxing benchmarking software we use on other platforms, we'll be relying upon web-based browser benchmarks and our general impressions in order to gauge how it'll behave on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, the hard numbers don't paint the Q5 in a very flattering light. With a SunSpider JavaScript benchmark of 1,916ms (lower is better), the handset lags well behind the 1,775ms of the Z10 and the Q10's score of 1,465ms. While we shouldn't expect it to be producing flagship-beating specs, the Q5 can't put up much of a fight compared to ultra-budget units like the 1,400ms Lumia 520 or HTC's 1,504ms One VX.

Like its bigger brothers, the Q5 comes with LTE bands 2, 4, 5 and 17 as well as HSPA+ and GSM/GPRS/EDGE, alongside its GPS, accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope and proximity sensors. Out here in the sticks, we weren't able to test the handset's LTE performance, but we found speeds were comparable to using other devices on Three UK's HSPA+ network. If you still use your phone to make calls, you'll find it adequate to the task, albeit with more distortion, clicks and compression than we're used to thanks to the coddling clarity of HD Voice. Given that the Z10 and Q10 both suffered from slow boot-up times, we shouldn't be surprised to see an equally pedestrian situation here. The phone took one minute and 22 seconds to launch from cold and a further 30 seconds to completely shut down. Long story short is that you'll be turning this thing off well in advance of when the pilot asks you to shut off all electronic devices before takeoff, and you'll be the last one to receive calls when you disembark. In our standard video rundown test, with the display set at 50 percent and WiFi on, the Q5 was able to last an impressive 12 hours and 34 minutes. We're big fans of gadgets with long battery lives, so this gets a big tick from us, even if we must attribute such longevity to the phone's undemanding 720 x 720 display. In the hands of a compulsive Twitter and email user like your humble narrator, we were able to abuse this handset for a full working day before resorting to a re-juice.


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