From the moment you unlock a BlackBerry 10 device, it’s clear that something new is afoot. As the lock screen fades away with a swipe of the finger RIM’s all new operating system is revealed – a brand new platform that takes the best of BlackBerry handsets past and brings some very new and innovative features to the fore.
RIM is taking a big step away from its previous mobile platforms, creating an OS which will run on large, full-touchscreen phones. We’ve taken a look at the flagship BlackBerry Z10 elsewhere but here’s an in-depth look at the software that powers that device.
‘BlackBerry Flow’ is the name that RIM has given to the way in which the new software operates, but this is less of a specific feature and more of a philosophy about how the OS and UI manifest themselves.
Put simply, everything within the platform slides over and under everything else, almost giving the impression that you are moving sheets of paper around on a desk. RIM has built a gesture-based interface that permeates almost every aspect of the new platform, and it’s incredibly easy to use, bearing something of a resemblance to the apps that Google has recently built for iOS.
Swiping from the different edges of the screen pulls out menus full of app icons and notifications, with a swipe back tucking them away behind everything else. While some of the gestures can be a little difficult to master they soon become instinctive and are even easier than tapping on icons.
Whereas Android and now iOS have you occasionally swiping across the display or downwards to pull out a notifications bar, BlackBerry 10 has you doing this constantly. The smooth operation of the platform ensures that this is free of lag and the whole process is seamless.
For example, if you are in an app a simple upwards swipe will take you back to the multi-tasking menu. From here you can swipe to the left and bring up the app menu. Tapping an icon opens that app and another upwards swipe will take you back to the menu.
The reason for the introduction of this interface is that RIM is focussing its OS towards multitasking, and having taken an in-depth look at it, the platform will be perfect for the busy business user who has several things on the go at once.
Using apps in BlackBerry 10 doesn’t give the feeling that you have to close one to open another – the flowing interface gives a real impression that everything that is open is working simultaneously.
RIM has said that it wanted to do away with the idea of having a static homescreen, instead looking to create a constant feeling of multitasking. It is certainly true that there isn’t the constant need to skip back to a main screen filled with app icons as there is on other platforms.
Open apps line up on a multitasking screen and, while not strictly a homescreen (it doesn’t appear at all if there are no apps open) we found ourselves constantly using this as the starting point when testing the new platform.
For instance, if we had the browser open and wanted to switch to the Remember app, we quickly realised that the first step would be to swipe upwards and return to the multitasking menu, before swiping to the left and bringing up all the app icons.
A feature which further adds to the true feeling of multitasking is what RIM has termed ‘BlackBerry Peek’. This allows the user to glimpse at a message or notification without fully leaving the app that they are working in.
Say you’re checking your files in Dropbox and you get a message from Facebook, swiping upwards whilst keeping your finger on the display will shrink the app’s tile and show a Facebook icon on the left of the screen.
Doing the same thing on an Android device may actually require fewer steps but BlackBerry 10 gives you a simple, quick look at the type of notification you have received, giving you the option to dismiss it until later if it isn’t from an important source.
BlackBerry Hub presents all contacts, messages and calendar entries in full, providing an exhaustive interface for all communications.
Much like the notification bar on Android and iOS taken to another level, BlackBerry Hub is accessed in a similar way by swiping out from the left side of the display. Along with calls and messages, social networks are integrated right into the UI.
Divided into two parts, a main menu listing all types of communications, and a second showing a full list of messages and notifications, BlackBerry Hub gives quick and easy access to all your digital interactions.
BlackBerry 10’s real strengths become apparent when all of these features are used together, providing a seamless multitasking experience that exhibits little of the stop/start approach seen on other platforms.
Beyond these features, many of which are focussed on navigating around the UI, BlackBerry 10 has several other brilliant touches. One of these, BlackBerry Balance, allows you to draw a distinct line between the way in which you use the handset for work and personal life.
Taking into account that people may want to use their own handset as a company phone, BlackBerry Balance can create two separate profiles on the device, with certain apps, data and notifications being restricted to one or the other.
For example, if you have a work email account linked to the handset you can turn BlackBerry Balance on and you won’t receive updates from that account until the mode is deactivated. This gives an extra level of security to the device as well as convenience; turning it on outside of working hours can stop you from being pestered by colleagues.
The work side of a BlackBerry 10 device can also be administered by your employer so that sensitive data can be deleted should you leave the company. A feature such as this could well appeal to RIM’s core of business users who are familiar with older BlackBerry devices but want a larger, more modern smartphone.
As much of the appeal of older BlackBerry handsets was the ease of typing messages, RIM has taken this into consideration and created an innovative onscreen keypad.
The keypad has two stand-out features. First is its ability to read the way in which you tap the keys and adapt itself to your behaviour (so if you constantly tap one letter slightly off centre and make mistakes the OS will learn this and recalibrate itself accordingly). While the positioning of letters on the display won’t change, the keypad will learn from your behaviour and reduce errors.
Second is a new type of predictive text which sees words appearing above the handset’s keys as you type. Adding these words to a message is done by swiping upwards, and while this takes some time to get used to it can vastly decrease the time it takes to type a message once you do.
The well-loved BlackBerry Messenger service has also had a revamp and its functionality has been extended considerably. Voice calling over BBM was recently introduced for older BlackBerry handsets and the feature appears here too, but users can now also make video calls in a similar way to that seen on Apple’s Facetime.
However, RIM has gone one step further and brought in a feature called Screen Share which allows the sharing of whatever is being shown on one BB10 device’s display with another device. Initiated by simply tapping a key during a video call, Screen Share is an excellent way of showing off presentation and documents to another user.
Outside of work, the feature could also be used to show a photo album to someone else rather than merely emailing pictures. Since voice calling over the loudspeaker remains active during Screen Share it is possible to talk someone through whatever you are showing them.
RIM hasn’t over-burdened its camera app with extra features, instead focussing on quality over quantity. The most striking innovation is the Time Shift feature, which uses face recognition to create the perfect photo and was first demonstrated at BlackBerry World 2012 last May.
Put simply, the feature is for those moments when someone blinks just as the camera’s shutter clicks. Time Shift captures several milliseconds of footage before and after the photo is taken and allows you to highlight an individual’s face and roll back the footage to a time when they had their eyes open.
The altered part of the image then merges seamlessly into the rest of the photo, creating a perfect image which can then be saved as a regular photo.
In the past, BlackBerry users have suffered from a poorly-stocked and overpriced app store that lagged behind those for Android and iOS. However, RIM has looked to remedy this and has launched an all out campaign for the introduction of its new platform, offering rewards to app developers who port their creations over to BlackBerry 10. While exact figures are still vague there is a sense that users of the new platform will have access to far more apps than ever before, with a large number scheduled for release just after the platform is launched.
Beyond these high-profile features are a number of smaller (but no less significant) things that BlackBerry 10 does. The platform has an excellent way of treating cloud-storage in the same way it does internal storage, with little distinction being drawn between files stored on the device and those off it.
Similarly, the user interface can sync with Evernote and pull notes through to the Remember app, lining them up right next to notes created on the handset itself.
Voice control has been added and a Siri-like digital assistant allows hands-free commands to be given to the device. This service can also be used to dictate messages into BBM, furthering the functionality of the free messaging service.
For business users, BlackBerry 10 also handles documents very well and several standard file types are supported. In fact, we’ve found that spreadsheets in particular work better on BlackBerry 10 than they do on any other smartphone platform. The OS also has a pre-installed wireless printing app that allows the device to be connected to printers over an office network.
BlackBerry 10 is a fantastic operating system with an innovative and well-thought out user interface. In creating the new OS RIM has done a brilliant job and hopefully there will soon be a slew of quality apps to compliment the platform.
This software is good enough to take on the big names in the smartphone world but it still remains to be seen whether the BlackBerry brand will regain the status it once had. Nevertheless, RIM has pulled out all the stops and the resulting platform may draw in faithful BlackBerry users and possibly even attract some new ones.