BlackBerry 10 (or BB10) is still heavily under development and still quite some way from being a finished product, but we’ve checked out an almost-final version of the user interface, which is pretty close to perfection, according to RIM – but we’ll let you be the judge by checking out our findings below.
Delayed until early 2013, the first BB10 devices should land in January– although we’re yet to see final devices running the new OS.
We saw the near-final version of BlackBerry 10 running on the new Dev Alpha B handset, building on the other test units and newer devices we’ve seen in the past.
BB10 sees the implementation of a whole new user interface, with RIM doing away with the familiar BlackBerry system we’re all used to, in favour of something which resembles the likes of Android and iOS, although with its own unique features.
With BlackBerry 10, RIM has merged homescreens, widgets, app lists and a unified inbox into one slick interface, offering up an easy-to-navigate user experience.
The main homescreen comprises of four widgets, technically mini-applications, which expand to fill the screen when tapped. However, these are the most recently-used apps, which means they’ll change depending on use.
Scroll down and you’ll notice that this main display actually holds eight mini apps in total – the display in order of use allows you to jump quickly between your recent applications.
Open up an application which isn’t in top spot, or a completely new one from the app list, and when you exit it you’ll notice that it now occupies the first, top left spot on the homescreen.
Swiping from left to right will bring you to the app home screen, with 16 apps on the screen at any one time, and you can access more by sliding up and down – the whole thing very similar to Windows Phone’s Start Menu UI.
At the bottom of both the homescreen and app list you’ll notice a shortcut bar, with quick links to the phone, search and camera applications – allowing you to quickly jump to these regularly used features.
These work entirely as expected, running through the phone for mail, apps and contacts or firing up the camera as needed.
The lock screen shows notifications for alarms and unread messages on the left plus your upcoming meetings as well as the date and time, with a button to launch the camera straight from the lock screen to grab a quick snap.
You unlock the phone by sliding your thumb up the screen and from there slide from anywhere on screen. This means that rather than needing to start at the bottom, the screen starts to draw in around where you slide so if you just want a quick peek at the information in one area of the screen, you can just drag to show it and then let go (more on that in ‘Peek’ mode below).
The idea behind BB 10 is that it Flows… which is the phrase RIM is using mercilessly to describe the new OS.
This means wherever you are in the phone, a swipe up from the bottom will show notifications, and if you continue the slide to the right, the unified BlackBerry hub can be previewed. Complete the slide and you’ll open the hub fully.
And when we say all, we mean all, as the unified inbox can deal with multiple email accounts, text messages, BBM, call history, third party messaging apps such as Whats App and a whole host of social networks including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Of course, with so many accounts feeding into the handset, the more popular among us will be quickly inundated with notifications from various different channels, the Peek idea is one that makes it very easy to see when you’ve got anything new to look at.
The reason for this is so you can quickly see which account has received a new message and jump directly to it if required, whether you’re on the homescreen or within another application.
It’s hard to explain (but we can’t show you on video yet) but suffice to say other gestures will change what you’re peeking at, swapping to a different email account or even the calendar in the message centre (by picking the icon or pulling far enough across to see the account name first.
This method works much better when you get your head around all the gestures – although it may prove to be overly complex for some users.
Having the ‘peek’ idea work the same way in so many applications helps you get used to it as well (though we don’t yet know how well third-party applications will be able to do the same thing, although RIM has said it’s developed nearly every API asked for when it comes to developers, and they have full access to the Peek code).
When you do get into a message or an appointment, you can see more information about the people involved in a way that will be familiar to BlackBerry PlayBook 2 users; you can see who you know in common, what messages you’ve exchanged or recent social network updates.
It’s a new look for the ‘flow’ between different apps and information sources that BlackBerry has always been good at, but with a fresh modern look on a much larger screens, with a similar gesture showing you a pane of the apps that are currently running.
If you drag down on the screen you see Personal and Work buttons that let you switch between the two BlackBerry Balance modes.
In Personal, you can install any apps you want, send any email, save any file and so on, working in a partition that’s encrypted for privacy but not locked down in any way.
If you use your BlackBerry for work though, you’ll also have a Work partition that’s also encrypted but completely separate and can be locked down if that’s what the company wants.
Drag down on the screen, pick Work mode and all your personal apps disappear – so you can’t accidentally copy a work file into your personal cloud storage account.
Other apps use the swipe-down motion in a different way, allowing to function like a menu key – for instance the mapping app allows you to change accounts or settings with a quick finger flick.
Then there’s Cascades, a new navigation system cooked up by RIM especially for BB10, allowing for quick multitasking from within applications.
The example we’ve seen is in the messaging app – open an email it will display full screen, but drag your finger from left to right and the message will slide with you, revealing the inbox below.
This means if you get a new message in the middle of reading an email, you can check who it’s from without having to close the application – similar to the notification bar on Android and also now iOS.
If you were to open an attachment from the email, a PDF document in the case of our demo, pulling to the side to view the cascade will show the app’s layers stacked up – a more visual paper trail, if you will.
It’s certainly an intuitive feature that we found to work smoothly on the development handset – but it will be interesting to see how this feature is embedded into other applications and if it will have the same pleasing results.
There’s a different version of BlackBerry AppWorld where your company can offer specific work apps – like an app that uses the NFC chip in your BlackBerry to unlock the door to the office.
RIM is hoping having the Balance modes will keep companies happy with security but also keep users happy, because the security team at work can wipe all the company information off your device if they want but that won’t delete your photos.
They can’t even see what files you have on your phone when they’re managing it, because your personal partition is encrypted.
As more of us take our own phones to work, this is much more sophisticated way of protecting both the company and the user’s personal files that other smartphones – but again, it’s a little on the complicated side and relies on your company having the appropriate BlackBerry management software.
Finally, the last feature which was available for us to play with on this early version of BB 10 was RIM’s new full-touchscreen QWERTY keyboard.
BlackBerry handsets are famous for their physical boards and RIM is keen to bring this typing experience to its BB10 touchscreen smartphones with its own offering.
Visually the keyboard looks similar to the stock Android offering, but each row of keys is separated with a silver line – which is supposed to reflect the metal strips between buttons on the Bold range, such as the Bold 9790 andBold 9900.
Next word prediction, auto-correct and spell check are all common features on smartphones today and RIM has spent some time developing its own system to offer an efficient typing experience.
It sees next-word suggestions appear above the character the word begins with, and if it’s the word you want to use, you just need to swipe up over the word and it will be added to your sentence.
As with many offerings these days, the keyboard will learn your style of writing, meaning it will be able to suggest better words the more you use your phone.
We found the keyboard to be fairly accurate and relatively well spaced, but for those of you used to the physical buttons of a traditional BlackBerry it will take some getting used to.
Although the operating system is still very much in its early stages of development, we must say that we were impressed with how smooth and slick the interface felt under out fingers – seamlessly zipping around without fuss.
BlackBerry assured us that is smooth experience would still be present in the final product, thanks to the clever integration of the HTML 5 system, which optimises the performance of the software. We certainly hope they’re right.
There are plenty of features of BB 10 that are exciting – the gestures work very, very well after a few minutes, the powerful messaging ecosystem is still there and even the on screen keyboard is great.
What does strike you about the new OS is how the phone is so integrated – Facebook, Twitter, Email are all available, connected to your friends or easy to share to throughout the phone.
It’s a much more complex OS than iOS or Windows Phone, but there are only so many ways to re-invent the smartphone wheel; in the case of BB 10, RIM has gone for usable power over rows of easy to use icons.
It’s a bold move, and one technophiles will love. If the hardware is decent too, there may be enough BB fans out there willing to use the finger-flicking platform… but with so many things to learn, it will take some serious and quick eduction to get users up to speed.