Jessie's Girl (the computer, not the song, or the girl) is seven years old and dying. Even the slightest effort leaves her wheezing, her overworked fan suffocating on dust. Often she falls asleep for no reason and every time she does there's a good chance she won't wake up.
This is a review of BlackBerry's latest smartphone, by the way. Stay with me.
I forget why I decided to name my computer after Rick Springfield's 1981 ode to being a terrible friend. Perhaps the song was playing on the radio when my buddy Wesley and I (mostly Wesley) built her on the floor of my old apartment, ordering all her organs separately and then Frankensteining them together. At the time, she was state-of-the-art. Today, she can't do half the things my phone does.
And yet I have never given much thought to buying a new desktop, in large part because the vast majority of my computer use these days consists of typing, surfing the web and a couple of other things I won't detail here for reasons of morality and copyright law. None of this requires anything more than a low-end machine.
There was a time when I thought about computers the same way characters in the Fast and the Furious movies thought about cars. Today, I belong to that unexciting demographic that has no interest in frequently upgrading or paying lots of money for electronics – if it can do the basics, I'm happy with it.
All of this is to say it may not be a terribly good omen for BlackBerry that I kind of like the Q5. BlackBerry's new mid-tier phone, released in June overseas and available in Canada as of today, is a no-frills version of the keyboard-equipped Q10. I like it because it's adequate, does everything it's supposed to do and, unless the less-than-stellar build quality causes it to fall apart or BlackBerry ceases to exist as a company, I probably won't have to replace it any time soon.
The problem is, I'm not sure what BlackBerry's strategy is with the Q5. It is at once a much flimsier device than the Q10, but also similar enough that a lot of average consumers won't see much of a difference, which could hurt sales of BlackBerry's higher-end phone.
At the same time, the Q5 isn't cheap. All indications are it will run you somewhere between $400 and $450 without a contract – that's in the same ballpark as an iPhone 4S or Google's Nexus 4. And as much as I like physical-keyboard BlackBerrys better than both those phones (and pretty much every other phone), that's because I use my phone to write stories on the road, which isn't something most people do. Any comparison of those devices has to take into consideration things like the woeful discrepancy between the apps available for BlackBerrys and those on the Apple and Google platforms.
Generally, there are two reasons I can't recommend the Q5 outright. The first is price – I'm just not convinced a lot of people are going to be willing to spend $400 on this thing when they can get an HTC WhatzIt or an LG Random-Numbers-And-Letters for hundreds of dollars less.
The second reason has less to do with the phone itself, and more to do with BlackBerry as a company. Variations of this reason seem to pop up in every BlackBerry review I write, and this one is no exception. It's a company-wide problem and I'm not sure it's fixable.
Visually, the Q5 resembles its big brother in most respects. The front and back-facing cameras are located on top, and the speaker on the bottom lip. Because the BlackBerry logo runs along bottom of the Q5 screen but along the top of the Q10, the screen sizes look slightly different, but in reality almost all the phones' dimensions are pretty much the same.
Now for the traditional running of the specs: the Q5 comes with a 3.1-inch LCD display, 2 gigabytes of RAM and 8 gigabytes of memory (expandable to 32 with an SD card). The operating system is the latest version of BlackBerry 10, which is the same one you'll find on the company's high-end phones. The Q5 runs on a 1.2-gigahertz dual-core processor. Aside from the usual specs, the Q5's central gimmick is colour – as in, you can get the phone in a variety of colours.
Where the Q5 differs most significantly from the Q10 is in the design of the physical keyboard. Most reviews of the Q5 I've read had generally negative things to say about the phone's keyboard, compared with the one on its higher-priced sibling. Personally, however, I loved it – with one important caveat.
On the higher-end Q10, the keys are fairly flat and close together, with rows separated by smooth metal frets. The Q5 does away with those frets and significantly expands the space between keys. The individual keys are far less flat on the Q5, standing out like tiny pebbles, and no two touch. This makes for a pleasant typing experience if you're the kind of person who doesn't have very precise thumbs, because you can now smash your finger in the general direction of the key you're looking for, and you're probably going to hit it. I was a big fan of the Q10 keyboard, but I actually found myself typing faster on the Q5.
But there is a pretty big catch. The Q5 keyboard – and, indeed, the Q5 itself – feels much, much cheaper. Whereas the Q10 keys are sturdy, the ones on the Q5 feel like they were glued on. Even though I was able to type faster on the cheaper phone, I kept worrying that my fingernail would inadvertently dig under one of the keys and send it flying, or that the caps lock key would start sticking and all my friends would think I was yelling at them.
This is, ultimately, the Q5's biggest problem – the build quality is pretty awful. To be fair, BlackBerry had to find cost savings somewhere in order to produce a version of the Q10 that costs some $250 less. But the difference is noticeable.
Take, for example, the slot on the side of the phone that holds the SIM card and SD memory card. The slot has a little plastic cover that's held in place with two rubbery joints that feel like they're going to give way at the slightest provocation. I'll be very surprised if this cover doesn't break off a significant number of Q5s within the first few months of use.
Also, it is annoying that you can't remove the Q5's plastic back cover (without committing some serious violence against the device, anyway). If the battery dies on you or you need to get at the phone's guts for some other reason, it's not going to be easy.
But if you can get over the general flimsiness of the phone, you'll find that in many areas, the Q5 and the Q10 don't really differ that much – at least not enough to justify paying more money for the higher-end device.
The operating system on both phones is basically the same. It's the latest version of BlackBerry 10, which features all the hallmarks you've probably already heard about, such as Hub and universal search (I covered most of these features in my reviews of the touchscreen Z10 and the Q10). There are some minor differences – for example, the Q5 operating system appears to have a brighter colour scheme than the Q10, which went all dark and brooding by default to conserve battery power. But it's unlikely that most people will even notice this kind of stuff. For all intents and purposes, the software is the same.
Battery power on the Q5, by the way, is kind of amazing. It ran for about two days straight when I was using it, and lasted another three when I left it at my desk before finally giving out. This is probably due to the less pixel-dense screen and weaker processor on the Q5, compared with the Q10, but it is still impressive.
The Q5's processor, at 1.2 gigahertz, is slightly less powerful than the Q10's 1.5-gigahertz processor. But in reality, I couldn't tell much difference between the two when it came to most common tasks, such as e-mail, web browsing and media. At times, the browsing did feel more crisp and responsive on the Q10, but again, not 250 bucks more crisp.
Both phones feature a two-megapixel front-facing camera. The Q5 comes with a five-megapixel rear camera, compared with the Q10's eight-megapixel one. I'm not entirely sure what the Q10 does with those three extra megapixels, because a lot of the photos, especially in low light, looked pretty similar on both devices. What differentiates the BlackBerry camera experience these days is the set of filters the phones let you apply, such as sepia, grainy and "Sixties" – these were included in part to make up for the fact that you still can't get Instagram on BlackBerrys. Regardless, the filters are software features, and so are available on both the Q5 and the Q10.
Of course, any discussion of BlackBerry software leads to the now-mandatory warning about the sorry state of the platform's app store. Once again, to put it simply, if you're the kind of person who uses a smartphone primarily to run apps, you probably shouldn't be buying any kind of BlackBerry. Supporters of the company and its hardware can argue all they want about how BlackBerry 10 had more apps available at launch than any other platform, but that's only a valid argument if the devices were competing against a 2007 iPhone. There's also little merit to the notion that apps will soon be obsolete because everyone will design everything in HTML5 and we'll access it all in the phone's browser. Increasingly, the app-related PR e-mails I get these days mention that the software is available for iPhone and Android, and don't bother mentioning BlackBerry at all.
To further illustrate, let's take a quick stroll through BlackBerry App World. Below are a few search terms I tried, and the results I got.
What I searched for:
Top Three Results:
- An app called “Awesome Photo Frames”
- Instagram, a hip-hop track by LOC D.A.B and the Get*Um Gang (Which, to be fair, turned out to be super catchy).
- Instagram, a track off the album Rule 5 Presents All Right in Ibiza, Vol. 3
What I searched for:
Top Three Results:
- An app called “GPS Map for Google Map Free”
- The Ghost EP by somebody named Hideyoshi. Why did this album come up in a search for Google Maps? Likely because of the third-most relevant result returned, which was...
- Google Map, a song off The Ghost EP by Hideyoshi.
What I searched for:
Top Three Results:
- An app called “Candy Crush Unofficial Fan”
- The Candy Crush EP, an album by somebody named J Caprice that features exactly two songs: “Caramel Kisses” and “Chocolate Covered Cherries.”
- Candy Crush, an album by....oh what the hell, let’s just say there’s a weirdly high number of budding artists who are naming their albums after popular apps in what seems to be an attempt to show up in more app store search results. Now that I think about it, this is actually kind of brilliant.
It's easy to take cheap shots at BlackBerry's app wasteland, but all this speaks to a bigger problem. It's a problem with all BlackBerrys and it's the main reason I'm always so reluctant to recommend them, even though I personally like them better than most any other phone out there.
Imagine that buying a phone was analogous to buying a house. Apple makes pretty good houses. Google makes pretty good houses. But BlackBerry makes amazing houses, the safest and most energy efficient anywhere. Surely this counts for something. In this analogy, searching through the miserable BlackBerry app store is akin to buying one of those houses and discovering that you can only get three channels on cable. That's annoying, especially when the other houses have HBO and all the other good channels, but not a dealbreaker. People can live without cable.
But consider the surroundings. That Apple ID you use to sign in to your iPhone also connects you to a massive wider ecosystem – Apple desktops, laptops, tablets, cloud storage, the iTunes store. In the case of Google's Android, you are part of a community that includes Gmail, Youtube, tablets, Chromebooks, Google Docs and dozens of other products and services. With BlackBerry, you get... BlackBerry Messenger? The PlayBook?
Step outside your Apple or Google house and you'll see a dense, bustling neighbourhood. Step outside your BlackBerry house and you'll see a half-decent bus line and a grocery store nobody uses. BlackBerry's problem isn't the house. It's the neighbourhood.
This is not an easy problem to fix. With the woeful exception of the PlayBook tablet, BlackBerry has never really made anything but smartphones. All the company's other innovations, including its security, network services and even BBM, have been tailored to the smartphone. The one thing the two-and-a-half successful smartphone platform-makers in the world today (Apple, Google and, bringing up the rear, Microsoft) have in common is that they use smartphones to connect users to a far wider array of products and services. The reason these companies are able to do this is because they were building other things – laptops, operating systems, e-mail services – well before consumer smartphones even existed. BlackBerry never did anything like this, and now it is almost certainly too late to try to build a neighbourhood around a house. It's cruelly ironic that BlackBerry's role as the pioneer of the smartphone industry is a big part of the reason it lost control of the smartphone industry.
The Q5 is not a bad phone. If, like the Z10, it ends up selling poorly enough that it gets a price cut, it'll probably be the next phone I buy. It is also one of the most important products BlackBerry will put out this year, because it is aimed at the growing segment of consumers who don't want to shell out $750 for a high-end device.
Maybe it'll end up hitting the intended sweet spot of customers who want a physical keyboard but can't afford a Q10. If it does, the Q5 will be easily the biggest success of the year for BlackBerry. But I doubt it will, and I'm not sure the Q5 does much to address the wider issue plaguing all BlackBerrys.
If in a few years' time BlackBerry goes out of business or pulls an IBM and become purely a services company, it won't be because the Q5 was a bad house, but because it was built in a boring neighbourhood.