A few years ago, BlackBerry was a product for the classes and not the masses. If you flaunted a BlackBerry, you were surely someone who mattered. And then came the very successful Curve series, which made BlackBerry a hit even with college students on a shoestring budget.

But ever since the premium Z10 was launched globally on 30 January this year, there has been no BlackBerry 10 smartphone for the price-conscious, middle-class Indian, what with both the Z10 and its QWERTY sibling, the Q10, priced above Rs 40,000.

Finally, BlackBerry’s mid-range offering, the Q5 is here and it’s got a lot riding on it-the Q5 is BlackBerry’s built-for-developing-markets BlackBerry 10 smartphone, and India is among the largest developing markets. Ergo, the Q5 has its work cut out in India.

Form Factor
Simplicity seems to be the overriding design theme of the Q5. Granted, even the Z10 wasn’t exactly flashy, but the Q5 is perhaps a tad too Plain Jane from a design perspective. It looks much better in red, though. It’s all-plastic, but thankfully, feels solid and is actually quite sturdy-a nasty accidental drop didn’t leave even a nick.

Shape wise, the Q5 reminded me of the Sony Xperia Tipo, albeit a thinner version and with a QWERTY keyboard, which is not a nice comparison, considering the Tipo is Sony’s cheapest offering.

Buttons that double up as volume control and camera buttons in camera mode are on the top right, with a mute button in between that also doubles up as a pause button and for initiating voice control, exactly like on its far more expensive sibling, the Q10.

On the top is the power/lock button (the only piece of chrome on the smartphone, if you leave the BlackBerry logo on the back) and a 3.5 mm audio out. On the left side, towards the top half is the microUSB port. The big deletion is the microHDMI port, for cost reasons I guess.

The back of the Q5 isn’t removable, which is a first for BlackBerry as far as I can remember. This leaves a small flap under the microUSB port where you can insert a microSIM and microSD card. The flap may be the only weak link in what seems to be solid build quality.

If it accidentally opens and gets caught in a battle with something in your pocket or purse, it doesn’t look like it can hold its own for too long. I would have much preferred the tray system that’s available on other smartphones with non-removable batteries.

There’s a 5 megapixel 1080p HD camera with an LED at the back and a 2 megapixel 720p HD front camera. An LED indicator is at the top of the front display next to the 2 megapixel camera.

There’s no grip at the back thanks to the smooth plastic back with a slightly raised BlackBerry logo in chrome, but thanks to its shape it fit in well in my hand and I had no issues with the Q5 slipping out. It’s light too, at 120 gms, and with dimensions pretty much like that of the Q10, 4.72-inches tall, 2.59-inches wide and 0.42-inches deep.

Clearly, the Q5 is aimed at those who want a keyboard and a cheaper option than the other BlackBerry keyboard warrior, the Q10. But just like the keyboards on the Bold series were far superior to those on the Curve series, the difference between the Q5 and Q10 keyboard is like chalk and cheese. While the Q10 is silent and gentler to the touch, the Q5 is audible and not-so-soft.

The BlackBerry Q5 looks good in red
The BlackBerry Q5 looks good in red

But make no mistake, it’s still superior to the keyboards being dished out by the few other manufacturers who still make smartphones with physical QWERTY keyboards. But like on the Q10, if you are a BlackBerry user, you’ll notice the traditional BlackBerry touchpad and navigation keys are missing and the only navigation possible is through screen gestures, something you’ll take a few hours if not days to get used to. But once you do, you’ll realise why BlackBerry 10’s gestures are far better than the older trackpad navigation.

The square, sharp 3.1-inch touchscreen with 720 x 720 resolution at 329 pixels per inch (PPI) is both much nicer and larger than displays on earlier BlackBerry 7 smartphones. It’s actually, the same size as on the Q10, but is a LCD TFT panel as opposed to the Q10’s Super AMOLED.

Small text is easily readable and there’s no fuzziness anywhere on the screen-it’s super sharp. The display is bright and colours are rich and vivid. However, just as on the Q10, the 1:1 aspect ratio means watching video is a pain with the video a occupying about 50 percent of the screen in the middle and black bars on the top and bottom.

While BlackBerry has not revealed if the glass is Gorilla glass, in the few days it spent in my trouser pocket I saw no scratches-this does seem to be high-quality, scratch resistant glass.

At the heart of the Q5 is a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor with 1.2 GHz dual-core CPUs. If you compare just the specs with say an Android smartphone at the same price point, and you just go for mere specs, there’s no point in reading any further.

However, if you look beyond mere specs to user experience, you’ll realise the 1.2 GHz dual-core processor works perfectly fine with the Q5 and is aided well by the 2 GB RAM on board. Performance is smooth and responsive in most cases, except perhaps CPU-intensive games. The great part if you’re a BlackBerry 7 user looking to upgrade, is that you can finally kiss the frustrating hourglass/clock goodbye. On the memory front, there’s 8 GB of internal memory, which can be extended by a hot swappable microSD card of up to 32GB capacity.

The Flow user interface is gesture based, designed for single handed use. No more of the old, open app, close app, click on home button business.

A simple swipe upwards from the BlackBerry logo just above the keyboard gives you a ‘Peek’ from any application. Peek allows you to see why the front LED light is blinking without closing the application. If it’s important enough (say, a work e-mail), then you swipe right into the Hub. You can define what goes into the BlackBerry Hub-easily the best iteration of a communications centre in any smartphone OS today.

Everything from BBM to text messages to e-mail to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, GoogleTalk, Foursquare, calls, voicemail and more is in the Hub. And with BlackBerry 10.1 there’s the old PIN messaging which the BlackBerry faithful wanted too.

You can load Instagram on the BB 10 OS as well.
You can load Instagram on the BB 10 OS as well.

Swipe right and you come to the live application grid where up to eight applications can be open at any time, though the apps open start closing automatically, with oldest app open closing first, once you open newer apps.

Swipe even further right and you come to the application deck where icons are laid out in an easy-to-read grid, and on a screen this small, perhaps a bit too easy to read. I would have preferred smaller icons. A ‘long press’ option allows you to remove or move apps around with a ‘drag on top’ option to create folders. However, you have to arrange icons manually in case you want to place frequently used icons on the first grid screen.

I wish BlackBerry allowed a few options here, such as alphabetical arrangement or most-used icon arrangement. Swipe down from the top bezel and the settings menu will drop down. But if you are a BlackBerry 7 user you will notice that the granularity that was available earlier is missing. For instance, earlier I could set a notification for every e-mail box, which provided me audible differentiation for work e-mail, but that’s missing here.

Word suggestions appear at the bottom of the screen and are quite useful for someone who types with one finger, though hardly useful for two thumbed typists like me.

Instant Action is another cool keyboard-dependent feature. Instant Action powers up universal search whenever you start typing and allows you to find apps and features, search, etc, and all you then do is tap the app or feature that appears. Instant Action allows you to perform tasks far more quickly than tapping around on the touchscreen to find what you need. So, if I want to send an e-mail to Niraj, I just type “email Niraj” and the Q5 shows me an option where I can compose an e-mail to Niraj instantly as opposed to clicking on the e-mail icon, then compose, then start typing the name. It saves time because rather than go to the e-mail app, I can start composing an e-mail from anywhere. This works for BBM, calls, etc, too.

BlackBerry power users who loved traditional BlackBerry keyboard shortcuts such as ‘C’ for Compose, ‘T’ for going instantly to the top of the screen, ‘B’ for the bottom, ‘F’ for Forward, etc, will find them all on the Q5. There are over 200 such shortcuts for the power user. And unlike full-touch smartphones, QWERTY keyboard smartphones give you far more options for Speed Dial where literally each letter of the alphabet can be used as a Speed Dial entry.

On the browsing front, though the Q5 packs in a great HTML5 browser that is highly rated and very capable–it even supports Adobe Flash; the small screen size is painful for browsing as it is for watching videos. BlackBerry has thrown in a welcome Reader mode though, which strips the webpage of everything other than text and few pictures and is very useful for reading.

NFC (Near Field Communication) is supported on the Q5 and while mobile wallets may be some time away in India, it’s useful for sharing files and the Smart Tags app makes it even more useful.

The Q5 sports a 5 megapixel rear camera with flash that is capable of recording in 1080p and there’s a 2 megapixel front camera, capable of recording in 720p. While you can argue that mere specs alone don’t matter on processors but overall user experience does, the same can’t be said for cameras. And here it’s a fact that at this price point, the BlackBerry Q5 is a laggard in the camera department.

Shooting modes for this camera include Normal, HDR, Stabilisation and Burst mode. Scenes gives you the choice between Auto, Action, Whiteboard, Night and Beach or Snow. There are 4:3, 16:9 and 1:1 aspect ratios on offer. In the HDR (High-dynamic-range) mode the Q5 will click two pictures at different exposures and then average the two together. You can choose between the regular picture and the HDR-enhanced picture.

Image taken from Q5 by Ivor Soans.
Image taken from Q5 by Ivor Soans.

The TimeShift camera captures multiple images in a burst and then detects faces in the picture and allows you to choose the best profile shot of each person in the picture with a simple zoom and toggle option. This way, you can ensure no one’s blinking or looking away and you get that perfect group shot you wanted. On the camera front, perhaps this is the coolest selling point for the Q5.

The built-in photo editor app has some nifty features for post-processing. Photo quality is decent in good light, where colours are well-defined and accurately reproduced, though we had some problems with auto focus. On normal mode the camera didn’t do very well in artificially lit indoor areas like an office. Colours looked washed out and pictures were terribly grainy. However, the camera did a decent job in very low light with flash. This is smartphone with average cameras.

With Skype now available on BlackBerry 10, the front shooter is great for Skype, BBM Video (which will soon be available on iOS and Android) and for mobile self portraits.

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