The BlackBerry Classic review – Two thumbs up for this back-to-the-future delight

Bottom Line: The BlackBerry Classic combines the famous BlackBerry keyboard with a touch screen browser. OS 10 provides exceptional features that simplify the management messaging and documents. The ability to run Android apps provides access to popular productivity apps. The result is an exceptional user experience and a real aid to mobile productivity. Blackberry may no longer have market share, but it has proved that it can produce an exceptional and competitive product.


BlackBerry has finally hit one out of the park with its new BlackBerry Classic, just in time for the Christmas holidays. Reviews for the last big launch, the Passport, were mixed. Its unique appearance attracted a lot of attention, but people, perhaps for good reason, seemed to focus on the form factor — missing key features of the Passport, which were far more subtle.

This time the look of the device is not the story. As its name implies, the “Classic” isn’t trying for a new look. And based on our experience over the past few days, this device should win a lot of support.

The Classic hopes to win back a loyal core of business users by returning to BlackBerry’s positioning as the ticket to productivity for mobile business users. Mastering two-thumb typing once made a BlackBerry a road warrior’s secret weapon. Its trackball and shortcut keys made navigating and editing possible even on large documents. Business users could work anywhere. I once wrote an 1,800 word feature article for a technology journal while my flight was delayed at the Newark airport – on my BlackBerry. I’d never even attempt that on other mobile devices.

However, BlackBerry has lost a great deal of those early loyal users. In 2009, I traded my BlackBerry for an iPhone. In a web 2.0 world, I needed more than a phone and email – I needed an excellent browser and some of the new mobile apps.  What I lost personally was the ability to do writing of any real significance.


Thumbs up for the new Classic keyboard

Many of us who do a lot of writing or editing have learned to hate touch screen keyboards and their auto correction errors. Many email signatures include caveats stating that errors are not the fault of the sender. My favourite of these is very subtle. It says, “I’m not responsible for auto correction ears.”

If you have made the transition to touch screens, you might not find this impressive. But to those of us struggle with touch screens, the Classic is a welcome respite. The keyboard is responsive and easy to use. Shortcut keys make it simple to shift gears and do key tasks. The trackpad make navigating through even large documents easy. At least for me, with only a little practice on the Classic I was a two-thumbed terror once again.


Learning to love the Hub

But as much as BlackBerry focuses on the familiarity of navigation, the real strength of the Classic comes from the merge of the familiar navigation and the exceptional new features of OS 10. The heart of these is the “Hub.” As the name implies, the Hub brings together all of your accounts – phone, mail, social media, text, BBM.


A nightmare use case automated on the Classic

If your life is as complex as mine, the Hub is something you will learn to love. I have four email accounts, each of which has a separate purpose.   I need to see them all, but I need to manage them separately. I’m forever forgetting to check one or more of these on my phone.

I have a number of social media accounts that I need to keep track of. While Facebook is legitimately personal and family, the rest are business-related and I need to manage them effectively.

I use texting for key contacts – and often have extended conversations.

Managing calls with visual voicemail is essential – I’ve become so accustomed to it that when I had a phone that didn’t have it, I found myself constantly forgetting to check messages.

Then there is my calendar and to-do lists.

The Classic puts all of this into one single elegant design. See it all? No problem. Isolate one account? One little touch on the screen will do this. The apps are straightforward and easy to use with no need for training. Even something like putting a picture into a tweet is a piece of cake. With one swipe you can also check your calendar right in the middle of this. Flag messages or let the software figure out what to prioritize, which it does very well.

Having all of this in one place, with a great UI design, makes the Classic an amazing user experience.   The ability to choose between the keyboard and the touch screen is perfect. You can do a detailed email, text or edit with the keyboard. You can do a quick reply one-handed with the touch screen.  While the Classic is missing the predictive suggestions of the Passport, it does have an impressive ability to predict email addresses and other useful info.


From mobile to desktop – a consistent experience

If you use the BlackBerry Blend software that comes with the phone, you can replicate this same experience on your laptop. I frequently move from device to device – laptop, phone, and tablet. Every change has a minor disorientation. The Classic’s Blend software standardizes the management email/calendar/messaging/documents across all platforms. The consistent experience on any device makes things a lot simpler.

Document handling and management of MS Office docs

OS 10 on the Classic allows you to manage documents on your phone. Under “Docs to Go” you can not only view, but you can edit all MS Office documents. It could just be me, but I find this hard to do on all but the large tablet touchscreens. I picked up a Word document and a Powerpoint presentation and edited them easily. Even on the small screen. the clarity combined with the accuracy of the trackball and the ease of use of the keyboard made editing a breeze. I could imagine making a last minute change to a presentation in the cab on the way to the client’s office as a real practical possibility.


And one more thing…

It’s almost as if someone posted Jobs’ famous quote on the wall when they did the UI design for OS 10 and the Classic. There’s a raft of subtle functions that – dare I say it – delight the user as you explore.

For example, File Manager does a great job of keeping documents on the phone organized and easy to retrieve. Attaching any of these can be done one-handed on the touch screen. But OS 10 adds another function. You can display a list of just the attachments to your email. Like me, you might often find yourself looking for an attachment that you know someone sent on an email – and it’s always one where there are 30 similar emails from the same person – often with the same subject line. When you flick the list to just see the attachments, finding the right one is a lot easier.

I stumbled on another interesting feature as I looked for a document. The Classic was no longer tethered to my Mac, but I could still retrieve files from the Mac using the File Manager. This wasn’t through the Cloud – it was a device-to-device link when they were connected to the same wireless network.

The designers have anticipated many seemingly little or subtle aspects of what is needed by a business user and have incorporated these into the design so that the phone adapts, suggests and occasionally surprises you.   These are the small, but important aspects of great UI design – they create the ability to surprise and delight the user.


Why hasn’t someone thought of this before?

Another productivity tool that I’m just scratching the surface on is the BlackBerry Assistant.  I admit I should read documentation more thoroughly, but I’ve opted for a more realistic “play and learn” method. That’s how I found the “Assistant” – by holding the centre button on the right side and holding for a second.

With my short time of playing around, I have to say that voice recognition is superb. With the radio playing in the background (Christmas carols) I could phone people, enter reminders, leave notes for myself and even ask the simple and practical questions like “what’s a nearby restaurant” – all with voice commands.

Even though I live in the middle of nowhere,I did get four credible suggestions to my request for a restaurant. The fifth entry was for a company that pumps out septic systems.  I hope this isn’t the Classic’s idea of a restaurant review.   But everything else was clear and accurate.  I’m told that this system also learns and organizes the interface, but I haven’t had the Classic long enough to really test this.

My one quibble?  The processing time on the Assistant is a little slow when using cellular,  although I would trade speed for accuracy any time.


Browser – Does size really count?

BlackBerry touts the new screen as “larger in size”.  I presume that is in comparison to other BlackBerry devices, because compared to anything else on the market, the screen has a smaller overall area – two centimetres shorter than even a regular iPhone.  Curiously, I doubt this will be a dealbreaker.  I’m used to the larger screens of the Galaxy or even the Passport, but even though the screen was smaller, it didn’t make me uncomfortable at all.

I watched a video – it’s a little smaller but it’s clear.  I had no problem seeing well enough to review and approve two videos from the office while doing my Christmas grocery shopping. I downloaded my Kindle app and read part of a book.  That too was fine.

I went to the file manager and edited a few documents. As noted earlier, even a PowerPoint presentation was workable on the screen.   I found that you could adjust the screen aspect – something that is apparently useful for playing games. On this one, I have no idea – nor will I.

While I love exploring the features of any device, I have no desire to play games on my phone – never have and never will. So if anyone out there has an opinion on the Classic and gaming, please post it as a comment.


Android – Apps on tap

Even though I don’t play games on my phones, I do make use a number of important apps that have become essential to me. Most of the popular apps I need came loaded in.  Evernote, Google Maps, and Dropbox are essential. Adobe’s PDF app isn’t something I use a lot, but it’s certainly handy when you do need it.

Given the way the Hub manages everything in an integrated fashion, I’m not sure how much I’ll be using some of the other apps. Likewise, Documents to Go as is so good at managing documents I didn’t even look for anything else. LastPass was not included, but BlackBerry has its own secure password manager, so that’s no surprise.

A couple of omissions were mysteries to me. Given the way that everything else about the Classic seems so well-planned, CamCard – one of the best Android business card scanner/readers – isn’t pre-loaded as it was on the Passport. But if you are missing an app, you can find a lot of them in the Amazon Store which is included in the base package – that’s where I got CamCard, my Kindle app, LastPass and a few other essential apps.

Some apps are not in the Amazon store. Why? I’m not sure. I couldn’t get the CBC Radio app, which is a problem for me. I don’t use a radio, except in the car, but I’m addicted to CBC radio programs.

If you find yourself in this predicament, with a very little effort you can download Snap or a similar app that will allow you to download any Android app.  So far, I’ve found that even the “non-approved” apps I’ve loaded have all run as well as they do on my other Android phones.


Did I mention the battery?

BlackBerry has really worked on battery life. I first noticed this on the Passport, and I still can’t believe the length of time that we got on the Curve. Other than the aforementioned Passport, I don’t think I’ve used a phone that I haven’t had to charge daily and sometimes with heavy use, more than that. I haven’t tried to run out the Classic yet, but I’ve gone well over a day without charging and still had lots of time left.


Can the Classic revive the BlackBerry franchise?

I was at a conference in the U.S. a year ago and there was one lone BlackBerry user in the entire theatre where the sessions were – or at least only one user who would admit to it. He took a lot of kidding.

It’s not possible to laugh at the Classic. It’s a serious and very competitive device that does a lot of things very well. At its best, it’s a lesson in effective design for the mobile user.

BlackBerry has done a lot of things right with OS 10 and the Classic. One phone model is unlikely to bring BlackBerry back to a leadership role. But it’s certainly no longer possible to count BlackBerry out as an option.

But the fact is the Classic is only one in a recent string of strong moves from BlackBerry. Even to the critics, the Passport was innovative. OS 10 is a winner without question. The recent announcement that BES will embrace mobile device management of all phones has led to what might have seemed an unlikely partnership with Samsung.

Blackberry might not be the leader in market share, but it’s certainly rediscovering its core customers and finding its own sense of direction. In the process, it’s giving its customers some new things to discover. In the hotly competitive area of mobile device design and manufacturing, that’s a big accomplishment.

I’d love to hear your opinions.

Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO of a great company - IT World Canada - Canada's leading ICT publisher.

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