Troy Wolverton: BlackBerry 10 improves, but not enough

San Jose Mercury NewsMay 14, 2014 

BlackBerry may be down, but it's not out. At least not yet.

The smartphone pioneer has struggled mightily in recent years, seeing its sales and market share plummet in the face of the onslaught from phones running Google's Android operating system and, to a lesser degree, the iPhone. The company's long-awaited response to those phones -- a collection of touch-screen devices running a completely revamped operating system launched last year dubbed BlackBerry 10 -- has done nothing to arrest that decline.

Despite those disappointing results, BlackBerry has continued to quietly plug away, releasing new devices and updating its software. When it launched, BlackBerry 10 was buggy and lacking in features. But thanks to improvements, the software is now more refined.

This spring, the company rolled out its latest update, prosaically dubbed 10.2.1. Perhaps the most notable improvements are those to its so-called Hub. Located just to the left of the main home screen, the Hub is a kind of universal inbox that brings together your latest email and text messages, updates from particular Facebook friends and Twitter mentions.

BlackBerry also has added some tools to allow users to better sift through all those messages. One cool new feature is the ability to sort messages by simply pinching the screen. Depending on how you configure the feature, you can pinch to see just priority messages or all unread messages.

Another neat feature in the Hub is a button for showing documents that are attached in particular messages. If you are looking for the spreadsheet you received from a colleague, you don't have to manually sift through all the messages you received from her; instead, you can press the button, view only your attachments and then search just through them.

Another messaging-related tweak allows you, when you receive a text or a BBM message, to respond to it without leaving the app you're in by pressing a button. Instead of switching you to another app, it opens up a small text box on top of the app you are in.

The changes in 10.2.1 go beyond messaging. Older versions of BlackBerry 10 would display icons on the lock screen that showed you how many unread email messages you had or how many alerts you'd received recently. Now you can tap on each of those icons and see short previews of the most recent messages or alerts. And you can go directly from the lock screen to a particular message by double tapping it. The feature works similarly to the lockscreen notifications on the iPhone, except that BlackBerry 10 groups like notifications together.

On the whole, the new features help make BlackBerry 10 feel much more complete than it did at launch. But they don't help the software overcome its two biggest problems.

The first of these is that there's very little about BlackBerry 10 that stands out as unique or compellingly different. Yes, the Hub helps you manage messages better than the default email managers for Android devices or the iPhone, and if messaging was still the primary use of smartphones, that might be a big point in BlackBerry's favor. But it's not. And you can find third-party apps for the iPhone and Android devices that can better help you manage your messages on those devices.

Beyond the Hub, the features BlackBerry 10 offers are similar to what you'll find for the iPhone or Android devices, though in some cases, they are less well-developed. Although BlackBerry 10 offers some voice control abilities, for example, it doesn't have an intelligent assistant as capable as Apple's Siri or Google Now.

The other big problem is that BlackBerry 10 still suffers from a dearth of applications. If Microsoft's Windows Phone is an afterthought for developers, BlackBerry 10 barely registers at all. While there are some 140,000 BlackBerry 10 apps in the company's store, that number is a small fraction of what you'll find for the iPhone or Android and is padded with lots of junk. Search for "Netflix" or "Pandora" and you'll find things like "What's New on Netflix" and the "Pandora City Guide," but you won't find either one of those popular streaming media apps.

It's great to see BlackBerry, despite everything, continuing to tinker with BlackBerry 10. Unfortunately, even though it's better and more refined, it's still not compelling enough to recommend it over Android or Apple's iOS.

BlackBerry 10, version 10.2.1

• Likes: "Pinch-to-zoom" feature helps sift through email messages; feature that allows users to see only attachments in their inbox; ability to respond to incoming messages without leaving current app; sorted notification previews in lockscreen

• Dislikes: Few compelling features; dearth of available apps

• Web: www.blackberry.com

Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Reach him at twolverton@mercurynews.com or @troywolv on Twitter. Read more from him at www.siliconbeat.com/author/twolverton

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