BlackBerry 10.3 BETA Overview and First Impressions

BlackBerry 10.3

The much hyped and much anticipated BlackBerry 10.3 is getting a lot closer to being final with some stable leaks starting to roll out for multiple BB10 devices. With the UI overhaul, talk of a new Voice Assistant to rival Cortana, Google Now and Siri, and filling in more of the missing features hardcore BBOS users had, does it provide a worthy update? Keep in mind that this is not a released OS and is not complete. Some features are prone to change and some don’t work at all, so this is more of our thoughts and opinions based on our first experience with what will eventually become the 5th update to the BB10 platform.

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Let’s start with the most glaring change first, those hideous shadow boxes around the home screen icons are finally gone. Aside from the shadows being gone, some of the icons have gotten a makeover in the form of a more flat and clean look. Overall, they succeed at what they were going for and finally I can enjoy wallpapers without most of the screen interrupted by all of the gray. Some people didn’t mind the shadow boxes; however, I’m sure most will be accepting of this change.

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In terms of the home screen, there is well, actually a home screen. The small icon that resembled 4 boxes to show that it was the Active Frame screen has now been changed in the form of a small home icon. Also something that is neat and well appreciated is that when all of your Active frames are closed the screen doesn’t automatically jump to the apps page. Instead it stays put at the “home page” where you can get a nice view of that gorgeous abstract wallpaper, images of family and friends, significant other, sky, landscapes, mountains, rivers, etc. The point is that you get to view the wallpaper the way it was meant to be enjoyed without having to go to the lock screen or that one page with only one app displayed. Speaking of lock screen, you can now finally set two different images for home screen wallpaper and lock screen wallpaper. This is something many users have been wanting for a while so I’m glad to see that here as a built in function without the need for a third party app.

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Something also added is the ability to have unlimited apps in a folder. Before you were limited to having 16 apps, which could be a bit cumbersome for users who want to store a bunch of categorized apps, games, contacts, bookmarks, etc. so it’s nice to see that the limit is gone. As far as from a usability standpoint, the screen feels a lot more intuitive, for example you have to drag and hold an app over another icon for about a second and a half for it to actually make a folder. This delay is good because when rearranging apps you would have to be a bit careful that the app you want to move in front of another isn’t accidentally moved into a folder. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal on an everyday basis, but the small attention to detail is much appreciated and a nice step forward towards creating a more complete and polished OS.

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The Active Frame page can finally be customized, but not as much as we would’ve liked. In my personal experience with BB10 the Active Frames that serve as the minimized apps and or a widget-like view on the screen would always get pushed out of its place if you open a new app or close one. For example, let’s say I like to keep the weather and clock icon at the top of the page; however if I open the browser, Evernote, music, the camera and the calendar, those nice looking Active Frames for clock and weather are now pushed to the second page of the Active Frame screen. Keep in mind that BB10 has a focus on multitasking, so it’s very rare that the only thing you’re going to need to have open is clock and weather for instance. The solution implemented in 10.3 is the ability to rearrange Active Frames in the same way that you would with apps on the home screen. It’s done in the same way by pressing and holding the Active frame and then you can move it around to the place where you want it. Honestly though this seems like more of a stop-gap solution rather than a full one.

Let’s bring up the same scenario. So in 10.3 I simply drag the weather and clock Active Frames back into the places to my liking. Problem solved right? No because whenever I start web browsing, take a few pictures and take a note with Evernote, now my Active Frames are back out of place. To reiterate, this is a Beta and largely unfinished OS so I’m not going to make a full judgment until BlackBerry officially rolls out the OS, but that’s definitely one of the problems I and other people have had that hasn’t been fully resolved yet. We really should have to option to just pin Active fames in their spots so it looks like more of a home screen rather than a recent apps menu. With that being said, it does seem to be a step in the right direction.

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The UI has gotten a much flatter design and that is much appreciated as BB10 has a bit of a boring look to it. It wasn’t ugly, but design wise, there weren’t many improvements from the UI of BB7 or PlayBook OS. The blue gradients are gone in favor of clean lines and solid colors that makes the OS look as fresh as it truly is. The biggest beneficiary of this overhaul is easily BB10’s killer feature, BlackBerry Hub. The BlackBerry Hub looks absolutely amazing with a look that comes across as both professional and clean. I can’t really explain it, but it just looks great and is more of a joy to look at as a result. In terms of functionality the Hub has the ability to finally download all attachments of a certain message (no more tapping each attachment individually), to delete messages with one click, to file outbox (sent messages), delete original text, etc. Overall the Hub has brought back more hardcore features while updating the UI. A job well done.

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The camera has also gotten more of an overhaul that was greatly needed as it was pretty barebones in previous iterations of BB10. It has finally added features like Panorama, a timer, the ability to capture stills in video, 720p video capture at 60 frames per second, better face detection, tap to focus and more. The camera has its own dedicated button now which makes manual focus a lot easier and more intuitive (you can still use volume buttons to take a photo while the camera is activated. TimeShift, and HDR are now their own modes now along with Panorama and Camera/Video Recorder.

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The productivity apps have gotten a bit of improvements as well. Remember looks a lot nicer and has a very clean interface as does the calendar that now features a weekly view and adds a meeting and task mode. The agenda in weeks view is very nice as it gives you a handy way to see what you have for a certain week. If you have meetings, work schedules, class schedules, dates, days out with friends, volunteer day etc. it will be laid out in a very intuitive way. Also you can add a task directly from the calendar app which shows that they are improving the integration between Remember and the calendar.

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Intelligent Assistant is interesting as it looks to give Blackberry a viable option in the Voice Assistant wars. The assistant replaces the search app and can be triggered with the search button or by pressing and holding the Mute key. Unfortunately this feature doesn’t seem complete and there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out so it wouldn’t make sense to judge it. The UI does look very nice and it does list out the myriad of things you can get it to do. These include making a phone call, sending a text, sending a BBM, posting a Facebook status, sending a Tweet, creating a task, interacting with email, playing music, navigating, searching the device, searching the web, searching for information, etc. Basically this puts it at least in the same stratosphere of the other Voice assistants in terms of functionality, but performance, accuracy speed and overall usefulness have yet to be determined. It will be interesting to see how it pans out on the official release.

 

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The device monitor is now much more useful with it having a dedicated Active Frame, Wi-Fi and cellular Data usage monitors where you can set a limit. The keyboard has a more flattened and modern look as well as the browser that looks a lot more flush with the screen and other UI elements. Other apps remain relatively the same, except for the media apps that finally has an equalizer (particularly for music) and have an HTC Sense 6 like view where pictures are geo-tagged and put into a small slideshow powered by Story Maker. Also Android support has been bumped up to 4.3 if you’re into side loading. Also with a two-finger swipe down from any app you can get access to the quick settings that was before only accessible from the home screen or BlackBerry Hub.

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Overall BlackBerry 10.3 is a decent update and a nice step to the advancement of the BB10 platform. With as much of the UI overhaul being prevalent as the update as a whole, it seems like it could be BB 10.2.2 rather than 10.3. Maybe because it doesn’t seem like that big a jump from 10.2.1 as 10.1 was from 10.0 and 10.2 was from 10.1. This could mean a few things; one that the OS is starting to mature to the point where the glaring omissions have been filled already, the experience is stabilizing and is likely staying that way for a while, or maybe they took a relatively safe approach. Then again these thoughts might and will probably change when the full version is out. I would’ve liked to see universal dark and light theme like Windows Phone 8 and certain Android skins, landscape mode support, hiding apps, Google Play services for Android apps, pinning Active Frames and more. If you were already a huge fan of the platform and still plan to use it in the near and distant future this will be a very exciting update to grab for the UI changes and filing of missing features alone. For people using Android Kit Kat or Jelly Bean, IOS 7 or Windows Phone 8/8.1 there isn’t much new here to entice you to switch over. The core experience is still intact though and it still remains the best platform for communication hands down.