BlackBerry Z10 keyboard: not all it's cracked up to be

The BlackBerry Z10 was launched last week, part of the firm's make or break attempt to catch up with Apple, Samsung and Microsoft in the smartphone wars. It features the new BlackBerry 10 operating system, and a major part of its appeal is the new, and much-vaunted, onscreen keyboard system.

At first glance, it's nothing special. It has a standard, four-row Qwerty layout (at least for English speaking types). To access numbers and symbols you hit a button in the bottom-left corner, and word suggestions appear as you type. It's the way those predictions work that's different.

As you type, you'll notice that words begin to appear, not in a strip along the top of the keyboard as with most smartphone keyboards, but between the rows of keys - above the letter the phone thinks you're going to type next. For example, begin to tap out the word "special", and after the first three letters you'll see a number of different options fade into view: "speed" above the letter "e", "speak" above the letter "a", "special" above the letter "c", and "Spencer" (a slightly left-field suggestion, that may result from scans of the phone's address book) above the letter "n"; to add the intended word, a simple swipe up on the "c" is all that's required.

It goes further than predicting words based on mere letter patterns, too; it also looks at the words and sentence structure surrounding the word you're typing and refines its suggestions accordingly. Thus, when typing stock phrases, such as "I'm keeping my fingers crossed for you", it's possible to complete the sentence with surprisingly few taps and swipes. In this case, it took only 11 gestures to complete a 38-character phrase.

Sounds great, doesn't it? In some ways it is. Alas, there are serious flaws. The first is that the suggestions are in a font that's simply far too small and subtle. You might not even notice they're there at first, and we imagine some glasses wearers may have difficulty reading them at all. We can't imagine how the BlackBerry developers looked at this and didn't think it would be a problem.

The second is that, to keep scanning for these suggestions, your eyes have to be in far too many places at once: as with most other word prediction systems, you have to look at the keyboard when typing, then glance up to make sure you typed the letter correctly, but here you also have to keep scanning between the keys for suggestions.

In some situations we found this actually slowed typing down instead of speeding it up. It's possible to change the settings so suggestions only appear above the keyboard, but at this point words become irritatingly fiddly to swipe up. Another fault is the keyboard letters don't change case as you hit the Shift key. At least there's no typing lag.

Our opinion may change as we use the phone more, but right now, the BlackBerry Z10's onscreen keyboard needs a few improvements to turn it into the killer feature it deserves to be. Annoyingly, it's far from perfect right now.

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