Hands on with the BlackBerry 10 keyboard and Dev Alpha phone

Up close, RIM's new Dev Alpha reference handset -- not an actual product -- looks very slick, especially running the freakishly smart BlackBerry OS 10 keyboard.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Heaven knows RIM has taken a quite a beating these last few years. Here at BlackBerry World 2012 in Orlando, a gathering of the RIM faithful, the company says it's on the mend and will focus like a laser on what it does best -- building mobile products for doers, not talkers.

Meet the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha
If you've lost hope that RIM smartphones running the promised BlackBerry 10 operating system would ever happen, you're not alone. That's why I was pleasantly surprised when the company showed off its newly-minted reference gadget, the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha. Of course seeing the gizmo for the first time didn't give me as much of a thrill as say a real device slated for actual production. That's right, the Dev Alpha is as its name suggests merely tool for developers to test their fledgling BlackBerry 10 OS app creations.

Despite its official pedigree, the Dev Alpha handset I saw was running the BlackBerry PlayBook OS and not BB 10. In fact, RIM representatives I met with explained that none of the Dev Alpha units attendees of BlackBerry Jam (a sister developer-only event also happening at BB World 2012) will take home will run the anticipated OS.

That's a shame because the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha's hardware looks and feels premium. When I held it in my hand I was struck with its solid -- even, dare I say, expensive -- feel. With blunt rectangular edges, the handheld sports an aesthetic akin to the PlayBook tablet. You'll even find a similar black rubberized material coating the phone's sides and back. Also like the PlayBook, the Dev Alpha features a micro USB port and HDMI out as primary connections.

RIM confided that the BlackBerry 10 Dev Alpha uses a 4.2-inch, 1280 by 768 resolution screen which looked sharp and colorful enough but not absolutely vibrant. One big departure from current BlackBerry products is the lack of real physical keys.


Do it don't say it
Hardware aside, the slickest aspect of the Dev Alpha device was a prototype of its keyboard software. Now I've used many virtual keyboards in my day, from multiple versions of stock Android, the iPhone, Windows Phone, to ones created by Samsung and HTC. I've even messed with compelling 3rd party options like Thumb and SwiftKey. I have to say though, the prototype RIM cooked up is pretty sweet. Sadly RIM didn't allow any photos or video of the keyboard, so I'll paint you a picture.

At first glance it doesn't look like much, just a standard layout with not many options for dual-functions. When you start typing, though -- that's when the magic happens. Each letter you tap will cause the phone to display suggested words above the letter it thinks you're most likely to type next. I tried my hand at banging out a few messages and I often found myself staring right at the word sitting on the tip of my tongue. It's honestly an uncanny feeling, almost as if the device was reading my mind.

Also nice is how you can flick suggested words up to the text field, sort of like a reverse Tetris game but your reward as I experienced first hand is swift sentence building. If you make a mistake, just swipe your finger horizontally across the keyboard to make quick deletions.


What's more, the RIM explained that the keyboard is designed to learn how you specifically punch keys, where exactly you tend to place your fingers etc, and will adjust itself to you over time "like a glove".

RIM Execs made it clear this approach is symbolic of the BlackBerry culture of getting things done and not merely talking or reading about it on the Internet. Of course if RIM doesn't ship these BB 10 products soon -- well, let's just say that will speak volumes as to who's doing and who's just talking.

About the author

Brian Bennett is senior editor for appliances at CNET and reviews a wide range of household and smart-home products. These include everything from microwave ovens, blenders, ranges and coffee makers to personal weather stations. An NYC native, Brian now resides in bucolic Louisville, Kentucky where he dreams of someday owning the sparkling house of the future.

 

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