These are tough times for BlackBerry. Earlier this year, the Canadian company went all-in on its new smartphone operating system, BlackBerry 10, ditching the original company name (Research In Motion)  and shifting the focus from the physical QWERTY keyboards that made its name in the mid-2000s, instead launching with its full-touchscreen Z10 phone, which promptly failed to impress.It soon followed up with a more traditional form factor, the Bold-inspired Q10, but six months into the company’s planned comeback, both high-end models have made no visible dent in the Android-iOS duopoly. As of its most recent quarterly earnings, the company’s still selling more of its older BlackBerry OS phones around the world. When they run out of date software and cost much less, that’s a bad sign for its bottom line.Enter the BlackBerry Q5: it’s a plastic wrapped, lower price BlackBerry 10 handset with the same tricks as its siblings, but at £320 SIM-free or free on contracts from around £21 per month, it’s somewhat more affordable. Can that price tag overcome BlackBerry 10’s dire lack of apps?

The Curve is Back

BlackBerry once split its phones under two brands: the cheaper Curve line, with its isolated, hard keys, and the pricier Bold line, with a soft rubber keyboard and executive aspirations. Though it’s dropped the names with the launch of BlackBerry 10, it’s clear that the spirit of both lives on: the Bold survives as the Q10, while the more mass market Curve becomes the Q5.

That means you get a similar plastic shell, even if BlackBerry’s now colour-blocking (our vivid red unit was nicely shaded, if quite creaky with an obvious division where the two faces connect) in favour of the drab two-tone grey and black it used to run with. The Q5 seems narrower, somehow, more manageable, even if at 10.8mm deep, it’s really not that thin.

It must be down to the solid keyboard, which remains as reliable as ever; the individual  keys click down with just the right amount  of give. While touchscreen keyboards have made massive advances in recent years (SwiftKey’s predictive software even powers the touchscreen keyboard on the BlackBerry Z10), we’ve no doubt there’s a group of die hard BlackBerry fans out there unwilling to put aside all that muscle memory and they’ll appreciate this throwback to yesteryear’s mobile tech.

One significant change that BlackBerry Q10 has wrought to the keyboard is its shape. To maximise the screen space above, BlackBerry’s completely straightened the rows. Veterans will find this looks more than a little strange at first, but truth be told it makes little to no difference and we found we could type just as fast as we always could.

The display, however, is a big leap forward; the 720×720 pixels, 3.1-inch LCD touchscreen is far bigger than that found on any previous Curve phone with a QWERTY keyboard. It’s much sharper too, with a crisp pixel density that makes reading long emails and browsing the web easy on the eye, even if colour reproduction doesn’t quite match the vivid AMOLED display of the Q10. However, do be aware that its square aspect ratio does not lend itself to watching videos.

All in all, it’s hard to get too excited about the hardware on offer. Certainly, companies like HTC and Nokia provide much better build quality for the same price, but the BlackBerry Q5 gets the job done and that might be all you need to hear.

Your Finger On The Buttons

Part of BlackBerry’s fall from grace was its failure to update its operating system until now. Its 2012 phones were running on the same archaic core as its 2002 phones, which made them look like anachronisms next to the iPhone on a shop shelf, with miserable graphics and far too many PC-like dialog boxes popping up wherever you went.

BlackBerry 10, thankfully, is a complete rebuild for modern times and it’s perfectly easy to use on the Q5, even if it does little to stand out. It’s relatively power-sipping (we easily cleared a day and a half of use with the 2,180mAh battery, just as we used to with BlackBerrys of yore) and simple to navigate; you can search by typing, swipe up from the bezel below the screen to multitask and from the side to get to your notifications, wherever you are.

The core services are competent enough  too. The browser is speedy and with its free turn by turn navigation, BlackBerry Maps has come on leaps and bound (it’s even better than Apple Maps and certainly more accurate, not that that would be hard). Meanwhile the BBM messaging service is its usual reliable self (with one clever feature, we have to admit, the ability to share your screen with others as you can with Skype on a desktop).

The problem is, however, these core services are not essential. Take the once vaunted messaging system. Once upon a time, BlackBerry’s universal inbox, now called the Hub, was a unique selling point. Seeing all your emails, texts and even Twitter messages in one spot made keeping on top of things easier. The problem for BlackBerry is that it’s since been bettered: Android’s notification system in version 4.1 and up is vastly superior to this inbox. Both are accessible from anywhere, but Google’s alerts can be removed, expanded and even edited or responded to from any app. Apple’s Notification Center likewise looks more promising than ever in the company’s upcoming iOS 7 release.

It’s not that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with BlackBerry 10 or the Q5. Everything runs smoothly and the rear camera is naturalistic and performs reasonably well for a five megapixel sensor in this price-bracket  (but like the Z10, fails epically in low light situations). It’s just these are the boxes every phone needs to tick to even stand a chance these days. This is the bare minimum in 2013, not some breakthrough.

The App Issue

BlackBerry’s biggest problem isn’t one it can fix on its own however: it need apps like a plant needs water. If users can’t find the latest hit games and apps on the BlackBerry World store, why should they bother? And if BlackBerry 10 lacks users, why should developers bother to code for it? As of right now, the platform is still missing essential services like Instagram, Netflix and Spotify, with no sign of a resolution in sight.

The Q5, with its lower price tag and messaging focus, feels this problem less keenly than the supposedly flagship Z10, but still needs help, stat. Right now, BlackBerry’s solution is a nasty one: let users download certain Android apps from the store, which aren’t clearly labelled as such, and run like sludge, even though the 1.2GHz dual-core processor never struggles with native apps (It’s also possible to sideload converted Android apps, but the process is extremely messy).

Granted, this is a problem BlackBerry isn’t facing alone. Microsoft has struggled to justify its Windows Phone operating system and break out of the chicken and egg death-spiral when many developers still take an iPhone-first, then-Android, then-get-some-sleep approach. But it’s had two and a half years to do so, and has made some ground, snagging some essential services and earning a reputation for being easy to use.

Ignore the campaign messages, for Blackberry’s OS offers only limitations. It’s reliving another company’s problems almost three years on – an eternity in mobile – and it’s hard to see a phone like the BlackBerry Q5 rescuing it from its predicament, when the iPhone and Android continue to deserve to dominate.

Verdict

Cheaper the BlackBerry Q5 may be, but that discount is something of an illusion: it only seems that way because the company charged such a staggering amount for the Q10. Even with £200 knocked off that, the BlackBerry Q5 is just not worth the price of admission for most: it feels cheaper still compared to its classy touchscreen rivals.

If you must have a QWERTY phone, it may still be worth considering, but right now though, BlackBerry has a more pressing problem to solve: proving that people need BlackBerry 10 at all.