BlackBerry’s KEYone brings a meaningful attempt to merge the best of BlackBerry with Android, but will this device hold up against its foes? We dive in!
The word “Bold” used to be part of the quintessential BlackBerry experience. Not only did the term refer to the company’s mid-weight device that sat in-between the bread-and-butter Curve and touchscreen Torch of yore, it also spoke of the company’s (then Research in Motion) ethos: a mix of affordable yet savvy hardware, cunning internet plans, and, of course, BlackBerry Messenger.
In 2017, BlackBerry’s conundrum is that triumvirate is a thing of the distant past. The company has staggered through blending its hardware with Android in a bid that birthed the mixed Priv and Alcatel-driven DTEK series, long gone are the heady days of the BlackBerry Internet Service (as South Africans will fondly remember) and BlackBerry Messenger has more or less been obliterated as a messaging service by WhatsApp (apart from a few dedicated holdouts around the world).
BlackBerry needs a miracle to stay relevant, and upon the war-torn hill arrives the KEYone; a new knight carrying forth the banner of productivity and security.
The KEYone set the internet aflame with its debut earlier this year perhaps not so much for its prowess or savvy (we’ll review those factors in a brief moment) but for its looks – the device rolls together classic BlackBerry features such as physical QWERTY keyboard, sturdy frame, keyboard frets and more with the convenience of Android and a massive, steady battery to boot.
By looks, at least, this is a cocktail that amounts to classic BlackBerry in looks; but is this a package that can – finally – marry two very disparate worlds together? It’s time to find out.
The BlackBerry KEYone brings with it a curiously tailored set of specs; onboard is a power-efficient Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 Soc in addition to 3GB of RAM and 32GB of expandable internal storage as well as a 3505mAh battery.
The handset benefits from 1080 x 1620 resolution on its 4.5″ display, a front-mounted fingerprint scanner on its spacebar key, and a 12-megapixel primary camera in addition to an 8-megapixel selfie snapper.
In a sea of glass and aluminum smartphones espousing a slim and slate-like design, the KEYone is refreshingly different. This isn’t a slim and trim handset; glass doesn’t dominate the device, nor is there a slim metal unibody. Instead, consumers benefit from a sizeable and weighty handset that feels refreshingly familiar in the hand; a little like a whiff of nostalgia from a time when devices were chunky yet funky. The KEYone manages to stand apart from the pack by being – well – simply different.
The handset begins with its QWERTY keyboard sitting loud and proud above the trim of the handset. Buttons are sturdy and enjoy far greater travel than aboard the Priv; the spacebar key which houses a fingerprint scanner sits slightly above the flush finish of the keys, while an aluminum fret divides rows as on the Bold handsets of yesteryear.
Above sits Android’s classic soft-touch navigation keys, while a 3:2 portrait display dominates the rest of the device’s real estate save for an aluminum frame that houses the onboard selfie camera. The phone is ensconced by an aluminum frame with a volume rocker and convenience key on the right, while a single power button sits atop on the left. The rear of the smartphone is adorned by a classic pleather coating and large, round camera module which protrudes slightly from the rear panel.
Where the BlackBerry Priv left some customers concerned with regards to its build quality – thanks to a creaky slider and mushy keyboard – and the DTEK series merely copy/pasted the efforts of Alcatel’s (Read: TCL Communications’) devices – the KEYone is the first original effort from BlackBerry mobile and, thankfully, exudes a sense of finesse. There’s little getting around it; those of us who’ve become accustomed to virtual keyboards might struggle to find our groove with a physical keyboard, though BlackBerry has rewarded loyalists with a well-cut set of keys that offer a great amount of travel and finesse.
The bonus for consumers here is that most keys can be customized to quickly launch an action with either a short or long press, meaning that convenience is king. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the device is that it represents BlackBerry sticking to its strengths; this is no attempt to carve out a design rival to, let’s say, the Galaxy S8, but rather espouses BlackBerry’s design hallmarks and brings them into 2017 with Android 7 Nougat to boot.
Usually, we tend to interpret a smartphone’s physical design as external to its user interface, though the BlackBerry KEYone is (arguably) one of the few devices that has taken meaningful steps to marry together its hardware and software.
There’s good evidence to support this; for example, the handset’s convenience key is assignable to many common Android apps, functions, and shortcuts offered by BlackBerry’s launcher. Fans of Google Assistant, for example, will have a quick way to summon Now cards, and even Cortana or Alexa acolytes can devote the button to their favourite function; nevermind the fact that the key can serve as a camera launcher or even a WhatsApp toggle.
This is further compounded by the fact consumers are rewarded with 52 hotkeys to launch their favourite functions (26 alphabetical keys each with a long and short toggle) and the device’s fingerprint scanner neatly tucks into its spacebar key without unnecessarily protruding or obstructing the general use of the key while typing.
Some of BlackBerry’s old tricks remain, and for once there’s no outright focus on device security, though the company’s DTEK features still remain; both the Hub and BlackBerry’s array of shortcuts are present while new additions such as the Privacy Shade lets users selectively brighten and dim areas of their screen to hide activity from the prying eyes of office wardens and bosses alike. BlackBerry’s Android skin remains close to stock Android, and thankfully sits neatly on the KEYone’s 3:2 display; though some of us may have to become accustomed to the smaller space which menu and chat text can take up.
The KEYone is certainly no performance hound – though that isn’t to say that this isn’t a perfectly equitable contender. The choice of employing the bread-and-butter Snapdragon 625 SoC has proved to be one of the company’s best decisions yet in terms of battery life, and the device chugs through menial tasks as well as we’ve come to expect from Android’s emerging crop of sub R10k devices.
Where some devices attempt to focus on getting things done quickly, the KEYone excels at getting many things done at once; BlackBerry’s convenience features and software smarts excel for power users looking to blast through communications, text, and other media in a cinch.
App multitasking can sometimes become a stymied endeavor thanks to the Snapdragon 625’s slower speeds and the smaller scale of the KEYone’s screen, though the feature is perhaps most equitable for lighter uses such as text reference and chatting through an instant messaging app. BlackBerry’s DTEK suite remains the ever-present fingerman of its Android world, and to casual users continuous security reminders may become onerous; though boardroom fiends might well appreciate the company’s continuing focus on device security.
Thankfully, DTEK further gives consumers a lens to see what may be affecting the performance of their device as a whole, and gives an easy means for users to tailor their experience accordingly.
While many potential purchasers may be drawn to the KEYone for its convenience features, build, or simply its physical keyboard, the handset’s standout feature is arguably its battery life. Driven by the power-sipping Snapdragon 625 and with a massive 3505mAh battery, the KEYone is one of the few devices we’ve seen accommodate us well into a three-day period even when sizeably pushed; standby time only excels further as the device can regularly last well beyond a week when left to its own devices.
The outcome might be somewhat ironic for those of us who remember BlackBerry devices as wilting flowers that faded into the ether when one turned on 3G connectivity, though the KEYone is no such slouch; potentially ranking well beyond the first and foremost device we’d turn to for longevity beyond many other smartphones released this year.
When we last touched base with one of BlackBerry’s own designs, the Priv proved to be a mixed affair with a camera that was average at best and fell far short of being remarkable. While the Priv could eke out colour and detail, it often failed to find its feed in low-light scenarios and captured images with muddy focus.
The KEYone isn’t a substantial leap from that position, but it is a step forward; the handset can capture some striking images when pushed, though its default auto mode can leave some details to decay into muddy depths.
The phone offers good colour reproduction that can recreate punchy reds, blues, and greens, though the device can struggle in high-contrast environments and can fail to amicably balance highlights and shadows. Detail is far better this time, though the KEYone can similarly struggle to replicate snazzy shots in low light – reminding us of where the Priv fell short. While this is an effort that will please most just happy to have a decent camera, it falls short of where other affordable rivals have proven excellence.
The handset’s 8-megapixel selfie camera is a standout, offering detail and warmth for those who leverage video chat as part of their daily routine.
The BlackBerry KEYone has its weaknesses – it’s not the fast or most flashy smartphone around, nor does it have the photographic prowess some of its Android rivals have so superbly demonstrated in the recent past. However, it does do something remarkably important – it makes BlackBerry great again.
Thing is, for consumers who loved the Curve, Bold, and Torch of yore, the KEYone plays to those strengths and modernizes them; and where BlackBerry have had the opportunity to be clever, it has – bringing with it novel features such as customisable convenience keys and a fingerprint scanner embedded in its spacebar.
Thing is, the KEYone isn’t a grandiose design – but it is simple, clever, and efficient – the better hallmarks of a mobile brand that at one time owned the world through its determined focus on messaging, productivity, and the emerging mobile web.
Those three hallmarks may have long passed us by, but the KEYone significantly represents a BlackBerry that is prepared to hurtle forward into the future while redefining the better part of what made its handsets great all those years ago.
The BlackBerry KEYone isn’t for everyone. Not all of us need a productivity machine nor a physical keyboard with convenience keys – but for those of us who have pined for something different on the Android market to set ourselves apart from the boring slates of glass, plastic, and metal that permeate the budget, mid-range, and premium end of the market, the KEYone is that step apart.
Where an average camera and smaller screen may disappoint some, an excellent physical keyboard, focus on security and productivity, and an amazing battery life will reward consumers who pick up the handset and set off with BlackBerry into a new future.
To revert to an analogy we made of the BlackBerry Priv – we’re well on the other side of the Rubicon now.
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