Blackberry Priv review: an imperfect union
After over a week with the BlackBerry Priv, I’m still not entirely convinced it’s real. I was joking when I tweeted that it felt like a phone from an alternate universe, but just barely. If you told me the Priv was a prop from the set of a 2005-era science fiction movie, some decade-old concept for what the future of BlackBerry would be, I’d probably believe you. That’s a testament to the level of consistency BlackBerry has achieved with the Priv: no matter what else it is, at its core it’s still a BlackBerry.
That means it’s complex –sometimes needlessly so– and also expensive, disadvantages that have in the past been offset by the BlackBerry’s reputation as a productivity powerhouse. In 2005, if you wanted to get things done on the go, you bought a BlackBerry (in fact, the company’s BB 7520 was my first smartphone). But it’s 2015. The competition has grown up, and now almost every iPhone or Android smartphone can be pressed into service as an office assistant, while the new crop of Windows Phones can transform into fully-fledged desktop computers given the right hardware. People no longer need a BlackBerry to get things done.
It’s this new climate the BlackBerry Priv was designed to tackle. By trading the placid consistency of the BlackBerry OS for the vibrant ecosystem of Android and tossing in a physical keyboard, BlackBerry hopes to make itself appealing to a new class of prosumer: one who doesn’t mind paying a little extra for some “priv”ilege and “priv”acy. The result is a surprisingly good smartphone, but one that needs some big changes before it can be called a success.
BlackBerry Priv Review Video
Hardware & Keyboard
Portrait-oriented sliders are rare enough that when one shows up on the scene it generally makes a splash – but the BlackBerry Priv makes an impression even before you slide it open. Its Quad HD P-OLED display is spacious at 5.4″ and absolutely gorgeous under the Gorilla Glass 4 lens, which curves gently at the edges to meet the Priv’s rounded sides. The cover glass stops short of the phone’s bottom lip to make room for a loud and clear front-firing speaker whose grille takes up the entire width of the device. Up top, sharing space with the earpiece is the BlackBerry brand name, which is flanked by one of the company’s oldest trademarks: a bright notification LED that flashes a brilliant red by default.
The Priv’s posterior doesn’t impress quite as much. While the glass weave material is attractive in a rugged sort of way, it suffers from a startling amount of give when pressed. The effect is not unlike the “trampoline” problem faced by some Nexus 9 tablets: even a light press on the Priv’s spine sends the material dipping into a seemingly large air pocket beneath. It goes without saying that that’s not the sort of fit and finish we expect from a $700 smartphone, especially when manufacturers like OnePlus are delivering top-notch build quality for a third the price of the Priv. On the plus side, the back cover features probably the grippiest soft-touch coating we’ve ever come across. While that means it picks up more than its share of dust and fuzz, it also makes the Priv very easy to keep a grip on when you slide its screen out of the way to reveal its most distinctive feature.
If you’re coming from another BlackBerry, you’ll probably be a little let down by the Priv’s QWERTY thumbpad. While the company deserves serious credit for managing to fit such an intricate assembly into a chassis this thin, the lack of space means the keys don’t offer the travel or mechanical feedback BlackBerrys have come to be known for. They’re not as clicky as those on the Classic, and they’re not as spacious as those on the Passport.
But this is one of those areas where BlackBerry’s sub-1% market share might work to its advantage. A large portion of the Priv’s potential audience, those Android and iOS users who haven’t laid thumbs on a “crackberry” in years, will probably find a lot to like in the Priv’s contoured clackers. That includes us: after about a week of practice, we’re now able to bang out more words per minute at higher accuracy with the Priv’s physical keyboard (265 CPM / 53 WPM) than its software one (239 CPM / 48 WPM). That’s not a strike against BlackBerry’s virtual keyboard, by the way: it’s just as good as ever, with excellent predictive text that lets you swipe directly on the keys to auto-complete. But we usually only break out the VKB when we need to use the Priv one-handed. The rest of the time we prefer the physical keyboard. (If you’re reading this on your Priv and want to try the typing test yourself, here’s the one we used.)
Much of that has to do with the fact that the Priv’s thumbpad is good for much more than typing. Aping one of the most innovative features of the aforementioned Passport, BlackBerry has used equal parts engineering and magic hackery to convert the Priv’s keyboard into one big trackpad. That means you can place the cursor exactly where you want it just by moving your thumbs across the buttons. It also means you can scroll lists, webpages, menus and more without ever touching the screen – and considering how tall the Priv is when it’s open, that makes for a much more comfortable user experience.
There’s a third layer of convenience to the Priv’s physical keyboard, and it’s a big part of what made older BlackBerrys so addictive: shortcuts. You can program any of the Priv’s keys to open any app with a single click, and each supports either a short or a long press, for a total of 52 possible shortcuts. A short-press of the C key might launch the camera, for example, while a long-press might take you to the calculator. Alternately, you can disable the shortcuts in favor of Device Search, which lets you just start typing from the home screen to jump right into a contact, app, or Google search. And within certain apps, you can press T to jump to the top of a page or B to jump to the bottom – a convenience so addictive we didn’t even need a reviewer’s guide to remind us about it, having remembered it from our days with the BlackBerry Curve.
Until now we’ve mainly focused on the up sides of the Priv experience. Unfortunately, things start getting substantially bumpier when you dive deeper into the software, which is a custom interface built atop Android 5.1.1 Lollipop.
That older foundation means the Priv lacks significant improvements brought by Android Marshmallow like performance upgrades, battery saving measures, and –most crucially for a phone that builds the word “privacy” into its brand name– individual app permissions. BlackBerry has promised a Marshmallow upgrade sometime in 2016; until then its DTEK security dashboard will have to do. Much of what DTEK offers is generic (like the no-duh suggestion to use a screen lock) but it does offer some useful information like which apps are requesting access to your location, and how often. The Priv also comes with device-wide encryption enabled out of the box and a variety of behind-the-scenes security measures like a hardened Linux kernel and a secure bootchain – though many of these don’t provide much more security than comparable offerings from, say, Samsung. Most puzzling of all is the lack of a fingerprint reader; though it’s not the most secure technology in the world, its omission still makes the Priv feel somewhat dated.
The BlackBerry Launcher is peppered with custom enhancements, many carried over from BlackBerry 10. Most prominent of these is the BlackBerry Hub, which aggregates notifications from various sources into a single stream. If you like getting all your alerts in one list this is one of the best ways to do it – in theory. But in practice we found ourselves using the Hub because we had to, rather than because it actually made our lives easier. For one thing, Android already has a very solid approach to aggregating alerts: it’s called the notification drawer. And though the Hub aspires to be a much more sophisticated total messaging solution, all its added bulk weighs the Priv down. It’s even more sluggish on Android than it was on BB10, with often-used interface elements like the folder menu placed frustratingly far away in the upper-left corner. And like much of the Priv experience, it’s inconsistent: tapping on an SMS message in the Hub boots you into the phone’s default messaging app rather than letting you carry on the conversation from within the Hub, and Google Hangouts isn’t supported at all.
That inconsistency is hardly confined to the Hub. In fact, many corners of the Priv’s software bear witness to the difficulty of porting the BlackBerry user experience to the Android platform. While the Gmail app recognizes the “T” and “B” keyboard shortcuts, for example, the Inbox by Gmail app does not. Because the capacitive keyboard scrolling uses Android’s Mouse framework, trackpad actions will work only in apps running updated libraries: so while scrolling is flawless inside Instagram and Twitter, it’s inverted in Facebook (so up-swipes register as down-swipes), it doesn’t work at all in Google Maps, and it scrolls many pages at a time in Google Docs. The mere presence of the thumbpad makes the car-racing game Asphalt 8 unplayable, as it disconnects the motion controls in favor of what it assumes is a separate keyboard or gamepad. And otherwise-useful features like Device Search are hobbled by a mixture of performance issues and bad design decisions: there’s so much lag that Search either doubles up on the first letter you type or drops it completely, and it also doesn’t clear searches between sessions like it does in BB10.
These hiccups in execution are a shame, because the BlackBerry launcher includes some really smart concepts. If you’re using a Trusted Device like a smartwatch, you can set the Priv to wake up automatically when you pick it up, and go back to sleep when you place it face-down on a table. In a nod to Action Launcher, some apps include pop-up widget support, so you can swipe up to reveal their accompanying widgets when you need them and keep them hidden when you don’t. There’s also a more useful implementation of Samsung’s edge-screen functionality in the form of the Productivity Tab, which provides quick shortcuts to tasks, email, contacts and calendar when you swipe in from the side of the screen. And almost every corner of the software can be customized with shortcuts and smart actions. The result is an Android phone that’s more customizable out of the box than almost anything out there – as long as you’re willing to deal with the pitfalls that come with forcing Android to accommodate the BlackBerry experience.
(Related article: 8 things you didn’t know you could do with the BlackBerry Priv)
BlackBerrys have never been known for their imaging prowess – and on the software side, you could be forgiven for thinking this is the same old BlackBerry. The Priv’s viewfinder is slow to launch, slow to focus, and slow to save photos; it’s got only the barest of manual controls; it makes a lot of unnecessary noises; and it often reverts to default settings between shooting sessions, which is infuriating. In short: the software needs some work.
The hardware, though, is definitely a step up from the norm. Under the protruding Schneider-Kreuznach lens sits a Sony IMX230 sensor, the same one used by the Moto X Pure Edition. Here, that sensor has been cropped to 18MP and given optical stabilization, and the result is a camera that’s capable of some solid photos with accurate colors and crisp detail in daylight. It can even make waning autumn afternoon light work for it in some cases, with HDR helping out in the shadows (at the expense of saturation, as usual).
Like its counterpart on the Moto X, this camera favors authenticity over bombast, so color sometimes seems a little dead. That’s especially true in low light, where the diminishing saturation is made worse by a significant increase in digital noise. We shot a few photos side-by-side with the Nexus 6P, whose camera did a much better job of preserving color and contrast, especially at night. Still, the Priv is capable of taking photos that most folks will find more than adequate.
We can’t say the same for the selfie shooter, an anemic 2MP module whose main distinctions are heavy grain, a bluish tint and poor low-light performance. It’ll work for Instagram, but you should expect video callers to ask what phone you’re using … and not in a good way.
In camcorder mode (where the Priv’s settings range from 720p/60fps to 4K/30fps), the output is pretty solid. The optical stabilization does a really nice job compensating for footsteps and hand jitters, while autofocus and exposure keep up with even quick pans across highlights and shadows. 4K video is especially impressive in terms of sharpness: while preparing this review, we wasted a lot of time going frame-by-frame through our beach footage and remarking at the level of detail on the shells and in the water. Unfortunately, in smooth expanses without a lot of detail (like a clear sky) there’s an awful lot of digital noise. It’s not enough to make the video unwatchable, but it’s much more severe than we’ve seen on other phones in this class, and it’s definitely a little distracting even if you’re not looking for it. Fortunately you can shoot all the 4K video you like if you invest in a memory card: the Priv features a MicroSD slot to go along with the 32 gigs of onboard storage.
On the whole, the camera suite here is best described as slightly above average, which for a BlackBerry is great. The viewfinder needs an overhaul, and we’d like to have seen better low-light and selfie quality, but the Priv will suit most mobile photographers’ needs just fine.
We’ve used the BlackBerry Priv for eight days on T-Mobile US between rural New York and Greater Boston. During that time, we’ve made many more cellular calls than usual, partly due to the fact that the Priv is just so dang comfortable to talk on. With its display deployed, it’s almost tall enough to feel like an old landline receiver. Neither we nor our callers had any complaints about sound quality over either earpiece or speakerphone, and the dedicated mute key (which at first seemed superfluous) is one of those features you have to experience to understand just how convenient it can be.
While the Priv has benefited from several software updates in the short time we’ve had it, there remains plenty of room for improvement in fluidity and speed throughout. Apps crash fairly regularly, and every time the phone boots up it takes several minutes to get itself sorted, during which time the Snapdragon 808 processor seems to be working almost constantly. Just like on the Moto X, the 808 runs pretty hot on the Priv: the night before this review went to press, our device was charging on AC power while updating apps over WiFi, and within three minutes of starting its first download, it reached 119°F on the back cover. Most phones get plenty hot when updating apps on wall power, but the Priv seems to run warm all the time. (It doesn’t seem to get any benefit from it either; the Priv scores substantially lower in GeekBench 3 than does the Moto X, and despite its 3GB of DDR3 RAM, multitasking is still a somewhat pokey experience.)
Maybe the processor woes have something to do with the battery life we’ve been getting, which is mediocre considering the Priv’s 3410 mAh power pack. With an average of 16 hours from wakeup to bedtime, we were able to exceed 4 hours of screen-on time just once in eight days. Now, there are plenty of possible explanations for this: we routinely run our phones harder than most folks; this is a Canadian review device not built specifically for T-Mobile; and every time it restarts it flips on a bunch of features like WiFi calling that we then have to shut off again. But that’s still a pretty lame showing given the phone’s huge battery. Also lame: the Canadian version lacks wireless charging while the US build includes it. And while all models support quick charging, none of them ship with a quick charger in the box.
+ Beautiful hardware
+ Keyboard is more than just a keyboard
+ Useful software improvements
+ Best BlackBerry camera ever (and it’s pretty good by normal standards, too)
– Build quality not up to par with previous BlackBerrys
– Software needs refinement
– Significant performance issues
– Overpriced relative to competition
Pricing and Availability
The BlackBerry Priv is available directly from BlackBerry at a preorder price of $699, with shipments expected to resume the week of November 30th. AT&T’s full retail pricing is an even-steeper $739.99, but that can be broken down to 30 monthly payments of $24.67, or chopped down to $249.99 with a 2-year agreement. Both T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless are also on deck to offer the Priv, but at press time, there was no word on a Sprint variant of the device.
The BlackBerry Priv is a device I really want to endorse – and not just for nostalgic reasons. It packs an innovative keyboard and a beautiful display into a unique form factor, and it brings some really thoughtful software improvements that make Android more useful and customizable. Also, its elegant sliding form factor breaks up the never-ending parade of static slabs we’ve been complaining about for years. Personally, I really like the Priv; once it gets its Marshmallow update, I may well buy one of my own.
But it’s not a $700 smartphone. Not with devices like the Moto X Pure Edition and the LG G4 on the market, which offer much more consistent experiences with similar hardware, while costing far less. Yes, you could make the argument that the Priv is targeted mainly at enterprise customers with money to spend – but those are the very customers who are least likely to put up with the performance issues that we’ve seen from the Priv.
What all that boils down to is a two-sided recommendation. If you need something rock-solid that’s all about getting the job done with a minimum of fuss, there are better choices out there (including BlackBerry’s own Classic and Google’s Nexus 6P). If instead you’re a gadget geek or a BlackBerry loyalist –or you’re desperate for a physical keyboard on Android– the Priv might be the phone for you. Just be prepared to roll with the punches as this one-of-a-kind phone comes into its own; that’s just the way the berry bursts when you’re living the life of Privilege.