BlackBerry KEYone Review: It keeps going, and going…
Qualcomm MSM8953 Snapdragon 625
Octa-core 2.0GHz Cortex-A53
4.5-inches (~55.9% screen-to-body ratio)
1080 x 1620 pixels (~433 ppi pixel density)
IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen
Corning Gorilla Glass 4
microSD, up to 256GB
12MP, f/2.0, phase detection autofocus
1/2.3'' sensor size, 1.55µm pixel size
8MP, f/2.2, 1.12 µm pixel size, 1080p
Aluminum, glass, plastic, rubber
By now I think it’s no secret that I’ve been using smartphones since their inception. I’d even rewind that statement another five years or so, as things really began with PDAs for me. Surely today I have the opportunity to discuss my opinion about them, but before joining Pocketnow, mobile devices were the tools that enabled me to get my job done, and they still do today.
That specific turning point where I upgraded from using a PDA I could only connect every now and then, to a truly connected smartphone actually has a name. It’s called BlackBerry.
I know many of you might not remember this, but we have to thank BlackBerry for creating the concept of a fully connected communicator. It wasn’t the first to try it, but it definitely was the first to figure out the essentials just right. It was really the first time that the internet walked with you 24/7, as your phone was not only fully connected, but that thing lasted all day no matter how often you used it.
This alone became so viral that we even had names for people that became addicted to their BlackBerries. It’s the main reason why I’ve carried two phones ever since, starting with my beloved BlackBerry Pearl doing tag team with my old HP iPAQ h1940. I think I would’ve continued using BlackBerry after the Bold 9700 if it wasn’t for how much of a disappointment BlackBerry 10 was.
Fast forward to 2017 and yes, things have changed dramatically. People don’t communicate any less than before, but companies have shifted priorities. Phones have become dramatically larger and more cumbersome to operate, all for the sake of content consumption. I’m not going to sit here and call the shift negative, but we all know that sending a text with one hand is no longer something easy to do.
As a result, BlackBerry has decided to join forces with TCL to change that. Instead of giving you a product that’s cumbersome at one thing and great on another, the BlackBerry KEYone tries to strike a balance in between. A phone that’s designed for communcation, but good enough to help you consume content.
Has BlackBerry achieved its goal in 2017? Read our full BlackBerry KEYone review to find out!
So what things are essential for a communicator? First it has to be easy to handle since you will be handling it a lot, and second, it has to last all day no matter what. The KEYone is actually both, even if taking a step away from your standard Android smartphone.
It’s built of sturdy aluminum that´s met with a grippy texture at the back and a mix of curves and flat finishes at the top and bottom. At a glance it’s definitely unlike any smartphone in the market today, and it doesn’t feel that way either. At 149 mm in height, 72 in width, and 9 and a half in thickness, and 180 grams in weight, the KEYone isn’t out to win any thin and light contest. On the contrary, the texture at the back hints to a device meant to achieve its first goal of being easy to handle, as it definitely is quite comfortable in the hand.
To achieve the second goal, the KEYone pulls on some inspiration from its legacy. The added thickness is most likely to house its large 3505 mAh battery. It’s choice for internals are also more in line with that of a premium midranger, given the added power efficiency of the Snapdragon 625 processor, since again, this device values endurance more than content consumption.
It’s display is actually just a hair smaller than your standard iPhone 7 at 4.5-inches, and brings the same IPS LCD technology at 3×2 aspect ratio. Color is as accurate as LCDs usually are with decent blacks, and it’s also efficient enough to bring an ambient display with your notifications. Bellow it we also have the famous BlackBerry QWERTY keyboard. It was designed different from previous BlackBerry devices, though. Instead of the matte finish of old, it’s now glossy in order to provide a uniformed look with the reflection of the screen. It also has a few genius additions, like a fingerprint scanner on the space bar, and capacitive navigation gestures to allow you to use it as a trackpad.
And as for the second goal, my week of testing has proven that battery life is just epic. My first couple of tests allowed me to go two days without a charge, and bare in mind, my job is to use my phone pretty much all day.
One of the key ingredients to achieve this great endurance is the inclusion of Android 7.1.1, as close to stock as possible. I say close to stock because visually it is, but it is very loaded with a ton of tools that help you communicate more efficiently.
For starters the launcher allows widgets, but you kind of don’t need them. If you see three points at the bottom of any app, swipe it up or down to reveal the app’s widget, and that widget is actually customizable. If you still want regular widgets you can find these in the app tray, in addition to a third tab for programmable short cuts.
And speaking of shortcuts, you can either press or press and hold any keyboard element to launch an extra one, for a total of up to 56 short cuts, though these sadly only work from the home screen. The only one that really works all the time is the one you set on the convenience key on the right. I’ve actually disabled the short press short cuts. I find it more convenient to just start typing and have the KEYone perform a device search.
The BlackBerry Hub continues to play a major role on this phone, as the one place you come to receive all your communication, instead of needing to fumble from one app to the next. This is definitely my favorite feature as you can be selective of which accounts fall on the hub. I just wish it had better Gmail integration for the swiping action when wanting to archive. To complement the Hub, the Productivity tab at the right allows you to view your day from any screen, and act on specifics within it.
I’m sad to report though that BBM is dead. Like seriously the last time any of my old contacts was seen online is two years ago. Sad to see that platform go. And then there is everything else, which pretty much looks like stock Android, and where the Pixel is mimicked, like in the case of the ambient display for notifications, and the launch of the Google Assistant by hard pressing the home button. Missing though are essentials like a Blue light filter, which are no where to be found.
The camera is one of those stories I’m also glad to report on. The KEYone sports the same IMX 378 sensor we find on the Google Pixel, and that’s actually awesome. There isn’t that background work that the Pixel is able to achieve with HDR+, but the Pixel is actually a worthy contender for daylight photography in almost every scenario.
The 1.55 microns on the sensor even allow this camera to perform admirably in low light, though focus can be a challenge. There’s a setting to force the camera to not take the shot until focus is acquired, so you can pick your poison if you’d prefer it to take its time.
Pro tip: disable HDR at night, and watch Juan’s real camera review for more details. I will say I’m shocked at how well this camera stabilizes video even without the inclusion of OIS, something which is again, another very neat trick from its Google competitor.
Now all this bevy of custom software doesn’t seem to like its limited spec sheet. I wouldn’t call performance sluggish, but there is the occasional stutter when launching apps, or navigating within them. Ideas like typing a search from the home screen are great selling points for a persistent keyboard, but lag can hinder the experience as you can’t really tell if the phone is thinking or not. Even audio is not something Juan would consider stellar in his Real Audio review.
And as for that persistent keyboard, there are elements to love, and a sort of wishlist on my behalf. I find it genius to be able to use it for navigating between screens, and this fingerprint scanner is one of the fastest I’ve tested. I also love the swiping action for predictions, since these are on spot most of the time. And then my favorite would be that it’s multi-lingual without needing to switch languages. What I don’t like is more a personal thing, as it can feel kind of crammed compared to legacy blackberries. It’s also quite mushy when pressing if compared these older units. In my time of testing I have started to get used to it, but I do hope the KEYtwo will take over the rest of the chin in providing us with larger keys. Dear BlackBerry: since this is capacitive, how about having it detect typing without the need to press. As regaining muscle memory has been my largest learning curve.
Pricing and Availability
One of the most polarizing arguments for the BlackBerry KEYone is its price tag. When you have devices like the OnePlus 3T rocking the most powerful specifications in the market at $439, and when you have other great premium mid-range alternatives from Honor and OPPO, asking for $549 for the BlackBerry KEYone is kind of much.
If you’re asking yourself the question, then this device is clearly not for you. This means you don’t care about the keyboard, nor the added security benefits behind the software. Endurance is probably not important for you either, since you know the more powerful a phone is, the less the battery lasts. BlackBerry has a defined niche of consumers that are looking for these features as an added value, and I since most of these are in the enterprise, I feel the price is ok.
To conclude, I think it’s important that we remember the main purpose of a communicator. Ergonomics and endurance are essential for someone that doesn’t want to be carrying a battery pack after a long day in the city, and in that respect, the KEYone nails everything.
There is a lot of genius behind the hardware, and a lot more behind the software that powers it all. For those of you who need a phone focused on content consumption more than communication, I can totally understand if you feel this device is not for you, because you’re probably right. It’s not. And hey, if you still want the software on powerful hardware there’s the BlackBerry DTEK 60.
The BlackBerry KEYone is designed for the rest of us, who did feel nostalgic the moment we saw it for the first time. The die-hard professional in need of a work tool that’s quick to react, and that can last a full day, and then some. To them I say the KEYone is a very good device for the things that matter.
The fact that this phone is already running the latest version of Android is a good indication that my complaints about software will be ironed out soon… Because in absolutely everything else, this is going to be one phone I’ll have a hard time putting away.
+ Great build quality
+ Great in-hand feel
+ Camera performance exceeded expectations
+ Software optimized for practical communications
+ Lots and lots of keyboard shortcuts
+ Unreal battery life
- Lacks stereo speakers
- Software tends to stutter
- Some variants are fingerprint magnets
- Learning curve with the keyboard
- Fingerprint scanner placement makes no logical sense
- Specs are not on-par with the price