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BlackBerry KEYOne Review

BlackBerry and TCL have joined forces to create a stellar business phone.

We’d say that BlackBerry is back, but the truth is they never left. The one-time smartphone king has been on the ropes for years now, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying. The Z30 of 2014 featured compatibility with Android apps, the Priv of 2015 switched to Android and brought back the physical keyboard in slide-out form, and the DTEK50 of last year saw a new hardware partnership with TCL.

None of those phones sold well enough to blow BlackBerry out of the doldrums, which drove the company out of the hardware business. This is the second year of their partnership with Chinese hardware firm TCL — BlackBerry supplies the security software, the keyboard know-how, and their name, while TCL makes the phone itself. Last year, the result was uninspiring — the duo produced the DTEK50, which was simply a reskinned Alcatel Idol 4.

The BlackBerry KeyOne is no reskin. This is a wholly new smartphone, and it looks and feels much more like a BlackBerry device thanks to the physical keyboard on the bottom of the device. It’s an attempt at regaining some ground in the enterprise market that BlackBerry once dominated, and in that pursuit, BlackBerry and TCL have gotten a lot right. It’s not perfect, but it might be enough to get us to say that BlackBerry is back in a more meaningful way.

Build and Keyboard

This phone has some heft to it! It’s noticeably thicker and heavier than other smartphones, and in this case, I don’t think that’s bad. It’s much more comfortable to hold than thinner phones, and the added mass helps keep the phone stable in your hand while using the keyboard. The frame is made of aluminum, and the back is covered by a rubberized, no-slip textured surface. It feels great in the hand, and is wonderful for use when laying on a desk.

The KeyOne has that distinctive four-row keyboard, which takes up about one-fourth of the front of the phone. In a clever touch, TCL put the fingerprint sensor on the space bar. Above that is the display, protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4 (we’ll touch on some issues with that aspect ratio later). On the right side, the convenience button from the DTEK50 also returns — this button can be programmed to launch an app or a contact. It’s nice as a quick launcher, but it was a bigger deal on the DTEK50.

Why was the convenience key a bigger deal on the DTEK50? Easy — the KeyOne actually has 53 of them! Each button from A to Z can be assigned two quick launch functions — one for a tap and one for a long press. Apps, messages, and individual contacts can all be assigned to those letters, making this keyboard by far the best Android launcher in the smartphone world. As long as you can remember all of your shortcuts, it’s much faster to press a button to call up an app than it is to swipe through panes or scroll through the app drawer.

The KeyOne’s keyboard is without a doubt the phone’s most important feature. It resembles the keyboard we saw on the BlackBerry Classic more so than the one on the Priv, and has aluminum frets with plastic keys. Like the Priv, this keyboard has capacitive touch. That means you can use the keyboard as one big touchpad for scrolling — just keep in mind that you’ll be flick scrolling, because it doesn’t work if you try to slowly drag your finger up and down. It’s also possible to swipe up on the keyboard to select a word when using predictive typing.

If you stuck with the Priv, you won’t need any time to get used to the KeyOne. For everyone else, it’s a good idea to check out the quick start guide app that BlackBerry provides. There’s a learning curve, but once you read up on it, you might be surprised how quickly you readjust to a physical keyboard, even despite the keys being so small. The keyboard also takes up less space than a touch keyboard, which could be great for mobile workers who need to type a lot.

If there is a design flaw, it’s that the Android touch navigation buttons are (by necessity) above the keyboard. The placement is a little awkward, and from time to time I accidentally launched an app instead of hitting one of the navigation buttons.

Performance

Here’s where some might be disappointed. The BlackBerry KeyOne is, in terms of specs, a midrange phone. The phone runs Android 7.1 Nougat on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 chipset, 3 GB of RAM, 32 GB of storage, and a 3,505 mAh battery.

Benchmark Test Score
PC Mark for Android Work 2.0  4815
AnTuTu  59781
GFXBench GL 3.1 1080p Manhattan Offscreen  394.5 frames
3D Mark Sling Shot Extreme  461
PC Mark for Android Work Battery Life 2.0  9 hours and 23 minutes

The story the benchmark tests tell is that compared to higher end phones, the KeyOne performs well enough on productivity tasks, but falls well short of premium phones’ graphics performance. It’s not the best for gaming, in other words, but that was already true because of the smaller screen size — it’s a business phone, and for that purpose, the 625 is mostly good enough. That said, there is some slowdown when several apps are running in the background or when many browser tabs open.

On the flip side, the efficiency of the 625 chipset results in strong battery life, guaranteeing well over a day with mixed use. In case it does need a mid-day recharge, the KeyOne has Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, which can give the phone half a charge in 36 minutes. And, here’s one more neat battery feature — you can opt to not use quick charging, preventing overcharging and protecting the battery from degradation.

The 1080p display is nice, although at 4.5″, you may need to adjust to having a smaller screen than you’re used to. In some rare cases, you might also get an app that isn’t properly optimized for the 3:2 aspect ratio, resulting in a squished appearance (most major apps and all preloaded apps are fine).

Audio quality is fantastic. Calls sound clear, but the most pleasant surprise is dual stereo speakers on the bottom of the phone. Way too often we see two speaker grilles down there, only to find that there’s only a speaker behind one of them! Not so here, as the KeyOne has real stereo sound (it sounds like the left is tuned for bass and the right is tuned for treble). The speaker on the earpiece for calls could stand to be a bit more powerful, though.

Camera

If I had to guess a feature that BlackBerry and TCL would cheap out on to drive the price down, I would have guessed the camera. I would have been really wrong. The KeyOne has a rear 12 MP sensor with phase detect autofocus and dual LED flash with an f/2.0 lens. Specifically, that’s the Sony IMX378 sensor with the 1.55-micron pixels — the primo one used in the Google Pixel. That means yes, 4K video at 30 fps is a go. Video calls look great thanks to an 8 MP front camera with an f/2.2 lens, which can do video at 1080p.

The camera performs about as well as you would expect it to on paper. It does a great job of not overexposing brighter areas, although using HDR can result in some noticeable noise in the darker parts of the picture. Color reproduction is solid, and the camera focuses quickly. The camera app has plenty of modes and settings to play with, too, although there was one surprising omission — there’s no document scanning feature in the camera app for automatic framing and image cleanup. It’s something I would expect to be standard in a business phone, but there are plenty of third party apps that can fill in.

Software

As with the Priv and the DTEK50, this is an Android phone (Android 7.1 Nougat, with the new Google Assistant) — the BlackBerry operating system is no more. In fact, BlackBerry hasn’t even bothered to make many Android apps — the major ones they have made are the Hub, BlackBerry Messenger, the calendar, and the DTEK app.

The BlackBerry Hub is a widget that slides out from the right side of the phone, grouping up messages and calendar events. Meanwhile, the Hub app aggregates text messages, calls, emails, and social media notifications and messages.

The Hub has some cool business features, too. Dial-in meetings can be joined from the calendar with one tap — if you’ve ever found yourself frantically scrambling for that dial-in number at the last minute (not me, swear), it’s a real lifesaver. Schedule conflict notifications and automatic prompts to compress large attachments are helpful, too.

BlackBerry Messenger is a really tough sell, because not enough people use it. I imported my contacts, and the phone told me there were only three others with active BBM accounts. If this is going to change, it’s not going to be overnight. If you happen to be in a circle of BlackBerry aficionados already, more power to you, but everyone else can safely ignore BBM.

The DTEK app is BlackBerry’s security app, which is supposed to be the company’s bread and butter these days. If you’ve ever wondered how often an app actually uses the permissions that you’ve granted, DTEK makes it easy to find that information for any app, then turn off permissions as you see fit. Ultimately, the DTEK app is great for getting more information about device security (including a simple security rating), but it doesn’t do as much to actually make the device more secure than any other Android phone (an exception is an extra bit of software to screen for malicious apps on top of a reliance on the relative safety of the Google Play store).

From what I’ve seen, BlackBerry made only one major change to the stock Android UI — the recent apps list. Instead of a vertically scrolling carousel, BlackBerry populates the screen with all running apps in boxes of varying sizes (not unlike what the Windows Mobile OS with Live Tiles looked like). Maybe I didn’t have enough time to get used to it, but with some of the boxes being quite small (on an already small display), I wasn’t a fan.

Read on for the verdict…

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