Last year, we learned that BlackBerry would stop making their own hardware and put more resources into developing their security software. Did that mean no more BlackBerry phones? Far from it! Earlier this year, BlackBerry revealed a business partnership with hardware company TCL (one that probably dates back to last year) while teasing a new Android Nougat phone with a physical keyboard, codenamed Mercury. As expected, TCL and BlackBerry made their big reveal at Mobile World Congress this weekend — the phone is called the KEYOne, and it could be a fantastic choice for physical keyboard fans.
Oh, and this is no ordinary physical keyboard. Like the ill-fated Priv, the keys (35 of them here) can be assigned to shortcuts, which are activated with long-presses — these can be anything from launching an app to calling a certain contact. The keyboard is also touch sensitive, and can be used as a trackpad or for swipe typing. New to the KEYone is a fingerprint sensor cleverly embedded in the space bar. But, unlike the Priv, this keyboard doesn’t slide out — it’s always there at the bottom of the phone.
Inevitably, that gives the KEYone a bit of an odd look. The display has a 3:2 aspect ratio instead of the 16:9 we usually see. It’s not a bad one, though — we’re looking at a 4.5″ 1620 x 1080 display protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4 (should protect from around shoulder-height drops, in theory). That’s set in an anodized aluminum frame with a soft touch back that bears the BlackBerry logo. And, happily, there’s a 3.5 mm audio port for headphones up top. It’s worth mentioning that, even with the size of the keyboard added, this is one of the smaller Android phones we’ve seen recently — that’s deliberate, as BlackBerry is targeting people who value one-handed use highly.
The KEYone is a bit underpowered for a high-end phone, but that might be deliberate, too. It runs Android 7.1 on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 SoC, the top of Qualcomm’s second tier of chipsets from last year, along with 3 GB of RAM. Not the most powerful, but this is being positioned as a business phone, which doesn’t really need the added horsepower that an 800-series chipset brings. What the 625 does offer is more efficient use of the battery — seeing as how TCL has used a pretty big 3,505 mAh battery here, there’s a good chance the KEYone will last a full day even with heavy business use.
There are a couple real downsides to having a 600-series chipset. The big one is the lack of Qualcomm’s more advanced LTE modems — the X9 modem on the 625 doesn’t guarantee the same top speeds as the X10, the X12, and the upcoming X16. But, the X9 does top out at 300 Mbps, which is probably enough for any of the networks in the United States right now — the Gigabit speeds of the new X16 are overkill in the near term. The other downside is that the KEYone will only have QuickCharge 3.0 instead of 4.0, but considering this phone is supposed to get to 50 percent charged in 36 minutes, I’d say that’s not a huge sacrifice.
If you were thinking of using this to capture documents clearly and in high resolution, you’ll be glad to know that TCL didn’t skimp on the camera. They’ve used a 12 MP Sony IMX378 sensor with some pretty big 1.55-micron pixels. That should be good for low-light shots and document scanning alike. The camera also benefits from stabilization, HDR, phase detect autofocus, an f/2.0 lens, and dual-tone LED flash. It can also take 4K video at 30 fps. On the other side, there’s an 8 MP fixed focus camera that uses the display for flash.
But, most of what we’ve mentioned so far has come from TCL. Don’t worry — BlackBerry makes its presence felt in more ways than just the keyboard. They’ve added their own suite of software, which mostly consists of security-focused apps. The main one is DTEK, which continuously scans for hacks and potential security weaknesses, app by app. It’ll even give you a rating of how secure your device is depending on what apps you use and what permissions you give them. BlackBerry has also hardened the Android OS and added their own hardware root of trust, so they’ve gone far past providing a souped up anti-virus program.
The BlackBerry classics will return, too. Most importantly, that includes BlackBerry Messenger and BlackBerry Hub, the latter of which pulls social media messages, texts, and emails into one location.
When we first heard about this phone earlier in the year, rumor had it that TCL would only be selling these phones in bulk to businesses. Not so! They’re planning a global release in early April using the BlackBerry Mobile site, with a $550 price tag in the U.S. That’s pricey, especially for a Snapdragon 625 phone, but the physical keyboard and security features, both unique to BlackBerry, might just be worth the premium to many in the business world.
What we don’t yet know is whether or not the KEYone will get carrier partners — considering that they’d be dealing with a new company in TCL and that BlackBerry phones haven’t sold well recently, it’s no sure thing, and that could make it difficult for the KEYone to get a foothold in the U.S.