BlackBerry KEYone Hands On

25 February 2017

What is it? 

The BlackBerry KEYone is the first BlackBerry smartphone since TCL Communication acquired the rights to the BlackBerry name. Previously referred to by the codename Mercury, the KEYone pairs a traditional 4.5-inch touchscreen display with a classic physical BlackBerry QWERTY keyboard. 

Like BlackBerry's other Android smartphones, the KEYone runs a customised version of Android with a number of enhanced security features. These include a "hardware root of trust" where security keys have been added to the phone's processor, and a preloaded app for continuously monitoring the operating system and apps for any potentially privacy or security risks. BlackBerry also says its committed to rolling out Android's monthly security updates as they're released. 

Other specifications include a 4.5-inch 1620x1080 display, a Snapdragon 625 processor, 32GB of expandable storage, 3GB of RAM, a 3,505mAh battery with quick-charging, a 12MP rear-facing camera, an 8MP selfie shooter, and an operating system based on Android Nougat 7.1. 

What did we think?

I'll be honest, I was born too late to be nostalgic for BlackBerry. By the time I was able to get my hands on a smartphone, it was the advent of the iPhone. As such, the only physical keyboard I've used on a phone was back in the dark days of T9. 

While I can still type far faster on a touchscreen than I can on the KEYone's keyboard, there is a certain allure to having tactile buttons. They're nice and clicky, there's a good amount of travel, and autocorrect certain helps with the learning curve. If you're still pining for a physical keyboard, the KEYone seems like a solid choice, even if it's your only choice. 

As novel as a physical keyboard is, there's a few quirks you'll need to adjust to. For example, the space bar - which is positioned where you'd expect a home button to be, and even doubles as a fingerprint reader - doesn't actually work as a home button. Instead, you'll need to reach up and hit the software home button on the KEYone's touchscreen. On the other hand, some app interactions will require you to hit enter on the KEYone's physical keyboard, and don't give you any prompt on the touchscreen. These aren't insurmountable tasks, but they do add to the learning curve. 

In terms of size, the KEYone is roughly the same size as a 5.2-inch phone thanks to the combination of the 4.5-inch display and QWERTY keyboard. It's not the most modern looking phone - especially given the year's trend in cutting down on bezels - but the glass and metal build feels up there with what you'd expect from a flagship. One potentially divisive point of difference is a slightly rubbery back; its nice and grippy, but collects fingerprints like its glass, without the premium appeal. That being said, rubber isn't going to break like glass. 

One other design quirk is a "Convenience Key" where you'd expect to find the power button (under the volume rocker), whereas the actual power button is on the KEYone's left. Whenever I tried to put the phone to sleep, I'd habitually hit the Convenience Key instead. The Convenience Key is an extra button that can be setup as a shortcut to an app, speed dial, or send a message. 

The KEYone's processor - a Snapdragon 625 - is decidedly more midrange than what you'd expect in what I'd call a premium phone, but the prototype I got my hands on seemed relatively zippy in terms of user interface, app hopping, and browsing. Other phones I've tested with the Snapdragon 625 processor haven't felt sluggish, so hopefully the same is the case here. The lower power processor should also help with battery life. 

In an increasingly stale smartphone world, the KEYone represents something different; and for that alone it deserves applause. I've spent nowhere near enough time with the device to make a recommendation - battery life is a major question, as are day-to-day performance and how the camera performs in low light - but if you're yearning for an Android phone with a real keyboard, its safe to say that BlackBerry is back, baby. 

Camera Samples

When can I buy it?

The BlackBerry KEYone will go on sale in Australia somewhere between May and June. 

How much will it cost me?

The KEYone will set you back $799. 

TCL subsidiary Alcatel Australia contributed funding toward WhistleOut's trip to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress

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