CrackBerrys can breathe a sigh of relief. The latest BlackBerry has a great keyboard and solid battery life; two key concerns for business users. Android OS means you won't be left behind when the next big app hits the Store, and a decent camera is icing on the cake.
What we love
- Familiar keyboard design
- Solid two day battery life
- Fast fingerprint reader
- Android OS
What could be improved
- Some apps don't play nice with odd screen shape
- BlackBerry Hub software is more obstacle than time-saver
- Not water resistant
- Keyboard is fun to use, but not for everyone
Each year the world's phone makers meet at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to show off a new range of wizardry in gadgets, but in 2017 something usual happened.
While likes of LG and Sony scrambled for headlines, it was Nokia and BlackBerry who stole the show with new releases hailing back to much loved designed from the recent past. Rather than than the world swooning over the latest tech, as expected, the show was overshadowed by nostalgia. In time, review revealed that the new Nokia 3310 for what is was: a marketing gimmick without a lot of substance. But, happily, the BlackBerry KEYone is far more than that.
What is it?
The BlackBerry KEYone is the latest BlackBerry smartphone but the first to not have been made by BlackBerry itself. After announcing it would no long make phones, BlackBerry has licensed the name to electronics company TCL, and the KEYone is the first fruits of this new relationship.
Not that you can tell by looking at it. Having reviewed dozens of BlackBerrys, back to the days of scroll-wheels and trackballs, I can say with confidence that this looks and feels like a BlackBerry handset. Not only is it constructed with a familiar combination of stainless steel and textured, rubberised plastic, but it has, most importantly, a very BlackBerry-esque keyboard below the screen.
Like other recent BlackBerrys, the KEYone runs on Google's Android OS, giving you the best of both worlds. You get the BlackBerry keyboard and a suite of BlackBerry designed productivity and security features, plus access to the Android Play Store to download all of the latest tools and apps.
What do we love about it?
Firstly, fans of the brand will be glad to hear that the keyboard is one of the features that we love about the KEYone. BlackBerry handsets have always lived or died by the quality of these tiny palettes of keys, and if you're itchy to get typing on your phone again, the KEYone is the phone you've been waiting for.
If you're not familiar with a BlackBerry keyboard, you'll need to set aside some time to practice. It's been a long time since I've used a keyboard like this, and it took me a couple of days before my fingers were confidently and accurately hitting the right buttons.
But what's cool about the keyboard is that it doubles as a touchpad. For example, when you're browsing a webpage you can swipe across the keys to scroll up and down of the page. When you're typing an email you swipe up towards the predictive text suggestions to include them in your sentence. This can greatly improve the speed of typing, but it depends on how accurate you find the suggestions.
A fingerprint scanner is built into the space bar on the keyboard and is exceptionally quick and responsive for unlocking the phone from sleep. You can also assign two shortcuts to each key, with short and long press options, allowing for over 50 different tasks to be launched directly from the keyboard.
Of course, there's more to the KEYone than just a keyboard. The phone also has a pretty decent 12-megapixel camera, which takes surprisingly sharp and colourful photos. It's not the reason we'd recommend buying the phone, but it is always nice to have a great camera in your pocket.
We should temper these comments about the camera and add that while we took some nice shots, there are better cameras in other phones if this is a primary concern for you. We did have some difficulty taking sharp shots at night-time, for example.
But perhaps the thing we loved most is the outstanding battery life. While many of today's premium phones still struggle to make it through a working day, the KEYone easily lasts a day, and often two. It wasn't unusual to get through an entire weekend with battery to spare on Sunday night.
What could be improved?
Generally, the day to day experience with the KEYone was good. We didn't have any trouble running apps, despite the odd proportions of the 4.5-inch screen. Some apps don't display exactly as expected, and full-screen videos have thick black bars top and bottom to fill the space, but we didn't that this gets in the way too much.
And the truth is, we wouldn't want a full 16 x 9 ratio screen on the top of the keyboard just so that full screen videos look better. The KEYone is tall enough as it is.
We did notice some issues with performance, with intermittent lagging and a few stalled apps during the review period. Given the high spec of the computer in the KEYone, we'd guess that the problems have more to do with software than hardware. We solved most issues by closing recent apps, suggesting there could be optimisation needed with the way background processes are handled in memory. It's just a guess, but it does seem like the sort of thing that can be corrected by future software updates.
Unfortunately, we also found that key BlackBerry productivity apps were more an obstacle than an improvement on the way we usually work. Central to the BlackBerry proposition is 'Hub', an app for viewing all communications — email, SMS, call logs, messaging tools, etc. Whenever you sign into a new, compatible account, it is added to Hub.
The idea is that you don't need a half-dozen different apps to track all of your communications, but the truth is, it's not that much easier or faster to use Hub over having your favourite app shortcuts on the home screen. Plus, Hub doesn't look that great. It's has a bare bones design and, obviously, lacks many of the features of the natives apps.
Who is it for?
CrackBerrys, unite. You know who you are, and this probably the phone you've been waiting for. The keyboard is fantastically familiar, and you'll have your thumbs dancing across the keyboard in no time at all. Plus, you can install all of your favourite Android apps.
For everyone else, the BlackBerry may not be exactly what you're after. So much attention has been paid to making the keyboard a central, and essential, part of the experience here that if you're not interesting in typing than you'll find your needs better met in a different handset.
We've enjoyed playing with the KEYone, but you can't argue that it is easier or faster to use the keyboard than a software keyboard like Swype. It's sort of like driving a car with manual transmission. It's not that having a keyboard is better, but it certainly makes typing a little more fun.
What Else Can I Buy?
If you'd prefer a cleaner take on Android, the Google Pixel is your best option. You'll go without water-resistance, it's slightly more expensive, and doesn't have expandable storage, but it's an impressive phone, and you'll be the first in line for the version of Android when it's released.
One of the most popular phones in Australia, and for good reason. The iPhone 7 Plus is the best Apple has to offer, with a 5.5-inch screen, the latest version of the iOS operating system and a dual-camera setup on the back that helps you zoom in and take a sharp photo.
If the squat screen of the new BlackBerry throws you off, you might prefer the extra-tall screen on the new Galaxy S8 instead. Of course, there's more to the S8 than this. Like previous Samsung flagship phones, the S8 is packed to the gills with tech, tools and features.