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BlackBerry KEYOne Review: In Depth

4

The Good

  • Great battery life
  • Well-designed keyboard
  • Useful Android additions

The Bad

  • Limited performance
  • Camera bettered by rivals
  • Dinky screen

BlackBerry KEYOne Review: BlackBerry’s first smartphone of 2017 is a cunning blend of old and new. With its Android OS boosted by BlackBerry tweaks and features, as well as a physical QWERTY keyboard and capable 12-megapixel camera, this is one of the most interesting mobiles of the year.

After years of uninspired device launches and a fair bit of floundering, BlackBerry won back our hearts at the tail end of 2015 by releasing the rather awesome Priv. Silly name aside, the Priv was a wonderful mash-up of Android and BlackBerry, offering the best of both worlds - the Google Play store, packed with millions of apps, as well as BlackBerry’s own custom software. From the DTEK security suite to the Hub, BB’s tweaks were genuinely welcome and useful.

BlackBerry phones are now manufactured by TCL Communications, and the KEYOne is its first big release of 2017. Like the Priv before it, this handset runs the latest Android OS, topped with some custom-made features. You also once again get a physical keyboard, this time permanently on show rather than hidden beneath the display.

So is the KEYOne a phone worth buying for BlackBerry fans and newcomers alike? Here’s what I think after over a week of using the mobile as my full-time handset.

Read next: Ten things you need to know about the BlackBerry KEYOne

BlackBerry KEYOne Review: Design

Most premium phones launched in 2017 are making serious strides towards banishing those bezels and slimming down the overall design, while packing in as large a display as possible. The Galaxy S8 and LG G6 are the obvious examples, offering 5.8 and 5.7-inch screens, crammed into surprisingly compact frames that can be handled with just one mitt.

On the flip side, you have the BlackBerry KEYOne. This phone almost feels like a raised middle finger to the more conventional handsets, with its unashamedly chunky design that’s in some ways reminiscent of candybar feature phones.

Of course, that aluminium frame adds a premium finish to the KEYOne. This stretches from the edges of the handset to the front, surrounding the display and splitting the keyboard rows. I like the finer detailing and the flat top finish, which is reminiscent of the stylised Obi Worldphone.

Flip the BlackBerry over and that metal surfacing gives way to a soft-touch rear plate. The pock-marked material feels great in the palm, punctuated only by the famous BB logo, centrally positioned. This adds some grip and resists scuffs and grease - something you won’t get from the likes of the Galaxy S8, Xperia XZ Premium and HTC U11.

Sadly you can’t enjoy the water resistance of those phones with the KEYOne. It’s rugged enough to put up with plenty of punishment and can survive a relatively heavy thunderstorm, thankfully. Just don’t dunk it in a sink or take it into the shower.

I like the look and feel of the KEYOne, despite the down-to-business design. However, it will very much be a case of love or hate amongst consumers, so I’d recommend playing with one in a phone shop before making your decision.

BlackBerry KEYOne Review: OS and features

Android Nougat is the OS of choice, which at first glance doesn’t seem too far removed from the vanilla version found on the likes of the Pixel phone. However, dive under the surface and you’ll discover plenty of BlackBerry customisation. Almost all of it is worthwhile too, something that’s rarely said about a phone manufacturer’s overlay.

Alongside the usual Google apps, you have a few returning BB faves on the KEYOne. This includes BBM of course, along with the nifty DTEK security suite. DTEK gives a quick and easy overview of your phone’s setup, to point out any security flaws or weaknesses. Through the app itself you can immediately fix any issues, for peace of mind.

Even better is the Hub, which acts as a one-stop shop for all of your messages and notifications. Emails, texts, Skype and FB Messenger chats, missed calls, Twitter and Facebook nudges - all of it comes through BlackBerry’s Hub. It’s so good that you won’t really need Android’s notifications bar any more.

Want a quick glimpse at your day ahead? Just drag your finger out from the far right of the screen to open the KEYOne’s Productivity Tab. This offers up your current schedule (direct from your calendar), tasks list and even shortcuts to your favourite contacts. You can switch it to the other side if so desired and tweak its size and transparency, which is pretty cool. It’s a little tricky at times to pull into view, but still a worthy feature.

One of the only half-baked features is the Convenience Key, located just beneath the volume rocker on the right edge of the KEYOne. This is essentially a shortcut key, which can be customised to load your favourite app or feature. I set it to quick-load the camera when pushed, although you can also set it to speed dial a contact or open any other app.

Sadly the button is all too easy to mistake for the power button while you’re getting used to the phone. Pushing it doesn’t work while the KEYOne is hibernating, which is a shame in the case of loading the camera. I’d also prefer to have two functions: one app loading with a quick push, another loading with a push-and-hold. Overall, the HTC U11’s Edge Sense feature is much better.

Still, with full access to Google Play apps, you can do pretty much anything you need on the KEYOne.

Check out our BlackBerry KEYOne tips and tricks guide to see some of the best BB additions and hidden features.

BlackBerry KEYOne Review: Keyboard

One of the KEYOne’s major selling points - or turn-offs, depending on your personal perspective - is that physical keyboard situated beneath the display. Once a common enough feature, physical phone boards are now incredibly rare - making this handset rather unique amongst its peers.

So is it any good? Well, if you’re well versed in using these tiny keyboards, you’ll be right at home with the KEYOne. I’ve used plenty of BB phones in the past, although the time gap meant it took some time for me to readjust. Even when I finally did, I found that my words per minute wasn’t as strong as with the better virtual boards available for Android.

However, you have to hand it to BlackBerry. Squashing a usable keyboard into such a tiny space is far from simple and this board offers a surprisingly comfortable typing experience. Not to mention intuitive, once you get the hang of the constant use of the alt key.

Speed is increased somewhat thanks to the swipe-to-complete feature. This allows you to swipe a digit up the board’s surface in order to select an autocomplete word, which pop up just above the keyboard. Swipe the left edge to select the leftmost word, centre for the middle word and right edge for the final word suggestion.

Because the keyboard is touch-sensitive, you can even use it as a touchpad to scroll around in documents and websites. It’s quite a handy addition when using the KEYOne with a single mitt, to avoid reaching up to the screen.

Don’t worry about using the board in the dark, either. An ambient light sensor takes note of the lighting conditions and makes the keyboard glow if you’re in a dimly lit area.

That physical board will definitely appeal to old-school BB fans, and it’s genuinely useful in some situations. For instance, when you’re being rained on, a virtual board would prove quite unresponsive to your taps - phone displays and water don’t play nicely. But a physical board isn’t affected in the same way. That said, any smartphone users accustomed to on-screen boards will take some time to get used to this method of input.

The space bar of the board actually doubles as a dinky fingerprint sensor, which works impressively well. Like the HTC U11’s scanner, this is tiny and yet rarely fails to identify your digit. Just push in the button with a registered finger or thumb and you’ll be into the phone in well under a second.

BlackBerry KEYOne Review: Screen and media

That physical keyboard takes up some valuable real estate on the front of the KEYOne, at the expense of the screen. BlackBerry’s 2017 flagship may be about the same size as the Samsung Galaxy S8, yet only has a dinky 4.5-inch display.

At least it’s a good display. This IPS LCD panel boasts a crisp 1620x1080 pixel resolution, making it almost as sharp as the Samsung Galaxy S8’s screen (thanks in part to the smaller dimensions here). Photos and movies appear pleasingly crisp when viewed back, with no hint of individual pixels.

The KEYOne’s panel isn’t as vibrant or punchy as some rivals, including the displays on the Galaxy S8 and Pixel. Visuals aren’t muted or dull however, while brightness levels are strong enough to overcome most glare.

That square aspect ratio is generally well suited to web browsing and apps, although movies are hampered by some intrusive letterboxing. If you’re hoping to watch a lot of Netflix or Prime Video on the go, we’d recommend looking for a more conventional device.

You can carry around a decent media collection thanks to the 32GB of storage space, which is easily expanded using a microSD memory card. Cards of up to 2TB in size are supported.

BlackBerry KEYOne Review: Performance and battery life

While the KEYOne boasts premium specs in every other department, the chipset inside isn’t quite so top-end. The Snapdragon 625 chipset is found in mid-range handsets such as the Moto Z Play, Moto G5 Plus and Lenovo P2, all of which are considerably cheaper than the BlackBerry KEYOne. In fact, the Lenovo P2 is well under half the price of this BB handset.

I found that everyday running of Android Nougat was perfectly fine, although I did notice the occasional little stutter or pause. For instance, starting navigation in Maps occasionally took a few seconds to kick in, while jumping between apps isn’t always a silky smooth experience.

More demanding games also occasionally shudder, although generally ran with a playable frame rate. You can also use Android’s split-screen mode without bringing things to a crashing halt.

For any benchmark enthusiasts out there, the KEYOne scored an average of around 62700 in AnTuTu. That’s well behind most premium rivals and matches far cheaper handsets such as the Sony Xperia XA1, as well as those aforementioned phones.

Battery life is thankfully a much greater success story. BlackBerry’s blower easily lasts two full days on a single charge, even with quite heavy use. That's without any kind of battery saver mode activated, although these area also in place whenever required. Quick Charge support means you're not hanging around waiting for the battery to fill up again either.

BlackBerry KEYOne Review: Cameras

The KEYOne rather intriguingly boasts the same Sony camera sensor that was used in the excellent Google Pixel phone - a device which still features one of the best phone cameras in 2017.

After over a week of testing, I’m happy enough with the KEYOne’s 12-megapixel shooter, although it doesn’t reach the happy heights of the Pixel’s camera. The shutter speed is pleasingly nippy, to help counter the not so capable focus. You get full manual controls on top of the smart auto mode and can shoot up to 4K resolution video, with a small number of bonus modes also on offer.

For our full analysis as well as photo and video samples, check out our BlackBerry KEYOne camera review. And to see our pick of the biggest rivals out there right now, head over to our best camera phones 2017 round-up.

BlackBerry KEYOne Review: Verdict

This handset boasts plenty of great features, all wrapped up in a smart business-like frame. However, many similarly-priced rivals boast better performance and more compact design, as well as smarter camera tech.

Which means your choice to purchase a KEYOne will rest on two unique features. The main selling point is that physical keyboard, something no other phone manufacturer right now offers. We also love the BB tweaks to Android, including the excellent Hub app and nifty shortcuts.

Is that enough to warrant a purchase over the likes of the OnePlus 3T or even cheaper handsets like the Moto G5 Plus and Lenovo P2? That’s a personal choice, of course, although personally we’d sway towards other handsets instead.

Key Specs

  • 4.5-inches
  • 1620x1080
  • 180g
  • Android 7.0
  • 12-megapixel
  • 8-megapixel
  • Snapdragon 625
  • 3GB
  • 32GB + microSD
  • Yes
  • Physical keyboard, fingerprint sensor, DTEK security, BB Hub

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