Review: BlackBerry Priv
You still see them from time to time—the people who carry two phones: An Android or iPhone for the fun stuff, and a BlackBerry for work. While BlackBerry’s global market share may have dropped from more than 20 percent in 2009 to just half a percent now, there are still good reasons to use a BlackBerry. They’re workhorses, and they’re secure.
All the messaging strengths of a BlackBerry with all the apps of an Android phone. The software keyboard is excellent, and the physical keyboard feels great for smaller hands. Using the keyboard as a touchpad while viewing the full screen is useful. Slick, well-balanced slider design. Sharp display. Keeps a watchful eye on misbehaving apps.
In touchscreen mode, there’s give to the screen due to the slider design. Using the physical keyboard as a touchpad doesn’t always work the way you’d want it to. Setting security notifications in DTEK involves going through a list of apps, one by one. Camera is slow to focus and takes grainy low-light shots.
The first thing you think of when you hear “BlackBerry” is a physical keyboard. They’re supposedly better for typing longer documents, and they’re less prone to embarrassing auto-corrections. And even though few people use it, the touchscreen keyboard on recent BlackBerry phones is probably the best in the business. BlackBerrys have great messaging features, and the security is strong enough to be trusted by governments and big companies around the world. Battery life—THE LIFEBLOOD OF MODERN BUSINESS—is consistently stellar.
But BlackBerry has struggled to adapt to the “phone as entertainment device” trend that has defined the mobile landscape for the better part of a decade. It’s telling that it wasn’t the first iPhone that put a massive dent in BlackBerry’s market share; that didn’t start free-falling until 2009, after the App Store launched. Until this phone, BlackBerry devices ran their own OS, one that hasn’t attracted many developers as its market share dwindled. In today’s mobile world, a bereft app ecosystem is a serious problem. So are things like not having a great camera.
This phone, the BlackBerry Priv, represents a strategic sea change for the struggling company. It runs Android, and rather than presenting its own cordoned-off app store, you’re shopping in the well-stocked aisles of Google Play. The main camera now has competitive specs, with an 18-megapixel sensor that records 4K video tucked behind an optically stabilized Schneider-Kreuznach lens. There’s also a selfie camera with a selfie panorama mode (in case you have a very wide face or large ears).
It may be an Android phone—one that runs a clean 5.1.1 with a few key add-ons—but it still has the markings of a BlackBerry. It has battery life that easily got me through a full day’s work, thanks to a 3,410mAh cell. There’s a MicroSD card slot, of course. And unfortunately, in an unwelcome nod to BlackBerry tradition, the camera is really disappointing in low light. The images are grainy and the camera is slow to focus and capture. If you’re coming at this phone as a long-time BlackBerry user, you’ll think the camera is great. If you’re used to the camera on the iPhone or a good Android phone, you may cry.
Design-wise, it’s the slickest BlackBerry ever. There’s a curved 5.4-inch OLED display and curved edges on the frame that make it feel like less of a block in the hand than it appears to be. Said screen is tack-sharp, too, with a QHD (2560×1440) resolution and a pixel density checking in at 540ppi. All of that is good, but all of that is also par for the course now. And the Priv is noticeably heftier than similarly sized phones: At 6.7 ounces, it’s heavier than the larger-screened iPhone 6S Plus (6.1 oz.) and Galaxy Note 5 (6.03 oz.)
There’s a good reason for that extra fat. The unique thing, the big thing, the main reason you’d think about buying this phone in today’s competitive smartphone landscape, is what’s under that screen. No, not the system-on-a-chip (a hexacore Snapdragon 808 supported by 3GB RAM). It’s the physical keyboard.
The Priv’s screen slides up to reveal a four-row hard-key layout ready for you to bang out 1,000-word TPS reports on. I’m typing this on it right now. The key feedback feels nice, as does the angled texture of each key. But the physical keys feel really cramped for bigger thumbs. Surprisingly, it’s much slower going than typing on the phone’s excellent touchscreen keyboard. In fact, I just switched to the touchscreen keyboard. The pace of typing on the physical keyboard seemed too glacial. If you’re used to a mini physical keyboard, or if you have smaller thumbs, your mileage may vary.
The phone’s sliding mechanism feels sturdy and well-balanced when the screen’s in slid-up/keyboard-exposed mode. When it’s closed, however, a drawback to the design becomes apparent. There’s a bit of give to the screen when you’re typing in touchscreen mode, especially in the bottom corners of the display. It makes the phone feel hollow due to the small gap between the screen and the physical keyboard. It even rattles a bit. It’s distracting.
Even if you don’t use the physical keyboard as an actual keyboard, there’s a great reason to use the phone in screen-slid-up mode. The entire surface of the keyboard acts as a touchpad. You can use it to scroll through your inbox, scroll up and down webpages, and even swipe up to select predictive text like you can with the phone’s software keyboard. That lets you view the entire 5.4-inch screen unimpeded, without your big, stupid thumbs in the way. Bigphones have ruled the landscape for a while now. The Priv sort of makes the case for a longphone.
It would make an even better case if its keyboard-as-touchpad scenario worked in all the places it should—or was consistent. For example, you can use it to scroll through your inbox and message threads, but you can’t use it to scroll through the text of a single, lengthy email. It worked smoothly in my inbox, but was really jumpy in my Spotify playlist queue. A few times, the keyboard touch-scroll stopped working altogether in Chrome. It would come in really handy for games and as a touch shutter for the camera, but it isn’t supported by those apps.
Although they’re the marquee features, this isn’t just an Android phone with a slider design, a physical keyboard, and overdue catchup specs. It folds in some of the BlackBerry platform’s best features and introduces some new ones. The BlackBerry Hub, a universal messaging inbox that gives you streamlined access to everything coming in from all your email addresses and your social-media accounts and your textin’ squad—and lets you reply to all that without jumping around between apps—is awesome. It’s the default inbox and messaging hub for the phone. It’s BlackBerry’s wheelhouse, and now it’s on a phone that runs Android.
There’s also a pre-installed BlackBerry security app called DTEK that acts as a watchdog for all your apps. There’s a little dashboard that tells you if your device’s security level is in the “red zone,” “yellow zone,” or “green zone” based on the app permissions you have enabled. It can also give you a heads-up every time an app tries to access something it shouldn’t—your camera, your microphone, your contact list, that sort of thing. It also lists how many times each app has done something sketchy in the past week.
According to BlackBerry Global Head of Design Scott Wenger, it’s the best way to give users information about nefarious apps without restricting access. It’s a built-in, user-customizable security monitor. And it’s a handy tool, with one caveat: Configuring security alerts with DTEK involves going into its list of installed apps, one by one, and setting parameters. There should be some sort of “select all” button to turn notifications on for everything, or a way to get an alert any app tries to get sneaky.
Ultimately, how you feel about the BlackBerry Priv likely has a lot to do with your last phone. If you’re a longtime BlackBerry user who’s looking for something that finally—finally—gives you a hardware keyboard with a legitimate app ecosystem and some of the manufacturer’s legacy features, this is your phone. But Android and iPhone users will be looking for a better camera, better integration between BlackBerry and Android, a better feeling when you’re typing on the bottom of that touchscreen. The Priv feels like a first step toward a device that could bridge the work-play gap—a promising first step, but one the company really should have taken years ago.