Blackberry Priv review
The first Android-powered Blackberry is here and, surprisingly, it’s not terrible
The dramatic fall of Blackberry (formerly known as RIM) in the smartphone market has been well documented. From a market share of around 20% at its height during 2009, it’s now well under 1% in the second quarter of 2015.
The company’s last home-grown operating system, the QNX-based Blackberry 10, had some good ideas but it wasn’t enough to turn around indifferent consumers and businesses alike. In an unprecedented move for the company, Blackberry has now turned to Android as the OS for the Priv smartphone.
With the Priv, Blackberry has attempted to marry the flexibility and broad app selection of Android with its own strengths in security and keyboard design. Despite our initial scepticism, Blackberry has, for the most part, succeeded.
Unlike the vast majority of other smartphones, the Priv is a slider phone with the screen sliding up. It glides up with just the right amount of resistance to reveal Blackberry’s trademark – a physical keyboard. Although not exactly identical to Blackberry keyboards of old, it is very similar.
The keys don’t have quite the same amount of travel and feedback as those on older Blackberries, but they are reasonably large and work well. Longtime Blackberry fans will like the ability to press and hold any key to launch an app of your choice or quickly access a function such as emailing a frequent contact or adding an event to the calendar.
Like the Blackberry Passport, the Priv’s keyboard has some touch sensitive tricks such as swiping from right to left to delete whole words one at a time. You can also swipe up on the keyboard to accept autocorrect suggestions. One feature we would like to see is to have the onscreen keyboard available even when using the physical one. That way we could access symbols such as ampersand, the percentage sign and accented letters etc without having to fiddle with the Shift and Alt keys on the hardware keyboard to type them out.
There are inherent usability limitations of an Android slider phone with a physical keyboard though. You’ll either have to constantly stretch your fingers up and down or incessantly shift the phone in your hands when tapping back and forth between the hardware keyboard and the touchscreen. This was inconvenient enough that we used the excellent onscreen keyboard inherited from Blackberry 10 for short bursts of text such as URLs, texts and short notes, only switching to the physical keyboard for emails and long documents.
If you’ve never adapted to onscreen keyboards then the Priv’s hardware keyboard will be a godsend. It’s far less compelling if you’re a fast, competent onscreen typist though.
One unavoidable consequence of the slider mechanism and physical keyboard is that the Blackberry Priv is noticeably thicker and chunkier than competing phones. It’s not too unwieldy though and you soon get used to the extra thickness.
Although there was a hint of creakiness on the phone’s back panel, it was still far from flimsy. Indeed, it was a very sturdy-feeling phone overall. We especially liked the soft-touch pinstripe rear which looked classy and felt especially grippy in hand.
Unusually, the screen is gently curved on the right and left hand sides. It looks similar to the Galaxy S6 Edge range, but the curve is even less pronounced here. It doesn’t really serve any function other than ensuring there are no sharp, angular or jutting edges. If you’re distressed by Samsung’s decision to jettison Micro SD slots from its flagship Galaxy phones then you’ll be pleased to see that the Priv still has one.
Another difference separating the Priv from the Samsung Galaxy range is that Blackberry has avoided cluttering up the Android Lollipop interface with lots of gimmicky add-ons laid on top. There are still plenty of alterations, but they can easily be avoided if you don’t find them useful.
There’s more than just the aforementioned single-press keyboard shortcuts and well-designed onscreen keyboard. You can populate your homescreen with one-tap shortcuts such adding a task to your to-do list, composing a BBM or checking your data usage.
Swipe in from the right-hand side of the touchscreen and you’ll see a Windows Phone/iOS-style overview of your day. By default, you’ll see all your appointments and tasks for the day, but tapping the icons on the right hand side will show you any unread messages as well as your favourite contacts. It’s great for getting a quick bird’s eye view of your day.
Cleverly, the Priv will automatically enable Do Not Disturb during any meetings as long as you’ve entered the meeting details on your calendar. This Meeting Mode, as Blackberry calls it, could be smarter though. For example, if you have a shared group calendar then Meeting Mode will enable itself for all the meetings on the shared calendar – even if they’re for someone else.
We’re also fond of Blackberry Hub which has been ported over from Blackberry 10 as a standard app. Although you can, of course, use any email app you want, there’s plenty to like about Hub. It can manage all your communications in one place – texts, BBMs, social media and calls – not just your emails.
The core email functionality hasn’t been ignored with the now near-universal swipe gestures present for quickly triaging your inbox and the Dropbox Mailbox-style ability to ‘snooze’ emails so that they temporarily disappear from your inbox and reappear later. This can be at a more convenient time, such as during your lunch break or commute home, or even at a location of your choosing such as your office.
Android Lollipop devices can be encrypted by default, although few manufacturers take advantage of this option. Blackberry does, giving IT administrators peace of mind. They’ll also be assuaged by the locked bootloader which is double checked every time the phone boots up.
The oddly-named Dtek app gives users a security overview of their phone, such as whether they’ve set a passcode or not and whether remote management is enabled. Oddly though, you can’t change any errant settings from Dtek – it’s up to you to ferret them out in the Settings app.
Oddly, the Priv doesn’t have a fingerprint reader – we would have loved to have seen it used as part of two-factor authentication. An alternative is a very odd but useful variant of the pattern unlocking method. Once you’ve picked a number and a part of a coloured box of your choice, you then have to line them up using a scrolling onscreen grid to unlock your phone. An example would be placing the number 9 in the bottom right hand corner of a yellow box. It sounds complex, but works simply and well in practice. Plus, unlike a passcode, it’s hard for someone peeping over your shoulder to make out the combination.
One minor security feature we couldn’t get working was Blackberry’s unique take on widgets. On supported apps, such as Blackberry’s own calendar and to-do list apps, you can swipe up on the icon on your home screen to quickly peek into the widget. The advantage of this over standard widgets is that sensitive data isn’t left out in the open on your home screen where someone peeking over your should could see it. We couldn’t get these special widgets to work though, even after several software updates.
Blackberry has used Android 5.0 Lollipop with an upgrade to 6.0 Marshmallow promised for the ‘New Year’.
Battery life and camera
Battery life was lengthy. It lasted just over 11 hours when browsing the web when connected to WiFi and it lasted just under 15 hours when playing locally-stored video on a loop. All this should assuage long-time Blackberry users still pining after a removable battery.
We weren’t expecting much from the 18 megapixel camera, so we were pleasantly surprised. Colours were captured faithfully and details were sharp when used outdoors. It struggled when taking photos indoors though, with skin tones coming out mottled and with lots of noise. The latter was also a problem in low-light shots, where the sluggish and somewhat buggy camera app also struggled to get the exposure right. It’s a good camera, but it’s not in the same league as the Galaxy S6 or iPhone 6s.
Screen and performance
The 5.4in screen was almost painfully bright with top-notch image quality, while the high resolution of 2560x1440 pixels means text is very sharp. The large width of the screen means the Priv is definitely a two-handed phone though, whether or not you’re using the physical keyboard.
Surprisingly, our review unit had trouble connecting reliably to a 802.11n 5GHz network at a distance of 30m – a feat which other phones had no trouble accomplishing. We suspect this was a one-off flaw though as a second review unit had no such difficulty.
We had no complaints about performance – the six-core Snapdragon 808 processor and 3GB of memory raced through our benchmarks.
The Blackberry Priv has an unenviable task ahead of it – it not only has to be a good phone its own right, but it also has to be good enough to turn around the fortunes of an entire company. Thankfully, it is a good phone with plenty to like. Physical keyboard aside, there’s the grippy casing, the bright and high-resolution screen and the thoughtfully-modified version of Android. If the Priv had arrived three or four years ago then it wouldn’t just be a good phone, but a superlative one. As it is though, you’d have to either be irredeemably attached to physical keyboards or extremely concerned about security to choose the Priv over competing smartphones. It’s by no means bad, far from it, but with most of the world long used to touchscreen keyboards, the Priv feels like a niche product rather than one with mass appeal.
OS: Android 5.0 Lollipop
Display: 5.4in, 2560 x 1440 pixels (544ppi)
Processor: 1.8 + 1.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 six-core
Storage: 32GB, MicroSD slot
Camera: 18-megapixel with autofocus, flash, two-megapixel front-facing
Connectivity: 802.11 ac/a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.1 LE, NFC, 4G, GPS/GLONASS
Ports: Micro USB 2.0
Dimensions: 147 x 77 x 9.4 mm (HxWxD)