BlackBerry Leap review: A Leap that falls short?

Has the smartphone maker done enough to differentiate itself from rivals?

Price
£199
  • BlackBerry fans will be accustomed to the OS; BlackBerry Hub is handy and efficient; Decent brightness and contrast
  • Poor design quality; Limited app selection; Slow, underpowered hardware; Disappointing battery life

BlackBerry is a once-mighty mobile titan whose dominance is no more.

However, while others likeNokia, Palm, and Ericsson have fallen into relative obscurity, the Canadian firm is still fighting to turn its fortunes around.

While the company's enterprise software arm is alive and well, the hardware side of the business has been languishing of late in a quagmire of poor results, reporting itslowest quarterly sales in more than eight years back in March.

It has also been toppled from the throne of the smartphone market by rivals Apple and Google, andto a lesser extent Microsoft'sWindows Phone,who now fight among themselves for supremacy.

The BlackBerry Leap -a budget device marketed to "young mobile professionals" -is the company's latest attempt to reclaim its former place.

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It emphasises mobile connectivity, long battery life and BlackBerry's signature range of native apps in an effort to appeal to start-ups and new customers.

But will the strategy pay off? We put the firm's latest device, the BlackBerry Leap, throw its paces to see if it passes muster as a business device for the busy professional.

BlackBerry Leap: specs and hardware

The BlackBerry Leap's internal hardware runs on the same Snapdragon processor and graphics chip as 2013's BlackBerry Z10. Unfortunately, the fact that both the CPU and GPU are two years old is painfully obvious.

The device feels noticeably sluggish in use. Open up more than a few apps at once and you're likely to start noticing some slow-down. Swiping through the UI menus feels less responsive than it should, and the experience doesn't seem as slick as we've come to expect from even budget devices.

What's surprising is that the Leap comes with 2GB of RAM. It's not top-of-the-line, but it should be more than enough to ensure smooth operation. The fact that it doesn't is a little baffling and likely to prove frustrating for users who need to be as productive as possible on the move.

This is usually the point where we would benchmark the device. However,our usual benchmark apps - GeekBench 3 and GFXBench - are built and optimised for Android devices, which means we couldn't benchmark the Leap as stringently as we'd like.

From what we could tell, the Leap performs fine, assuming you're not putting too much strain on it.

In the end, the only benchmark we could put the Leap through was the Sunspider browser test. The end result of 1447.9ms was less than impressive, but not surprising, given its relatively old components.

As a comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S6 got a result of around 355ms, and while no-one expects the Leap to match a device that's three times the price, it's still quite a bit slower than anticipated.

BlackBerry Leap: design

The BlackBerry Leap is not an attractive phone. It's bulky and heavy, at 9.5mm thick and weighing in at 170g. Rather than the usual glass or metal body, the Leap has a rubberised plastic back that makes it quite slippery. Like a cartoon bar of soap, it feels like it's going to shoot out of your hand at any moment.

The design somehow appears rounded and angular at the same time, with sharp corners at the front but curved sides around the back.

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The control buttons are a plus point for the device. Although the Power/Sleep button's placement at the top is infuriatingly unintuitive, the side buttons allow a nice level of playback control.

The top and bottom side buttons control volume and can be held down to skip tracks, while the centre button controls the play/pause function, and can also be held down to summon the BlackBerry Digital Assistant.

Even when compared to the squarishPassport, the Leap doesn't look like a phone that C-level executives would be toting on the train to work. The build quality feels cheap and plasticky, and it looks outdated from the get go.

BlackBerry Leap: display

BlackBerry has ditched its famous physical keyboard for the Leap.

Instead, it's opted for a 5in touch display. It's a method the company has tried in the past, but it's a misguided move the physical QWERTY keypad is a strong USP for the company, and ditching it means losing one of the quintessential elements of a BlackBerry device.

At 720p, the screen isn't bad for a budget device, and in day-to-day use, you're unlikely to be disappointed. The brightness is a particular high point; a maximum level of 539 cd/m2 ensures that the screen will remain readable even in bright, direct sunlight. The contrast ratio is similarly good, especially considering it's a budget device.

The Leap packs a decent display, overall. It's not up there with the iPhone, andHD movies and TV won't be as sharp an experience as on higher-resolution screens, but it's respectable nevertheless.

BlackBerry Leap: camera

The BlackBerry Leap's 8MP rear camera is nothing to write home about. For anything more professional than the odd holiday snap, it'll be almost totally unsuitable - the resulting snaps tend to be a little on the fuzzy side, and colours can appear muted.

It's the same story with the front-facing selfie camera as well. Pictures will likely come out as grainy and low-resolution, and while it's fine for utilitarian tasks like video conference calling, the BlackBerry Leap won't make you look your best.

BlackBerry Leap:price

BlackBerry is asking for almost 200 for the Leap. Considering you can pick up the Nexus 5 for the same price or the Moto E for around half this sum, it's doesn't offer the best value.

BlackBerry Leap:OS and software

BlackBerry has long been strong on software, with users keen on its BlackBerry Hub and its inbuilt security.

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Despite the inclusion of Android apps via the Amazon storefront, the company's third-party library is still leagues behind those of Android and iOS, though, with many popular productivity and communication apps entirely absent.

The jewel in BlackBerry's crown used to be its BBM software, which provided free messaging between BlackBerry users. However, cross-platform successors like WhatsApp have since improved immeasurably on the original BBM model, rendering it all but irrelevant.

Enterprise security features are really the device's main strong point, but they're no longer the only choice on the market. Although the Leap boasts encryption capabilities, remote backup, wipe and restore options and a raft of data privacy settings, they're all available in one form or another on rival operating systems.

For instance, Android 5 supports full device encryption as a base feature, as well as including VPN options.

Android and iOS users can also downloadencrypted voice and text apps too, such as Silent Suite for Android and iOS.

However, the much-loved BlackBerry Hub remains a strong point - having one central, consolidated inbox for all messages and notifications is very handy.

Those used to the gesture controls for Windows Phone, iOS and Android may have trouble getting used to BlackBerry operating system's set-up, with the commands just different enough to trip up migrating users.

Fans of previous models like the Z10, however, will find themselves on familiar ground. Those with fond memories of the company's heyday will likely be perfectly at ease.

BlackBerry Leap: connectivity and features

As a business smartphone, the Leap could have been helped by a full armoury of advanced connectivity features. Unfortunately, while it comes with Bluetooth 4.0 and 4G support, there's only single-band Wi-Fi, with no NFC transfer or payment capability.

Neither is the Leap equipped with any form of waterproofing. While budget handsets generally aren't fully protected, (obtaining a full IP67 rating is liable to drive up the price), there'sno mention of water-resistance to protect it from accidental dunks, a feature many of its budget competitors do have.

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One plus is that the phone still features expandable storage via MicroSD, while many others have opted for an Apple-esque tiered storage structure. This is good, as the 16GB of default memory isn't the most generous allowance in the world.

BlackBerry Leap:battery

One of the main features touted by the BlackBerry Leap is its supposed 25-hour battery life. The company claims that this is based on a "heavy usage scenario". Indeed, a battery life this good would be a real killer feature in today's world of constantly-depleting devices.

However, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is, and this is no exception. From a full charge, the Leap lost more than half its charge in four hours of moderate usage - 53 per cent, to be exact.

It fared no better in our HD video playback test, either. The Leap's battery drained at a rate of 18 per cent per hour, which isn't great.

BlackBerry Leap: verdict

There's a great deal about this phone that is just is average, unfortunately. The app selection is sub-par,the design is unappealing and the battery claims were overly optimistic for the model we tested.

What the Leap does have to recommend it is a decent display and the BlackBerry Hub. But for a device trying to compete in a crowded market, it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to tempt users.

Even BlackBerry aficionados may not be all-embracing of this phone it can't match the iPhone for quality or Android for price, while many of the key strengths the company brought to smartphones in the first place, like security and messaging, have now been built upon by third-party competitors.

NB: If we awarded half stars, the Leap would have scored 2.5/5. There's not enough on offer here to merit bumping it up to 3 stars (and we worry that would be misleading to readers) so our verdict remains 2/5.

Verdict

BlackBerry's latest device is a disappointment in virtually every way. The native apps that used to be a strong point are now outdated and outclassed, its battery life is far worse than claimed, and it's unattractive to the eye. Far from being the silver bullet BlackBerry needed, the Leap pales in comparison to similarly-priced Android rivals.

Processor: Qualcomm MSM 8960 dual-core 1.5 GHz CPU

Display: 5in 720p HD display

Memory: 2GB RAM

Storage: 16GB expandable

Battery: 2800 mAh

Connectivity: 802.11b/g/n, 4G, Bluetooth 4.0

Ports: MicroUSB 2.0, 3.5mm headphone jack, MicroSD, Micro SIM

Dimensions: 144 x 72.8 x 9.5 mm

Weight: 170g

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