When TCL Communications acquired BlackBerry’s mobile division, the first smartphone to launch under the new umbrella breathed new life into the BlackBerry brand. After launching in the first week of August on the shores of South Africa, I finally got my hands on the new BlackBerry KEYone.
There’s no doubting that BlackBerry still has a market to compete for in Africa and Asia, with a large amount still in circulation in these regions, despite new device sales being quite low. There’s been a good run of uniquely positioned devices of late, but none who recapture its lost fanbase. This is part of the reasons why we saw an adaption of the physical keyboard on the PRIV and a full return on the KEYone.
Build and Design
There’s a lot to be said about the never-say-die BlackBerry brand. Having existed in many different iterations in recent years, even switching out the OS in favour of the more popular Google Android to appeal to larger audiences, the brand keeps moving forward. In addition, the BlackBerry smartphone has always been a much-loved companion for consumers in emerging markets, having been killed out in developed markets some two to three years ago.
This has been mainly due in part to four reasons:
– BIS (BlackBerry Internet Service), which offers a better mobile data deal for BlackBerry based services,
– The BBM messaging service,
– The 8520 smartphone,
– And the onscreen keyboard (which has once again made all the hype on the KEYone).
In all honesty, the keyboard is quite good. In a world dominated by the touchscreen smartphone, the physical keyboard is a welcome return, providing a sense of nostalgia along with a host of updated features and gestures. Even for its onscreen keyboard, BlackBerry has always managed to create great keyboards and has improved on that here. It features a mix between sliding gestures, haptic feedback and a total of 52 customisable shortcut keys. In addition to the shortcut keys, the space key also doubles as a fingerprint scanner, unlocking the device without actually clicking any buttons.
There was a bit of a learning curve to conquer at the start, for me at least, but you’ll soon find your way to typing bliss. The experience is sometimes slow and lacks the swipe-to-text capabilities, but may still win the hearts of long-time fans. While it’s most definitely the stand-out drawcard on the KEYone, it isn’t the only interesting feature on the smartphone.
In terms of the design, the unit has a rounded frame at the bottom, with the more standard flat look on the top, which creates a feeling of two different phones adjoined at the hips, one of which included the keyboard. The rear is made almost entirely of rubberised plastic, which provides additional grip in hand, with the camera and flash nestled on the top left corner. There’s a 3.5mm jack on the top of the device, with the power button on the left with the volume rocker and BlackBerry convenience key towards the centre on the right-hand side. This combination is quite bizarre as most devices have their power button on the right, which often meant I clicked the wrong button every so often. The rest of the device doesn’t have the best of specifications, with a relatively thick 9.4mm frame, weighing 180g.
Screen and Display
With the addition of the permanently fixed keyboard, there is one major drawback in that the screen takes a bit of a penalty in overall size. A full third (or more) of the front is taken up by the keyboard, in addition to the capacitive buttons, and front-facing camera area for good measure. This means that you’re only left with a 4.5″ screen, which would’ve been even smaller if not for the slightly broader frame. There’s a slight hint of curvature on the screen but isn’t really enough to be deemed a curved screen, which has been all the hype amongst recent smartphones.
In terms of its resolution, the KEYone has an oddly specced 1620x1080px display, cutting out a chunk of the standard 1920x1080px resolution on a number of smartphones. The resolution results in a 3:2 aspect ratio, which doesn’t factor when using any of the native apps, and other well-designed apps such as Gmail and the likes. However, not all apps scale as easily and as well, which results in rather strange appearances, or some which cut off edges or squash to fit the display. While it does offer split-screen multitasking using Android 7.1 OS, but it’s a feature I’ll easily pass up on due to the cramped look and feel.
Performance, Software and Battery
There’s a reason the KEYone is priced at a third to that of the S8, G6 and iPhone 8 – because it’s essentially a mid-range smartphone, with mid-range specifications. The unit is fitted with an Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 chipset, which, as well as being a little dated, isn’t the high-performance CPU as some of its siblings. The unit does, however, have 4GB RAM and 64GB onboard storage, so you should still get the best results in that regards, allowing for better optimisation of apps, and quicker startup after the initial load.
The unit also has a 3505mAh battery, which supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0. In terms of the battery life yielded, the results are some of the best you’ll find among smartphones today, comfortably lasting two days during testing under standard conditions. Even with full benchmarks, the device still pumps out a few hours of continuous usage. Much of the device’s staying power into the second day also comes from the minimal 2-3% consumption overnight, a lot better than my S8, which currently consumes more than 10%, even with all the battery saving modes enabled and certain features being disabled at set times.
In terms of the software, the OS resembles much of what you’ve seen on the PRIV. It’s not the most vanilla of Android experiences, but it’s largely lightweight, making it very easy to use with smooth transitions and quick app loading times. While the OS does offer its own security software in the form of DTEK, it isn’t that much different than what you’d find on other Android devices, allowing users to set their access permissions and the likes.
If there’s one feature I would really like more work on is the integration of BlackBerry Hub. While the app is useful to use, opening a separate app similar to Gmail and other email apps, it takes away some of the niftiness. When I first tested the BlackBerry Z10, I enjoyed using the Hub, which was available from the main menu with a simple swipe to the left, showing how well-integrated it was to the OS. Unfortunately, this has fallen away since, and something I always thought would find its way back.
The rear-fitted 12MP camera does a good enough job in good lighting conditions but isn’t quite replicated in lower light, which delivers a mixed bag of goods. For the most part, you’ll be able to take some decent looking snaps, but won’t be wowing anyone you show them to, as the colours don’t really “pop” as much as many leading cameras do in this day and age.
The Blackberry KEYone has a number of great features packed into it, but the presence of the physical keyboard and its impact on the overall size of the screen is enough to make a few heads scratch. This makes the KEYone somewhat of a niche device, something geared towards fans. Having been to a few gatherings where someone has expressed their desire to see a phone with a physical keyboard or the return of BlackBerry, there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s definitely still a market for such a device in the emerging regions, South Africa included.
Overall, the BlackBerry KEYone is an interesting device. However, it won’t be tackling the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S8, or the newly released Apple iPhone 8 and iPhone X. That said, it’s still a good device that deserves some merit. At just shy of R10,000 in price, it may not receive the same widespread availability of its physical keyboard predecessors.