Since the decline of the legacy BlackBerry smartphones, the company has gone through a number of different concepts since the release of the Z10 and BB10. It’s not so much that each of the devices have been horrible, but didn’t quite meet consumer expectation of the day, and were often a few months too late to market. But BlackBerry found brief success in the form of the Passport, but didn’t quite make a sufficient dent to overturn its financials. Still, it was a step in the right direction. With last year’s release of the BlackBerry PRIV, the company launched one of its most important smartphones in recent times, with many claiming failure here could spell the end of its mobile handset division.
In the PRIV, BlackBerry has switched from its own OS, and switched to the more popular Android OS, which came as a shock after it was leaked before the launch. Changing to Android was a no-brainer, with most developers focusing mainly on Android and iOS, and before falling even further behind the market, BlackBerry made a bold, but easy decision in the end. But the PRIV isn’t all about the OS switch, but has a lot to offer when it comes to its hardware, and even a few surprising in the build and design. The global release of was staggered market to market, but it reached South Africa’s shores a short while back, and after many eager months of anticipation, I finally get some hands on time with the PRIV.
Build and Design
There’s a lot to be said about first impressions, especially when perceptions of a brand aren’t at their highest levels amongst consumers. With the PRIV, BlackBerry has changed quite a lot about its look and feel. When I showed off the device to colleagues and friends, opinions were undeniably positive. The front face has a curved screen, while not as pronounced as the S7 Edge or Note 5 Edge, but still sufficient to enhance the look of the unit. There is a small bezel at the bottom of the screen, which indicates the start of the front-facing speaker. The whole device is also split into two segments, a top and bottom, with the screen being part of the top segment. The top of the screen has large company letters across half the width of the screen, if you were ever in doubt it was indeed a BlackBerry. The front-facing camera is located on the top right, alongside the LED notification light. The front face is relatively clean otherwise, making it really good to look at with its minimalist appeal.
The rear of the device is a lot busier in comparison. The entire cover has a rubberised, Kevlar finish, resembling the Z10, only a lot more premium. The only two objects break the flow on the back, that of the 18MP camera, and the large, silver logo. The camera protrudes slightly with the dual-LED flash to the right. The trays for the nanoSIM and microSD is located on the top of the unit, on the bottom segment. The 3.5mm auxiliary jack is fitted on the bottom of the unit, with the microUSB port in the centre.
This segmentation between the screen and rear of the device makes it a bit bulky in comparison to many other leading manufacturers, but, at the same time, it isn’t what you’d call ugly. In fact, the extra bulk makes it feel sturdier and robust in hand. While the overall build isn’t perfect, with a few creeks on the rear, it is very different, and all the better for it.
If you’re still wondering why BlackBerry has chosen to segment the PRIV, it’s because the unit has a slide out keyboard, hidden below the screen. The indentation of the speaker makes it easier to flick the screen up to reveal the QWERTY keyboard. The keyboard is BlackBerry’s trick up the sleeve, with most people not even aware that it exists without having to show it to them first. In a world where the on-screen keyboard make up more than 99% of the smartphone industry, BlackBerry has once again added the physical keyboard to their devices, something that most previous BlackBerry users still talk about today.
The keyboard is a bit on the small side, but BlackBerry goes one further with the physical keyboard by adding capacitive capabilities, allowing the user to use gestures, such as swiping left and right, while in use. If I’m truly honest, typing on the keyboard isn’t the easiest to get used to, but after some time, it works really well, especially with the on-screen suggestions and swiping to auto-complete words.
Screen and Display
The PRIV has a large 5.4″, AMOLED capacitive, curved screen, which has a 1440x2560px resolution at 540ppi pixel density. The unit also has an impressive 72% screen-to-body ratio. This puts it slightly below Samsung’s Edge devices, but still much higher than that of the iPhone 6s Plus. Adding the curved feature to a BlackBerry device is a bold step for the company, something you wouldn’t quite expect from the majority business approach of most of the other units in their inventory.
Over the years, many of the smartphones reviewed don’t often offer better displays than most of the Galaxy smartphones, and it’s always one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when making the switch. Many of the competition, however, have managed to catch up of late, and the PRIV’s 2K resolution is both clear and bright. The sharp images are also bold and colourful, which is a pleasure to view. While it doesn’t offer much in terms of functionality, the curved screen also enhances the viewing pleasure somewhat, much like that of the Note Edge when it was released.
Performance and Battery
One of BlackBerry’s pitfalls in previous years has been the slight lack of performance when compared directly to its competition. With the PRIV, however, BlackBerry has gone all out in fitting some of the best hardware to the units internals. The unit sports a Qualcomm MSM8992 Snapdragon 808 chipset, which has a Dual-core 1.8 GHz Cortex-A57 and quad-core 1.44GHz Cortex-A53 CPU, Adreno 418 GPU, 32GB internal storage, and 3GB of RAM. While the unit wasn’t fitted with the latest 810 chipset at the time, but the benchmark scores are quite high. Putting the unit through its paces yields impressive results, with no lag, stutter or overheating to speak of. Unfortunately, the unit isn’t completely exempt from overheating, most it as a result of fast Wi-Fi downloads. Thankfully, these results aren’t observed when using network connectivity.
Overheating may put additional strain on the battery, but BlackBerry has fitted a 3410mAh battery in the PRIV. Without running into any of the overheating concerns, the PRIV is able to last through a day and a half at a time, with between 20-30% of charge remaining at the end of each day.
Other performance results are also quite impressive. The unit’s call volumes and clarity are very good. The audio quality of the loudspeaker, as well as the quality when using the auxiliary cable, performs a lot better than most of the other units I’ve reviewed.
BlackBerry has partnered with Schneider-Kreuznach to provide the lens for its 18MP camera. While the highest resolution photo isn’t the standard 16:9 ratio, the quality is impressive. On its own, the camera’s photo quality is very good, and even holds up against many of the leading manufacturers. When looking back at other BlackBerry devices over the years, the company wasn’t known for its camera prowess, but the PRIV certainly does a lot to change opinions thereof. The camera performs well in low light conditions, without the usual distortion and graininess.
Using the app isn’t as appealing, though, with a slight over complication of the menu and settings. While this does add a lot of useful features for the expert, it can become something of an annoyance to the novice user. You don’t often have the one touch change in modes and camera options (front-facing camera and recording), which may also cause further annoyance for many. Other aspects of the camera software, however, does add more usefulness. When sliding out the physical keyboard, you get additional grip when lining up the shot, with the addition of using the spacebar as the camera button.
The camera doesn’t always auto-focus to the nearest object, and often awaits the user selection for focus area. Another hindrance to the overall performance of the camera is the lag to capture images, more so when using the HDR feature. Recording in 4K, however, makes for some really good videos. Overall, then, the camera is quite impressive, but suffers a bit as a result of some rather ordinary software for the app.
Arguably the biggest talking point about the PRIV, despite its impressive hardware specifications, is its software. As stated in the introduction, BlackBerry has made the switch to Android OS, which marks a turning point for the company, and its future, if there is to be one. Upon first hearing about the switch, my initial assumption was that BlackBerry would use it as a means to gain access to the development platform of the Play Store, while keeping most of its UI elements from BB10, with additional bloatware, but I was wrong. Instead, the version of Android UI it runs is very close to a vanilla build, although offering some enhancements in the form of security measures.
BlackBerry shipped the PRIV with Android 5.1.1 Lollipop when it released in 2015, but soon provided an upgrade to Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow in early 2016, ahead of many other leading manufacturers. BlackBerry, with its focus on security, has promised a quick turnaround on updates, which includes both smaller security patches and larger firmware updates, and, thus far, has kept its word. Since receiving the unit for review, after the initial software update to Marshmallow, I recived a further two security patches in the 3 weeks. The company has added a host of measures to improving basic Android performance, even challenging developers to crack its kernel, as it blocks against rooting and instalation of custom ROMs. While the UI remains largely vanilla, there’s a lot under the hood that has been tweaked for better performance and security.
Tweaks to the OS also include an improved notifications menu, as users are able to filter notifications based on each app. The lockscreen also includes a nifty unlock feature, sliding an allocated number to a specific point onscreen to unlock the device, making it extremely hard to decipher, even when an onlooker is looking directly at the screen when you unlock. Swipe shortcuts are also introduced, and not just limited to that of the Google Now app.
While many slated the BlackBerry Z10 and its accompanying BB10 OS, there were some elements I loved about it. One such feature was its BlackBerry Hub app, which integrated all messaging apps into one location. BlackBerry has once again added the Hub to the PRIV, but doesn’t feel as native as it did on BB10. I feel that it would have been better served sliding to the left of the main menu to activate the Hub, instead of running it as a separate app, while, at the same time not fully integrating well enough with some of the other apps outside of emails. Sending a text message is a bit tricky, and responding to certain messages still requires users to open the app from which it was received. Deleting messages also sometimes deletes them from their respective apps, sometimes deleting an entire conversation instead of just the said message.
Saying that the BlackBerry PRIV is an important device for the company is something of an understatement, but at the same time, I don’t feel it’s a do-or-die situation. What BlackBerry has managed to prove with the PRIV is that it has the capability of releasing a world class smartphone able to compete with the rest of the market, while also adding a few useful tweaks and improvements most Android users will appreciate on their own devices, many of which I wasn’t able to touch on in this review.
The PRIV is not a perfect device, but its an impressive move in the right direction for BlackBerry, and with a few more devices in the portfolio with improved specifications will no doubt have some of the leading manufacturers take note and even duplicate some of the more impressive features. While there may be some concerns in terms of overheating and the camera app, these aren’t issues that are beyond fixing by means of a quick patch or two.
There are a few key components to the success of the BlackBerry PRIV, some of which are direct results of its success it had in years gone by. For example, is the PRIV a smartphone BlackBerry fans can appreciate coming from devices such as the Bold or Curve? On the opposite end, is the PRIV sufficient as an end product to impress Android fans? The PRIV sits somewhere in the middle, between BlackBerry and Android fans; a dangerous middle ground for a company that needs some market success after a few hard years under its belt. At a price between R11,000 and R12,000, the PRIV falls into the territory of other leading manufacturer’s flagships, which makes for some difficult competition. From the review, it does a lot to make a case for itself, but only time will tell in this volatile South African market