Hands-on with the BlackBerry KeyOne: The most exciting Blackberry in a long time
BlackBerry smartphones don’t have the clout they used to, but the truth is, since it ditched BB10 for Android, the company has released some pretty decent handsets.
The BlackBerry Priv was a chunky monkey and had a pretty terrible camera, but its productivity software and physical keyboard were great. The follow on DTEK60, which was actually designed by TCL not BlackBerry, had a sleek design and came with the same great software but suffered from poor battery.
Watch: BlackBerry KeyOne hands-on
For the last year I couldn’t help but hope the company would take the best from both devices when it launched its next flagship smartphone. Which is why I got super excited when I finally got my mitts on its latest KeyOne flagship; a handset that, from what I’ve seen, could do just this.
Out of the box the _phone_ looks like the Priv and DTEK60’s love child. It has a sleek looking aluminium chassis with a textured back cover, Gorilla Glass 4 screen and physical “Smart Keyboard” on its bottom. In-hand the combination of factors gives the KeyOne a nicely luxurious feel. Build quality also felt solid and the keyboard keys, though a little squished for my liking, felt responsive and were comfortable to type on.
The "Smart Keyboard" features the same gesture touch tech seen on the Priv that lets buyers use it as a trackpad. This sounds naff, but in the past I found it made document and email editing on the Priv much easier than it is on competing pure touch screen devices. The tracking also felt a smidgen more accurate on the KeyOne than it did on the Priv, which could be a little twitchy.
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A special programmable "action key", similar to the one seen on the DTEK60 also makes an appearance on the KeyOne. The button sits on the bottom left side of the KeyOne below the volume rocker and will let users assign two of 52 customisable shortcuts to it at any one time.
The shortcuts are activated with either short or long press. I didn’t get a chance to program the button but can see the feature being a big hit with power users that want to be able to quickly activate or launch regularly used applications and services on the fly.
The 4.5-inch LCD,3:2 aspect ratio screen also looks good. The 1620 x 1080 resolution looked sharp and I didn’t have any real issues with it during my short time with the phone.
The headline hardware feature is that the KeyOne will be powered by a hefty 3505mAh battery and feature a custom Boost fast charging tech. The tech works by putting the _phone_ into power saver mode when charging. The combination of factors should give the KeyOne an above average battery life, though I can’t confirm if this is the case without further testing.
As a frame of reference, only a very small portion of smartphones, such as the Moto Z Play, in the KeyOne’s size-bracket have larger or similarly sized batteries.
Software-wise, the KeyOne is also pretty well stacked. The KeyOne will ship with the latest 7.1 Nougat version of Android. Like always, BlackBerry has loaded the phone with a wealth of custom features. Highlights include the BlackBerry Hub, which offers a single pane of glass way for users to view and manage incoming messages and notifications and the firm's suite of security services.
Normally I’m not a fan of third party software additions or changes on Android, but in the past I’ve found many of BlackBerry’s are actually useful and can’t see that changing on the KeyOne.
All this sounds great, but I do have two slight concerns about the KeyOne, the biggest of which relates to its cameras. BlackBerry phones have never had stellar cameras and from what I’ve seen this may remain the case on the KeyOne. The phone comes loaded with a 12-megapixel rear camera with a Sony IMX378 camera sensor and 8-megapixel front snapper.
On paper the setup is fine, but shooting on the showroom floor I experience a noticeable delay between pressing the on-screen shutter button and a photo actually being taken. Gauging quality is also difficult as BlackBerry decided to light the demo floor like a night club so I could only capture photos in very demanding mixed or low light conditions.
The use of a 625 CPU isn’t necessarily terrible as past phones I’ve test running it have a great balance of power efficiency and performance, but on a £500 handset I’d have preferred to see the the 821 make an appearance. The use of the 625 makes the entire phone feel slightly overpriced as competing handsets, such as the £200 Lenovo P2 and £289 Huawei Nova run using the same chip.
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The BlackBerry KeyOne feels like a return to form. From what I’ve seen, it has all the best features of BlackBerry’s previous Android phones and could be the ideal choice for any buyer on the market for a security focused smartphone.
However, I do have some concerns over its use of a 625 CPU, which is sub-par in this price point and camera setup. Hopefully my concerns will prove false with more thorough testing when the KeyOne hits the market in April.