Sports fans often say that their team could pull itself out of a losing streak if only it’d play that exciting but untested, kid who’s usually consigned to the bench. Gadgets fans sing a similar hymn about BlackBerry, opining that it would have remained relevant if it’d adopted Android to run on its phones. Now, several years too late, we’re going to see what the long-deposed world champion can do with the world’s most popular operating system. The result is the Priv, a premium Android smartphone-cum-hail-Mary that’s offering two things other companies can’t: Privilege and Privacy. It’s also packing a slide-out physical keyboard, a 5.4-inch curved display and, naturally, the company’s famous security software. But the device has something else that we’ve not seen in a BlackBerry phone since the launch of the Q10: the expectation that the device might actually be worth buying.
- Mixes the best of BlackBerry and Android
- Good-looking device, comfortable to hold
- Decent camera
- Keyboard isn’t great
- High price
- Ships with Android Lollipop
For physical keyboard devotees, there’s not much choice in the smartphone world right now, but BlackBerry does a decent job with the Priv. The high price will deter fair-weather buyers, but if you can’t stand typing on glass, this is your only option.
BlackBerry’s focus on business customers meant that the firm devoted all of its energies toward making austere smartphones look sexy. Unfortunately, its designers fell into something of a rut, knocking out devices from a rote list that included a matte black body with silver buttons and little little. The adoption of a sliding, physical keyboard has forced those atrophied creative muscles to spring into life, and that can only be a good thing. That’s because the Priv is probably the best-looking BlackBerry device that has ever been made. Yes, the matte black and silver buttons are still there, but the phone’s curved screen adds a much-needed dose of humanity. Then there’s the way that it feels in the hand, since the 9.4mm thickness makes it a heifer compared to the 7mm-thick Galaxy S6 Edge. BlackBerry, however, cannily tapered the edges of the phone to mirror the display, making it feel a lot thinner than it actually is.
“The Priv is probably the best-looking BlackBerry device ever.”
BlackBerry’s legendary reputation for making devices that feel as if they can take a beating remains intact, too. I had expected the Priv to feel flimsy given that sliders, by definition, have several more points of mechanical failure compared to a regular bar smartphone. It may be made of two separate parts, but I couldn’t find any bend or flex in my review unit — at least at the limits I was prepared to try and twist it. The Priv has a woven glass fiber back and a Gorilla Glass 4 display coating, so I’m expecting it to last well beyond the two years that most people’s phone contracts run to.
“The phone’s slightly curved screen adds a much-needed dash of humanity.”
Starting with the front of the device, you’ll see the BlackBerry logo nestled below the earpiece, ambient light sensor, forward-facing camera and notification light. Just beneath that is the 5.43-inch screen, while in the chin of the device you’ll find the forward-facing speaker array and primary microphone. On the top side you’ll find the microSD slot that can accept cards up to 2TB, as well as the SIM tray — the opposite end houses the micro-USB 2.0 port. You’ll find the sleep/wake button on the left hand side, with the trio of volume and mute buttons on the opposite edge.
The phone stands 147mm tall au naturel, but if you slide out the keyboard, that measurement increases to 184mm. If you weren’t looking too closely at the publicity stills, you might have missed that the Priv’s keyboard isn’t the fretted sort you’ll find on the company’s other handsets. Instead, it’s a custom affair that, like the BlackBerry Passport, is also capable of recognizing simple gestures. Each key is tightly spaced and if, like me, you have fat fingers, it’ll take a while to get your eye in, but there’s a surprising amount of travel given its size. Like the Passport, if a word hits the autocomplete suggestion bar, a hard swipe up on the keyboard will add it to your message.
I don’t think that it’s unfair to say that BlackBerry really only has two strengths anymore: its mobile keyboard know-how and its device security. Why, then, did it not give some serious consideration to just cramming in a Classic keyboard into this device? I mean, this variation is generally fine and after some practice, you’ll be using it like it’s 2008 all over again, it’s just a shame, you know?
Display and sound
BlackBerry saw fit to equip the Priv with a 5.43-inch plastic AMOLED display with a 2,560 x 1,440 resolution and a pixel density of 540 ppi. That puts it just behind the Galaxy S6 Edge (577 ppi) and just ahead of the LG G4 (538 ppi). Using AMOLED means brighter, warmer colors and enables BlackBerry to add a slight curve to the Priv’s display, at the expense of accurate color reproduction. Then again, if you’re buying a BlackBerry phone, surely you’re not clamoring for a faithful and accurate representation of a true color landscape, right? Suffice it to say, if you’re watching a 1080p movie on this thing, you’ll find high-definition videos look stunning with deep blacks and vivid colors.
Unlike, say, the Android app launcher you’ll find on Samsung’s Note Edge, BlackBerry hasn’t seen fit to do much with the sloping sides of its curved screen. The only really worthwhile use, so far, is that when the display is off and charging, a green power indicator bar runs up the right-hand curve. It’s rather sweet, since it creeps towards the top of the device the fuller your battery gets. Again, not a groundbreaking piece of work, but it’s a cute touch from a company that’s rarely known for such fripperies.
Audio-wise, the bottom of the chin is given over to a short, but wide speaker hidden behind a band of laser-drilled holes. It’s no HTC BoomSound (what is?) but the setup is clear enough to provide mono sound for a whole room. In one of my weirder tests, I put the device under two pillows at the other end of my home office and found that the sound, while muffled, was still enough to kick off an impromptu dance party.
There’s some good / bad news for BlackBerry 10 devotees whose muscle memory means that they insta-swipe right to get to the BlackBerry hub. It may be on the device, but it’s been removed from its normal resting place on the left of the home screen. In its place, however, is the Productivity Hub, a breakdown of your schedule and any important messages that can be accessed by pulling a small white tab on the left-sided curve of the screen.
The Priv uses a slightly customized version of Android 5.1.1 (Lollipop), although the biggest changes are all under the hood. In order to make the operating system secure enough for BlackBerry to slap its logo on it, the firm had to add a cryptographic key at the hardware level, harden the Linux kernel and create the Dtek security app to monitor user activity. If you’re curious about Lollipop, please point your browsers to our review from a year ago, although the company has confirmed to us that a Marshmallow update is in the works and should be made available within the next six months.
The rest of the most noticeable changes are cosmetic rather than functional, like the inclusion of the BlackBerry splat on an icon to highlight when you have an unread notification. Aping BlackBerry 10’s design, the default home screen is no longer at the center of a carousel, but on the left-most pane, forcing you to push additional shortcuts further out to the right. In addition, the app tray is now one continuously scrolling-selection, because if you swipe to the side, you’ll be given access to customizable widgets and shortcuts.
BlackBerry is clearly preaching to the choir here, ditching some of Android’s more unique navigation features to impose its own system. It’s personal preference, but I think that it’s more elegant, and I’m one of a minority that backs Huawei’s controversial decision to eliminate the app tray from its own versions of Android. I’m also sure that this move is likely to rankle Android devotees, and it’s weird how you get such easy access to widget options and shortcuts at the expense of a more easily-navigable app tray.
As mentioned, the other big addition is Dtek, the company’s security suite that sits on top of Android and nannies you into making sure your device is difficult to hack and steal. When I was setting up the device, I skipped the option to add a security pin, and Dtek quickly started nagging me to change that situation. After a while, I gave in, and wanted to see if it could tell I was being deliberately lax by choosing 1234 as my code. Unfortunately, the app didn’t push back, and with the addition of that one code, my security level went from being “weak” to “excellent.”
BlackBerry has never really been too fussed with smartphone imaging, with the Passport being the first of its devices to even get a double-digit camera sensor. As if to overcompensate, the Priv comes with an 18-megapixel Schneider-Kreuznach-certified imaging sensor. In addition, the firm is throwing the usual bundle of features that high-end smartphones get in order to claim that they can operate on equal footing with a DSLR. In this case, that means optical image stabilization (OIS), phase-detect auto focus and the ability to record 4K video at 30fps as well as the software-based live image filters we’ve already seen in older BlackBerry 10 devices. The front-facer, meanwhile, is a garden-variety 2-megapixel affair with 720p video capture and 2x digital zoom that can do panoramic selfies, should you need it.
Paw through the sample images and you should be reasonably impressed at the quality of pictures this device can produce. I say “can” because there’s no guarantee that the image that you see pop up on that AMOLED screen is the one you’re going to find when viewing it on alternative display. In addition, there can be some inconsistency in the color between two shots taken at exactly the same location. Take a look at the last two shots in this gallery (the shot of the railway lines) and you’ll see a pair of images snapped one after the other. Except one has a blueish tint and the other has more faithful reproduction.
“Claims of it being able to replace your DSLR are, as usual, bull.”
The pictures taken at night (during a particularly foggy week) are a little nosier than I’d prefer, but a little tweaking of the on-screen exposure wheel can improve that slightly. There’s at least a few shots in near pitch-darkness (in the woods close to my home) that I was expecting not to come out at all that had some measure of detail in them. Overall, while any claims of it being able to replace your DSLR are, as usual, bull, it’s not a bad camera to have in your pocket.
Performance and battery life
In recent years, BlackBerry excused itself from the spec wars, preferring instead to rely upon outdated chipsets to run inside its smartphones. Part of that was because BB10 wasn’t particularly resource-hungry and, you know, because it had to cut costs somewhere. By comparison, the Priv has been created with a “spare no expense” mantra that’s worthy of the fictional creator of Jurassic Park, John Hammond. The device has a 1.8GHz dual-core 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 chip paired with 3GB RAM and 32GB of built-in storage.
It’s important to remember that while BlackBerry produces smartphones, it’s never made a pure Android device before. As such, the device’s staggeringly quick real-world performance is worthy of comment, given that it’s produced it from a standing start. Naturally, this is partly due to the sledgehammer that is the chip-and-RAM combo here, but BlackBerry has clearly done some work behind the scenes as well. I much prefer to compare the real-world performance of the device, too, because if you went by its benchmarks alone, you’d think that the Priv was about as fast as an agricultural vehicle.
|BlackBerry Priv||Sony Xperia Z5||Google Nexus 6P||HTC One A9||Samsung Galaxy S6|
|3DMark IS Unlimited||19,200||23,190||21,847||9,076||21,632|
|GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps)||15||23.3||25||6.6||25|
You see, at the time that I was reviewing the BlackBerry Priv, I was also testing Sony’s Xperia Z5, and had assumed that the latter would probably stand ahead of the former in the real world. As such, I did some side-by-side loading tests to see which of the pair could crank demanding apps like Asphalt 8 and Dead Trigger 2 the fastest. As it turned out, both devices managed to load levels within a second of each other — Sony winning the first heat, the Priv returning the favor in the second, and so forth. It’s an unscientific test, sure, but you can rest assured that this device can stand side-by-side with the big boys.
One thing that BlackBerry 10 phones have historically struggled with is call quality, and the firm’s much-hyped Paratek Adaptive aerial technology never really amounted to much. The company claims that the Priv is even more call-friendly, since it packs in 11 antennas inside its svelte frame. As such, I had a few long, romantic chats with my fellow Engadget editors on Three’s network here in the UK. As far as they were concerned, my audio was tinny and somehow choked-off, as if the full gamut of my speech was being erased from the chat by the phone’s secondary, sound-canceling microphones.
The Priv ships with a non-removable, 3,410mAh battery, which is more capacious than both the Galaxy Note 5 (3,000mAh) and the S6 Edge (2,600mAh). Despite this massive battery, the company only rated it for 22 hours of mixed use which, to me, felt a little suspect. In my experience of reviewing BlackBerry phones, you can normally divide that figure in half and get close to what it’s going to get in test conditions. Thankfully here, I was surprised. In our standard rundown test, we loop a HD video with brightness set to 50 percent and the Priv managed to last 12 hours and 23 minutes.
If I’m honest, that surprised me, since it never seemed to be capable of lasting that long during my day-to-day use. For instance, the day I received the handset, I charged it fully and then began the setup process, which took about an hour. Unfortunately, just an hour of use managed to eat away 20 percent of the device’s battery life, so while video playback will do for the duration of most long-haul flights, you’ll struggle to achieve similar results day to day.
At this point it’s probably safe to say that BlackBerry doesn’t have a lot of competition, since no other major firm produces an Android smartphone with a keyboard. The only reasonably new device that comes close to the Priv’s hardware would be a Galaxy S6 Edge paired with one of the Korean firm’s bolt-on keyboards.
If you’re looking for a secure Android phone, meanwhile, the only other mainstream alternative would be a Samsung Knox device — again, leading you back to the Galaxy S6 Edge (amongst others). The only other device that readily comes to mind is Silent Circle’s BlackPhone 2, which makes similar claims to be able to protect your privacy.
Otherwise, the field of competition is pretty barren, and if you’re just looking for a physical keyboard, the only other option is BlackBerry 10 devices. Right now you have a choice of two: the wide-framed Passport or the Classic, both of which come with the firm’s trademark frets.
BlackBerry is probably done as a phone manufacturer, and John Chen has pledged to shut down the division if it doesn’t turn a profit by 2016. That’s not going to be possible, not through any fault of BlackBerry, but because almost no Android manufacturer seems to be able to turn a decent profit on smartphones these days. As much as it makes sense that BlackBerry could, or should, have adopted Android four years ago, there’s no guarantee that it would have prolonged its life much beyond now anyway.
The BlackBerry Priv, then, is one part hail Mary and one part fan service, and that $699 price tag is going to scare off fair-weather customers. Despite spending this time with the BlackBerry Priv, I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or not, because there are plenty of things that I like about it. I like how it looks, how it feels and how well-built it is. The tweaks to Android are sensible too, regardless of how you feel about BlackBerry Hub.
But then there’s that slightly lackluster keyboard, which isn’t bad, but isn’t as glorious as what you’d expect from a BlackBerry device. Since a physical input mechanism is the phone’s raison d’etre, surely the company would have been better off just cramming a full-sized one in, somehow? After all, if you’ve gone to the trouble of cleaving the phone in two and building a, frankly killer, sliding mechanism, better to go the whole hog, right?
I guess the final test is to ask myself if I could, with a straight face, recommend this to my friends and loved ones. The only person who I know would like this is the one that scours eBay whenever his Motorola Pro+ breaks, which it does, frequently. The fact that a company in 2015 is making a pretty decent Android smartphone with a keyboard deserves plenty of praise, because people do still crave them. I just can’t imagine anyone who has become inured to using an on-screen keyboard will consider dropping seven hundred big ones to go back to how it was.
Photography by Chris Velazco
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