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Monday May 29, 2017
Review: Blackberry Keyone smartphone
by Alan Martin | May 8, 2017 | Comment Now
Review: Blackberry Keyone smartphone
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Overall:

"But I just can’t get past that price. If you pay $799 for this, you are being taken for a ride."

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If you want a smartphone with a keyboard, the Blackberry Keyone ticks every box ... except the one marked “value”.

I wasn’t a technology journalist when BlackBerry was top of the world. In 2017, that feels a bit like writing “I wasn’t a wildlife reporter when triceratops was all the rage,” but it’s actually not as long ago as it feels. There was a time when nobody could conceive of a business phone without a keyboard designed for fingers the dimensions of cocktail sticks.

 

That fall from grace was swift, and the BlackBerry was last seen with a market share that could be rounded to 0.0%. TCL Communications saw the potential for homeless keyboard warriors and snapped up the rights to sell phones under the BlackBerry brand – and this is the result: BlackBerry’s flagship for 2017, the Keyone. Sure, it runs Android N, but it has the keyboard, BlackBerry Messenger and the heft of old. Is it any good?

BlackBerry Keyone: Design

Even as somebody who never wrote about BlackBerry when the Canadian company was in its pomp, there’s a certain pang of nostalgia you get by picking up the device: it’s unapologetically chunky. By today’s standards, though, it’s plain anachronistic. At the bottom of the device are curved corners, while the top is cut off at an angle. It has a reassuringly hefty rubberised back that feels nicely grippy; it’s large and heavy (at 180g it makes my 152g Samsung Galaxy S7 feel practically non-existent), but in a solidly comforting way.

Of course, the big difference is right there, front and centre: 34 tiny plastic physical keys and a spacebar, occupying the bottom fifth of the device. That spacebar also doubles as a fingerprint scanner, by the way, which is handy when you remember it’s there. Other than that the only real nod to the year 2017 is the presence of a USB Type-C port for charging.

I was pleasantly surprised with how much screen real estate this leaves: a 4.5in display with a 3:2 aspect ratio. Android scales down to this screen nicely and you don’t feel like you’re losing much by having the keyboard in its space. One minor annoyance, however, is having to use the home, back and menu buttons on the bottom of the screen for Android functions, which means moving your thumb above the keyboard.

One final note on the design: underneath the volume rocker on the right-hand side is a button that doesn’t actually do anything out of the box. BlackBerry calls this the “convenience key” and the idea is that you can bind it to any app you want. That means that whether you want it to bring up the camera or play sitcom sound effects on cue, your wish is BlackBerry’s command.

BlackBerry Keyone: Screen

Typically the screen dominates your smartphone. The Samsung Galaxy S8 we reviewed recently had a screen to body ratio of 83.6%. The BlackBerry KeyOne is just 55.9% screen.

The good news is that, in practice, that still feels like plenty, although I found it awkward at times, having to stretch my thumb past four rows of physical keys to reach the bottom of the screen.

All that said, as displays go, it’s a decent one. The 4.5in IPS display has a resolution of 1,080 x 1,620, meaning a pixel density of around 433ppi. It's perfectly sharp; colour reproduction is good, too, with 96.5% of the sRGB colour gamut covered; and brightness reaches a respectable 497cd/m2. That’s not as bright as the very best we’ve seen but it means you shouldn’t struggle to read it unless it’s unfeasibly bright outside.

BlackBerry KeyOne: Performance

At this point, all impressions are pretty decent: if you want a smartphone with a keyboard and don’t want to butcher your Galaxy S7 by adding one of those bulky keyboard cases, then this seems like a strong contender, right?

Okay, but put away your credit card for a moment. Let me introduce you to the specifications. Before I do, let me remind you that this is a phone that will cost $799 when it releases in Australia. 

You’re looking at a handset with a 2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor, backed with 3GB RAM. The Snapdragon 625 processor – the main meat of what you’re paying for – is the very same processor you’ll find running the show in the Lenovo P2 and the Moto G5 Plus.

Those are phones that retail for less than half the price. 

If you haven’t already closed the window in disgust, allow me to show you what that means in the real world. Here’s how the BlackBerry KeyOne coped with the original Manhattan test in GFXBench:

That’s one frame per second more than you get than in a handset less than half the price. The OnePlus 3T pushes nearly five times as many frames per second.

That’s okay though. BlackBerries are for business, not pleasure, right? The real test is how well it performs in Geekbench, an application that tests its processing power. Only it crashed whenever we ran it.

To give you an idea of what to expect instead, we’ve subbed out the KeyOne for the Huawei Nova, a handset with the same chipset and RAM which should give similar performance.

I think those figures speak for themselves. The BlackBerry KeyOne is exceptionally poor value.

“But the keeeeeyboooooard”, I hear you shout. Okay, okay. It has a keyboard: and it’s one that you can get used to using, though again, I think big-handed folks like me will struggle a little bit, at least at first. I’m also assured by those that used to have a BlackBerry in the glory days that this keyboard feels considerably more soft and rubbery than the hard plastic ones of old.

Personally, I found myself missing Swype-style word input but even straightforward tap-by-tap button pressing doesn’t feel any more efficient than a decent built-in keyboard to me. And that’s ignoring the fact that, unlike onscreen keyboards, this one is always there, getting in the way, even when don't need to type.

It has a couple of other tricks up its sleeve, but I’m not convinced any of them justify the need for a physical keyboard. For example, you scroll through menus by swiping up and down on the keyboard... in exactly the same way you could if it wasn’t there. Likewise, you can bind certain applications to letters, meaning you could quickstart Chrome by pressing the C button. Fine, but if the keyboard weren’t there, you could do exactly the same thing by dragging a shortcut icon onto the homescreen or into the dock.

And while, in theory, the smaller screen space and miserly specifications should mean the 3,505mAh battery life is stellar, I'm afraid it's anything but. In our standard looped video test in flight mode with a screen brightness locked to 170cd/m2, the BlackBerry Keyone lasted 12hrs 24mins. That’s okay but hardly class-leading. Once again, the cheaper OnePlus 3T lasted much longer at 13hrs 22mins.

BlackBerry KeyOne: Camera

The camera is, mercifully, better. In the past, cameras have been one of the areas where BlackBerry fell flat and promisingly TCL Communications have seen the importance of improving that. As a result, you get a 12-megapixel camera with phase-detect autofocus, a f/2.0 aperture and a dual-LED flash.

In brightly-lit conditions outside the camera lives up to its billing. In fact, it’s great, approaching the quality delivered (at least in our test shots) of the best-in-class smartphone camera in the Google Pixel and Pixel XL:

As you can see above, the Pixel (right) delivers a touch more detail, and slightly more accurate colours, but there’s not too much in it.

Indoors in low light, however, it’s a different story. Although colours are well preserved, details take on a soft, smeary appearance and anything moving will likely end up horribly blurred.

Details in darker areas are also lost in a sea of shadow. Not great, and if you try to brighten things up with the exposure compensation control, you’ll find the result is even more blur. This is a device that’s badly missing optical image stabilisation (OIS).

BlackBerry KeyOne: Verdict

On one level I could see myself really going for the BlackBerry KeyOne. I like its chunky stylings, the screen is good, and it runs Android so the app question that used to dog BlackBerry is now a moot point.

 

But I just can’t get past that price. If you pay $799 for this, you are being taken for a ride. 

Pay far more than you should for this phone, or pick up a far superior Galaxy S7 and a keyboard case for around the same price.

It may be last year’s phone, but it’s still far more cutting edge than this dubious cash-in.



Copyright © Alphr, Dennis Publishing
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