Not long ago, I ran into an acquaintance who was defensive about still carrying a BlackBerry.
He didn’t have to be. Though their ranks are small, BlackBerry loyalists are an ardent bunch, folks who appreciate all that the once dominant smartphone maker delivered in its heyday, handsets with first-rate physical keyboards, industrial strength security, generous batteries.
BlackBerry has stopped making the hardware. But now there’s a new BlackBerry I’ve been reviewing called KeyOne, the first from China’s TCL Communication under a brand licensing agreement with BlackBerry.
I’m confident the BlackBerry fan I ran into will love it.
Put me down as liking the phone too, though not to the degree that I’d be willing to swap the best phones on the market today, Apple’s iPhone 7 or Samsung’s Galaxy S8.
A WORKAHOLIC PHONE
The KeyOne is an impressive throwback that measures up to vintage BlackBerry strengths, only in a more modern package that uses the Android Nougat operating system, with such up-to-date features as the Google Assistant.
The device is built of sturdy anodised aluminum and has an easy to grip rubbery back with tiny dimples. It stands roughly as tall as the iPhone 7 Plus.
The (1620×1080) screen is protected by Gorilla Glass 4 – nice, but at 4.5-inches, on the small side. And its rather unusual 3:2 aspect ratio means the display is better suited for reading emails than for watching Guardians of the Galaxy, though you certainly could. But there’s no mistaking the fact that BlackBerry’s have corporate rather than cinematic roots.
And good as the backlit physical keyboard is, after a near decade of composing texts and emails on virtual touchscreen keyboards, I found typing on the BlackBerry comparatively slower and frankly a bit of a chore given its squishy-sized keys. I suspect those of you who’ve stuck with BlackBerry all these years will see it differently.
VINTAGE FEATURES WITH NEW TRICKS
The BlackBerry crowd will recognise other helpful staples, including the convenient BlackBerry Hub repository for emails, messages, tweets and other communications, BlackBerry’s DTEK security software for safeguarding the operating system and your data, and the presence of BlackBerry Messenger.
And even thumb typists will appreciate an assist from the touch screen from time to time. So when you press the “sym” key on the physical keyboard, a virtual touch screen keyboard with all the various symbol options turns up on the screen just above. What’s more, as you compose a text or email, a trio of predictive word suggestions you may want to include next appears, a feature that’s common to other phones as well.
What’s not common is how you might go with one of those word choices. You can lightly slide your finger up against the physical keyboard – it doubles as a kind of trackpad – to practically flick the word you’ve selected directly into your message. It’s a neat parlour trick, and “flick typing” might actually prove to be productive. You can alternatively just tap a word choice.
Meantime while gently guiding your finger along the trackpad, you can also scroll what’s on the screen, though frankly I found it just as simple, if not simpler, to scroll by making direct contact with my thumb along the display.
Keyboard shortcuts are another BlackBerry tradition that is a big part of the KeyOne experience. You can customise up to 52 such shortcuts, such as pressing the “c” key to summon the calendar app or the “m” key to text a message to a designated contact.
One feature that I really like is the fingerprint sensor that’s cleverly embedded into the space bar, a natural landing spot for your thumb and a fast and accurate way to authenticate your identify.
ALAS, THERE’S ALSO A DOWNSIDE
I too often mistook that space bar for the actual home key, which is the circle that you can tap just above the top row of physical keys.
Meanwhile, BlackBerry has positioned a physical convenience key on the right side of the device that you can customise for an action, perhaps a one-key speed dial to your spouse. But you might also mistake that button for the power button that’s on the left side.
Other items on the KeyOne to make note of: the phone has 32GB of memory that’s expandable via microSD up to 2TB. The device is fast to charge (via USB-C adapter) and though I didn’t conduct a formal battery test, I never had to fret about power.
I don’t expect the KeyOne to spark a major resurgence of interest in BlackBerry. But there’s a lot to please loyal fans, and other smartphone users intoxicated by the prospects of a physical keyboard experience will also find much to like.