BlackBerry Priv review: When old habits die hard

Can Android save BlackBerry's phone business?

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BlackBerry Priv
  • BlackBerry Priv
  • BlackBerry Priv
  • BlackBerry Priv
  • Expert Rating

    4.00 / 5

Pros

  • Curved 1440p AMOLED display
  • Loud front firing speaker
  • Hexa-core processor with expandable storage
  • Build quality

Cons

  • Slide keyboard is redundant
  • Primary camera struggles in high contrast situations
  • Front camera has a low resolution

Would you buy this?

  • Price

    TBA (AUD)

Mark 2016 as the year BlackBerry releases its first smartphone running Android in Australia. It’s called the BlackBerry Priv, the name being a play on the word ‘privacy’, and it aims to make the BlackBerry brand relevant once again.

The productivity tools adored by long time BlackBerry fans have been ported across to the Android operating system. There’s BlackBerry’s Hub and Messenger, which work just as they do on BB10, but there’s also the support of 1.5 million applications housed in the Google Play store. Owners of a BlackBerry no longer need to sacrifice one for the other.

Running the same software as its rivals has motivated BlackBerry to innovate the smartphone’s design. The Priv’s 5.4-inch display has sides that slope downwards in a move reminiscent of Samsung’s Galaxy S6 Edge. This is an advanced manufacturing technique that only Samsung and LG have mastered, up until now.

Curving the glass encourages gestures more than the design of Apple’s iPhone 6s. BlackBerry adds functionality to the striking trait as an inwards swipe overlays the screen with upcoming appointments, incoming messages, pending tasks or favourite contacts. Plug the smartphone in and a snake-like animation crawls to the smartphone’s edge, its length and colour representative of the smartphone’s charge. These small touches are powerful enough to provoke a beloved emotional response.

It helps that the screen makes use of an AMOLED panel, has a high 2560x1440 resolution and a rich 540 pixel-per-inch density. The holy trinity of display technologies — size, panel and resolution — ensure the Priv is as good to work on as it is to watch a video on YouTube.

1. The notification overlay 2.The task manager 3. The digital BlackBerry keyboard
1. The notification overlay 2.The task manager 3. The digital BlackBerry keyboard

Parts of this smartphone nod to old BlackBerry traditions. Beneath the screen is a recessed front firing speaker; it is recessed so that thumbs can elegantly slide the screen upwards, giving way to a QWERTY keyboard. The throwback to a physical keyboard will appeal to ‘crackberries’ looking to upgrade, but it’ll come at the cost of new customers.

Digital QWERTY keyboards have reached a point of maturity. Trying to understand why BlackBerry felt a physical keyboard was necessary is difficult. Its keys are smaller and are harder to press than its digital counterpart. Including the keyboard adds weight and size because a sliding mechanism is needed, and it could be the reason behind the Priv’s low resolution front camera.

Odds are most people will pretend the Priv is a candybar phone. This isn’t too hard to do as, unlike older BlackBerry phones, it has a decent multimedia repertoire. There’s the calibre of its display, its complementary front firing speaker and all of the games in the Google Play store. Topping it all off is a high resolution primary camera.

Sitting prominently against a carbon fibre back is an 18 megapixel camera capable of recording 4K videos. Specifications of note include optical imaging stablisation and an f/2.2 aperture. Captured photos are good enough to be viewed on the large screen of a computer and will serve social networks well. There’s little image noise and a wide colour gamut. Letting the camera down is a narrow dynamic range as it struggles to balance bright areas with those that are dark.

BlackBerry Priv primary camera: This photo is overexposed as to capture more detail
BlackBerry Priv primary camera: This photo is overexposed as to capture more detail
BlackBerry Priv primary camera
BlackBerry Priv primary camera

The front camera is less accommodating. It captures photos at 2MP and records videos at a mediocre 720p. Fans of the ‘selfie’ best gravitate to the latest smartphones from Sony, Samsung, LG and Apple, which all boast front cameras sized 5-megapixels and above.

Strip the Priv down and you’ll find computing hardware comparable to the LG Nexus 5X and the LG G4. Inside is a Snapdragon 808 chipset hosting a potent 1.8GHz dual-core CPU and an economical 1.44GHz quad-core CPU. An Adreno 418 GPU shares 3GB of RAM with the processor, while the smartphone’s 32GB of internal storage can be expanded by a further 2TB with the right microSD card.

Benchmarking tests reveal the Priv sits in the shadows of the most powerful flagships. 3DMark’s ice storm unlimited, which measures CPU and GPU performance, awarded the Priv a score of 19,070, placing it ahead of the LG Nexus 5X (18,901) and Motorola Moto X Play (8709), and behind the Samsung Galaxy S6 (22,083) and the Apple iPhone 6s (28,348).

It is not known which networks will offer the BlackBerry Priv when it goes on sale in Australia early next year. The smartphone is 4G capable and, when armed with a Telstra SIM in our North Sydney office, it achieved a download speed of 91.25Mbps and an upload speed of 29.66Mbps. Downloading a 1GB file at this pace would take a brisk 1 minute and 34 seconds.

Great battery life is the legacy of older BlackBerry smartphones. Integrated into the Priv is a large 3410 milliamp per hour (mAh) battery that should deliver promising results. Unfortunately our evaluation unit proved mediocre as it lasted an average of 23 hours.

Parts of the BlackBerry Priv are cutting edge and it’s a good enough smartphone to compete against the best from Samsung, Sony and Apple. Only it is held back by its stronghold on old tradition. The physical keyboard yields only compromise. Old customers will be happy, but the happy few will come at the cost of everyone else.

Update: Optus has confirmed to PCWorld it will offer the BlackBerry Priv when it is released. Pricing and availability details have yet to be revealed.

Update II: Vodafone and Telstra will not be selling the BlackBerry Priv when it launches.

Firing frontwards at the bottom of the smartphone is a speaker.
Firing frontwards at the bottom of the smartphone is a speaker.

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