The last BlackBerry smartphone I held was the Z10 in 2013, and it seemed like that was the company’s last hurrah in this industry. But here we are, nearly three years later, and I’m holding an Android-powered BlackBerry device. I never thought I’d see the day.
Its existence isn’t a total surprise. The BlackBerry Priv has been making its rounds in the rumor mill the past few months and Android fans seem evenly divided on it. You’re either really excited to see BlackBerry try its hand in the Android space, or you’re tired of watching the company endure a slow and painful death. One thing is for certain: this is BlackBerry’s last chance at securing any sort of marketshare in the smartphone industry. Again.
The BlackBerry Priv isn’t a bad attempt at an Android device. It’s actually pretty neat, and BlackBerry worked with Google to ensure it put forth a version of Android that wouldn’t ruffle a purist’s feathers. It also runs on the same hardware as some of its competitors and features a physical keyboard, which at this point feels more like a throwback than a useful utility. Overall, there’s plenty to like about the Priv. I just wish it wasn’t a whopping $700.
A different kind of Android phone
The BlackBerry Priv is a slider phone. The last slider phone the Android world produced was…well, it’s been awhile. The closest thing we have now is the Galaxy Note 5’s keyboard cover. The Priv doesn’t look too Android-y, either; it’s more reminiscent of an older Nokia Lumia device. There’s a power button that lives on the left side of the device, and a mute button on the right that’s sandwiched in between two volume keys. Both the SIM and expansion slot live on top, while the headphone jack is on the bottom.
This phone is definitely styled in BlackBerry’s aesthetic. It’s black with gray trim, and a bit stuffy compared to any of Samsung or Motorola’s devices. This is definitely an “all business, all the time” kind of smartphone, and if you’re looking for something casual and sexy, this isn’t it. The Priv is a bit flimsy in its construction, too, and the screen has been made so thin to accommodate the keyboard underneath it, that it bends too easily.
The Priv’s saving grace in the design department is its slightly curved, 5.43-inch Quad HD AMOLED display, which the company hopes will entice users as it piggybacks off of Samsung’s marketing for its own Edge display. It’s a weird thing to bet on, but that little bit of curve helps the Priv stand out, rather than make it look like just another Android phone in a sea of lookalikes.
About that keyboard
The last time I used a physical keyboard on a phone was on the LG Voyager, which served as my last feature phone. It had large enough keys that, even with longer nails, I could easily bang out a sentence or two without too many typos. I figured it’d be a similar experience with the Priv, but it wasn’t. I had a hard time adjusting to the smaller size of the keys. I got so frustrated that I resorted to using the fabulous on-screen keyboard instead, just so I could tweet and write emails without taking 10 minutes to type out a few words.
But then I recalled the fact that I’ve been typing on a touchscreen for about five years now—ever since I switched from that Voyager to my first smartphone—and that it took me weeks before I could get the hang of living life without a physical keyboard.
So I stuck with it. I eventually figured out a way to use the Priv’s slide-out keys without enduring too many errors, though it was a long, arduous learning curve for me. The Priv’s keyboard is most difficult to use when you’re typing out longer sentences with special punctuation that auto correct won’t fix, but otherwise it works. You can more easily use it one-handed, too, and the keyboard functions as a scroll-wheel when you’re not entering text, so you can scroll through the interface as on an original BlackBerry with its tiny trackball.
Another Snapdragon 808 device
I’m not really a fan of the Snapdragon 808’s performance, but BlackBerry did right by Android users by choosing a processor that matches what other Android manufacturers are using and pairing it with 3GB of RAM. Thankfully, the Priv doesn’t suffer from some of the same lag issues as the G4 or Nexus 5X—both of which use the same SoC.
The Priv is not a powerhouse. It takes a while to start up with every reboot, and it fared average in our benchmarks tests. It’s a $700 phone that performs on par with the latest $400 phones. But are we surprised? BlackBerry has always been about productivity, and they’re not changing their M.O. simply because they’ve switched to Android.
Battery life on the BlackBerry Priv is phenomenal. In our PCMark battery tests, the Priv’s 3410mAh battery pack lastest 7 hours and 16 minutes. That was on par with the Galaxy Note 5’s 3,220mAh battery pack. Just don’t let that battery run out before a long flight overseas: the BlackBerry Priv takes a long time to charge unless you have a Quick Charge 2.0-enabled power adapter, which the Priv does not come with.
An impressive camera
I was impressed with the Priv’s 18-megapixel rear-facing camera. I thought surely that BlackBerry would have flubbed the camera part of its Android smartphone, but it actually equipped it with some very capable hardware.
The BlackBerry Priv’s camera is jam-packed with features. It has Auto-Focus, Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), Phase Detect Auto Focus (PDAF)—which is typically featured in DSLRs and high-end smartphones—and fast focus lock.
It’s easy to shoot with and the interface is simple and clean. The video capabilities are also pretty powerful, and you can shoot in 4K up to 30fps. There’s also a dual LED flash on the rear that helps brightened photos look balanced rather than overblown.
The Priv’s low light abilities are exceptional. I almost didn’t believe it myself. In some cases, it performed better than the Galaxy S6 Edge and Nexus 6P—both of which offer exceptional low light performance—though it’s obvious that the Priv’s end result is just a tad more blown out. But no matter: if you’re in a bar and posting to Instagram, the BlackBerry Priv will do.
I was disappointed to see that BlackBerry equipped the Priv with a paltry 2 megapixel front-facing camera. Selfies are just as important as landscape shots, and I’ve been living life with 5-megapixel or better selfies for the past two years. The front-facing camera does pretty well with ample lighting, but in darker environments it performs horribly. I feel like I’m snapping selfies with a flip phone again.
You won’t mind this version of Android
Sometimes, when a manufacturer comes along and says it wants to do an Android phone, you figure the way they plan to customize it is going to be awful. Thankfully, that’s not the case with the Priv, and some of the features included in its version of Android are meant as an homage to the BlackBerry phones of the past.
The BlackBerry Hub introduced in BlackBerry 10 is back. It bundles in notifications from your email, calendar, messaging apps, and social media accounts into one easy to peruse hub. Tapping on each individual notification will take you to the app it’s coming from, and you can customize alerts for each account. There’s also a productivity tab associated with the app, which lives permanently on the right-hand side of the Home screen. Drag it out, and you can see the day’s calendar events and tasks at a glance. You can disable it if it’s too much of a bother, though.
The BlackBerry launcher also offers a few other little software quirks. There are pop-up widgets, which let you use a widget with any app without having to paste it on your Home screen. Once you enable it in the settings, you can slide up on the icon to quickly bring up a widget and use it. But this is a confusing feature to use and, frankly, a little redundant.
The shortcuts, which live in the Application drawer, offer much more utility. You can drag and drop them on the Home screen as you need, or tap on one from the drawer to use it. I like that it eliminates how much tapping I have to do around the interface to do something simple, like making a calendar event or checking my data usage.
And lastly, a BlackBerry smartphone wouldn’t be called so without BBM preloaded. Unfortunately, if you don’t plan to use it, you can’t delete it—you can only disable it.
There are security features, too
A BlackBerry phone wouldn’t be complete without a few of its own custom security features. Since this phone is currently stuck on Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, BlackBerry tacked on an app called DTEK, which scans the security status of the device. It looks through your applications and factors in the developer options and trusted app sites you’ve allowed to assess how protected your device actually is. It doesn’t make up for the lack of individual application permissions, which are available with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but it is an app you’d expect from a company like BlackBerry.
There’s also a new Lock screen feature called Picture password, which allows you to use a combination of a number and picture to unlock the device, rather than simply typing the password. You choose the picture, number, and part of the picture to drag the number to. The idea is that no snoop would be able to crack this code, but I would have rather that BlackBerry include a fingerprint scanner instead of some new Lock screen mechanism.
Ready to give BlackBerry another try?
The BlackBerry Priv is a pretty outstanding attempt at an Android device, but that’s not the problem. I’m more worried about the fact that BlackBerry's introductory Android device costs a little too much for a last-ditch effort. The Priv will be available from AT&T, presumably with a subsidy, but its $700 price tag is still a bit steep considering the price of Nexus devices and Motorola’s smartphones these days. And I don’t think BlackBerry offers something particularly extraordinary that’d make someone consider the Priv over the latest Samsung device. You can buy the phone directly from BlackBerry, but note that it doesn't work on Verizon or Sprint.
But if you did pre-order one, don’t fret: the Priv is actually a pretty decent Android device, even if its slide-out keyboard does take a while to get used to. I’m shocked that BlackBerry managed to make a phone that could compete with the rest of them. Here’s to hoping it sells enough units of the Priv to afford them a second generation device.