BlackBerry Classic review: BlackBerry returns to its roots

CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
  • Overall: 7.3
  • Design: 8.0
  • Features: 8.0
  • Performance: 6.0
Review Date:

The Good The BlackBerry Classic couples a comfortable, accurate keyboard with an attractive design that's sure to please BlackBerry fans. Support for Android apps will please the rest of us, too.

The Bad The spacious four-row keyboard results in a smaller, cramped screen.

The Bottom Line If you're willing to trade screen size for a superior physical keyboard, the BlackBerry Classic is a fantastic productivity phone for old-school QWERTY junkies.

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The BlackBerry Classic aims to succeed where the BlackBerry Bold 9900 did not. Released in 2011, the 9900 had BlackBerry 7 OS, powerful hardware, BlackBerry's four-row QWERTY keyboard and a touch screen, but it didn't exactly reverse the company's fortunes, in the wake of iOS and Android.

Three years later the $449 BlackBerry Classic (about £285, AU$546) keeps BlackBerry's signature design, but relies on the fond memories of BlackBerry fans. You still get that great keyboard, and it even runs Android apps, but the 3.5-inch display is uncomfortably small in the age of the big-screen phones, and the awkward square aspect ratio hampers all activities except composing and editing text. Hardcore emailers who just can't deal with touchscreen typing may find enough of RIM's glory days here to give two thumbs up -- before giving those same digits a workout on this fantastic hard keyboard.

Design and specs

The BlackBerry Classic Josh Miller/CNET

BlackBerry has already taken another swing at that signature Bold design, which we saw in last year's BlackBerry Q10 -- unsurprisingly, the Classic was originally known as the Q20. In any event, you'll find a 3.5-inch display that's a little larger than the Q10's, but retains a square 720x720-pixel resolution. The phone itself is 5.1 inches tall, 2.8 inches wide and 0.4 inch thick.

As the name suggests, the phone boasts classic BlackBerry design. A stainless-steel frame borders the full length of the phone, at once lending the device strength and style. Three buttons sit on the right side: your volume controls, and a mute button -- press and hold it to call up the BlackBerry Assistant. The SIM card and SD card slots sit on the left side: the phone accepts nano-SIM cards, and SD cards up to 128GB. The back is bare save for the BlackBerry logo, but has a grippy texture that feels nice to hold.

Keyboard

The four-row keyboard makes for a cramped display. Josh Miller/CNET

Of course this is a BlackBerry, so we're here for the keyboard. BlackBerry has always positioned itself as the champion of folks who wouldn't dream of leaving a physical keyboard behind, and the company's efforts shine here. The layout will be really familiar to anyone who's used a BlackBerry in the last three or four years, and it's nearly identical to the one that appeared on the Q10.

Three rows of keys run along the width of the phone, and the smaller, fourth row sits beneath that. Typing feels fantastic: every key is shaped with little ridges and depressions so if you're touch typing, you'll always be aware of when your fingers shift between keys, which helps with accuracy. And the keys offer a nice, satisfying click with every press, which leaves you typing confidently.

Four more utility keys sit just below the display -- Call, Menu, Back and End -- which do exactly what they say. An optical touchpad sits in the middle and serves as a cursor that lets you scoot around websites or documents, and makes it really easy to select reams of text or batches of emails to tweak en masse. The Classic also offers shortcut keys: hold down particular keys to quickly access particular functions. Holding "A," for example, brings up the Address Book, while holding "Q" will quickly toggle silent mode. You can also press any key on the keyboard and assign your own shortcuts to particular contacts or apps.

Software and features

The BlackBerry Assistant helps you get stuff done. Josh Miller/CNET

The BlackBerry Classic runs BlackBerry 10.3.1, and the experience here is pretty much identical to the one we saw on the BlackBerry Passport. Software remains the platform's weakness, and while it does support Android apps, you're largely limited to whatever's available on the Amazon Appstore. If you happen to have an APK file for the app you want to install, you can load that up too. There's also the BlackBerry World app store: BlackBerry says that the general expectation is that you'll get secure, enterprise level apps from BlackBerry World, while turning to the Amazon app store for your entertainment needs.

The limited app selection is a bit bummer, but the square aspect ratio is going to be a bigger problem, as a lot of Android apps just look odd in a square format. There's a fix of sorts: if you swipe down from the top of the screen in BlackBerry 10.3.1, you'll call up an app's menu. When you're running Android apps, you'll see a prompt for "Size" -- tap it, and you'll be able to choose from three different screen ratio presets, which might help things a tad.

The Classic sports BlackBerry Assistant, the virtual assistant that works just like Siri or Google Now. Ask a question or give it a task, and it'll do it. You can also type in your request if you're, say, in a meeting.

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BlackBerry Classic

Part Number: BlackBerry® Classic
MSRP: $449.00 Low Price: $449.99 See all prices