BlackBerry Priv review:

Slick Android slider with niche appeal

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3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

5 stars 11 user reviews

The Good The BlackBerry Priv delivers strong performance in a sleek, solid package. The subtle tweaks to Android are useful, and the compact keyboard packs in useful functionality. It's also fun to slide open, over and over again.

The Bad The keyboard is a bit narrow for large hands, and the device feels top heavy when fully extended. This security-focused phone is missing a few modern protection options, like a fingerprint reader or iris scanner.

The Bottom Line Android and an awesome keyboard make the Priv the best BlackBerry in years, but if you're not a keyboard lover and aren't much of a security seeker, you'll find phones that are cheaper, or offer better features than the Priv.

7.6 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 7.0
  • Camera 6.0
  • Battery 7.0

BlackBerry is on the ropes. Once the darling of the smartphone world, these days the company has been long displaced by upstarts like Apple and Google. The new BlackBerry Priv won't change that, but it's aimed at bringing the BlackBerry brand back into the limelight. And for BlackBerry apostates and the physical keyboard-curious, it'll have to. Dalliances with the Amazon app store's subset of the Android ecosystem failed to light a fire for BlackBerry, so there's a chance this might be the last gasp for the storied smartphone manufacturer.

Short for "privacy" and" privilege" (as in, privacy is your privilege), the Priv ditches BlackBerry 10 OS to run Android Lollipop, but still promises to deliver the secure experience you'd expect from the BlackBerry pedigree. Remember BlackBerry 10 OS? Most developers don't.

BlackBerry's insistence on sticking to its vision of a secure, productivity-and-enterprise focused OS proved near fatal, as the mobile hegemony it once enjoyed was gobbled up by Android and iOS, buoyed by consumers hungry for apps. The company has seen its market reach dwindle. It sold just 800,000 smartphones last quarter, less than half as many as it sold a year ago. BlackBerry is once again looking to save itself , and the move to Android could do just that.

The BlackBerry Priv is an attractive device, thicker than the competition on Android, but sporting a backlit QWERTY keyboard that slides out from behind the 5.4-inch quad HD display. If you're a lapsed BlackBerry acolyte, come for the uncompromising physical keyboard and security pedigree, but stay for the access to the full Android app store.

The BlackBerry Priv is available unlocked for $699, directly from BlackBerry's website. AT&T will be the first carrier to launch with the Priv, and if you opt for a two-year contract, it'll be available for $250. Verizon has confirmed that the BlackBerry Priv is "coming soon," though there's no word on a release date. Carphone Warehouse in the UK has the phone unlocked for £560. If you're in Canada, you can get the phone for $400 on a two-year contract or $800 unlocked at Bell, Telus, Rogers, SaskTel, Eastlink and Wind Mobile.

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The BlackBerry Priv runs Android Lollipop 5.1.1.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Design

  • 5.4-inch AMOLED display, 2,560x1,440 pixel resolution
  • 5.7 (7.2 when open) by 3.04 by 0.37 inches (147/184 when open by 77.2 by 9.4 mm)
  • 540 pixels per inch
  • 6.77 ounces (192 grams)

The BlackBerry Priv's best feature is probably that authoritative slap when you slide the phone open or closed.

OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration.

Some would say it's the 5.4-inch screen. Coated in Corning Gorilla Glass 4, it has a relatively high pixel density paired with a 1440p resolution, leaving text sharp and crisp and images looking attractive. Others might call out the signature professional BlackBerry styling. Whenever I handle a BlackBerry phone I get the distinct impression that stuff is about to get done.

Most would make an obvious nod to the keyboard itself. It's vintage BlackBerry style, backlit with a layout identical to the BlackBerry Classic . This keyboard feels a bit narrower than BlackBerry's previous efforts. Because it's a slider, the keys can't roam right up to the edge of the frame. I have fairly large hands, which means my thumbs can get a little tangled once I get up to speed while I'm typing.

I imagine spending a lot of time with the Priv's keyboard will make typing faster, and it only took a few hours before I was touch-typing with minimal effort. But I can also touch-type fairly capably on my Motorola Nexus 6, and I find I'm actually faster there (and on the Priv's touchscreen) than I am with the keyboard (with generous assistance from autocorrect, of course). It boils down to familiarity. Beyond the occasional review, my day-to-day phone experience revolves around touchscreens. I suspect it's the same for most of us.

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The keyboard might be a bit cramped for large hands.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Don't get me wrong, the keyboard's great. And the Priv's capacitive keys know the same awesome tricks I saw on the BlackBerry Passport , albeit in a package that's much easier to hold. Double tap lightly on the keyboard and it'll serve as a trackpad, so you can quickly move a cursor around a document or message you're editing. And if you see autocorrect suggestions on your display, just swipe up underneath the suggestion on the keyboard, and the word will be inserted. Reaching up and touching the screen isn't so arduous, but it'd be nice not to break up the flow.

It's still mostly about that solid clap on the slider, for me. The Priv's top half slides along aircraft-grade aluminium and it feels springy and responsive, but rigid enough that you won't find yourself doing it accidentally. While the phone gets a bit tall when it's fully extended, you'll only pop it out when you're typing. My hands naturally propped the phone up at a comfortable angle while my thumbs were on the keys. That said, my small-handed colleagues gave the phone a spin and found it feels a bit top-heavy, when it's open. I never worried about dropping it, but your mileage may vary.

The Priv also has a curved display. The phone's sliding mechanism means the screen doesn't wrap around quite as completely as Samsung's Galaxy S6 Edge+ , and it isn't as useful. Samsung's curved displays let you store app shortcuts, or serve up notifications, or keep tabs on missed calls. The Priv's curved sides host a fairly mundane productivity app (more on that in a bit), and a neat little battery status indicator when you're charging.

The phone offers NFC connectivity file sharing or shopping with Android Pay, and there's a single microUSB 2.0 connector at the bottom that's SlimPort enabled -- with the right adapters, you can get HDMI, DVI and DisplayPort connectivity, as well as pipe out 4K video at 30 frames per second.

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Android, with that BlackBerry security pedigree.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Software and apps

  • Android 5.1.1 Lollipop
  • BlackBerry Hub
  • Gesture controls
  • BlackBerry's DTEK security software

BlackBerry's in-house operating system couldn't woo developers away from iOS and Android, and with the Priv, the company is officially adopting the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach. It runs Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, and will eventually make the move to Android 6.0 Marshmallow .

Before you shed tears for the end of an era, take note that an Android-powered BlackBerry means access to the Google Play Store, and all of the apps therein. A lack of apps has been BlackBerry's Achilles heel for years, so this is already a great step.

But tales persist of Android malware and data leeched off of phones and over to unscrupulous foes, and BlackBerry is well aware of Android's less than savory security reputation. The company has pledged to keep the Priv secure, and will encrypt the files and sensitive information on the Priv -- anything that's encrypted never leaves your device.

BlackBerry has also committed to rolling out monthly security updates as Google discovers and addresses vulnerabilities. In cases where a vulnerability can't wait for a monthly update, BlackBerry will also be able to roll out hotfixes directly to the Priv -- the company has pledged to work with carriers on delivering updates, but also has the ability to circumvent them, and directly patch the Priv if necessary. On the enterprise level, you can turn to BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) to manage software and security deployments.

BlackBerry has also added a few light touches to the Android operating system. While I generally prefer the stock Android experience, I like the extras added here.

Widgets when you want them

Turn on pop up widgets, and an ellipsis will show up under the icons of any apps with widgets. Swipe up on the icon, and the widget will show up in a temporary overlay on your screen. It'll behave like a normal widget, and then disappear when you're done with it. You're still free to use normal widgets, of course. But I find that apps like Google Keep are handy to have around, but don't necessarily need to take over an entire homescreen. This feature is a neat compromise.

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The curved screen doesn't get much use.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Battery, at a glance

Plug the phone in and you'll see a little line darting along the border of the screen. It's the Battery Edge, and it'll glow red, yellow, or green, depending on the Priv's power level. You'll also see a little percentage readout, as well as an estimate of the remaining charging time, so you can keep tabs on your phone while it's charging. It runs along the curve, which keeps it out of the way, so you can use your phone while it's plugged in without obscuring the screen. I'm a bit embarrassed about how much I like this, but it's an inconsequential extra that makes the screen's sometimes superfluous curves a bit more useful.

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