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BlackBerry KeyOne: Six things I love/don't love so far (review in progress)

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Weeks after BlackBerry revealed the brand's big comeback phone, to the joy of BlackBerry die-hards and other lovers of physical keyboards, the KeyOne finally landed on my desk. Full disclaimer: I've been given a preproduction unit, and it isn't finished. (It got a software update yesterday, in fact.) Things could still change by the time the phone is fully released at the end of May; therefore, no rated review from me just yet. This is not a phone to judge quickly or lightly.

What the KeyOne is, is an ambitious endeavor to recover the brand's reputation. Once one of the world's top two phonemakers, BlackBerry has dwindled in the past decade. Its last few devices failed to make a positive impression. Now with BlackBerry hardware in the hands of TCL, the company behind Alcatel phones, BlackBerry has an opportunity to wow buyers with something unique: a premium Android phone with a QWERTY -- rather than virtual -- keyboard. And BlackBerry-branded security software too, of course. (There's also support for corporate buyers, but my assessment focuses on individual consumers.)

The KeyOne pairs physical buttons with a 4.5-inch touch screen.

Josh Miller/CNET

Like other Android hopefuls, the KeyOne faces steep competition against more established players, such as Samsung's Galaxy S8, LG's G6 and Google's Pixel, but in this case, the keyboard will be the deciding factor for most.

So while I simply need to spend more time testing the phone before I know how well the KeyOne has lived up to its promise, I will share what I like so far, and what hasn't connected. Check back for my final assessment of a production device, ratings and all.

The KeyOne goes on sale in the US on May 31 for $549. It'll work on all four major US carriers, but will initially sell from BlackBerryMobile.com and other online retailers. In Canada, it'll roll out through carriers first. Posh London department store Selfridges will have it first in the UK, then it'll go out to the masses in Carphone Warehouse stores on May 5, for £499. Australian details are TBA, but the UK price converts to about AU$870.

What I like so far

  • This is the most premium BlackBerry I've seen in years
  • Fast, accurate fingerprint reader (integrated into the keyboard)
  • Customizable convenience key opens any app or shortcut
  • You can program 52 keyboard shortcuts (but you probably wouldn't want to)
  • The productivity tab, reminiscent of the Galaxy S8 tab, is useful
  • Software tidbits: Layout of Recents tab, floating phone button lets you pop back into a call when you switch screens

What I'm not so into

  • It's heavy and sits uncomfortably on my pinky finger when I hold it
  • The keyboard feels cramped
  • There's a dedicated $ key, but no dedicated period, comma or @ button
  • The convenience key seems to trigger easily in my bag (I set it to the camera and found at least a dozen errant photos)
  • There aren't as many camera options as competing devices (but you can dig around for the manual mode)
  • It isn't water-resistant

Size and screen

Smaller than the iPhone 7 Plus and larger than the Galaxy S8, the BlackBerry KeyOne has a 4.5-inch screen topping off that signature keyboard. At 6.3 ounces (180 grams), the KeyOne is heavier than the Galaxy S8, iPhone 7 and Google Pixel, but it's a bit lighter than the iPhone 7 Plus.

What I think so far:

The KeyOne feels heavy, and when I hold it to type, the charger port presses down on my pinky. I tried bracing the phone against my ring finger, but that felt less natural and still uncomfortable. You might not have the same problem if you use a different grip or if the phone falls in a different place on your hands.

I didn't mind the smaller screen overall, and I didn't feel I had to squint to read it. If you're used to an iPhone 6 or 7, this is just a bit smaller. Any larger and the phone would have been too tall and even heavier; this is an adequate trade-off.

Keyboard and tricks

The KeyOne's physical keyboard is a BlackBerry trademark. It has rectangular buttons that are wider than they are tall. The "O" actually looks like it was tipped on its side. Unlike the iconic Bold, the KeyOne's buttons have no ridges.

BlackBerry KeyOne, meet iconic BlackBerry Bold.

Josh Miller/CNET

What it does have are capacitive sensors that mean you can swipe left and right over the top to, say, flip among home screens. You can flick up on the buttons to select predictive text (previous BlackBerry phones have had this too).

And you can map a long or short press of any key to launch an app or shortcut -- up to 52 of them in total (good luck remembering them all). The phone will even suggest apps or contacts to pair to, such as "I" for "Instagram," "Y" for "Yelp" and "M" for "Mom."

The fingerprint reader is built right into the home button.

What I think so far:

Typing felt cramped even for my smaller-size fingers, and I made mistakes but I admit I'm still retraining myself after years with virtual keyboards every day (I used to pine for the QWERTY's return). The short keyboard height is clearly part of the trade-off to keep the KeyOne from getting too tall.

I like the keyboard shortcuts, but am not sure I could remember 52 of them. The fingerprint reader is working very well so far.

Convenience key

I like a good convenience key for launching any app I pair with it. On the KeyOne, the button on the phone's right edge can open Google Voice Search, the camera or any other app or shortcut you use a lot.

What I think so far:

I love convenience keys and I like that this one's customizable. I'm still deciding what to put here. Since I can trigger the camera by double-pressing the volume button, I don't really need it there. Google Assistant is pretty easy to get to. And the button seems to trigger in my bag, so I hesitate to assign it to a person and call them unintentionally.

On-screen tab

Swipe the tab to see upcoming appointments, recent calls, tasks and unread messages.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Taking a cue from Samsung's Edge phones, the KeyOne has a little tab you can pull over on any screen. This opens a module that shows you upcoming appointments and tasks, and lets you view some recent messages. There's also a Settings menu you can access to customize the tab's size, placement and transparency.

What I think so far:

I think it's helpful to see my calendar appointments and messages from any screen, but I'd love it more if I could customize what to include and keep out.

Cameras

The 12-megapixel camera has an automatic mode that's got plenty of filters, auto-HDR and panorama, but not the truckload of features you see on other devices. This might suit you fine, especially if you mostly take photos using automatic mode. There's a pro mode you can turn on in the camera settings, which gives you much finer control over white balance, ISO and all the rest.

An 8-megapixel front-facing camera takes straightforward selfies. You can apply the usual filters.

What I think so far:

Image quality was fine, but not as bright or lush as the Galaxy S8, which also has a 12-megapixel lens. Images were a little less detailed on the KeyOne, but so far I'd be happy enough to share them online and with friends.

BlackBerry software

BlackBerry fans will be glad to see BlackBerry Hub, which is a universal message inbox and BBM (BlackBerry Messenger), as well as the Dtek app for peering into your phone's security protocols. The KeyOne will work with the BES server. In addition to everyday buyers, the folks behind the BlackBerry brand are also reaching out to businesses and government agencies to support the phone.

What I think so far:

I've never gotten into the BlackBerry Hub; for me, it was and still is information overload. But I do like BlackBerry's take on the look and feel of its software -- it makes it seem like a distinctly BlackBerry device that happens to run Android. You see elements of this in the square layout of your recent apps (when you tap the Recents button) and a bubble you see floating on the screen when you tap out of the dialer during a call. You just tap it again to get back to the dialer.

BlackBerry KeyOne specs vs. Galaxy S8, LG G6 and iPhone 7


BlackBerry KeyOne Samsung Galaxy S8 LG G6 Apple iPhone 7
Display size, resolution 4.5-inch; 1,620x1,080 pixels 5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels 5.7-inch, 2,880x1,440 pixels 4.7-inch; 1,334x750 pixels
Pixel density 434ppi 570ppi 565ppi 326ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.9x2.9x.37 in 5.9x2.9x0.31 in 5.9x2.8x0.31 in 5.44x2.64x0.28 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 150x74x9.4 mm 148.9x68.1x8 mm 148.9x71.97.x7.9 mm 138.3x67.1x7.1 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.3 oz; 180g 5.5 oz; 155g 5.7 oz, 162g 4.87 oz; 138 g
Mobile software Android 7.1 Nougat Android 7.0 Nougat Android 7.0 Nougat Apple iOS 10
Camera 12-megapixel 12-megapixel 13-megapixel (standard), 13-megapixel (wide) 12-megapixel (wide)
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel 8-megapixel 5-megapixel 7-megapixel
Video capture 1080p 4K 4K 4K
Processor 2GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz + 1.9GHz) or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz + 1.7GHz) 2.35GHz Snapdragon 821 with Adreno 530 GPU Apple A10 chip (64-bit)
Storage 32GB 64GB 32GB 32GB, 128GB, 256GB
RAM 3GB 4GB 4GB N/A
Expandable storage Up to 2TB Up to 2TB Up to 2TB None
Battery 3,505mAh battery 3,000mAh 3,300mAh 14 hour talk time on 3G, 10 days standby, 12 hours internet use on LTE
Fingerprint sensor Space bar Back cover Back cover Home button
Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C Lightning
Special features Physical keyboard, BlackBerry security software Water-resistant (IP68); wireless charging; Gigabit LTE-ready 18:9 aspect ratio; wireless charging (US-only); water-resistant Water and dust-resistant, Taptic Home button
Price off-contract (USD) $549 AT&T: $750; Verizon: $720; T-Mobile: $750; Sprint: $750; US Cellular: $675 AT&T: $720, Verizon: $672 T-Mobile: $650, Sprint: $708, US Cellular: $597.60 $649 (32GB); $749 (128GB); $849 (256GB)
Price (GBP) £499 £689 £649 £599 (32GB); £699 (128GB); £799 (256GB)
Price (AUD) Converts to AU$870 AU$1,199 AU$1,008 AU$1079 (32GB), AU$1229 (128GB), AU$1379 (256GB)

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Service Provider not specified
  • Diagonal Size 4.5 in
  • Weight 6.35 oz
  • Sensors Accelerometer, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, magnetometer, gyro sensor, hall sensor
  • Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
  • Additional Features Android Beam
    E-911 compliant
    Tap and go
    Tap and pay
    notification LED
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