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BlackBerry Classic review: BlackBerry returns to its roots

BlackBerry's latest smartphone offers a four-row keyboard in a familiar form factor, but those physical keys come at a cost.

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Nate Ralph
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Nate Ralph

Associate Editor

Associate Editor Nate Ralph is an aspiring wordsmith, covering mobile software and hardware for CNET Reviews. His hobbies include dismantling gadgets, waxing poetic about obscure ASCII games, and wandering through airports.

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6 min read

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.

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7.3

BlackBerry Classic

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.

Three years later the $449 BlackBerry Classic (about £285) 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.

It also boasts BlackBerry Blend, which is a sort of command center for BlackBerry users. Once you've downloaded the app onto a PC, Mac, or mobile device running iOS or Android, you'll have nearly full control over your BlackBerry phone -- just connect it to your computer with a USB cable or with any of your devices over Wi-Fi or a cellular network. If your company is on BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10 you'll also be able to hop onto the corporate network without navigating VPNs and the like.

With Blend, you can write emails, BBMs, and text messages, and respond to all of your messages right through the app, and check out the calendars and contacts synced with your device -- no data is stored on the PC or tablet you're connecting to with Blend, so there's less worry. It could also prove to be a real time saver for those moments when you lack connectivity but want to stay productive.

Blend's most compelling feature is file management. The app gives you access to just about everything on the device, including documents, files, photos and videos. You can also add files to your BlackBerry device right through Blend.

Performance

The camera isn't stellar.

Josh Miller/CNET

The Classic is powered by a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm 8960, a venerable -- if dated -- CPU. Paired with 2GB of RAM, I saw nary a hint of lag or stutter as I bounced around the phone, triaged my email, or snapped photos. Most of my testing revolved around working with text and browsing the web. They're the tasks the Classic was designed for, and the phone tackles them with aplomb. Step out of its comfort zone, and things are a little less rosy: I ran into lag when firing up Android apps, and games like GT Racing 2 served up occasionally choppy frame rates. The phone offers 16GB of storage space, and supports up to 128GB micro SD cards.

Call quality is great: I tested the phone on AT&T's LTE network here in San Francisco, and could hear everyone I spoke to very clearly. The folks I spoke to also had no problems hearing me, even as I paced past construction sites and snarled city traffic. The phone's speakers are suitably loud, and calls sound nice and clear. The audio quality is a bit too thin and tinny to be suitable for things like music though, so stick to headphone.

The phone is rated for 17 hours of talk time, and just over 13 hours of video playback. My usage revolved around lots of web browsing, messaging, and writing, the occasional phone call, and navigating around the Bay Area with BlackBerry's maps app. I easily made it through the weekend before I sought an outlet.

Camera

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All of the objects are clearly visible here, but details are muddled.

Josh MIller/CNET

The 8-megapixel camera on the phone's rear takes serviceable shots, given ample light and a steady subject.

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The highlights are blown, but colors are accurate.

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The autofocus isn't too sluggish, and attempts to make intelligent suggestions on new camera modes to try as you snap photos.

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The flash is a little strong in this low-light shot, but the image is otherwise serviceable.

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Conclusion

The Classic is a clarion call to the faithful, a reminder that BlackBerry is still at the top of its productivity game. The company has also clearly taken recent lessons to heart: smartphones live and die by the apps you can run on them, so the admittedly limited presence of Android apps is a boon for BlackBerry fans. And as we saw with the BlackBerry Passport , a smartphone that champions productivity at the expense of a comfortable user experience is a bitter pill to swallow.

BlackBerry hopes to reach forward by taking a step back. And for many people, that will prove to be a good thing: you're getting a great physical keyboard, the BlackBerry experience you love, and a taste of Android, for good measure. But the cramped screen real estate, meager Android support (if you don't want to hunt for APKs), and awkward, square aspect ratio will make this a tough sell for those of us who aren't wedded to physical keys.

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7.3

BlackBerry Classic

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 6