The BlackBerry Leap tries to appeal to younger businesspeople by forgoing a keyboard, but it lacks the app developer support it needs to stand out as a smartphone.
BlackBerry has long been a byword for mobile security and productivity, and that isn't going to change with the BlackBerry Leap. Available unlocked for $275, or £199 in the UK (about AU$394), this phone pays homage to BlackBerry's business-focused ethos in every way except one: there's no keyboard.
For good or ill, the physical keyboard on BlackBerry's last few devices relegated those phones to a rather specific niche. But in striking out the platform's chief differentiator, we're left with a 5-inch touchscreen device with a meager camera that's hobbled by a limited, lackluster platform that just can't stand up to Android or iPhone competitors.
The BlackBerry Leap is a plain black slab that looks and feels professional, in a quaint sort of way. There isn't much in the way of flourishes or adornments here, just a 5-inch edge-to-edge display and the BlackBerry badge running along the bottom. The textured pattern on the back keeps the phone appreciably grippy.
The right side of the phone hosts the volume controls and the BlackBerry Assistant button, which calls up BlackBerry's virtual assistant, the company's take on Apple's Siri, Android's Google Now and Microsoft's Cortana. You'll find the headphone jack and lock button up top, while the cover on the left hides the SIM card slot and the microSD slot -- it can support up to 128GB cards. The cover is kind of a pain to open and I generally kept a paper clip nearby to help get the cards in and out.
The Leap's 5-inch display with a 1,280x720-pixel resolution -- that's a bit low for a display this size, but the screen looks great: colors are vivid and accurate, and didn't shift no matter how I held the display. The Leap is also kind of chunky, and heavier than it looks at 6 ounces (170 grams), but you certainly won't have trouble toting it about.
What's definitely different here: there's no keyboard. The BlackBerry Passport and BlackBerry Classic were divisive devices, each making sacrifices to form and functionality to fit a QWERTY keyboard onto a modern smartphone. But as problematic as those keyboards were in a world populated by 5-inch devices and apps that need room to roam, they remain an important part of the BlackBerry experience.
Of course BlackBerry has made plenty of touchscreen-only devices. But without a physical keyboard, the Leap doesn't do much to stand out. It's ultimately a software problem. Having access to Android apps by way of the Amazon app store remains one of the best features introduced with BlackBerry 10.3.1. With it, BlackBerry users get a taste of the apps available on Android. But it's only a taste -- the app selection is woefully limited when compared with what you'll find in the official Google Play store. App compatibility also isn't guaranteed, and in some cases -- like the game Crossy Road -- Android apps failed to load at all. That said, you'll also have access to apps from the BlackBerry World store, and if you happen to have the APK file for the app you want to install, you can load that up too.
The notion of getting your "serious" apps from BlackBerry World and then trawling the Amazon app store for entertainment isn't lost on me, but if you're looking for a well-rounded device, you'd do better on a platform that's seen more widespread support from developers.
The rest of the BlackBerry OS 10 experience is identical to what we saw in the BlackBerry Passport and BlackBerry Classic. The focus on productivity and security won't disappoint folks who work at companies that demand heavy security. But platforms like Android and iOS will offer more choice.
We'll start with the typing experience. The Leap's virtual keyboard is fast and accurate, and has a great text suggestion function that superimposes recommendations right onto the keyboard -- just swipe on a word to slide it in, saving precious screen space. But Android and more recently, iOS, let you choose -- from a decidedly wide variety -- whatever keyboard is right for you, which is arguably more important for most users.
Then there's BlackBerry Hub, which puts all of your mail, texts and messages in one readily accessible place. It could certainly help you keep an eye on everything that's incoming, but individual apps still excel when it comes time to actually respond to anyone. Doubly so if you're using a platform that isn't supported, like Google Hangouts.
You can fire up the BlackBerry Assistant by holding the button on the side, and it'll answer questions, set reminders and do all kinds of helpful things. But we've had Google Now and iOS's Siri and Windows Phone's Cortana for some time now. And those platforms are poised to take things quite a bit further: Google Now will soon offer much greater contextual awareness, Siri is about ready to control some of your home appliances and Cortana is bringing her witty banter to just about every device you own.
There are quite a few features you'll only find on BlackBerry devices, and while they don't disappoint, they're largely limited to companies that are enmeshed in the BlackBerry ecosystem. Consider BlackBerry Balance, available to companies connected to BES10. Balance lets you create distinct work and personal workspaces on the device, so you can keep your work files and messages distinct from your personal life, without needing to juggle multiple devices.
And then there's BlackBerry Blend, which serves as a sort of command center for BlackBerry users. It's an app that will give you nearly full control over your BlackBerry from another device -- you'll be able to check on and compose emails or messages, keep tabs on your appointments and access files and your corporate network without navigating VPNs and the like. The Blend app is available for PCs, Macs and iOS and Android devices and is designed to keep your data secure, potentially turning your phone into a pocket workstation when you're on the go.
The Leap is powered by a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm 8960 paired with 2GB of RAM. You'll also find 16GB of storage space, bolstered by support for up to 128GB microSD cards. This loadout is identical to that of the BlackBerry Classic , and the performance is right in line with that keyboard-equipped device. Swiping through menus and firing up the native apps is effortless, and I never felt like the phone's hardware got in the way.
The Leap's 2,800mAh battery isn't removable, and is rated at up to 17 hours of talk time and 9.5 hours of video playback. Blackberry claims that "heavy users" will see up to 25 hours of battery life on the Leap. That's a lofty claim, but there are a number of battery management features packed into BlackBerry OS 10 that are designed to eke every last drop of juice out of the battery.
|Quadrant||3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited|
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The phone is fairly aggressive about shutting its screen off when it isn't in use, and you can configure a battery-saving mode to activate once your battery power hits a specific level, and have it automatically throttle your CPU performance, dial down your display's brightness and shut off basic phone functionality when you need power most. You can also dive into a device monitor to see exactly which apps are draining your battery, and get a general idea of how much juice you can expect.
Battery life will of course vary by use. In our continuous local-video playback test, we saw an average of 10 hours and 12 minutes in airplane mode, and after 8 hours of continuous voice calls the phone's battery had just ticked over the 50 percent mark. My use involved shooting lots of photos, using the Maps app to get around the San Francisco Bay Area, triaging email and making the occasional phone call -- I easily made it through a three-day weekend before the battery finally died.
I tested the BlackBerry Leap on T-Mobile's network in the San Francisco Bay Area. Call quality was fine: I didn't receive any complaints while I chatted with people, and could hear everyone I spoke with just fine. I also never ran into any issues with dropped calls or the like, but this is an unlocked phone; your experience will differ based on the carrier you choose, your coverage area and factors like location and the time of day.
I saw an average of about 15Mbps down and 17Mbps up over the course of my testing, though there were some outliers, like the ones listed above. Once again, your results will vary: be sure to check a carrier's coverage before picking a phone or signing up for service.
The BlackBerry Leap has a 2-megapixel shooter up front, and an 8-megapixel camera on the rear. Neither camera is especially impressive, but given ample light and a steady subject it'll crank out suitable shots.
The phone's camera excels in simple, controlled scenes. This shot taken inside an adequately lit restaurant came out just fine, with accurate colors and a clearly defined subject.
The camera's software is a little overeager to recommend that you switch to HDR mode, which resulted in this oversaturated image. The shutter speed also wasn't quite fast enough to mitigate camera shake, introducing some blurring in this fairly simple scene.
The phone chose a fairly wide f/2.2 aperture despite the fact that the flash was on, which resulted in a generally fuzzy photo.
The BlackBerry Leap looks and feels like a professional device, and packs all of the native security functionality that we've come to expect from BlackBerry. But if BlackBerry hopes to lure new users, or entice lapsed BlackBerry fans back into the fold, it's going to need to offer features that are competitive with competing platforms. It hasn't been successful on the app front, even with the inclusion of the Amazon app store. And the omission of a physical keyboard leaves out a feature that folks can't really get anywhere else.
If you don't care about the keyboard or the dearth of apps, there's also the matter of price: the Leap's dated processor, 720p display and lackluster cameras don't match up to its $275 price tag. Consider the $250Alcatel One Touch Idol 3 (that's £163, or AU $322), which boasts better performance, a better camera and a 1080p display. The Lumia 640 XL LTE offers a rather nice camera, and while Windows Phone will see you facing the same lack-of-apps conundrum, it's available for $240, £219 in the UK and AU$399 in Australia.
The Leap is a fine device -- if the IT department at your next corporate job hands you one of these, you won't be disappointed. But unless there's some particular bit of BlackBerry functionality you can't get anywhere else, and you hate physical keyboards, you'll be better picking up a phone on a more robust platform.