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BlackBerry Leap review: This Leap falls short

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The Good The BlackBerry Leap smartphone is a plain workhorse with BlackBerry's productivity and security pedigree.

The Bad The Amazon app store is missing many popular apps found on Google Play, or Apple's iOS app store.

The Bottom Line The BlackBerry Leap ditches a physical keyboard to lure folks looking for a modern smartphone experience, but a lack of apps and a lackluster camera keep this device behind the competition.

6.6 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 7
  • Camera 6
  • Battery 7

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.

Design

  • 5-inch display, 1,280x720-pixel resolution, 293ppi (pixel density)
  • 144x72.8x9.5mm (5.67 inches by 2.87 inches by 0.37 inch)
  • 170 grames (6 ounces)

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.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Software and features

  • BlackBerry OS 10.3.1
  • Support for Amazon's Android app store
  • BlackBerry World app store

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.

You'll get your apps from BlackBerry World and the Amazon app store. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

The Hub is a home for all of your conversations. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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.

Performance and battery life

  • 1.5GHz Qualcomm 8960 dual-core processor, 2GB RAM
  • 2,800mAh battery
  • 16GB storage, supports up to 128GB microSD

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 SIM and microSD card slots are readily accessible. Josh Miller/CNET

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