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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Productivity Tab takes another stab at making the curved screen useful. It's a sliver of a tab that sits on the right edge of the phone by default. You can change the size of the tab, its location on the display, or get rid of it altogether. Swipe it towards the center of the display and an overlay will fly out, giving you a quick look at unread messages, your calendar, unfinished tasks, and your frequent contacts. You can see a snippet of your emails and thumb through your agenda, but try to swipe something to the trash or get more details on an event and you'll just be directed to the full app. I'd find the tab a lot more useful if it could be part of my email triage process.
BlackBerry's built-in DTEK software is designed to squeal on the rest of the apps you've installed on your phone, as well grade you on your own security practices. Don't be alarmed. It's not snooping on you. Instead, it'll list all of the permissions that the apps you've downloaded have requested access to, and present that info in a convenient, easy to read location. As with all of BlackBerry's additions to Android, if you don't like DTEK, you can just turn it off and forget about it.
DTEK will also admonish you for not setting a password lock or things like turning on the Android developer options, and give you a simple little Device security status rating based on how it thinks you're doing. I ignored it, but it's a great little checklist for people who want an extra bit of peace of mind, or as a simple tool for an IT administrator who wants to employees to understand exactly how to keep things secure.
The BlackBerry Hub is the final piece of the puzzle, and a central part of the last few BlackBerry phones. It's home to just about every message from most major messaging platforms and services from SMS to Facebook. It can look a bit cluttered, as your call logs mingle with emails from multiple accounts, but you'll have plenty of customization options.
On devices where the Hub was your only option, I found it a great way to stay organized. And there are plenty of neat tricks here too. Swiping in from the left, for example, will allow you to snooze emails and have them resurface in your inbox at a more convenient time. But you've got so many great apps to choose from on Android, including the stock Mail app and Google's Inbox . The Hub's one-size-fits-all approach isn't as useful when you've got options.
The Priv is equipped with an 18-megapixel camera, certified by German lens manufacturer Schneider-Kreuznach. On paper, the camera has a lot going for it. Features like phase detect autofocus mean you'll have a better shot at capturing the action, and the dual color LED flash promises to brighten up your shots without casting an unsightly blue or yellow haze on your subjects.
Unfortunately, the camera ultimately disappoints. The lens is quick to focus, but the images it churns out are riddled with noise. The automatic white balance is also a bit unreliable, and there's no way to set it yourself. And while you can adjust the exposure on the fly, the camera's app doesn't offer many options.
These photos will be fine if you're sharing them on social networks like Facebook, but you'll want to steer clear of blowing them up to their full resolution. The front-facing, 2-megapixel camera doesn't fare much better, and while it lacks a flash I suppose the manual exposure control could help. If you'd like to take selfies with friends and left your selfie stick at home, there's a selfie panorama mode that'll help you get everyone in the shot.
Video playback fares better. It still isn't as sharp as I'd like, and colors look a bit flat, but it's plenty serviceable at 1080p. At 4K resolutions, you're running into many of the same problems that you do when shooting photos. The phone also offers optical image stabilization for video, but it's only available if you're shooting at 1080p or 720p, at 30 frames per second.
BlackBerry didn't skimp on the Priv's hardware, and while it isn't top of the class in any category, it's a strong contender that won't disappoint. The phone is powered by a 64-bit, Snapdragon 808 hexa-core system-on-chip (SoC).
There's a dual-core 1.8GHz CPU that the phone will tap for high-intensity tasks, and a 1.44GHz quad-core CPU that'll be slower, but more energy efficient, for general phone use. We've seen the part in devices like the LG G4 earlier this year. It's not sitting at the top of the performance heap, but it certainly remains competitive with top-tier parts.
Anecdotally, the Priv handles itself well. It's appreciably zippy, and never dragged its feet as I jumped between apps or meandered around the interface. Hardware-intensive games like Modern Combat 5 or Dead Trigger 2 ran flawlessly, though the device will get a bit warm when it's taxed heavily.
In CNET's video playback battery drain test, the Priv's 3,410mAh battery lasted for an average of about 10 hours and 25 minutes. That's not quite as impressive as devices like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 (15 hours) or the Samsung Galaxy S6 (12 hours and 24 minutes), and the battery isn't removable, but it should be plenty to get you through the day. In my own tests I easily made it through a weekend before looking for an outlet, but I spent most of that time poking around the internet, sending emails and editing documents, with a bit of gaming on the side. The Priv also offers support for Qualcomm's QuickCharge 2.0 technology (a compatible charger isn't included), and supports PMA (now AirFuel Alliance) and Qi wireless charging standards, which means you can use it with pretty much any wireless charging pad you can buy.
I tested the BlackBerry Priv on AT&T's network here in San Francisco and in parts of Oakland. The network's performance is going to be wholly dependent on factors like weather, your location and time of day.
In a fortuitous burst one afternoon I saw 54Mbps/down and 20Mpbs/up. My average speeds while moving around the Bay Area were far more modest, with an average of 14Mbps/down, and 13Mbps/up. Your own experience will vary, so (as always) be sure to check your carrier's coverage map.
The phone's call quality is subject to similar constraints, but all of my test calls sounded great. The people I spoke with told me that I sounded crisp and perfectly clear -- there are three microphones tucked onto the face of the Priv, and I found I was readily heard and understood no matter how awkwardly I held the phone.
The Priv stands tall above BlackBerry's last three efforts. The Passport had a great keyboard and access to some Android apps via the Amazon app store, but its wide body was cumbersome. The Classic, an updated homage to a formula that had worked so well in the past, had a four-row keyboard that stole valuable screen real estate. The all-touch Leap gave us a 5-inch display, but a low, 720p resolution, quaint design, and that paltry supply of apps kept it behind the modern smartphone pack.
The Priv fixes these flaws, taking the best parts of each device and dropping the whole package onto a popular mobile operating system. I should be thrilled. Why am I not thrilled? It's that keyboard. The Priv's keyboard is the star of the show, but it's too late for physical keyboards.
Oh, I hear you in the back, clutching your BlackBerry Bold (or maybe your Torch 9800 ), and scoffing at the world of touch-screen keyboards. It's not so bad! Fantastic apps like Swype and Swiftkey make hammering out text on the screen as easy as doodling. And if you'd rather not grab a third party app, spacious screens on modern smartphones are far easier to type on -- just let autocorrect take the wheel, and give your message a second look if you're worried about typos.
But if you must hold onto that physical keyboard at least ditch that relic. The Priv is the phone BlackBerry fans have been waiting for. You'll get BlackBerry's security pedigree and that physical keyboard you love, paired with a spacious, beautiful screen, and access to all those Android apps people are always yammering about. If you're an Android fan who's curious about physical keyboards and don't care about the BlackBerry pedigree, you'd do well to take a look too.
What's left for the rest of us? A pretty good Android phone that's a little thicker than rest, with a keyboard you'll rarely use and some productivity features that are likely handled by apps you're already using. The Priv will not fail to turn heads, with a slick design, fast performance, and a dedication to security that'll make plenty of folks take notice. But when your competitors are offering sophisticated camera controls, like the LG V10 , fingerprint scanners like the Nexus 5X and the Nexus 6P , or a curved display that's a bit more useful, like the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ , you're going to need more than that niche keyboard appeal to pull ahead of the pack.