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BlackBerry Priv review: Slick Android slider with niche appeal

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Keeping tabs on the day

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.

Keeping tabs on your apps

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.

Managing your entire digital life

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.

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The 18-megapixel camera doesn't do all that much to impress.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Cameras and video

  • 18-megapixel camera
  • 2-megapixel front-facing camera
  • 4K video recording at 30 frames per second, 1080p at 60 frames per second

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.

The camera's white balance could've done a better job here, but I'm more concerned with the muddy details.

Nate Ralph/CNET

This bus was fairly well lit, but the flash kicked in anyway. The camera's sensor still struggled to produce something useable here.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Note the clear, sharp text on that menu. The camera has no trouble focusing on my subject.

Nate Ralph/CNET

The camera found my subject, as opposed to focusing past it -- a tricky shot. But once you zoom in, it's less appeasing.

Nate Ralph/CNET

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.

Hardware performance

  • 64-bit Hexa-Core Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 SoC
  • 32GB of internal storage; 3GB of RAM
  • Up to 2TB expandable storage
  • 3,410mAh battery (non-removable)

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.

BlackBerry Priv performance charts

BlackBerry Priv
19,324
3,405
1,204
Apple iPhone 6S
27,698
4,402
2,527
Samsung Galaxy Note 5
24,589
4,939
1,488
Google Nexus 6P
24,224
4,313
1,286
Google Nexus 5X
18,973
3,536
1,246

Legend:

3DMark Score (Ice Storm Unlimited)
Geekbench 3 Score (Multi-Core)
Geekbench 3 Score (Single-Core)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

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.

Call Quality and Data Speeds

  • FD-LTE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 17, 20, 29, 30
  • HSPA+ 1, 2, 4, 5/6, 8
  • Quad band GSM/GPRS/EDGE
  • Wi-Fi: 802.11 b, g, n ,ac

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.

Conclusion

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.

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