How I learned to stop worrying and love the BlackBerry Priv
Commentary: After three months with BlackBerry's first Android phone, this CNET editor reflects on what went well -- and what didn't.
Sean HollisterSenior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Three months ago, I decided to try the BlackBerry Priv. And by "try," I don't mean I fiddled with the phone at my local cellular store. No, I did something a bit bolder. One November afternoon, with a mixed sense of joy and dread, I replaced my perfectly good Samsung Galaxy S6 with a BlackBerry Priv. It's been my primary phone until now.
Here's what I've learned.
Aren't BlackBerry phones for stodgy businessmen clinging to outdated technology? Well, sure, but it's definitely not limited to just them. The Priv is a modern phone in almost every way that matters. The one I borrowed from BlackBerry for this long-term test has a beautiful curved super-high-res AMOLED screen, just like today's high-end Samsung phones. It runs Android under the hood. The only major throwback to 2005 is a slide-out physical keyboard.
Which, honestly, is the main reason I had to give the Priv a go. I just had to know whether the Priv, the first flagship Android smartphone in years with a physical keyboard, was any good.
You see, I'm a bit of a keyboard enthusiast. I've loved smartphones with physical keyboards ever since a T-Mobile Sidekick allowed me to touch-type all my college lecture notes, without carrying around a bulky laptop or -- God forbid -- having to read my own terrible handwriting. When I became a journalist, it came in handy again: I could look a company executive straight in the eye, showing respect, while typing their most interesting quotes into my pocket device.
Day 1 (and 2, and 3...)
But to be honest, the Priv didn't make a great first impression on that afternoon in November, or for many days after that. The phone felt too big, too tall and unwieldy with that sliding keyboard extended; the keys seemed ridiculously small. For the entire first first month, I preferred typing on the glass touchscreen. I had to force myself to use those tiny keys, barely able to bang out an email while my colleagues tapped and swiped their way to productivity.
I was also expecting a lot more value from BlackBerry's preloaded software than I actually received. For instance: the BlackBerry Hub, supposedly a simple one-stop shop for me to triage emails, text messages, and social network notifications in a single place, didn't seem nearly as competent at those things as just using separate apps.
For me, the worst part was the creak my Priv would make every time I picked it up. I immediately loved the Priv's rubbery textured carbon-fiber back, which never threatened to pop out of my hands like a metal-and-glass iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, but the creaky carbon-fiber construction served as a constant reminder that my loaner Priv was an inferior product.
How I learned to stop worrying
A funny thing happened after I'd spent about a month with the Priv: I stopped caring about all the unique features that make it a BlackBerry. Every app and tweak I didn't like, I replaced with something better. I started simply switching between the physical and touchscreen keyboards at a whim. As soon as I started using the Priv like any other Android phone, I became so much happier.
Because, as a standard Android phone, the Priv is remarkably competent.
Want to know what actually bugs me about the Priv, three months later, in my day-to-day use? It's a pretty short list:
The GPS can get a little wonky. Google Maps doesn't always see me make a turn right away.
The Priv doesn't automatically adjust the screen brightness to an acceptable level when I transition from indoors to outdoors and vice versa.
There's some nasty shutter lag on the camera. The picture I think I'm snapping isn't the picture I get.
The phone gets remarkably hot when I play Hearthstone. It's typically not a very demanding game.
It's not quite as fast as my Galaxy S6 or other top-tier phones, and can bog down if I don't reset it once a week.
The huge phone makes a nasty, angular bulge in my pants pocket. I try not to keep it there.
There are a few things about the Priv that I like better than practically any other phone, too:
The call quality is seriously excellent. I can hear people better with this phone than any I've tried in years, and people on the other end of the line say the same. (I tried it with T-Mobile in San Jose, San Francisco and Las Vegas.)
The multitasking menu is really neat. Love being able to see little live pictures of every app I'm currently using in an easy-to-swipe interface. It's so good, I sometimes use it to launch my apps.
The sliding keyboard hinge is so satisfying. It feels fantastic to fiddle with, and it turns heads. People can't believe I'm using a BlackBerry. It starts conversations for me.
Third month's the charm
Would I buy a Priv right now? Tough call. The Priv costs $700, as much as the most expensive high-end smartphones often do at launch. As you can see from my list above, it's not quite as good. Besides, we're only weeks away from Mobile World Congress, where a new crop of phones (including a Samsung Galaxy S7) is likely to be announced.
But if I bought a Priv three months ago instead of my Galaxy S6, I don't think I'd regret it. The key is taking that time to get used to the keyboard. For me, it was a three month affair -- struggling with the physical keyboard day after day, meeting after meeting, until it finally clicked. I'm still not as fast as I used to be back in the day, but after a grueling week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas taking notes non-stop, I can now look you in the eye while I transcribe your words. (Awkward? Yes, but also highly efficient!)