Excellent Design; Wonderful Keyboard; Great Software; Stock Android UX; Plenty of BB10's Cool Features; Good Battery Life; Amazing Camera
Design's Slightly Top-Heavy, But You Do Get Used To It
A lot of people won't like this phone. Most will simply write it off as yet another failure from BlackBerry, a company still clinging to QWERTY keyboards and "weird" notions about "security"… But they're wrong. This phone is unique, unusual, powerful and it has a brilliant camera and excellent user experience. I had an absolute blast testing this phone, way more than I did when using the LG G6, and when I'd finished testing it I wanted to to carry on using
The BlackBerry KEYone stands alone, completely by itself in a segment of the market ignored by 99.9% of today's phone-makers.
Hell, most phones these days have NO buttons on the front of them, let alone an entire QWERTY keyboard. So, yeah… the BlackBerry KEYone is different. But, so what? So's tuna-flavoured ice cream, and I don't see anyone queuing up for that.
The BlackBerry brand has been in free-fall for years now. The company has tried and failed on multiple occasions to resurrect its fortunes, first with BB10, and now with Android, but nothing seems to really stick.
And this is a massive shame, because the company really knows what it is doing when it comes to hardware and software. BB10 was well ahead of its time and packed in some truly game-changing features. Sadly, the OS did not have time to mature and has now gone the way of Windows Phone.
BlackBerry is making inroads now, though. The company has a solid grasp of Android, what makes it work and how to improve its security. BlackBerry also uses a stock version of Android, which, in a sea of god-awful custom overlays, is something to be celebrated.
We are now just starting to see where BlackBerry is going, what its intentions for Android are. I like what it is doing in the Android space; no one else is paying as much attention to security, privacy and the overall productivity aspects of the OS.
I've had many BlackBerry handsets over the years, but the last decent one was the BlackBerry Passport. All the other Android-powered BlackBerry phones I have tested in the past 18 months have felt like works in progress or handsets that never quite reached their true potential.
Prior to testing, I had a sneaky suspicion I'd rather like the BlackBerry KEYone. I like BlackBerry when its being unapologetically BlackBerry; it's here that it often does its best stuff – the Passport being the last time.
I just spent 16 days testing the BlackBerry KEYone. Below is my full verdict, warts and all. Enjoy…
BlackBerry KEYone Review: Design
There's no two ways about it: the BlackBerry KEYone is a beast. It doesn't mess around in this department; what you see is what you get, though the BlackBerry KEYone is A LOT better looking in real life. Pictures do not do it justice.
The BlackBerry KEYone itself is a hulking mass of metal, glass and premium-feeling, super tactile keys. It feels like a BlackBerry of old that has been smashed together with a modern phone. But importantly, and for the first time, BlackBerry has got it right.
The BlackBerry KEYone feels like a BlackBerry should; its reassuringly heavy, kinda thick and it really does look the business whenever you whip it out. During the testing period several people stopped me to enquire about the phone I was using; they liked the look of it and were surprised by the keyboard.
The design will not be for everybody, though. My girlfriend said it was the ugliest piece of junk she had ever seen. Harsh, I know. But that's always going to happen when you make a phone like the BlackBerry KEYone; some will love it, most will hate it.
I fall very much in the former category. I like that it's different. I like that it has a keyboard. I also like that it is pretty chunk; it feels solid, like it could take a kicking and keep on ticking. I also like that it has a "smart" button on the side, which you can programme to do whatever you like (take note, Samsung). Mine's linked to the camera, so whenever I click it the camera opens.
The power/unlock button lives on the left hand side of the handset, and to me this positioning just doesn't feel right – I'd much prefer them the other way around or even on the same, right side, as I KEPT using the short-cut function key to unlock the phone when I first started testing the BlackBerry KEYone. Either way, this is a minor crumble.
BlackBerry KEYone Review: Specs & Features
The BlackBerry KEYone's spec sheet does not make for good reading, especially when you consider how much BlackBerry wants for this phone:
Snapdragon 625 CPU
Physical Smart Keyboard
4.5-inch LCD 1080p touchscreen, 3:2 aspect ratio
3GB of RAM
32GB of ROM
Android 7.1 Nougat OS
12-megapixel rear camera with a Sony IMX378 camera sensor and 8-megapixel front
USB Type C
There is no QHD display, a mid-range CPU and only one option when it comes to storage – 32GB. I admit: prior to testing I was concerned about this; I didn't really get what BlackBerry were doing – were they trying to make a phone on the cheap and then sell it as a flagship?
I knew they were in trouble, but I couldn't see a firm like BlackBerry being so, well… sneaky. I then received my review unit, booted it up and all my worries were put to bed once and for all. The phone boots quicker than my Pixel XL and feels just as snappy as the LG G6 and Galaxy S8. The CPU might be a mid-range one, but Qualcomm's silicon is very impressive stuff – even the mid-range 625 platform. Couple this with some brilliantly optimised software and a 1080p display and you've got yourself a recipe for success. Nothing holds the CPU back; BlackBerry has removed anything superfluous and drilled down on the basics and this ensures good performance across the board.
So, yeah… don't let the specs put you off. BlackBerry has optimised the crap outta this thing. During my two weeks testing the handset I didn't once feel like I was missing out on processing grunt. Not once. Everything feels suitably flagship-like, though with this phone you will be paying slightly less than the going rate for a flagship in 2017 (£499).
The BlackBerry KEYone might not compete with respect to gross, overall specs and hardware (save for its camera, which is VERY impressive), but it more than makes up for this in overall performance. Like Apple, BlackBerry understands that, with the right approach to software and optimisation, you can get A LOT of performance out of relatively moderate levels of spec.
The DTEK50 was too paltry and the performance was lumpy as hell. The BlackBerry KEYone hits the sweet spot, however, as it leaves nothing on the table re: performance – everything moves along in a suitably buttery fashion.
BlackBerry KEYone Review: Software
The main thing that holds this handset together (and what makes it so bloody good) is the software. BlackBerry might be one of Google's newest partners but this hasn't stopped it from going on to become, arguably, the best Android Tinkerer in the space.
The security patches, which appear every month, the choice to use the stock (or very close to stock) Android UX, the care and thought that has gone into applications like the BlackBerry Hub and features like the ability to assign commands or app short cuts to keys on the QWERTY keyboard.
Like all good software, though, BlackBerry's version of Android kind of just gets out of the way and let's you get on with what you need to do. There's no gimmicky BS or "learning AI" that moves your apps around based on how often you use them. It is designed simply and it works beautifully. I just wish Huawei, LG and Samsung would do the same.
BlackBerry KEYone Review: Camera
I've been using the BlackBerry KEYone for almost a week now, and during that time I have noticed a couple of things; 1) the camera on the back of this thing is amazing and, 2) this is one of the most unique phones you can buy right now.
Why's it unique? Simple, it has a QWERTY keyboard, a feature no one else can claim to have. By itself this probably isn't enough to dissuade you from a new iPhone or the Samsung Galaxy S8. But the KEYone is WAY more than just a QWERTY keyboard.
The camera, for instance, is utterly superb. It completely took me by surprise when I tested it out during a recent trip to Wales. The KEYone uses the same 12MP Sony IMX378 sensor as the Google Pixel and, if you've used that phone, you will know just how capable this setup is.
I've tried my damnedest to find any official information on the IMX378 sensor but so far I have found nothing. Sony for whatever reason is not talking about this piece of technology (at least not officially, anyway).
There is a rather excellent write-up of the IMX378, however, over at XDA Developers, which is well worth a read if you're interested in how this camera technology works and what it is bringing to the party.
"One of the big improvements of the IMX378 over the IMX377 is that it is able to handle more of the image processing on-chip," notes the report, "reducing the workload of the ISP (although the ISP is still able to request the RAW image data, depending on how the OEM decides to use the sensor)."
It added: "It can handle many small things like defect correction and mirroring locally, but more importantly, it can also handle BME-HDR or SME-HDR without having to involve the ISP. That could potentially be a major difference going forwards by freeing up some overhead for the ISP on future phones."
Whether shooting in low light or bright sunlight, the Sony IMX378 is a brilliant sensor. It captures masses of detail thanks to its large 1.55μm size and it is masterful in how it balances colour, as you can see in the image samples below:
The KEYone autofocus is snappy and its built-in HDR Auto mode ensures images captured are always beautifully composed, regardless of lighting.
BlackBerry KEYone Camera Specs
12MP auto-focus large pixel camera
4K video recording at 30 fps
Phase Detect Auto Focus (PDAF), Fast focus lock
HDR 6-element f2.0 lens
Dual Tone LED Flash – Enhanced photo colour balance
4x digital zoom
Continuous & touch to focus, face detection, electric image stabilisation
Panorama, Burst, Live Filters
Multi-Frame Low Light Enhancement
You also have an 8MP shooter on the front, which is also well above par for 2017.
Basically, BlackBerry has gone all out with imaging on the KEYone and it the plan has worked beautifully.
I do not ever recall using a BlackBerry with a good camera. Like, ever…
Photography just wasn't what BlackBerry's were about in the past; they were about security and emails and messaging. Now, though, you have a BlackBerry handset that not only looks, feels, and performs like a classic BlackBerry, but one that can also shoot images and video to the same standard as the Samsung Galaxy S7 and Google Pixel phone.
And that hasn't happened before in the BlackBerry ecosystem. This is a significant moment for BlackBerry and I kind of wish it would make more of a big deal about how good the KEYone's camera actually is!
BlackBerry KEYone Review: 'Dat Keyboard, Though…
What's the best way to test out a QWERTY keyboard on a phone? Simple: use it to write a long section of copy like I am bow.
I'm sat on a train, rocketing towards London, listening to Clutch, and writing this using the KEYone. And I have to say, it's pretty decent though it does take a while getting used to using keys again.
The keyboard itself is very well put together; the keys feel solid and smooth and they have nice travel which makes typing on it very intuitive. It reminds me a lot of the Q10 keyboard and that is high praise indeed.
As to whether it's faster than a touch keyboard, well… that kind of depends on who's using it. I'm pretty rapid with SwiftKey, though this is mostly down to the fact that it has been monitoring how I type for the best part of five years!
The QWERTY on the KEYone is similar, however, in that it makes excellent suggestions while you're typing. Autocorrect is pretty spot on as well, meaning you can type pretty darn fast once you get going.
I found that I am fasted when I stop thinking about where my fingers are and just go for it; the keyboard is laid out just like your PC's, only smaller. This means you already know where everything is… you just have to trust.
I have to be honest: at first I found the KEYone QWERTY a little cumbersome to use; you have to hold the phone just right and even then it still feels a little top heavy. After a week with the KEYone, though, I am now very attached to it.
There are things I'd improve, given the choice. It is too easy to knock the back or Home key when typing and this, after the 100th time, does get annoying.
Overall, though the keyboard is brilliant; I loved using it and actually found it very easy to use. But perhaps my absolute favorite feature of it is assigning shortcuts to each key.
For instance, you can assign Facebook to a long press on the F key, or open Instagram to I and so on. This aspect of the keyboard is immensely useful and it is something I am really going to miss when I have to give this phone back!
BlackBerry KEYone Review: Battery Life
The battery life is decent. Really decent. I consistently got a good day and a bit from the BlackBerry KEYone, making the handset about comparable with my Google Pixel XL.
BlackBerry has achieved this by keeping the display at 1080p and drilling down on the software. Android Nougat is very well optimised and BlackBerry's tweaks are all well executed and perfectly implemented. The end result is a very well optimised experience.
No complaints here.
BlackBerry KEYone Review: Verdict
A lot of people won't like this phone. Most will simply write it off as yet another failure from BlackBerry, a company still clinging to QWERTY keyboards and "weird" notions about "security"…
But they're wrong. This phone is unique, unusual, powerful and it has a brilliant camera and excellent user experience. I had an absolute blast testing this phone, way more than I did when using the LG G6, and when I'd finished testing it I wanted to to carry on using it.
The handset is not perfect, it's a little too top heavy for my liking, but it looks, feels and performs like a BlackBerry and that, if you're a longstanding BlackBerry fan, should be music to your ears.
Also: at £499.99/$599.99, the BlackBerry KEYone is A LOT cheaper than the iPhone 8, once that phone lands, and the current Samsung Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ and I would argue that it is just as good as these phones. But the best thing about this phone, for me, is that it looks unlike anything else currently available right now.
As of June 7, Vodafone UK is now offering the BlackBerry KEYone on its network tariffs. You can pay as little as £10 up-front for the handset, though if you do go this route the monthly payments will be a hefty £52 per month, but this is by no means Vodafone's only option. At the other end of the spectrum you can pay £20 up-front and £42 per month for a 16GB data Red Extra plan with unlimited texts and minutes.
Carphone Warehouse has now knocked £50 off the price of the KEYone in the UK, listing it for £449for the SIM free handset. There's no info on whether this is a limited-time offer or a permanent price change, but it does make it one of the cheaper ways around to get a BlackBerry KEYone as no other retailer is offering this reduction.
The BlackBerry KEYone is now available in several more European countries, having already rolled out in the UK, Austria, and the Netherlands, it is now arriving in Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia