There was a time when physical keyboards on smartphones made a lot of sense. Think back to the days when the iPhone was just getting off the ground and you'll remember the likes of BlackBerry, Palm and even HTC (producing for other brands) building devices with physical keyboards.

A big reason for it was that touchscreens up to that time were terrible. They weren't multitouch, they were fiddly and mostly needed a stylus to be of any use to anyone. Keyboards made it easier to type emails and messages. In fact, if you needed to get stuff done on the move, they were more than just convenient - they were essential.

In 2020 the market is a vastly different landscape. We have advanced, super-responsive touchscreens, alongside software keyboards that are incredibly versatile. But there's still a portion of the market that wants the physical feel of clicking buttons beneath their thumb tips. Apart from BlackBerry Mobile smartphones - the brand is now dead, again - there's been a real shortage of hardware QWERTY-equipped Android devices.

This is where FxTec comes in. It's a small company based in London, one which originally showed us its idea for a horizontal QWERTY-equipped Android phone in early 2019. Since we've borrowed the device to see whether it's at the forefront of keyboard phones.

FxTec: What's the keyboard like?

  • Five-row QWERTY keyboard
  • Programmable shortcuts
  • 66 keys in total

Usually we start reviews looking at the design and appearance of a phone, but in this instance, there's one thing that's far more important: the Pro1's keyboard.

Having not touched a horizontal QWERTY keyboard on a smartphone since the days of the HTC Desire Z (T-Mobile G2), we were curious to see if it was as good as we remembered. No surprise: it's definitely something of a learning curve. For the first day or two we were all fingers and thumbs, trying desperately to type words coherently.

After a few more days, however, we became accustomed to this keyboard. Sadly, though, we can't say we ever enjoyed it. It's far from a perfect experience, plus we think there are a couple of things that need to be improved.

First, and most importantly: the feel of the keys when typing just isn't quite right. They lack a little in travel and don't give enough tactile feedback when pressed, so we never got that nice feel we want and expect to find in a keyboard. We found the keys hard to press a lot of the time. We're not saying they should be soft and smushy, but these keys need more travel and a bit more give.

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Because the Pro1 has a long landscape keyboard spread over quite a large area, it can also be a bit of a stretch getting to some of the keys. We often found ourselves having to shift it around, then extend our thumbs uncomfortably to get to some of the letters. Say what you want about the cramped BlackBerry keys, but they make for a far easier typing experience.

Secondly, auto capitalisation and punctuation doesn't work with the physical keyboard. So when you're typing, you have to physically press the shift key and a letter in order to start a new sentence with an upper case letter. Similarly, you have to manually insert apostrophes on words like 'don't' and 'can't', so it doesn't just figure it out automatically and add them in when typing on the keys. What's more, a double-tap of the space bar doesn't insert a full stop.

It might seem like a bit of a minor point, but we feel that a keyboard-equipped phone should do all it can to make the experience productive and quick. It was what made BlackBerry phones so great - quick insertion of punctuation was one of those little elements that made a big difference there, which lacks here.

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It's not all bad though, not by a long shot. FxTec equipped the phone with a five-row, 66 key keyboard, which is useful for more than just typing. Like BlackBerry's recent phones, you can assign shortcuts to each of the letter keys, making it quick and convenient to get to your favourite apps when you're in landscape mode with the keys exposed. It also has cursor buttons, so you can even select apps and open them without touching the screen at all if you want.

This is a big deal if you're someone who needs to edit documents or spreadsheets on the go. You don't want a virtual keyboard taking up valuable screen real estate, so having these physical buttons means you don't have to put up with that. You get all your screen, without losing input methods. The little green light on the Caps key is a nice touch too. 

Design: Does a keyboard phone make sense?

  • 154 x 73.6 x 13.9 mm
  • Side-mounted fingerprint sensor
  • 3.5mm port for wired headphones

Given what FxTec was trying to achieve with the Pro1, there's a lot to admire about the approach to design. It was meant to be a practical, durable, no-nonsense smartphone for professionals. To a certain extent, it's achieved that.

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With the Pro1 being a device of two parts, it's understandable that it's noticeably thicker than a normal smartphone. After all, it's got a flippy-out screen and a full physical QWERTY keyboard. So it's safe to say that it's chunky and quite heavy. But it's well made.

The aluminium shell on the back is thick and strong, finished with a soft anodisation that resists fingerprints well. Even the Z-hinge mechanism that flips the screen up and out to its 136-degree angle feels sturdy. It's not at all flimsy and holds strong, even when you attempt to see if there's any give to it. That means the screen portion of the phone doesn't wobble or shift when closed.

Actually pushing the screen up to unveil the keyboard, however, isn't the smoothest and easiest experience. The quickest way is using the very tip of a thumb (or the nail) and push it up to snap it into position. It's easy to get the force and angle incorrect though.

With the obvious heft required to build a phone with a slide-out keyboard, FxTec has attempted to soften the blow as much as possible by curving the glass on the front. It's also curved the rear aluminium towards the edges, giving it softer angles and as narrow an edge as it can.

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Keeping with the ethos of practicality, FxTec has also equipped the phone with all your favourite ports and buttons. There's the usual power and volume buttons, but you also get a 3.5mm input for headphones, and even a dedicated camera shutter button.

The one swing and miss here, however, is the fingerprint sensor: it's built into the right edge of the phone, below the power button and volume key, just slightly too low to make it comfortable to get to with the right thumb. But that's not all: we found ourselves accidentally touching and activating the sensor very regularly.

That's bad when you're just picking up the phone, because inevitably that's usually the wrong finger touching it. Sometimes we didn't realise we'd done it, and so when it came to unlocking the phone it had already reached its limit for maximum failed attempts at unlocking the phone. So we had to swipe up and input our PIN.

Other times we'd accidentally touch it with the right finger (or thumb in this case) and the phone would unlock in our pocket. On the flip side, when trying to use the scanner, it sometimes failed to register and unlock the phone, making it a not-so-great experience all round.

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We'd rather this scanner was positioned higher up and doubled-up as the power/sleep button. Or - in a perfect world - it'd be either an in-display fingerprint sensor or a front-mounted physical one on the bezel beneath the display.

Full screen

  • 5.99-inch AMOLED display with curved edges
  • Full HD+ resolution (2160 x 1080)

As for the display, it's a 5.99-inch Full HD+ AMOLED panel, which is similar to what you'd expect to find on a flagship phone from two or three years ago. It curves around the edges like an old Samsung Galaxy device, so almost gives the illusion of being edge-to-edge, at least on the right and left sides. The bezel on the top and bottom is quity chunky though.

For most tasks it's a perfectly good screen. Colours look good, detail is sharp enough that it never looks fuzzy - and you certainly can't distinguish individual pixels from the usual arm's length. Watching movies and TV shows is a perfectly good experience.

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Being an AMOLED panel - and one which isn't fine-tuned like some of the more high-end devices - means that reds and pinks are sometimes a little too prominent. At certain angles the colour shifts, especially at the area of the display directly beneath the curved glass on the edges. But it doesn't really tarnish the experience. 

One of the unexpected and pleasant benefits of having it at an angle once slid open is that it actually makes for a more convenient viewing angle when just sat down on a surface. You don't have to lean over it, you just put the Pro1 down in front of you and watch it quite naturally. 

Performance & Battery

  • Snapdragon 835 processor
  • 6GB RAM + 128GB storage
  • 3,200mAh battery capacity
  • Quick Charge 3.0

Despite featuring a processor that's a couple of years old now, the Pro1 runs smoothly and quickly. It's a consistent and reliable performer, which shows how solid those flagship processors from a couple of generations back still remain.

It's also got a lot to do with the software. Rather than go full-on with its own custom user interface, the Pro1 essentially uses the same software and interface as the Google Pixel 3 did when it launched. That's to say, it's a clean non-messed-with version of Google's Android 9 Pie operating system. That means no Android 10 yet, so you miss out on some of the newer features, but that's really not a big deal here. The phone does what it should and in a way that's not fussy or complicated. 

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Similarly, the internal battery - at just 3,200mAh - might not sound like all that much compared to modern big-screen flagships, but it's still more than capable of getting through a busy work day. That's partly down to the screen 'only' being Full HD+ resolution, but also because the Snapdragon 835 processor and Android Pie system are a well-optimised combination that helps to reduce the standby power drain to a bare minimum. 

One of the benefits of having a comparatively small battery is that it takes no time to recharge, thanks to Quick Charge 3.0 support. 

Camera as an after thought?

  • 12MP primary camera
  • 5MP depth camera

It's safe to say that when it came to producing the Pro1, FxTec wasn't aiming to build the most impressive camera possible. But it still has capable enough hardware to take your social media photos when you need.

The 12-megapixel camera on the back is joined by a secondary 5-megapixel one that's used to just gather additional depth information. You don't get the option for additional focal lengths, such as an ultra-wide or zoom lens.

Incidentally, the Sony sensor it's using is the same as the one Google used in the Pixel 3. Sadly, the results aren't as good as the Pixel's, because the AI-powered processing just isn't here. 

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Results are decent enough, though, they just lack some of the depth, impact and dynamic range of the best phone cameras. In less than bright light there's some image noise too. 

At time of writing, FxTec is still working on improving its camera app software, which we think that's a good thing, because we did have a bit of a frustrating time with it. Autofocus launched whenever we moved the phone to shoot something, but tapping the screen did nothing. That meant getting the exact part of the subject in focus wasn't always as easy as it should be. 

Verdict

We weren't ever expecting the FxTec Pro1 to be a phone to directly rival the best-known flagships on the market, rather we expected it to be a device trying to do something different in the best possible way. Sadly, however, we've come away a little disappointed with our Pro1 experience. 

That's not to do with the slightly older processor, software and display tech. More that our nostalgic side was hoping to be reacquainted with a style of device which we previously thought was better. Those expectations weren't met, however unrealistic they might be.

We had too many little frustrations with this phone: the keyboard is hard to use and too wide; the constant accidental touches on the edges of the screen and the fingerprint sensor add to everyday irritation during use; and the keys don't feel quite right for our liking.

We admire the thought and the attempt behind the Pro1, we really do, but it's just not quite refined enough to make it a worthwhile device. That said, if you're convinced the likes of the Nokia N97 or the HTC Desire Z need to make a comeback, you might just love the FxTec Pro1.

This article was first published on 27 February 2019 and has been updated to reflect its full review status

Alternatives to consider

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BlackBerry Key2

It may be a little old now, but if you want the best keyboard-equipped phone out there, your best bet is the BlackBerry Key2. The downside here is that from 31 August 2020, you'll no longer be able to buy one.