(Pocket-lint) - For many, the BlackBerry was the first rung on the smartphone ladder. In fact, the BlackBerry was the smartphone in a sea of inconsistent feature phones; a phone doing things that no other could.
But now BlackBerry is weathering the storm, having fallen from the heart of the smartphone business it once led. It wasn't the launch of the iPhone that changed this, per se, but a rising tide of alternatives and viable technologies. The evolution of lightning-fast touch displays, the emergence of bigger ecosystems, and the eventual drop in prices from premium to affordable, saw BlackBerry progressively lose consumer appeal. Android and iOS moved fast and won fans quickly.
In this new world, BlackBerry has reinforced its focus on business, aiming to put devices in the hands of its security-conscious users. With the launch of the BlackBerry Classic, which is a nod to the BlackBerry Bold, it's aiming to put the device BlackBerry fans want back into their hands.
However, the company is also pitching the Classic at the professional consumer, to those outside of big business who stick to those same values, who want added security and a physical keyboard.
But is the BlackBerry Classic timeless, or simply stuck in the past?
The BlackBerry Classic is pitched as a replacement for the Bold 9900, launched in 2011, a device that enjoyed great successes from its original 2008 model. One glance and you'll see the similarity.
The Classic measures 131 x 72.4 x 10.2mm and weighs a surprising 178g: in modern terms, that's pretty weighty. That's immediately noticeable when you pick up an iPhone or HTC One, but in the BB Classic it feels like reassuring heft, rather than awkward bloat. The Classic feels like a device built to last.
The design is much more refined than previous equivalent models, however. It's not a complete rethinking, but it looks seamless and tighter than before.
There's a metal waistband running around the edges which is cool to the touch and the profile gives you plenty to grip on to. We love the quality of the volume buttons and the great action they have: it's really positive in a way that some devices aren't.
The BlackBerry Classic is a sealed unit. There are pin-accessed trays for the nano SIM and microSD cards, but you can't remove the back. The battery is sealed inside and the back cover is, well, a weaker part of the package.
The plastic finish is somewhat grippy, with a textured finish, but it's a far cry from the leather inserts or glassfibre weaves we've enjoyed in the past. In some ways, the back leaves us feeling that the Classic isn't the Spartan warrior of the BlackBerry world that we want it to be, more the grunt. Priced at £349 that's perhaps expected though, as this is a mid-range device.
Oh but that keyboard
On the front, however, you're presented with all the glory of BlackBerry past. With so many smartphones being just a simple piece of glass, there's a lot more happening on the front of the Classic.
You have that 3.5-inch square display, the central band of control keys, and then the classic keyboard. It is, every inch, the BlackBerry keyboard you know and love. It has the right keyboard action, it has the frets to provide logical separation and it has that surface ridge on each key.
Your thumbs will skip over the keyboard with joyful abandon
If you've used a BlackBerry keyboard before, then you'll know exactly where you stand with the Classic. It's so familiar, for those of us who have years of BB keyboard experience behind us, it takes you right back to BlackBerry's prime. Your thumbs will skip over the keyboard with joyful abandon, singing out its symphony of clickety-clacks as the words fall onto the page.
Unlike the BlackBerry Passport, the Classic is small enough to be used one-handed. But the size favours furious two-thumbed entry. BlackBerry claims it has added shortcuts, but in reality, it's just doing what the BlackBerry keyboard always did.
BlackBerry tells us that BB users want a physical keyboard and here you have it. The action is great, it's fast and, although it's now flat rather than curved, it does exactly what you want it to do. But for those now used to using a touch keyboard, you might dispute BlackBerry's claims that it's faster. Anyone familiar with the speed of predictive trace entry that's common on Android keyboards will now find that tapping every letter is something of a chore.
A long press for capitals is second nature and easily done, so names appear correct, but the alt+ action for punctuation now feels a little slow, especially when that's a quick swipe away on the best virtual keyboards.
As a keyboard, it's great, but having used the BlackBerry Classic, we can't see that it's enough to bring old customers back into the fold. It works as well as it always did and for those looking for a keyboard device, this is it. For those who have left, we suspect that you'll miss the advantages of a big display.
The return of the central line of controls is great however. The optical navigation key in the centre behaves as it did previously, letting you quickly scroll, or highlight text, as well as clicking to select. It also makes it really simple to place the cursor in a line of text, something that touch-only devices don't excel at.
Having a back action and the menu makes things simple for navigation, but it perhaps says something about BlackBerry 10's nature that you need more buttons to make the experience better.
While the physical keyboard is one of the Classic's biggest selling points, it's also its biggest limitation. Although we love using it, the 720 x 720 3.5-inch display above leaves us wanting more.
It has a pixel density of 249ppi, which is pretty good, so what you have on display has plenty of refinement, but for those used to even a relatively small display, like that of the iPhone 5, the Classic offers you even less, especially when it comes to media, games, or simply browsing a website.
BlackBerry's argument is that it's bigger than the last Bold. That it is, so if you're switching across you'll immediately see the advantage: there's more space to work and play. There's also an argument that says when it comes to entering text the experience isn't too different: what you lose through the physical keyboard, you'd lose through the on-screen keyboard.
The display is bright and the viewing angles are good too. It's capable of producing some great colours and you can change the warmth of the display to tweak the visuals to your liking. The brightness settings are also only a swipe away, so also easy to tweak when you need a little boost.
Unfortunately we spotted a dead pixel on our display as soon as we took it out of the box. That unfortunately happens sometimes (to any device, not just BlackBerry) and there's no telling if other devices will suffer the same way - it's certainly something worth listening out for in the wider BlackBerry community.
Hardware and performance
Internally the BlackBerry Classic has a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus with 2GB of RAM. There's 16GB of storage space, along with the ability to add a microSD for expansion up to 128GB.
The hardware stacked inside the BlackBerry Classic is several generations old, setting it behind the Passport, reinforcing its mid-range position. That's less important in the world of BlackBerry than it is in the world of Android or Windows Phone, as there's no real competitor devices, only BlackBerry's alternative models. That said, there are a lot of good Android and Windows Phone devices in this mid-tier bracket that out-spec the Classic.
However the additional controls feels like they speed things up, as there's a little more positivity in navigation. We still think that BB OS is inherently a little slower than rival platforms, but if you're a dyed-in-the-wool BlackBerry fan, then the Classic is fast enough. We prefer the Classic operating experience to that of the Passport, and it's a welcome update for the older Q10.
The Classic is powered by a 2,515mAh battery, offering above average longevity per charge, and we found it would get us through a busy day easily enough. Some will miss being able to do a quick battery change, but that's the modern reality and one of the sacrifices here has been the non-replaceable battery.
There's a speaker on the bottom of the headset tucked behind a grille. There's a matching pair, but only the right-hand is the external speaker. It's of middling quality and distorts at higher volumes, but for general use is pretty good. Calls, on the other hand, sound really good. The ear speaker makes voice tones nice and rich and callers reported that we sounded good too.
The Classic is also fully connected and we found the 4G reception to be good, delivering data in areas that some devices have sometimes struggled.
BlackBerry 10.3 core experience
At the heart of what the BlackBerry Classic offers is a solid approach to communication thanks to the BB10 operating system. Although other platforms offer integration of some sorts, there's nothing quite like the BlackBerry Hub out there. Being able to access all your messages in the same style, in the same place, is a real strength. It's a core element of BB10 and one we've been fans of for a long time.
However, we're not entirely sold on the swipe gesture to open the Hub. It still feels a little too clunky, but the Classic trumps other devices thanks to the return of the physical calling buttons. This means there's now a Hub icon on the desktop you can just tap. Sure, you can swipe across the bottom icons, but we like the immediacy of the button.
There's plenty of refinement across BB 10.3, such as being able to have your Active Frames stay open, or being able to close them all to return to your wallpaper - it gives things a modern lick. The new Action Bar also makes things more intuitive, but that's common to all BB 10.3 devices.
Another star is Universal Search. It's a veteran of the BB OS, but it's something we still enjoy using. Now that this is rolled together with BlackBerry Assistant - the company's voice-controlled embedded application - it's even more useful. When you start typing there's a pause before search opens and you see the text, which feels like it should be reacting faster, but that's a minor point.
BlackBerry Assistant is also a strong performer. It's better geared towards hands-free control than Google's alternative and manages to accurately decipher what you're saying. Dictating messages, setting appointments, general searching, as well as asking questions are all handled well. It might not have the witty retorts that Siri does, but it gets the job done without fuss. Straight down to business.
We also like BlackBerry's sensible sharing. Like Android (or should we say unlike Apple), it's pretty easy to share things in almost any direction with minimal fuss.
Something to upset the app cart
BB OS now comes with two app stores. That's right, there's BlackBerry World and Amazon Appstore, the latter serving up Android apps. The idea is that BlackBerry World can provide your business apps and your core BB apps, while Amazon looks after your consumer needs.
It's a neat sidestep around the lack of native apps issue, but still a bit of a fiddle as you'll be switching from one to the other to find what you want. WhatsApp is in BlackBerry World, Spotify is in Amazon Appstore, for example, meaning jumping and diving between the two.
We were pleased to find Feedly - one of our core apps on Android and iOS - was available, as was Hive for controlling our heating install, and plenty more. Amazon's Appstore, however, is a poor cousin to Google Play, so it's not the silver bullet to solve all your app woes: there are often outdated apps and plenty of fun apps missing. There's no sign of Netflix for the Classic and it won't play through the browser; there's no BBC iPlayer app either, but that will play through the browser, so the experience is mixed.
Those Android apps don't always play nice either. They aren't as slick as they are in their native environment, although many handle the Classic's 1:1 aspect display without issue. But we did find that they could stop working, or get stuck thinking on occasion. They also don't all integrate with the new menu button on the Classic. Remember, these are apps being designed for the Google Android environment, shoehorned into BlackBerry via Amazon, and sometimes that's all too obvious and unfitting.
Smartphones aren't just about apps, but that's a large part of the consumer appeal for many. If you're business focused, or concentrating on communication rather than multimedia entertainment, then BlackBerry has you covered. Those looking for wider entertainment might find it restrictive and clunky, certainly compared to Apple, Android, and even Windows Phone's growing strengths.
The BlackBerry Classic has an 8-megapixel camera on the rear and 2-megapixel to the front. Its camera app has all the normal settings you'd expect, letting you change the aspect ratio and so on. We like the auto HDR (high dynamic range) option, which will automatically detect the scene and try to balance out the highlights and shadows for a better overall result.
Camera performance has been the battleground for many smartphones and BlackBerry has been pushing its Time Shift function, which is a nice way to edit things like group shots for better results, changing faces to get smiles. Even so, the camera is a little slow compared to its rivals.
New is a panorama feature that works much as it does on other platforms, letting you string together multiple frames. It's a useful addition, even if it is a little late to the game.
The results from the rear camera are good in the right conditions. As we've mentioned it's a little on the slow side when it comes to focusing and capturing. Low light shots can be riddled with image noise, but we've had some good results in daylight.
The front-facing camera is below average by modern standards. Results in low light are fairly poor, so many of our selfies have been mottled and soft.
The BlackBerry Classic undoubtedly achieves its aims. This is every bit an upgrade of the Bold, exhibiting the same strengths, broadening the experience and offering more for the BlackBerry user. Of the recent BlackBerry launches, the Classic is the keyboard device we'd most want to use, which is a definite positive.
But as a consumer device there are limitations. As adept at messaging as it is, there's still plenty to miss out on, especially when it comes to media consumption and gaming. But for those interested in business, with security needs, then BlackBerry still offers those features where others are sometimes lacking.
The BB 10.3 operating system has some delightful parts too, but on the Classic things feel like they could be faster, even if those new physical buttons bring advantages with them. The app experience doesn't quite lend itself to speed, and when you find that the Android app supplied by Amazon refuses to respond until you've restarted the device, it's frustrating.
But more than anything, the BlackBerry Classic feels like a throwback to all the things we loved about BlackBerry of old. It's a reminder that the BlackBerry Bold was a device of its time and there's a side to the Classic that still feels like a device of that time. We're not convinced it will bring back those who left BlackBerry for pastures new, because smartphones have moved on and their users have too.
For BlackBerry fans, we suspect the Classic will be a popular and natural replacement to older devices, or that touchscreen BlackBerry that never quite felt right. The Classic might not be the latest superphone, but it is BlackBerry doing what it's good at.