BlackBerry has trodden a rocky path these last few years that has lead us to a point that some felt was inevitable. With BB 7 and then BB 10 not really capturing the imagination in the way that iOS and Android have, it was of little surprise when BlackBerry announced that it was heading to Google's mobile platform.
In doing so it opens a lot of doors. Having offered compatibility with Android apps for some time - including supplying the Amazon Appstore as a method of delivery - the company has now released its fully-fledged Android handset, the BlackBerry Priv.
It's a silly name for sure, derided for its closeness to "privy" in the UK (a colloquialism for toilet) but the name is derived from privacy and privilege according to BlackBerry.
But this isn't just a "me too" smartphone. This is distinctly different, clinging onto some of BlackBerry's most popular features, while firing with both bores into the Android space. But is this a best of both worlds?
BlackBerry Priv review: Design
The design of the Priv will be familiar. We not only saw the device teased in March at Mobile World Congress 2015, but BlackBerry made the unusual move of releasing pictures and specs for most of the device before launch. For those who have been living in a cave, it's a slider with a 5.4-inch display, offering both a full touchscreen experience and the BlackBerry keyboard when extended.
BlackBerry use familiar design in a number of areas although the curves to the edge of the display will be the main talking point. They lend a seamless quality to the front of the handset and give a lovely feel when you swipe across them. Given that this is a big phone, that makes use a little more comfortable as there's no sharp front edge.
The display is framed in metal and that frame runs across the back of the visible area of the display too. It's perhaps a design choice that's been made for practical reasons, to lend solidity to the structure of this phone. There's only a tiny degree of movement in some locations when you're tapping on the display to the bottom, this is much more substantial than BlackBerry's last touch slider, the BlackBerry Torch.
We'd perhaps like the slide mechanism to be a little more precise, perhaps snapping and clicking into place, but we've little to complain about. How it will wear after a year of use is anyone's guess: but after a few weeks, we've found it all feels pretty good.
The finish to the rear section is all about grip. It's a plastic shell, finished with a similar carbonfibre weave as we saw on the BB Q10, only here it's rubberised. That gives a lot of grip, but doesn't feel that nice. There's also the odd creak around it, something that seems to be a side-effect of offering that sliding movement, and it feels slightly hollow when you tap it. Although it's secure in the hand, it lacks the premium feel that you get from metal or glass: this isn't the quality of the iPhone 6S Plus or the Samsung Galaxy S6 edge.
The Priv measures 147 x 77.2 x 9.4mm when closed, extending to a substantial 184mm when open. When closed this is a large device, but once you've opened it up to access the keyboard, it's noticeably long. The Priv weighs 192g which is heavy, although given that you have a slider, that's perhaps something we can overlook.
Overall, there's a lot we like about the Priv. It's interesting, it's different and the curved edges to the display feel lovely. Despite this being a big phone, we've had no problems keeping a grip on it, which we can't say for all other devices of this size.
BlackBerry Priv review: Display
The curve on the edges of this 5.4-inch display isn't the same as on the Samsung Galaxy S6 edge devices. Although the edges of the surface curve off a lot in the design, the display itself is only slightly curved towards the very edges and this is part of the same panel as the flattened area.
That adds interest, makes this phone a little different and gives a sense of width. BlackBerry has also added some elements in the software that makes use of these extremities, which we'll talk about later.
This is the 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution display, for 543ppi, meaning it's up there with the highest resolution devices you'll find on Android (ignoring the Xperia Z5 Premium). It's a crisp and sharp display, packed full of detail. Some may argue that you can't see all that detail, but there's no doubting the potential it offers. It's a plastic AMOLED panel, topped with Gorilla Glass 4, exhibiting those qualities you expect from this display technology. It offers deep blacks and punchy colours, so there's plenty of vibrancy to those BlackBerry notification splats that appear against your messaging apps and elsewhere.
It offers plenty of brightness and we had no problem viewing this display, although we noticed that you'll sometimes catch some graininess from it. This was a problem that we used to see a lot in the early days of AMOLED, particular when scrolling against a white background, like a website when the display is dimmed.
But that's a minor complaint against a display that's otherwise very good. It looks great in handling all your content, and watching Gravity on Play Movies rewarded us with nice inky deep blacks.
BlackBerry Priv review: Hardware and performance
Not only has BlackBerry stuck a Quad HD display on the front, but it's not messing around with the internals either. This is a pretty powerful handset, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 hexa-core chipset and 3GB of RAM.
That's not the most powerful of chipsets out there, but has been the choice for devices like the LG G4, in the wake of the SD 810's reputation for overheating. The BlackBerry Priv doesn't have quite the oomph that some of the top devices offer, like the Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+, but we found it skips through daily tasks competently enough.
It is a handset that gets a little warm at times: when working the Priv hard, we've found it getting a little heated and despite the power, it's not the fastest in operation. We suspect that software is to blame for some of that. We come to the Priv after reviewing the HTC One A9 and that's a handset that's a lot faster in navigation, despite having a lower-spec chipset, we suspect because of HTC's long expertise with its Android UI.
But elsewhere on the hardware front, BlackBerry is offering plenty. There's no USB Type-C or fingerprint scanner, the latter a real omission given the number of Android devices offering this feature. With all the talk of security, it's perhaps odd that the Priv doesn't extend that to biometric security.
There is 32GB of internal storage, with a microSD card slot to expand this further. We've found that the Priv piped up offering to store apps on the card and we also found that the camera always asked whether we wanted to store photos on the card every time we opened the camera. That's an annoying software bug, but thanks for asking.
There's an external speaker across the bottom of the Priv and this enters plenty of volume. We found that calling was nice and clear and we had no problems with reception.
BlackBerry Priv review: Battery performance
Powering the BlackBerry Priv is a big 3410mAh battery. It's non-removable, but does offer fast charging when paired with the right charger.
At this capacity you'd expect day-long performance and for the most part you get it, but the BlackBerry Priv can be a hungry beast. We found that on a busy day we could drain it by mid-afternoon. That's likely to improve if/when the Priv moves up to Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but we suspect there's software optimisation that BlackBerry could be doing - the heating up of the processor suggests that something needs tweaking, and this is likely part of the reason the battery drains faster than you might expect.
When we looked at what was consuming power, "BlackBerry services" was the main culprit. This is likely to be powering BlackBerry Hub and seeing as we handed everything over to the Hub and turned off syncing on Google's services (contacts, calendar, emails), this makes sense. That said, the performance of the Priv isn't hugely different to other flagship smartphone rivals.
There are some clever power saving features however to extend the life of the device. If you place it face-down, it can switch into standby to save power. If you're just sitting at your desk and don't really need it, this will help prolong the life of your device.
There's also a really neat charging indicator. When you plug in the Priv, it traces a line around the display up the curved edge to indicate the charge status. Samsung take note, it's a lot better looking than a bubbling battery.
BlackBerry Priv review: Keyboard (Let's get Physical)
What we've seen so far is pretty much a standard deployment of a flagship Android handset. But in an attempt to hang on to the thing that BlackBerry is most renowned for, there's that physical keyboard too. Slide the handset up and you're looking at an Android device with a QWERTY keyboard for the first time in about 4 years.
Physical keyboards aren't new to Android. There were devices like the Motorola Milestone and the HTC Desire Z that offered this feature back in 2009/10. Those devices died out, leaving the BlackBerry as the only vestige of the physical keyboard. Thanks to the design of the Priv, although you have a huge device, you get the choice of a full uncompromised touchscreen experience or a physical keyboard experience.
The keyboard is comfortable enough to get both thumbs working on in typical BlackBerry style, but as we mentioned before, you're doing this on the end of a long phone. The keyboard is as clicky and responsive as it's ever been and we had no problem awakening those subconscious BB keyboard skills. It's second nature to those of us who used BlackBerrys through the glory days of the Bold and the Pearl models.
BlackBerry users will find familiar shortcuts in place, such as pressing T in a list to return to the top of an email you're reading, or pressing C in the Hub to compose a message. There are also other shortcuts on offer, as you can assign keys to be direct shortcuts, like speed dial or to launch an app from the home screen. You can long press T to launch Twitter for example, or C for Citymapper.
It's also a capacitive keyboard, so you can scroll by swiping across the keyboard if you don't want to touch the display, which can be useful, offering the same swipe controls that the BlackBerry Passport offered.
In addition to being able to plug in words mechanically, you'll get predictions appearing just above the keyboard at the bottom of the display and you can tap these to put these in place.
But this is where things get a little muddy. We love the BlackBerry keyboard and on a device like the BlackBerry Classic, we think it works really well. But with the Priv being so big, we've found that we rarely use it. That might not be the case for everyone, and those waiting for a solid Android device with a keyboard will now have one. If you're a huge BBM or WhatsApp fan and want to have long running messaging conversations, you get the full screen to enjoy that.
But we can't help feeling that there as a reason that everyone else stopped making handsets with keyboards. This is, of course, related to the onscreen keyboard experience. As this handset is huge, there's plenty of space to see what you're doing and use the onscreen keyboard. The default keyboard that BlackBerry offers on the Priv is basically the same as the BB 10 touch devices, like the Z30. This offers predictions, letting you select them with a swipe up.
This keyboard is slow in comparison with the best of Android. It's slow to respond and the predictions are a little lacklustre too. We replaced it with SwiftKey and found it was a much better experience for text entry, by many orders of magnitude.
And therein lies the problem. The physical keyboard might be preferable to the BlackBerry onscreen keyboard, but it's bettered by the efficiency of a keyboard like SwiftKey, with it's predictive trace entry, which sort of brings us full circle.
BlackBerry Priv review: BlackBerry Hub and software
We've touched on the software in a number of places so far, but here we're going to really drill into it. BlackBerry has kept the Priv close to stock Android and deliberately so. We like that, as we do with OnePlus or Motorola, the comfortable familiarity of Android Lollipop makes the Priv immediately approachable for Android users.
In that sense, BB has avoiding changing things like the menu visuals when there's no need. BlackBerry has also avoided adding a lot of extra apps - as is the MO of Sony or Samsung - so there's no duplication of gallery or music apps.
Where BlackBerry has changed things is in giving you wider hardware options, added some security options, as well as the big one: BlackBerry Hub.
BlackBerry Hub review
BlackBerry Hub is one of the best things about BlackBerry phones. We have always praised the way that on a BlackBerry you could have all your messages pour into one place. When something happens, you can head into the Hub and see what it was, and take action. Sure, Android makes this easy anyway through it's brilliant notifications system and on the Priv you still get all those notifications too.
But we love the BB Hub. We like being able to have everything in there - text messages, BBM, emails from multiple accounts and social media alerts - just so you can scan through everything and act on the stuff that matters. You can filter if you want, so just view work emails, but predominantly, we've stuck to viewing everything. There's no WhatsApp support, and there will be other services that aren't integrated.
BlackBerry Hub also integrates your calendar, which is one app that BB has replaced, using its own calendar over the stock Android one. Swipe down in the Hub and your calendar will appear so you can glance at your appointments.
As the Hub is taking care of these things you can switch off syncing on Google's services in your account settings, and just let BlackBerry handle it. You'll have to sign into your device with a Google account to enable stuff like access to Google Play, but then you'll be signing into BlackBerry Hub to set up those accounts too.
When it comes to adding social accounts, as soon as you sign into Twitter or Facebook you'll be asked to authorise BlackBerry Hub for integration and that's it.
One of the great features about BlackBerry Hub is that BB has used Android's material design, so there's consistency with other apps on Android. We love that you can swipe to delete (just like Gmail) or you can swipe to postpone, with the ability to say when you want reminding. That might be in an hour, or even when you reach a particular location.
The latter options can be a little slow, which is a software optimisation issue again. BB Hub is the foundation of a great communication system, but it would benefit from speeding up a touch.
BlackBerry Priv: Other software additions
There are other software tweaks that the Priv offers. There's a clever picture unlock as an additional security option that we like, as well as a quick glance option that lives on the curved edge, called the Productivity Tab.
Swipe in from the right and you'll get to have a look at your unread emails, calendar appointments, access favourite contacts or see your tasks. Again, it's a great organisation tool, but between that and the charging meter, that's about all that the edge does. We wish there was a little more, such as meeting reminders or something popping along that edge.
BlackBerry talked about security on the Priv and one of the user facing features is an app called DTEK. This is perhaps getting a higher billing than it deserves, as DTEK basically just passes back the state of settings you should already know about - like that your device is encrypted, that you have password protection and so on.
The one area that it is more useful is it will let you quickly browse through what apps are accessing what services. You might find that an app is accessing locations when it really doesn't need to. That's nice, although these options are pretty much covered in Android Marshmallow, so it might only have limited shelf life here.
BlackBerry has said that it will be able to patch security holes in Android directly and deal with threats sooner than many rival handsets.
Within the settings for the BlackBerry launcher (which looks just like a standard Google Now launcher) there are a range of extras that govern behaviour of your device.
We really like the pop-up widgets, which is a little bit like Apple's peek feature enabled through 3D Touch. On the BlackBerry, however, this enables widget access through the app icon. All you have to do is swipe down on the icon and it will pop up with the widget. On the calendar, this means you don't have to open it, you just swipe, for example.
This really depends on good widgets to make it useful, as they are the stock widgets you'd normally drop on your home screens, but this is an excellent feature and it's a testament to BlackBerry that it has added some innovation here.
BlackBerry has also altered the shortcut you might traditionally use to access Google Now. A long press on the home button will open up shortcuts that you can programme. This might be Google Now, BlackBerry Hub and Device Search or whatever else you want. It could just as easily be Contacts, Uber and Crossy Road.
As we've just hinted at, there's still a universal device search app. You can customise what results are returned, although this is one area where it sort of duplicates something that Google also offers through its searching.
You also get the option to just start typing on the keyboard and have it returning results - just as it has done on BB devices for years - but you have to choose between the key shortcuts we mentioned above, or instant searching, you can't have both.
BlackBerry Priv review: Camera performance
There's an 18-megapixel camera on the rear of the BlackBerry Priv, with a F/2.2 Schneider Kreuznach lens, offering optical image stabilisation. There is a dual tone flash.
The camera offers phase detection autofocus, and if you're playing smartphone-camera bingo, you'll know this is something that most companies are now shouting about. It means that focusing is fast and it is. Not only does it snap on quickly but you can tap to focus on a particular area if you need to.
The camera app on the Priv offers some familiar options, taking multiple exposures in low light or HDR scenarios to combine for a better result. But otherwise the camera is fairly basic. It doesn't get carried away with lots of modes or with a huge array of settings. There's not even a 16:9 aspect option, only 4:3 and 1:1. You can add a range of filters for artistic effect at the time of shooting, if you wish, but little else.
About the only manual control offered is an exposure compensation slider, so you can lighten or darken the scene you see.
But the camera on the Priv is a strong performer. In good light it will give you some great shots and we've found great natural colours and plenty of detail in a range of conditions. The performance is still pretty good as the light drops and indoors we've got good natural results where others would be getting a little muddy.
The noise management isn't as aggressive on the Priv as it is on some smartphones. That means you get detail preserved, but there's noticeable noise and the colours get a little washed out. Sadly, there's nothing you can do to take control of the camera for a longer exposure in dark conditions and we think that BlackBerry has missed a trick, as we have the feeling that this camera can do more.
Overall, we're impressed. This is a stronger performer than the likes of HTC's recent cameras and although it might lack some of the pizzazz of Samsung's best cameras, it works and you get the photos you want from it.
The front camera is a slightly different story. It's a 2-megapixel camera and the results are pretty average. It's fine for selfies, but they aren't going to be the best selfies out there.
The rear camera offers video capture up to 4K at 30fps, but the front camera only offers 720p video.
The BlackBerry Priv comes to the Android table offering something different and it delivers. The biggest thing about this handset is the QWERTY keyboard that's uniquely BlackBerry. That might appeal to those who think they can't live without it, but fancy getting into the wider world of Android. For us, we're not entirely sold. We're fans of a BlackBerry keyboard, but we found ourselves not using it, and the trade-off is extra weight and bulk that you might not really need.
There are some areas where the software could do with some tweaking. We think this could be a faster device, but there are some really solid foundations here. Sticking close to Android is going to be popular, but then the BlackBerry Hub is very welcome. We need to remember that this is a first-generation Android device, but it is facing very slick competition.
But who will the Priv appeal to? Will it tempt Android users back to BlackBerry? We're not sure, unless you really miss that keyboard. Will it tempt those hanging onto an existing BlackBerry device to make the jump to Android, knowing that it's going to be familiar and offer that keyboard experience? It might just.
Android has some great devices. The BlackBerry Priv isn't without merit, but making a successful device is going to take more than mashing together the highlight features from both sides of the equation.
The Priv is a good Android phone: it's quirky, interesting and offers things you won't find elsewhere. But BlackBerry needs to work on refining the software and making this handset sing, because that's when BlackBerry on Android will taste the sweetest.
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