BlackBerry has a long tradition of building its own hardware and software, but having fallen on harder times of late, the company was forced to outsource. With the DTEK50, its first mid-range Android phone, it has partnered with TCL Communication and added its own subtle tweaks to a pre-existing reference design.
The result is an all-touch device running a clean-looking version of Android, but with BlackBerry's own useful software on top. Specifications are decent, and for a phone that costs less than £300, you get good value for money.
In a market this saturated, though, BlackBerry is going to have a tough task convincing consumers that the added element of security is a big enough distinction.
BlackBerry DTEK50 review: Design
To describe it in the shortest, crudest way possible, the BlackBerry DTEK50 is essentially an Alcatel Idol 4 with a plastic back. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
The lightweight, slim aluminium frame construction - combined with the textured plastic on the back - makes a device that's both grippy and lightweight. From an aesthetic perspective, it doesn't look quite as premium as devices covered in glass on both sides. But unlike those, it won't slide off furniture or slip out of your hand.
A dark grey anodised finish on the frame contrasts nicely with the polished, chamfered edges to give a result that is both elegant and subtle. Sadly, it is slightly hampered by the black plastic antenna gaps on the top and bottom which don't sit exactly flush with the edges.
The slim volume rocker switch on the right edge is coloured to match the frame, and joined by a round "convenience" key. This can be programmed to launch an app, or used as a shortcut to a specific function. You could, for example, press it to compose an email or a message, add an event to a calendar, set an alarm or use one of many other shortcuts available.
In general use, it takes some time to grow accustomed to this new button. Just as it does with any new feature. You have to form new habits by deliberately reminding yourself to use this new button, otherwise it's easily forgettable.
Above and below the phone's screen on the front are two rows of machined holes which act as the grilles for the 3.6W stereo speakers. These are mirrored on the rear too, so whether the phone is face up or down you can hear your music and notifications clearly.
Sound quality is surprisingly good, which makes the experience of watching movies or gaming far more immersive. What's more, the pre-installed Waves MaxxAudio equaliser app allows you fine-tune the balance of frequencies to suit your own listening tastes. Whether you want to pump up the bass, mid or treble, you can do so right from the app.
The arrangement of ports and buttons on the DTEK50 is a little odd. The micro USB port lives on the bottom edge, the 3.5mm jack is on the top edge, while the power button is - confusingly - on the left edge, opposite the volume rocker.
BlackBerry DTEK50 review: Display
Underneath a flat sheet of scratch-resistant glass on the front, the DTEK50 shields its 5.2-inch Full HD display (1920 x 1080 resolution).
It's fully laminated, which means there's no gap between the glass and the actual display panel. This has a few benefits: most importantly, it means colours and brightness are better; it also enables manufacturers to build slim phones.
The screen is really clear and text is nice and sharp. Colours are accurate, but there's not the vividness or high contrast levels you might get from an AMOLED-based screen from, say, Samsung. Still, the DTEK50's IPS panel offers great viewing angles and is generally pleasing to the eye.
That means any movie watching, gaming or image viewing is a great experience. Even when the phone is closer than normal to your face, text and curves retain their clarity and don't get all fuzzy. And that's no surprise: a Full HD panel might read as lowly in today's market, but on this BlackBerry it's spread across a pretty small panel, so the pixel density is higher.
BlackBerry DTEK50 review: Camera
The main camera on the DTEK50's back features a 13-megapixel sensor paired with an f/2.0 lens. It supports Full HD video capture too. As a bonus, the built-in BlackBerry camera app has a full manual control mode so that you can fine-tune your shots.
The manual control mode allows you adjust the shutter speed, white balance, focus and brightness (exposure compensation). If you like to play with long exposures for effects like light-painting and light trails you'll be disappointed that the longest shutter speed available is 1/2 second. Still, the addition of manual changes to other important settings should help you get the results you want.
In use, the camera produces some great results in good lightiing conditions. With HDR (high dynamic range) mode on, photos can appear vibrant and full of life, with great detail.
However, often photos can look a little flat - especially in any condition that's not bright daylight. Even at times when it was very bright, images could come out overexposed and lacking in detail. Furthermore there's visible distortion towards the edges of photos, where colours turn a little yellow.
The front camera has an 8-megapixel sensor and also supports Full HD video recording. It also has a front LED light which - as well as being used as a notification alert - can function as a flash for well-lit selfies. Results are just fine for the odd selfie to share on social media.
BlackBerry DTEK50 review: Performance
Powering the DTEK50 is a mid-range Snapdragon 617 with eight cores. It's paired with 3GB RAM to make sure that you get as smooth a performance as possible from a mid-tier phone - at least that was the idea.
Most of the time the DTEK50 runs smoothly. However, at least once or twice during a single stint of use, the phone has paused or frozen for a couple of seconds before continuing with its tasks. Whether it's gaming, launching the web browser or viewing photos in the gallery, it's almost as if it gets bogged down and needs to take a breather.
In our experience this happens three to four times a day, mostly during gaming. It's frustrating, especially because the phone is otherwise smooth and responsive. During these "pauses" the app becomes completely unresponsive too. It's still possible to go to the home screen, launch recent apps and delete it from memory to reload again, but we shouldn't have to do that.
It's not the first time we've experienced this in an Android phone. The common denominator seems to be the Snapdragon 600-series processor. We'd almost prefer it if the device just stuttered its way through processes, rather than just stopping at random intervals.
Sadly, the DTEK50 comes with just 16GB internal storage. The upside is there's a microSD card slot which supports cards up to a massive 2TB, ensuring that it's future proof. What's more, BlackBerry's latest device supports Android Marshmallow's adoptable storage feature, so you can adopt a microSD card and use it as if it was internal storage for saving apps and app data as well as media.
BlackBerry DTEK50 review: Battery life
There's a 2,610mAh battery in the DTEK50 - which BlackBerry says will get you through a day. Even if it doesn't, it supports Quick Charge 2.0 technology for fast charging, capable of half-filling the battery in just 50-minutes.
In our experience, the battery gets through a full day's use, but not much more than that. It can easily get to the end of a day with about 20-30 per cent left to spare. This depends on your personal usage, of course, but we've seen little from the phone to raise concerns against its longevity.
The one exception is if you have a smart watch connected. Then it may struggle to get to the end of a day, especially if you're a heavy user. In this scenario we've come up short, often needing to plug the phone in again at around 7pm (after just 11-hour's use).
BlackBerry DTEK50 review: Software
With the Android marketplace being so saturated nowadays it can be hard for companies to put their own unique spin on devices. With BlackBerry, the most obvious way to do it was with software. It was something that worked well on the Priv, and has yet again been implemented in to the DTEK50.
Starting with the most obvious - and where the phone gets its name from - the DTEK app is a very simple tool for checking up on your phone's security. It will tell you the device's current security status and, more importantly, give you access to more granular controls for choosing which permissions are allowed for individual apps.
If an app that shouldn't get access to your location, or the microphone has been getting permission to access, then you can switch the permissions off. You can also see how many times a specific feature or function has been accessed by any app.
Like the Priv, the DTEK app has the Productivity Tab, which slides in from the right and gives you quick access to your upcoming events and tasks, as well as favourite contacts and messages.
BlackBerry has also implemented its great predictive software keyboard for easy typing. And there's the Hub which collects notifications, messages and events from across the device and collates them in to one, easy-to-use inbox.
As well as that, there's the useful pop-up widgets from the home screen. Any app that has white dots under its icon has widgets available, which you can access by just swiping up from the icon. This saves lots of space on the home screen, ensuring you won't have any potentially confidential information always on display.
Along with the added apps and the Hub, there's the software keyboard - which is easily one of the best Android keyboards out there. The software keys are nicely spaced, making them easy to type on. What's more, the predictive text feature lets you quickly swipe up on a single letter to select the next word quickly.
Like many other keyboards you can customise elements like enabling the Swype-like flowing from key to key, adjusting key sounds and feedback, or adding extra languages. As a bonus, it can even have multiple languages installed at once, so if you're bilingual or multilingual you can use predictive text without having to constantly change languages in the settings.
All these software tweaks are joined by a handful of BlackBerry apps like the calendar app, BBM, Device Search, Password Keeper, Notes and Tasks. While many might class these as bloatware, the company has been careful about including only the software which improves the experience and makes it more BlackBerry-like.
On top of all this, BlackBerry is committed to delivering prompt security updates. So when Google releases its monthly security patches on Android, BlackBerry is usually one of the first to follow in updating its own devices.
The only problem we faced with this software is with the BlackBerry calendar. For whatever reason it merged two different accounts, syncing events from a personal account with a work account. We soon started seeing birthdays from personal contacts appear in the team calendar, which everyone could see, and had to be manually deleted server-side. No other app has ever given us this issue, even third-party ones.
BlackBerry has added some valuable additions to its software, but without the reliable performance we'd like, the DTEK50 can be a frustrating overall experience. It has a nice screen, decent camera and feels great in hand, but there are better phones out there for a similar price.
When you consider that you could buy the Vodafone Smart Platinum 7 for just £20 more, or that all-new Moto G4 starts at £45 less, it's tough to justify spending the extra on what is essentially a mid-range device.
The only thing the BlackBerry DTEK50 really has going for it is the added security. And if protecting your information and keeping an eye on your phone's vulnerabilities is invaluable to you, then the less-than-perfect hardware is definitely a cross worth bearing. After all, any performance issues we faced could, perhaps, be fixed by a software update in the future.