BlackBerry is dead, this is something we have heard for a while, despite the launch of the Priv (which we reviewed here) the DTEK 50 and DTEK 60 (which were rebranded Alcatel Phones) people still perceived BlackBerry as dead, well with the new BlackBerry Mobile and TCL Communications agreement, I can safely say that BlackBerry have risen, and the KEYone, is one helluva comeback.
Disclaimer: BlackBerry Mobile provided us with a KEYone after we attended their press briefing/UK Launch, and since then, just under a month, We (Dom) Have been using the KEYone as our daily driver. BlackBerry have not paid us, nor do they have any editorial control over the outcome of this review.
Speeds and Feeds
- 4.5” IPS Display 1620×1080 (3:2)
- Snapdragon 625 SoC
- 3GB RAM
- 32GB eMMC
- 3505mAh Battery
- 12MP Rear Camera
- 8mp Front Facing Camera
- QWERTY Keyboard (touch sensitive)
- USB-C 3.1 Gen1 (5gbps)
- Android 7.1.1
A more complete set of specification can be found on GSMArena here
Hardware – Blackberry KEYone
Let’s just start with something that’s impossible to deny, the KEYone is a brute, it’s a beast, a Tank and bludgeoning device. At 180g, the KEYone is massive by today’s standards, and it’s chunky at 9mm as well, but honestly, If the KEYone where as slim and light as my P10, it’d feel insubstantial, cheap and I’d probably not be as compelled to take it seriously. The KEYone is a nice big hunk of Aluminium, milled out for the chassis and covered in plastic and glass, the KEYone being made like this once again alludes to the fact this is a tool, and not a toy.
Taking a tour around the device starting with the front we see what BlackBerry is known for, and it is that Keyboard. The full QWERTY keyboard that doubles as a trackpad is something BlackBerry has been doing for years, and I’m glad they brought it back. Despite being on Android for a fair few years with pure touchscreens, It was remarkably easy for me to adjust and become pretty reliant on the Keyboard again, and not just for text selection, but for shortcuts as well. Each of the 26 alphanumeric keys can be mapped twice, one for a press, and the other for a long press, so for instance a short press of S opens Snapchat but a long press opens Slack. Because of this, I very rarely used the app launcher because if it is mission critical it’s either mapped to one of the 56 keys, or it is on my home screen. The Keyboard isn’t perfect, It’s not as if you’re typing on a Bold 9000 from 2007, but for TCLs first BlackBerry keyboard, they have done a remarkably good job, and certainly better than the keyboard on the Priv.
Above the Keyboard is the screen and the navigation buttons, and if you’ve read any of my previous reviews, you know how little I like Capacitive or physical navigation buttons, and the KEYone comes with capacitive navigation buttons, which annoys me first off, but even after a month of solid daily use, the capacitive keys on the KEYone are just bad. The touch targets are far too low, meaning that when i scroll with the keyboard I have to place my finger in between the back and home or home and recents button so I don’t accidentally touch them, which happened far more often than I’d like to admit. Secondly they’re just slow, when I intentionally touch them, which is quite often because they’re, you know navigation buttons, they’re slooooooooow. It often times feels like they are slower when pressed purposefully than accidentally, I know this isn’t the case, but still.
Next is the screen, which actually is a positive, the 4.5” IPS display is decent, It’s not the brightest, not is it the most colourful and vibrant, but it is a remarkably nice display nevertheless and it has quite good lamination, I also had to double-check it was IPS because the Reds in particular were quite captivating, but I assure you, it is IPS. The resolution is also somewhat odd, being 3:2 it can’t be 1920×1080, that’d make it 16:9, so the KEYone is 1620×1080, It’s shorter and Squatter than most phones, and a lot shorter and squatter than the G6 and Galaxy S8, but I thought it’d be a lot harder for me t adapt, but honestly? Nope, only app that has some issues is Snapchat because it’s made for 16:9, even the G6/GS8 have issues because they’re elongated. Above that pretty great display is the earpiece, ambient light and proximity sensors and the front facing camera, all of which work exactly how you’d expect them to, thankfully.
Taking a 90 degree turn looking at the left hand side we have… the power button, and that. The KEYone does share some traits with it’s Alcatel brethren (another TCL owned brand) by putting the Power button so high up on the left hand side, it’s not quite as high as on the Idol 4s, but it’s certainly not the ideal place for it. Taking a 180 to look at the right hand side, it is a little more populated, with the Volume rocker, convenience key and the SIM tray. The SIM tray can also accommodate a MicroSD card but doesn’t appear to be able to take a second SIM. the Volume rocker is,just like the Power button a solid piece of metal, I wish It were more tactile and clicky, but it is not a deal breaker. Lastly on this side is the convenience key, this is an amalgam of the convenience keys of old as well as the boom key on newer Alcatel phones. It is in the same place as the boom key, and on the DTEK 50/60 which were rebranded Idol 4/4s’s their boom keys where just called convenience keys. But the convenience key can be… well almost anything you want it to be, it can launch apps or shortcuts or system functions, all but the one I really want it to do, which is turn the screen off.
Up top we have a 3.5mm headphone jack and the noise cancelling microphone as well as a plastic windows that I can only assume is for radio performance. Down the bottom is a perfectly symmetrical facet, a USB-C port with a USB 3.1 Gen1 back-end, and either side of that is the 3 slits for speaker and main microphone, the speaker is the right grille meaning the left is more than likely the microphone. On the back is a pretty spartan but attractive back, 90% of the back is covered in a dimpled soft touch plastic cover with a BlackBerry logo about 75% up from the bottom. In the top left is the 12mp main camera with the dual tone LED flash next to it, which I’ll speak more about in the camera section.
Software – Blackberry KEYone
BlackBerry 10 was the main reason people didn’t buy the Classic, the Z10 the Z30 the Q10 or the passport, because they couldn’t access their favourite apps, and only later in it’s life did it receive an Android emulator, and even then, it wasn’t ideal. Start with the Priv, BlackBerry started using Android, and they did it right they took Android and made meaningful changes without drastically changing the UI, and that continues with the KEYone.
With a base of Android 7.1.1, the KEYone is pretty much up to date, what’s more important though is the security patches, and the KEYone is running the April security patch, which is a tad odd, as with the Priv, DTEK 50 and 60, they got the security patches the day they were released, and as of the time of writing this (the 26th) the KEYone still hasn’t got the May patch. I have no fear that it’ll get updates, that is BlackBerry’s whole schtick, It is just a bit off to see the KEYone not have the May patch so close to June.
BlackBerry’s customisations are more to the functionality level, than the cosmetic level, the KEYone comes with FDE by default (Full Disk Encryption) and requires a pin to boot up for security reasons, the BlackBerry Launcher enables those keyboard shortcuts etc. BlackBerry has done very little in the way of Aesthetic customisation, and I feel like that is for the best. BlackBerry do have their own suite of apps, mostly centred around productivity, so there is BBM which is amazingly still alive, a device search application that does exactly as it’s name suggests, there is DTEK a security app that tells you what your level of security is currently like and how you can improve it. There is Notable and Notes which are note taking apps, simple as. Then there is the Password keeper which, as it sounds ,is password manager, it is a vault for your passwords, not sure why you would use the BlackBerry one over something like Lastpass or 1Password, but hey, it’s here. There is also a power centre app that, you guessed it, shows you what is using the most battery and how you can extend your battery life. Lastly there is the Tasks app, a To-Do list of sorts, and lastly a workspaces app, which is an enterprise grade file synchronization system, which is pretty cool. The best part about all of these? They’re all in the play store, meaning they all get better with age, even if this never got a system OTA.
Then, there is the Hub, the BlackBerry hub is one of those things that you either love or hate, and I really tried to use it and I love the Idea of it, but it doesn’t integrate well enough with gmail for me to want to use it full-time, 3 out of my 4 main email accounts are based on Google’s Email service, and I can’t be worrying about whether or not it has synced properly, or whether or not it is formatted properly on my end, or if that email I sent will be properly formatted on their end etc. Everything aside from email works fine in the hub, but email is a big part of it, and I wish it was better. I forced myself to use the hub for over a week, and the day I didn’t have to anymore was one of the best times I’ve had in awhile. Maybe I will revisit the hub in the next major update, because the unified inbox of BlackBerry smartphones of old was the king, this, sadly is not.
Performance – Blackberry KEYone
I feel like I can just copy and paste from the Moto Z Play review here, as the Snapdragon 625 and 3GB of RAM works identically. IT is no speed demon in the benchmarks, but in everyday use the KEYone is plenty fast and easily fast enough for my needs. The 8 Cortex A53’s at varying frequencies are more than enough for average use and the Adreno GPU inside it doesn’t seem to be dropping many frames either,which is a bonus.
Because I have very little to say that I haven’t already said about the performance, I’m just going to post some benchmark screenshots here, and whilst they don’t look all that impressive, know that in the real world, the KEYone hasn’t left me waiting for anything in the month I’ve been using it
Battery – Blackberry KEYone
This is where the KEYone shines, the battery on the KEYone is insane. The Snapdragon 625 is known as being a very power efficient chip, which is great, and then blackberry decided to chunk up the phone a bit and plop a 3505mAh battery in there, and wow, the KEYone is one of the few phones I have that has managed to reach nearly 8 hours of Screen on time, and on most charges, is a nearly 2 day phone.
Not only this, the KEYone also charges insanely fast, it has Quick Charge 3.0, sure, but so does most phones, but what’s even more insane? The fact that the “boost mode” on the KEYone actually works and does what it says, up to 50% the KEYone on Boost mode charges so fast you can almost see the percentage go up whilst watching it. The USB-C charger from the KEYone is a standard type-A on one end and Type-C on the other, but I really wish more OEMs would go the Google/LG way and put Type-C on both ends, it makes the adoption much simpler in the long run.
Here are some screenshots of my KEYone battery usage, but know that if you manage to kill the KEYone in a single day, I applaud you. I have 4 email accounts syncing, facebook, twitter, 2 instagram’s, Snapchat, Ebay,Slack facebook messenger, whatsapp, telegram,Allo Skype all running and syncing. I have Bluetooth always on connected to my watch and most often also headphones, I have brightness at about 60% with auto brightness on, LTE,NFC, Location etc are all on, and even with about 5 hours of screen on time during a day, I’ve not managed to kill it in one day, BlackBerry sorted the battery here, and I have no problems calling them the kings.
Camera – Blackberry KEYone
BlackBerry have never had jaw dropping cameras (well, not jaw droppingly good cameras) and that trend continues with the KEYone, it is not a bad camera, but the ISP (image signal processor) on the Snapdragon 625 isn’t the best, and BlackBerry could do with a hand tweaking the post processing they do, which isn’t too hard especially seeing as the camera app is in the play store.
The biggest problem the KEYone camera has is that it’s a little slower than I’d like, especially when in HDR mode, which on my first day lead to a lot of blurry messes, but that was fixed by either turning it off of going into manual mode. The other problem with the KEYone’s camera is that there are some really good camera for a lot less than this. The KEYone costs £500, and a lot of the time the Honor 8 can be had for around £300, and I’d say that has a better camera than this.
But that is just my opinion, so I’ll put some samples below so you can judge for yourself.
So that was the rear camera, what about the front? Well, about as well as an 8mp fixed focus selfie snapper would be, it’s not terrible, but the auto-exposure could do with some tweaking, which once again is easy now the camera app is in the Play Store. I do wish it was autofocus, but mainly I think the problem is the exposure issues, which is exacerbated by how poor Snapchat’s Android app it. But once again, here are some samples for you.
Lastly, the video quality of the KEYone. The KEYone can go up to 2160p30, but I tend to leave it at 1080p24. The quality of the video is okay, but has a lot of the same issues as the still do, mainly the exposure is somewhere that falters, but on video where you may be moving from somewhere bright to dark, the speed of the auto exposure may not always be acceptable, and once again, there are phones that are a lot cheaper, like the Honor 8 that I feel take better videos. But that is just my opinion, so once again, here we go, take a gander at this.
Miscellaneous – Blackberry KEYone
Just before we wrap up in the conclusion I like to do a miscellaneous section for things that may not merit their own category. Starting with the Fingerprint Scanner, an FPC1145 from Fingerprint cards. This time it is buried in the space bar, a pretty novel place to hide it and it works well, especially with the lower centre of gravity on the KEYone. Accuracy and speed wise it’s not bad, I think in my time I’ve only had 2 bad readings, one whilst my finger was wet and the other when I lightly brushed it on the edge, other wise it’s a pretty accurate sensor once it is set up. Speed wise it’s not too shabby either, that is unless you put it next to any Huawei phone from the last 2 years, The KEYone’s scanner isn’t slow, but the Huawei P10s can make it feel slow.
Radio wise, the KEYone was slightly disappointing compared to BlackBerry’s of old. The KEYone seemed to struggle in more places than my P10 which is a shame, it wasn’t horrific, but after how great the P10 was, it was a noticeable difference. Speed wise it was comparable, but mobile signal on the KEYone was decidedly average, at least in comparison to the P10.
Conclusion – Blackberry KEYone
I love my KEYone, I’m going to continue to use my KEYone as my daily device, but as Juan Carlos Bagnell said in my video review, it was amazing how quickly the KEYone became my communication tool, my GTD (get to done) device, and It doesn’t feel like it is going to be vacating that space any time soon.
Do I recommend you buy the KEYone though? Well it really depends on how much you favour security and how much you want that keyboard. If those two are high up on your list, you could do a helluva lot worse than buying the KEYone.
Oh, and I wrote this review on the KEYone Keyboard.
- Keyboard is pretty awesome
- Built like a tank
- Stellar Battery life
- USB-C is USB 3.1
- Stock build of Android 7.1.1
- Somewhat Expensive
- Have to really want the Keyboard
- Camera is only Ok
- Thick and Heavy
- Some incompatibilities with the Screen shape