Everybody knows Blackberry right? Those keyboard phones, with that trackball type thing eh? Well things have changed a bit since then. Design has been modernised, prices have increased, oh and there’s been the death of their mainstay operating system, in favour of Android. So let’s see whether the Blackberry Priv can save the day?
Disclosure: Clove Technology sent us the BlackBerry Priv for review, but we were not compensated for providing the review. The review was conducted using Android 5.1.1, soon after delivery the BlackBerry Priv got an update to the April 2nd Security patch, no other updates were applied.
BlackBerry has had a hard time as of late, their hardware has been pretty lacklustre, but more importantly, the BlackBerry 10 operating system was never adopted as well as they would have hoped. This held back a lot of people from buying. Later on in BB10’s lifespan it gained the ability to run sideloaded Android apps and whilst this solved a fair few problems, there was still some more that simple sideloading couldn’t solve, and more importantly, problems that normal consumers shouldn’t have had to learn to overcome to have a useful product.
This is where the Priv comes in. The Priv runs Android, proper, full fat Android, 5.1.1 to be precise, and BlackBerry has done something that others have tried to do. BlackBerry made the Priv with the intention of it being a secure device, and it certainly is. The Priv, by default is encrypted using FIPS 140-2 FDE (full disk encryption). This is different from what Android itself usually uses, and BlackBerry claims it’s for the better. During the initial set up, the BlackBerry Priv also prompts you to set lock screen passwords upon first boot, and lastly the DTEK app from BlackBerry continually monitors your phone and gives you a security score, and gives you hints and tips on how to improve it.
One more note about security. Mid to late last year, Google decided that Android would get monthly security patches. Most large Android OEMs did it for a month or two, and even then only for the higher end devices. BlackBerry has consistently released the monthly security patches within the first week of the month, and often within the first 3 days of the month. More impressively the Blackberry Priv usually beats Google’s own Nexus devices by a day or has same day patches. When you get security patches out the same day as the people who make the software, that’s impressive, especially when you consider the market leader (Samsung) takes a fair bit longer.
Speeds and feeds (specs)
– 5.4″ QHD 2560×1440 Dual-Curve AMOLED screen
– Hexa-Core Snapdragon 808, 2xA57@1.9ghz and 4xA53@1.5ghz
– Adreno 418 GPU at 600mhz
– 3GB RAM
– 32GB internal Storage
– MicroSD expansion slot, up to 128gb
– 18mp Rear camera
– 2mp fixed focus selfie camera
– 3410mAh non-removable battery.
– MicroUSB data and charging port.
– 3.5mm audio jack.
– Front facing mono speaker
– Touch Sensitive physical keyboard.
BlackBerry should be commended for their work on the Priv. It’s a super solid piece of hardware. One would think that adding in a sliding hardware keyboard would introduce some wobble or weakness, and I am very happy to say that is not a problem here. The slider is incredibly solid can be pushed up with one finger and slid down with one, but it’s not weak and loose by any means. This is obviously something the engineers up in Waterloo have been working on for a while, and it certainly shows.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The engineers up in Waterloo have spent a lot of time making this, and their effort shows.[/pullquote]The Priv is heavy, it’s a solid heavy device. A Carbon Fibre Glass weave back is included with the Priv. It’s not removable as it was with the Q10, but it is just as nice here. The one problem I have
with it is that there is a noticeable gap between the battery and the back of the cover. In some regions, some devices have Qi or PMA charging coils, this obviously fills up that void. Honestly, I wish that BlackBerry would have included Qi wireless charging on all of the devices. It would have added marginal amounts to the BOM (Bill of Materials) cost, and is a marketable feature. Also it would have filled in that gap, that is incredibly annoying once you notice it. It does become a sort of game; if you tap it, it’s a noticeable hollow noise as well, and with how solid the rest of the Priv is, this seems like a glaring omission.
Metal, Glass and Carbon fibre, all components that can provide a great experience, and they really have here. Starting from the front, top to bottom, we have the Earpiece, Charging indicator (with that special BlackBerry red, you know it’s a thing.) The horrendous fixed focus 2mp front facing camera, and BlackBerry logo. Below that we have the gorgeous 5.4″ QHD 2560×1440 dual-curved AMOLED screen, sourced from Samsung. The dual curves are very subtle here, much more subtle than what Samsung is doing on its Edge devices, a lot of the time I forget the curved screen exists, until I activate a side drawer or see the edge battery indicator. BlackBerry have lastly positioned the large mono speaker under the screen. This is actually a separate part of the device. This is the same part of the device where the keyboard is, and is where you grip when you push the screen up. It’s a noticeable ledge and it just feels perfect in the hand and once again, it shows that the engineers up in Waterloo have spent a lot of time making this.
Down the bottom, we have the MicroUSB port, oriented in the correct position (wide part on the bottom). Whilst I would have preferred USB-C, even with a USB 2.0 backbone, I see why
BlackBerry went with MicroUSB port. It’s the dominant market leader, and at the time the Blackberry Priv was in development, USB-C on mobile was just a twinkle in an engineers eyes. Next to the MicroUSB port we have the 3.5mm audio jack as well, and this is also in the correct position, on the bottom (a lot of people think this is up for discussion… those people are wrong). Doing a 180, the top of the Priv has the noise cancelling microphone, the NanoSIM tray, and the MicroSD trays. The noise cancelling Microphone is on the screen section, which is metal, and the SIM and SD trays are on the back half. The Right hand spine has the two separate volume buttons, with the “mute” button in between the two-volume buttons. This is probably the worlds most useless mute button, probably having a lot to do with the asinine way that Android 5.X handles volume controls, but OnePlus got around this by introducing a hardware slider. When you press the mute key, you bring up the volume panel, up on top there is volume, media and alarms, below that is the slider itself, and below that we have do not disturb, priority and normal. Whilst this is better than not having anything, the presence of a mute key would be to go into mute or do not disturb once you’ve pressed it, this is not the behaviour that happens here, and it is incredibly annoying. The last piece of hardware is the left rail, and that houses the power button. It’s a decent power button, as is the volume buttons, with regards to travel and clickiness, but they have rock than I’d like, though luckily they don’t rattle in the housing.
Lastly we have the back, which I’ve spoken about briefly before. The rear has the carbon fibre glass weave, which I absolutely love and it’s similar to what BlackBerry did on the Passport, Q10 and Z30. Unlike those devices, the hollow flex in the back is slightly off-putting. In the centre we have the matte chrome BlackBerry logo, ironically this is the place where the flex is the worst, but the place where you want to press the most. Up at the top in the middle we have the 18mp camera with a Schneider-Kreuzach lens, an F2.2 aperture and the whole set up is optically stabilised. Next to the camera we have the Dual tone LED flash. The Camera on the Priv is okay if a little slow, but that’s something we can get to later on in the dedicated Camera section.
When I said lastly, I was lying, what really is last on the hardware front is that physical keyboard. The Physical Keyboard on the Blackberry Priv is awesome. It is truly a feat of engineering. Whilst it is slightly shallower than BlackBerry smartphones of past, and travel could most certainly be improved, it’s something that I used literally every day of the 3 weeks I had the Priv. If not for typing, for its other awesome feature… it’s a trackpad. The Engineers have again worked their magic that they pioneered with the Passport. The keyboard acts as a capacitive trackpad, allowing you to gracefully slide your fingers over the keys without depressing them, and lets you scroll through on-screen fixtures. The Keyboard/Trackpad of the Priv is something I thought I’d be over with within a few days but I seriously wasn’t. Typing on the Priv became natural, and I very rarely used the on-screen keyboard, and scrolling on the keyboard instantly felt natural, and in fact, scrolling on a screen again just feels strange after 3 weeks on the Priv.
One thing to note, when using the physical keyboard, there is no autocorrect, The software wont correct you if you type incorrectly, and this made me realise just how much I’d come to rely on autocorrect for my sloppy typing skills, but this was also an experience to force me to be more accurate and precise with how I type. I still to the last day mistyped a bunch, but that was more to do with me just wanting to get it over with, rather than purposefully typing wrong.
This is where I’ve struggled a bit. The Priv isn’t slow, not by a long shot, but there are a few things that aren’t going in its favour. First off is the chipset. The Snapdragon 808 always felt like a weird product. It was called an 800 series chip, but in all honesty, I feel that it would have been better served as a 600 series chip. BlackBerry had to choose between this is the 810, and in that sense, BlackBerry made the right choice with what they had, but Smartphones made with 2015 Qualcomm chips all have their own issues. Another thing that the Priv has going against it, is FDE, or Full Disk Encryption. Out of the box the Priv is encrypted, without an option to decrypt. Personally I think this is a smart move, whilst there are some people I know who don’t have a lock screen at all, let alone any lock screen security, I am one of those people who believes in securing my data as much as I can. I have all my other devices encrypted, with a lock screen password, and I have 2 factor authentication on most of my accounts and for me, BlackBerry have taken one, rather time-consuming step out of the set up process for me.
The Blackberry Priv doesn’t blow anything away in the benchmarks either. The 2 Cortex A57 cores at 1.8Ghz really do help the Snapdragon 808, and in most cases the extra 2 A57s in the 810 aren’t really worth the other trade offs that come with that SoC. Where I have trouble classing this as an 800 series chip is the choice of GPU and ISP. In the same way that the Snapdragon 615 struggles with 1080p screens, every now and then, the Snapdragon 808 struggles with the 1440p screens it gets saddled with. Whilst it’s not as stutter prone as the LG G4, I cant help but feel that a smaller, 1080p AMOLED display would have served the Snapdrgaon 808 better, than picking this (gorgeous) panel, but having a hard time pushing it some of the time. The Quad A53s are actually what is used most of the time, and they’re okay, performance isn’t terrible, and actually most of the time the Priv is smooth sailing, but there are a couple of occasions that everything just grinds to a halt for a few seconds, and unfortunately these aren’t easily reproducible scenarios, but when they happened, maybe once a week, it was kind of annoying. A reboot could and did fix the performance, but I have only felt the need to reboot the phone due to the performance once in the 3 weeks that I have been using this device as my day-to-day phone.
Priv battery benchmark without letting screen dim.When you hear 3410mAh battery you’d expect me to say that the Priv’s battery life is awesome! The truth is, with an inefficient chip (remember, the Snapdragon 808 and 810 are made on TSMCs much maligned 20nm planar node) and a high res screen, the Priv is running close to full throttle nearly all the time. Running anything near full throttle all the time isn’t good for it, and one of the most obvious side effects is poor battery performance.
On a standard day I was able to get 3-3.5hours of screen on time from the Priv, and I was in battery saver mode with 10% left most days. Whilst I never had the Priv die on me during a single day duing the 3 week review period, I have to say, I was able to unfortunately cut it pretty close often. The higher capacity battery in the Priv is almost perfectly offset for the high-resolution screen pushing the GPU to its limits. I would rate the Priv’s battery close to what I rated the Galaxy S6’s at, not great, but it could most certainly be worse.
Priv battery benchmark letting the Screen DimLuckily, the Priv is able to utilise Qualcomm QuickCharge 2.0 chargers for fast speed charging, sadly though, despite the high price tag of the Priv, BlackBerry didn’t see fit to include one in the box. The Included charger is 5v 1a, so not a super slow charger, but nowhere close to what we have grown accustomed to, and as I stated earlier, due to the high price tag of the Priv, the decision not to include a quick charger is baffling to me. On the positives (gotta find them) it’s MicroUSB. Pretty much everyone has at least one MicroUSB cable at this point, even if they’re a die hard iOS fan with a tonne of Lightning cables. So once you find a USB port and a MicroUSB cable, you’re on the way to (incredibly slowly) refill your device. because whilst that battery drains fast, it sure as hell doesn’t charge fast (out of the box).
One thing to note, is the cool use of the Edge screen Blackberry has here, if the screen is off, and you plug-in a charger, a charge indicator shows up on-screen from the USB port up around the bottom edge and the right side of the screen. The higher up the screen it gets, the higher the charge in the phone. It’s nifty and it’s a really good use of the benefits of AMOLED as only those pixels that are being lit up in either red, green or yellow are actually consuming power, the other part of the screen that’s black? Nope, nada, not even a sip.
This is something I think I’m going to have to start including on higher end devices now as all of them in some way or another have thermal properties that are making me less comfortable. We all know the saga of the Snapdragon 810. The infamous chip that had a much higher operating temperature than other competing chips and it was prone to throttling more due to that higher operating temperature. It’s important to note that every chip throttles, and it’s very rare that a device overheats in the way people think. When a chip overheats it has a safety mechanism which is to cut all power and shut down before any damage is done, If your device gets dangerously hot and then shuts down due to that heat, then you can say your device has overheated, but that is likely to be a limited case, rather than every device released with that chipset. The Snapdragon 808 in the Priv fares a little better here by having two of the larger, more power-hungry and high heat outputting Cortex A57 lopped off. Sadly, the benefits that came from removing those 2 cores is negated by the weaker GPU and the higher resolution screen.
Because of the QHD (2560×1440) screen that BlackBerry put in the Priv, the GPU, an Adreno 418, is having to run full throttle, or close to it, and the downside of this is that is produces a lot of heat, which reduces your battery, It also makes some parts of the Priv uncomfortably warm at some points. One of those places that the Priv gets uncomfortably warm, is along the right hand rail, almost perfectly where the volume and mute buttons are. This is made worse by the fact that those buttons are metal, or metallic, and when those heat up, they can actually leave a weird tingling in your hand, not quite like a burn, but there are some tingling parts that I’d rather not have.
The Right hand rail is the only real part where heat is much of an issue, one small spot near the base of the camera ring once became an issue, but since then, whenever I do anything graphically intensive, I try to move my hands away from the left and right rails and place them on corners, or if the device is in landscape hold the top and bottom, now the left and right. Heating issues could have been fixed by a lower resolution screen, but they cant fix the problem with the SoC being made on an inefficient process. Hopefully a newer generation of Priv has fixed the Thermal issues that have annoyingly plagued this one.
This is going to be the hardest section of the review to write for me. Whilst the rear Camera is shockingly good in some places, the front camera is so appallingly bad in some area’s that I’m surprised BlackBerry ever thought it was a good idea to include it.
Let’s start with the good, the 18mp camera on the rear is a crop of the 21mp IMX230 from Sony, and the Schneider-Kreuzach lenses live up to their storied history. It has a so-so aperture of f2.2. Not the widest lens (that goes to the Galaxy S7 and it’s f1.7 lens) but there are also devices with similar or “worse” apertures (worse is in inverted commas because whilst having a higher aperture doesn’t specifically mean you’ll have a worse camera, on Smartphones, when everything is so tightly controlled, it is one of the metrics we can use for comparisson) The Dual Tone LED flash on the back is lovely and useful, and lives up to the premise of a dual-tone flash, for those of you that don’t know, the dual tone LED flashes are used to make skin tones more natural when using a flash, instead of just one very cool (closer to the blue-y white end of the spectrum) flash, it has a secondary amber flash (a warmer one closer to the yellow end of the spectrum) and then its fires them at the same time and then calculates what would be better to make the skin look more natural.
Camera hardware is one thing, and the Priv has that in spades, it’s just some other areas where it struggles, such as the post processing. The ISP on the Snapdragon 808 could be better as well, why they didn’t just give the 808 the same ISP as the 810 I’ll never know, but the Priv certainly struggles with the processing of images. The relatively rapid focus is let down by the slow shutter speed, the really good dynamic range is let down by its tendency to overexpose at the drop of a hat, I want to love the Priv’s camera, and when you have time to compose your shot, It’s a cracking camera, but if it is at all time sensitive, it’s hard to recommend for the very simple reason that I’d have to think about whether the shot is or isn’t capture-able, or whether I’m going to have a blurry shot (which can sometimes be artistic, but I’m very rarely going for that shot). BlackBerry has come so far, the Camera on the Priv is leaps and bounds better than BlackBerry smartphones prior by far, but it’s still got a while to go before it is comfortably up there with the flagships from other companies, mainly Samsung, Apple and LG.
Moving on to the front facing camera, And I wish I could say more good things than “it exists and isn’t broken” , but honestly, I’m struggling. The Front facing 2mp, fixed focus camera on the Priv is exhaustingly bad. I’ve used it for a few video conferences, but other than that, Selfies lacked colour, depth, and any kind of “wow” factor. The fixed focus part isn’t much of an issue, but I’d feel happier knowing it was autofocus. The biggest problem with the front facing camera on the Priv is the fact that it’s just tremendously useless in anything coming close to unfavourable light. It is incredibly grainy, the contrast is shocking, the exposure is completely out of whack, and on top of that, it’s fixed focus. Like I said, I wish I was able to say nicer things than “It works and is here” but I really can’t, there just isn’t that many good things about this front facing snapper. Selfie addicts, please shy away now.
Software, this is something That I’ve been looking forward to typing, because It’s something that I’m happy to report on. The Priv is the first BlackBerry to run Android! not run Android apps in an emulation layer, it properly runs Android, full Google Certified Android! this makes me extremely excited, because for a while, as much as I had liked BlackBerry 10 as an operating System, it was severely lacking in certain areas, app support and app quality was most certainly one of them. What was never an issue on BlackBerry 10 though was speed and security, and BlackBerry has most certainly brought at least one of those to the Priv, Security. From the start, BlackBerry has very lightly touched Android Lollipop here, no heavy skins like Touchwiz or LG’s UI, but closer to Motorola and HTC with Sense on the HTC 10.
Starting with the things I don’t like about the Software on th Priv, because there is far less things there. In the notification shade, BlackBerry have altered it minutely, They have added icons with the iconic BlackBerry spark badge for every notification type in your shade, and tapping on them filters the shade to only show you notification from that one app, sounds neat in theory, until you have apps that throw up persistent notifications, like Pebble, or Talon Pull that then have two icons on the shade you can’t do anything about. If there was an option to disable this in settings I would be less annoyed by it, but there isn’t, or at least not one I could find. Worse than that though? When in landscape, this extra piece of junk in the notification shade, isn’t even the same width as the other parts of the notification shade, another reason why I would have loved a toggle to disable this.
Next we have the slide in productivity tab, Similar to Samsung’s Edge gestures on the Edge series of devices, the productivity tab is a little nubbin a few pixels wide and a hundred or so pixels tall that when you slide in launches a, you guessed it, productivity focussed tab, with calendar appointments and some notifications etc thrown in. This was just useless to me, and the productivity tab just decided to activate even when I didn’t think I was anywhere near the trigger point, luckily for me, this was an easily disabled feature, and I sure as hell disabled it.
Other than those few niggles, the Android Experience on the Priv is pretty basic, they’ve modified the Google now swipe up to also include the BlackBerry hub and BlackBerry device search, but Google Now is still the default and centre app, so that’s not too bad. Despite the persistent box they’ve added, they haven’t changed the notification shade all that much, so that’s inoffensive, They’ve got their own apps for some things such as contacts, messaging, Camera and more, and taking a page out of Motorola’s book, all the apps are in the Play Store and are ready to be updated whenever BlackBerry feel they need to, And in the time I’ve had the Priv, the Camera app has received at least one, maybe even two updates that have fixed bugs and improved performance.
One thing that BlackBerry is well-known for and will continue to be well-known for is their stance on security, and with the Priv that is no different. Whether it’s the fact that by default, the Priv is
FDE (Full Disk Encrypted) that it prompts you to have a lock screen password or some form of lock security during initial setup, or that the pre-installed DTEK app that constantly rates and checks your security on your device such as whether or not you have enabled unknown sources in the app settings, whether or not you have the lock screen security, whether or not you use a password manager etc. The Priv is pushing security forward from the start by even using a differing encryption standard to normal Android. Whereas normal Android devices that are encrypted use 128bit AES encryption, the Priv uses a FIPS 140-2 Encryption standard, which, without getting into the weeds too much, paired with the specially modified and hardened Android/Linux Kernel, the Priv is more secure and harder to crack than your run of the mill android phone. Oh, and did I mention, it’s on by default? yeah, they’re really pushing this whole security aspect.
Another way that BlackBerry is keeping the hearts and minds of security conscious people is by regularly releasing monthly security patches for the Priv often the same day or earlier than when the Nexus devices get the updates. When the Stagefright vulnerability hit Android Last year, Google and a couple of OEMs decided that a monthly security patch system would be the way to go forward to mitigate these problems. Problem is, that whilst Google has done monthly patches with Nexus devices, other OEMs haven’t, and some have maybe done one or two that are months and months apart. I have a Moto X Play with the December Security Patch, a Moto G 2015 with a February Patch etc. The Priv got the April Patch on the 2nd or 3rd of the Month, the same day as Nexus devices got theirs. Whilst The Priv doesn’t have Marshmallow (Android 6) yet, It is in beta testing, and Marshmallow does bring in even more security fixes than Lollipop does, I’m less worried About the Priv than I am other OEMs because they have shown that they are willing to update their device, and that Marshmallow isn’t in the ether, but they’re spending the bulk of their development on securing vulnerabilities in current software, than creating new software.
In case it wasn’t really obvious, I really, really, really liked the Priv, and I don’t want to have to send it back to Clove (Thanks again to Clove.co.uk for sending us the Priv to review) Whilst I would have much preferred a 5″ or smaller display with a lower resolution and the same internals, The last 3 weeks haven’t been a hell like they have for other huge devices. Don’t get me wrong, the Priv is big and it is heavy, but what you get for that weight and size is an awesome screen, a great and unique keyboard, a good build and a great experience. Sure the camera could be better, and sure it should have Marshmallow by now, and sure it is stupidly expensive. But the Priv does not give you a bad experience for your money, and whilst it could be a better experience, I would be hard pressed not to buy a Priv if I had the capital lying around.
BlackBerry may not have had a great time of selling the Priv, and for a multitude of reasons, Price being one of them, but the other is that they have eroded their brand into almost nothing over the last half decade, and they’ve lost mind share from consumers. Whilst the Priv is an awesome device to use, the reaction I got from almost everyone on the street when I told them I was using a BlackBerry was “really? BlackBerry still make phones?”. I Love the Priv BlackBerry, but you’ve got to rebuild your brand, and the Priv was a great first start.
- Gorgeous Screen
- Fantastic Keyboard
- Great Physical Design and build
- Encrypted from the offset
- Committed to updates.
- I've seen tectonic plates move faster than this camera captures.
- Occasional performance hiccups
- Front camera is shocking
- Battery is just meh