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Hands on: BlackBerry's first Android phone

What a difference a few years can make! About 5 years ago I attended the very last BlackBerry world conference in Florida where BlackBerry was talking up BlackBerry 10 OS, espousing the evils of Android. 

Just yesterday my BlackBerry Priv review unit received its Android 6 Marshmallow update. It seems that that sanity has finally prevailed and BlackBerry has admitted resistance is futile, adopting the little green borg (erm, droid). So how good is their first Android phone?

BlackBerry 10 OS really wasn’t that bad an operating system, it just lacked applications. The Priv provides BlackBerry loyal supporters with access to the Android Play Store along with Androids look and feel (and keyboard). On the hardware front, BlackBerry has given the Priv a gorgeous display and a much needed physical keyboard. Will it be enough keep BlackBerry alive?

The BlackBerry Priv sports middling specs, namely a super crisp 5.4-inch QHD display, Snapdragon 808 processor, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage plus an 18MP rear camera. A year ago this would’ve given competing flagship hardware a real run for their money. Nowadays it’s a middling spec at best.  

Depending on where you shop, the Priv can be had for just a shade under a grand through to just over $1,500, money that’d buy you most of a newly released flagship device from the likes of Sony, Samsung or Apple and leave change for an SD card. 

The BlackBerry Priv may be under spec’d and over-priced, but from a design perspective it brings a refreshingly different look and feel to the largely me-too android market. 

For a start it is one of the first slider phones I’ve used in a long time. Slide the screen up and the Priv reveals its pride and glory - a glorious physical keyboard. 

The slider action feels great and Blackberry has thoughtfully placed a ridge at the bottom of the screen that allows the user to push the handset up to reveal the keyboard. The spring-loaded mechanism takes over when its screen is two-thirds of the way up. It feels smooth and solid.

Smartphone design is a business of compromises. With the Priv, this translates into increased bulk thanks to the addition of a physical keyboard. The Priv isn't exactly petite. Coming in at a finger stretching 147 x 77.2 x 9.4mm, it just fitted my hand. I definitely knew I had it in my pocket.

While I was able to hold the Priv in one hand and use it, extended use got a little uncomfortable owing to its 192g heft. When its screen is flipped upwards to reveal its keyboard it also felt top-heavy.

As with the Samsung Galaxy Edge S7, the Priv has curved screen sides. It is a nice look but is also a missed opportunity. BlackBerry could have added a custom launcher. That said, a charge indicator displays along the edge when the Priv is plugged in.

The Priv’s screen has a metal surround, which gives it a decidedly premium look. This is unfortunately undone as the Priv is clad in plastic which feels a little creaky. This is at odds with its premium sticker price.

On the camera front, the Priv uses a Schneider-Kreuznach sensor and packs a dual-tone -LED. Its camera is responsive and does a reasonable job, but isn’t quite in the same league as the Huawei P9.

Design-wise the Priv hits a lot of the right notes but doesn’t arrange them into a symphony. Its slick curved screen and metal surround look great and the slider action feels like a million bucks, but this is all let down by its creaky plastic Tupperware chassis.

Touchscreen keyboards and intrusive autocorrect/predictive text are pet hates of mine. The lack of tactile feedback with onscreen keyboards and dumbed down predictive text has made typing a chore and conversation an exercise in illiteracy. With the Priv, I was hoping that its physical keyboard would bring a small measure of joy back to my smartphone addiction.

The keyboard is small, and it initially felt cramped, but I soon got used to it and was knocking out text like a champ in no time flat. Knowing when I’ve hit a letter thanks to the sensation of a key-press makes a huge difference. Equally nice is the extra keyboard functionality Blackberry has added.

Slide up to reveal the keyboard and the Priv awakes, waiting to do your bidding. Double tapping the keyboard allows you to scroll up or down. The keyboard also quick-launches applications. Holding a key down sees a pop-up menu appear. It allows you to assign a customisable action to a particular key. Apps can be opened, contacts instantly reached and so on. It’s a nice touch. Using the Priv’s keyboard one handed is a do-able proposition that worked well in practice. 

The on-screen keyboard is also a rather excellent affair.  Custom crafted by Blackberry, It resembles a classical Blackberry physical keyboard. It also sports one of the smartest autocorrect systems I’ve used. And is a whole lot more accurate and easier to type on than the on-screen keyboard efforts of many other smartphone makers. Perhaps the nicest thing about the Priv’s Android DNA is that I could (if I wanted to, which I didn’t) download a third-party keyboard from the Play Store.

So is BlackBerry back in the hunt? The Priv is a good start but BlackBerry has their work cut out.

There’s a lot to like with their first Android device. The QHD display is gorgeous. Its curved edges give it an edge (pun intended) over other competing android devices.  The real shame is that BlackBerry haven't fully exploited their uniqueness with a launcher/notification system. 

The Priv’s user interface deserves special mention. It is really close to stock Android. It also looks great. There are a few stock BlackBerry apps, but compared most other Android phones, It's clean and clutter-free - a joy to use.

Priv’s added security is also a selling point. BlackBerry have put a considerable amount of work into hardening the Priv’s android implementation. Things such as mandating that all hardware is signed with digital keys at the manufacturing level helps. There’s also lashings of crypto goodness. BlackBerry use their Certicom certified-FIPS 140-2 security compliant cryptographic library and to ensure that Android password protection is as strong as can be on a smartphone.

Unfortunately the premium design is only skin deep and doesn’t match the Privs premium sticker price. Spec-wise it also offers middling performance. If RIM are going to stay in the game (and I truly hope they do), they should look at update commitments and maintaining the near stock android UI. Less plastic and more alloy plus realistic pricing is also needed. 

That said, if you are a BlackBerry fan or want a secure phone that is a joy to type on, the Priv is a good but pricey choice.

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