We’ve been down this path before. BlackBerry touts its newest smartphone as the device users are begging it to make, and then the device ultimately falls flat.
The latest attempt to reinvigorate the BlackBerry brand is the KEYone, an Android powered smartphone running BlackBerry’s custom software, with a physical keyboard.
However, there’s something different about the KEYone than its previous smartphones. The KEYone is designed and manufactured by TCL Communication, not BlackBerry. The new approach is part of the Canadian company’s new licensing effort, where BlackBerry provides software to its hardware partners. The hardware partners are in charge of the device from design to marketing.
TCL Communication is best known for its Alcatel line of budget-friendly smartphones that walk the line of affordability and performance.
TCL used that same approach, to some extent, over to the BlackBerry KEYone. Although it’s not the most affordable smartphone priced at $549, £499, or $199 CAD on a two-year contract. To be fair, it is priced lower than BlackBerry’s previous smartphones.
Performance wise, the KEYone isn’t the fastest device available, but with a few tweaks to its settings, it gets the job done. And the battery life, man, the battery life is what I used to love about BlackBerry smartphones.
Size: 5.87 x 2.85 x .37 inches
Keyboard: 35 key touch-enabled backlit keyboard with fingerprint sensor
Display: 4.5-inch (1620 x 1080) 434 PPI LCD
Storage: 32 GB with microSD support up to 2 TB
Memory: 3 GB RAM
Battery: 3,505 milliamp-hour
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 625
Camera: Rear-facing 12-megapixel. Front-facing 8-megapixel.
Operating System: Android 7.1
Connectivity: USB-C, NFC, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth
The design of the KEYone has grown on me. At first, I thought the top bezel just above the screen with the front-facing camera, speaker grille, and proximity sensor was, well, ugly. It’s grown on me, however. Perhaps if the top bezel were black and looked more like an extension of the display, it wouldn’t seem so out of place.
On the left side of the phone is the power button, with the right side hosting a volume rocker and a dedicated shortcut key. You can assign a dedicated task to the button, such as a shortcut to an app or open the email compose screen with a press.
I would randomly push the button and launch the Camera app (my assigned shortcut) when attempting to adjust the volume or picking up the phone. I think if I were to use a KEYone as my personal device, I would end up disabling the shortcut button for that reason. Its placement makes it too easy to trigger.
The bottom of the phone is home to a USB-C port for quick charging. The top of the phone is where you’ll find a 3.5 mm headphone jack.
Unlike the BlackBerry PRIV, the KEYone doesn’t feel top-heavy when typing on it. After a couple of days of trying to adjust back to a physical keyboard, I thought it did – I even told a coworker it suffered from the same problem – but with more use, I’ve changed my mind.
The KEYone is well balanced for using the touchscreen and typing on the keyboard without feeling like you are going to drop it at any moment.
It’s time to ditch the Hub
When BlackBerry launched its BlackBerry 10 operating system, the company took a different approach to how a device and its user manage notifications. Instead of tapping and swiping between multiple apps to view an email, a text message, a Facebook message, and so on, the BlackBerry Hub was your one stop shop.
With the slow death of BlackBerry 10 and a new focus on porting over the same experience to the Android platform, the Hub’s reliability and performance have suffered.
What was once a quick method for viewing and interacting with notifications, now slows the phone down. When testing the KEYone, I would receive an alert for a new email or message, wake the device, and then have to wait — for a brief moment — for the notification to appear on the screen.
The delay is never an issue when using the Gmail app, or a dedicated email app for that matter.
Halfway through my time with the KEYone, I was complaining about the Hub’s performance to a friend who up until recently was an avid BlackBerry user. He suggested I completely disable the Hub to improve the KEYone’s overall performance.
Once I did that, the device performed in line with what I would expect from a device with a mid-range processor. Apps open faster, and all notifications were present the moment I woke the KEYone’s display.
If you find yourself having performance issues with the KEYone, particularly when it comes to notifications, it’s time you ditch the Hub.
Don’t get me wrong, the rest of BlackBerry’s software – such as the Calendar app to the Contacts app – are well done. The Hub, nevertheless, isn’t what it used to be.
The keyboard is a trackpad, the trackpad is the keyboard
By far my favorite aspect of the BlackBerry KEYone is the physical keyboard. In the past, when switching back to a smartphone with a physical keyboard, I’ve struggled to make the adjustment. A physical keyboard requires precision compared to the mishmash of typing on a digital keyboard that leverages software to determine your intent.
With the KEYone, the keys are slightly different from the traditional BlackBerry keyboard that I remember. I can’t pinpoint if the slope of the keys isn’t as drastic, or if the keys are slightly bigger, I just feel as if the keyboard has changed, slightly, and for the better.
There’s no question about it: I love typing on the KEYone.
As has been the case with BlackBerry devices for the past few years, the keyboard once again doubles as a trackpad. Swipe in any direction across the keys will scroll and navigate through a document or website without forcing you to stretch your thumb to the screen above it.
It took a couple of days of forcing myself to use the trackpad instead of the screen, after which it became second nature.
A fingerprint sensor is found underneath the space bar on the KEYone, instead of the back of the device as many Android makers are doing. The placement feels and acts similar to a dedicated home button.
Two lights on the space bar turn on when the fingerprint sensor is activated. The first time I registered my thumbprint with the sensor, I had issues with my thumb not getting recognized. Since deleting the scan and repeating the registration process, I’ve had a far better experience.
Battery life, other notable details
I was able to get two days of use from the KEYone. That’s two full days without needing to charge a smartphone that I used no less than I normally do. Email, Facebook, Slack, WhatsApp, SMS, Twitter… you name it, and I probably used it on the KEYone, and still experienced stellar battery life.
The camera on the KEYone was consistent in capturing quality photos in well-lit environments, but as is usually the case with smartphone cameras, it struggled in low light.
Should you buy one?
The answer is relatively simple. If battery life and a physical keyboard are two things you look for in a smartphone, the KEYone is for you.
That market segment, though, is shrinking. Business users have moved away from keyboard devices, opting for full-screen Android and iOS phones instead. Maybe that’s a good thing, though. With the market flooded by phones that all look and work in a similar fashion, often with battery life taking a hit to power the larger displays, perhaps the KEYone is a device that’s making a timely entrance.
Then again, that’s what BlackBerry, its fans, and tech pundits have been saying for years and it’s never quite worked.