BlackBerry KEYone full review
There’s nothing to be gained from taking BlackBerry down any more pegs. It has had to siphon off its handset business to TCL, and the KEYone is a result of that partnership.
But make no mistake; this isn’t just a BlackBerry in name, it’s a fully-fledged BlackBerry at heart too, and although to most people it is laughable, for a select few this may just be the best phone on the market.
For the loyal few who still pine after a physical keyboard there has been a fair few years of hanging onto the Passport or the Classic as app support dropped at a rate of knots. Those people are finally rewarded with the KEYone, a phone that has been a long time coming.
No one who owns and loves an iPhone or a Galaxy is going to upgrade to the KEYone. It makes the phone quite hard to review, but I think it’s going to excite the exact, small audience that BlackBerry is going after. I for one am won over, as this phone is no gimmick.
Where can you buy the BlackBerry KEYone?
The release of the device has been rather scrappy. Announced initially at CES and then shown off at MWC, the handset was finally released to UK consumers exclusively at Selfridges in London in late April 2017 for £499.
Design and build
It’s no secret anymore that BlackBerry phones are designed and manufactured by its hardware partner TCL. Thankfully, as soon as you hold the KEYone, it doesn’t matter. Quality has not been lost; this is pure BlackBerry design.
The device has a pleasing weight to it (180g), unlike the light, slippy DTEK60, which was BlackBerry in spirit but not in practice. Die hard fans will love the KEYone in comparison.
It brings the physical keyboard back and is the first BlackBerry handset to do since 2015’s Priv. This one is called a Smart Keyboard and, to be fair, it can also claim to be just that.
The keys are small and square like the Priv’s, with an attractive see-through tone rather than matte and the familiar metal rim between the keys like the classic Bold handsets circa 2010. They click pleasingly unlike the comparatively soft response found on 2014’s Passport.
The KEYone may have a clunky name, but the build quality on show is far from shoddy. It is truly premium, something we couldn’t say of either the DTEK50 or even DTEK60. The silver metal frame recalls the Passport while framing the unusual 4.5in display and black keyboard.
The back of the phone has a rubbery grip material that hardcore BlackBerry keyboard fans will approve of – the handset never feels like it’s going to slide out of your hands, plus the slim form means you can use it one-handed with relative ease.
This grip is interrupted only by the familiar BlackBerry logo, camera and the flash. The right edge houses the volume rocker and familiar convenience key for opening an app of your choice, while the left is clean aluminium save for the power/lock switch.
The bottom has a mic, a mono bottom-facing speaker that is impressively loud for speakerphone use, and a USB-C port. The look is rounded off with the nice touches of permanent capacitive navigation buttons and a fingerprint sensor in the spacebar key that works very well. The top houses a 3.5mm headphone jack.
To fans of the modern smartphone, the KEYone looks completely ridiculous. Many of my colleagues think it’s ugly as hell. But this phone is not for them.
If you like BlackBerry, its design makes total sense and I’m pleased to report that this positive feeling is only amplified by daily use.
Features and specifications
The KEYone measures 149.1 x 72.4 x 9.4 mm, an odd shape at first because the display is 3:2 rather than the usual 16:9, but at 4.5in it’s ideal for a device of this size. Having the physical keyboard means the touchscreen isn’t ever obstructed by a software keyboard though you can interestingly turn on an onscreen keyboard if you want, in many downloadable languages. In fact, turning the phone landscape when in a text field brings up a virtual keyboard.
The screen is an IPS LCD with a resolution of 1620 x 1080 and 434ppi and uses Gorilla Glass 4. My review unit picked up a few surface scratches within the first week of use, but it feels very sturdy and unlikely to smash on first drop.
It’s perfectly good, but it isn’t the brightest display by a long shot, and colours appear a tad dull.
Just above the display is the 8Mp front facing camera, while the lens on the rear is a 12Mp with the same sensor as the Google Pixel. Google still has the upper hand here thanks to that phone’s post-shutter software magic, but there’s plenty to like about KEYone’s automatic camera settings.
TCL has made some interesting spec decisions, but they make sense to me. The octa-core 2.0GHz Snapdragon 625 may not be cutting-edge high-end, but it needn’t be for a phone whose intended target market is more concerned with battery life and power efficiency than processing speeds.
The fact the KEYone doesn’t have the Snapdragon 835 processor, or even the 808 of the Priv, makes complete sense. That phone ran a tad buggy, but there is less lag on the KEYone.
The tasks it excels in (email, word processing, social media) are not overly taxing on the 625 processor and it handles middle-level multitasking admirably while eking every possible drop of power from the battery rather than running it down unnecessarily.
This is comfortably a two-day device for all but the heaviest users, with a massive 3,505mAh battery making the casing slightly chunky. It’s so worth it though, lending the handset that reassuring BlackBerry heft while keeping you powered up.
Charging via USB-C is speedy thanks to Quick Charge 3 tech, and BlackBerry’s boost mode is exceptional to give you lightning top up times at the temporary expense of notifications and background processes. There's no wireless charging or waterproofing to be seen here either.
All regions get the KEYone with 32GB storage and 3GB RAM, with a micro SD slot for expansion up to 256GB.
And then, oh, that keyboard.
Typing on the KEYone is slower than typing on glass but means you are actually more accurate. The correction software is still very good if you do make a mistake, but the tactility afforded by the physical click of buttons means you aren't making as many errors as typing on glass.
It's an excellent typing experience and one I warmed to enormously, to the point that returning to a virtual keyboard to type felt really odd. You get used to touch typing.
Coupled with this is the extra room you find yourself with without the virtual keyboard. The KEYone’s smaller 4.5in 3:2 ratio screen looks poky at first, but is always devoid of virtual keys.
Going back to a 5in Google Pixel, I immediately balked at the fact the keyboard took up practically all of a message thread. The KEYone’s advantages such as this reveal themselves slowly, but you end up reaping the reward.
The whole package is an acquired taste and I’m under no illusions that a physical keyboard cuts down screen size and won’t be attractive to most. But by accepting that it’s now a niche offering, BlackBerry the brand can power ahead with the KEYone, offering everything its fans have been asking for in one device.
Software and everyday use
The main thing they have reluctantly asked for is Android. The KEYone runs Android Nougat 7.1, and BlackBerry promises regular security patches alongside the DTEK security applications preloaded onto the phone.
The look and feel of the OS is fairly stock, but with enough tweaks to feel different. It’s less playful than Google’s vision, in keeping with the ‘Berry brand expectation.
You can probably tell by now that I’m in the small camp of people who already liked the design of the KEYone before I ever used one. But it’s everyday use that has convinced me further that the phone not only is an excellent BlackBerry, but an excellent smartphone that makes few compromises if it suits your lifestyle.
The marketing materials are still quite 2009; this is a phone for professionals who want to get work done, etc. The software skin is quite utilitarian, all straight lines and muted colours. But it props up an email dream, helped by the still-excellent BlackBerry Hub app that collates all your notifications (yup, all of them) into an amazingly manageable funnel to tick them off.
This will benefit you if you live in a swamp of email, with the pinch-to-see unread messages feature a particular stroke of genius (carried over from the ill-fated BB10 OS). Android gives the device room to breathe – apps! Yes, you can plough through email but the Hub will put it alongside your Instagram and Facebook notifications, two apps no longer anywhere approaching fun to use on BB10 (they don’t exist).
The Hub does slow the phone down a bit though, and can't always keep up with push or if you've actioned a notification in the corresponding app. It's nice to have, but you may be better off not using it at all, which is a shame.
Benchmarking the phone against others with the same Snapdragon 625 processor brought up remarkably similar results. It goes toe to toe with the Moto G5 Plus (which notably costs just £249.99 - half the price of the KEYone).
You can scroll through documents, web pages and apps by sliding your finger over the surface of the keyboard’s capacitive buttons. Once you’ve used it, it becomes second nature and is genuinely unique in the smartphone space. It is slightly buggy at times though, especially when you rest your thumb for a moment and the scroll and text jitters.
If you want to scroll on the touchscreen then of course you can, and I found the latency exceptionally tight.
While typing you can also swipe left to delete the whole last word, or swipe up underneath one of the three suggest words on the screen to either autocomplete or type the next word. It sounds clunky, but in practice is time saving.
Better still, you can assign shortcuts to any key. For example, I assigned a short press on T to go to Twitter from the home screen, I to Instagram, S to Spotify and so on. Commands can be complex too, as granular as opening a new email to a specific contact. You can assign 52 in total, a short and long press to each key compatible key.
It meant that I didn’t cram tons of frequently used apps onto my home screen, opting instead for key taps. I also assigned the programmable convenience key to Device Search, allowing me to type a search across all the data on the phone. Type a contact and you’ll see their details, or if you type ‘text’ before their name you can then tap to start an SMS to them.
It’s very intelligent, and a useful alternative to voice assistants, but the KEYone does have Google Now and voice search if you so desire. No Google Assistant, but BlackBerry tells me it is coming in an update.
The convenience key is also the mute key in calls (and those calls sounds great on the handset). Tiny attention to detail like this is what pleases BlackBerry users most, particularly those on the go who will use this device for every correspondence during the day, both voice and text based.
These amount to a suite of productivity tools you won’t find anywhere else apart from BlackBerry’s other Android devices, and it works best on KEYone because there’s not much learning curve. If you abandoned BlackBerry for an Android phone for the apps, this is the best of both worlds. You’ll be back into touch-typing in no time.
There’s even a pretty decent camera. As the screen is 3:2, so is the default photo size, but you can change in settings to the standard 4:3.
Macro detailing is excellent, as is general colour balance. You might be inclined to fiddle with the manual settings to get what you want, but it is by far the best camera ever on a BlackBerry, and one of the first you’ll actually want to use. And sometimes the results will be better than if not the iPhone 7, then maybe the 6 or 6s - just not in low light, where it struggles considerably.
The list goes on with the cool software features on the KEYone. Though many are available to all Android users from the Play Store as standalone apps, they work well combined with the hardware here. Privacy Shade allows you to dark out most of the screen to read sensitive pages without someone snooping. Niche, yes, but very useful.
There’s an ever-present productivity tab (you can turn it off if you want) that you swipe in from the very edge of the screen. It’s a software shade that gives you quick access to your calendar, notes, inbox and contacts. I didn’t use it much but that’s testament to how productive I became using the phone. You don’t need a productivity tab when the interface and keyboard allow and encourage you to plough through everything it throws at you.
Importantly, the marrying of hardware and software doesn’t put you off doing normal smartphone stuff like taking pictures, using Snapchat or tweeting. BB10, for all its strengths, did do this. Thankfully, BlackBerry fans are no longer forced to compromise.
So what’s the catch?
Well, it’s £500. That’s a lot. You can get an iPhone 6s for the same, a OnePlus 3T for £100 less and 2017 flagships like the Huawei P10 for £70 more. But comparisons aren’t why this is a bit of a raw deal.
If you want a KEYone, you probably won’t mind that an iPhone is the same price. You will just be a bit disappointed that BlackBerry and TCL haven’t undercut the price considering the middling specs.
Sure, its target user base doesn’t need the most powerful innards, but for £500 you might expect it – or want it. I pushed the KEYone with some graphically intense gaming and multi-tasking, and it stuttered and lagged.
2014’s BlackBerry Classic retailed at launch for £349. The KEYone gives you the Android advantage, and it’s a better phone overall, but is £150 more at launch.
The phone is also slightly too po-faced. It definitely makes you more productive, but it doesn’t scream out to be picked up and played with for hours like most smartphones. Its odd shape also means it’s not one to game or watch films on comfortably.
BlackBerry KEYone: Specs
- Android Nougat 7.1
- 4.5in 1620 x 1080 IPS touchscree, 434ppi
- 2.0GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 octa-core processor
- Adreno 506 graphics
- 3GB RAM
- 32GB storage with microSD up to 256GB 12Mp main camera with LED flash, support for 4K video at 30fps
- 8Mp front camera
- 802.11b/g/nfor2.4GHz,802.11a/n and ac for 5GHz
- Bluetooth 4.2
- 4G LTE
- 3505mAh non-removable battery
- 149.1 x 72.4 x 9.4 mm