FOX11, Los Angeles - I posted a status update to my social media accounts recently...
What's interesting is that on Instagram and on Twitter, where I posted the same message, I received responses I didn't see coming. People are genuinely interested in the outcome of my review of Blackberry's latest phone, the KEYone. I kind of thought this one wouldn't be too visible because, at least Stateside, Blackberry hasn't be the object of discussion for a long while. That said, the interest I'm seeing in the device is a testament to just how profound and impact the Blackberry had on smarpthone users in its heyday. An impact so profound that years after its demise, people are still wanting that hardware keyboard and familiar Blackberry experience. For those folk, I'd have to say that the wait is largely over.
If you'd like to check out the video review, you can watch that here:
This isn't the Blackberry of yesterday that most people remember. Especially those who haven't kept up with the few devices Blackberry has launched since iPhone and Android came into prominence. Thought the Blackberry Hub is there, as well as BBM, today's Blackberry is an Android phone, not Blackberry OS.
Running a fairly stock version of Android 7.1.1, this Blackberry is more about the iconic keyboard of Blackberry yore than the rock solid operating system and email connectivity which earned it the title "Crackberry." Yesterday's devices were also known for being tanks when it came to durability. I mean you could parachute from a plane at 15,000 feet, drop your Blackberry at that altitude, pick it up when you touch down and continue sending messages without a hitch.
Old vs. New. Expectation vs. Reality. That's what we're dealing with when it comes to the KEYone. Since people loved their Blackberries so much, it's natural to come to this one with some expectations based on experience. The most powerful similarity between your past experience and what you'll experience with the KEYone now is the keyboard. This is a Blackberry keyboard through and through. Now, you've probably been on a touch keyboard on your mobile device. Maybe you've even come to be a huge fan of swiping and couldn't imagine doing anything else but if you give this touch keyboard a minute, that muscle memory will come right back to you and you'll be banging out quick mesages with less mistakes in no time. The first few days I was using the KEYone's keyboard, I was having swipe withdrawals. Once I found the function which makes it so that the virtual keyboard doesn't come up at the same time as you're using the physical keyboard, things got real. In no time at all, I reacclimated to the blackberry keyboard and I have to say that it is magical all over again. We all know that autocorrect is one of those necessary evils which helps us but quite often, with laughable results. Using a physical keyboard again gets rid of the zany "typos" or word substitutions but the built-in predictive text allows you to start typing on the physical keyboard and simply swipe up to throw a suggested word into your message.
Speaking of swiping up, the whole keyboard is a "touchpad" of sorts. While you're typing, there will be three spaces above the keyboard which offer predictive word options and you simply swipe up, under whichever word you want to throw that word into the message you're crafting. From the home screen you can actually use the touch enabled keyboard to swipe left and right through your home screens. It's a very intuitive and functional feature to add to a device like this. I think that in future iterations, theys hould take it a step further and take away the capacitive buttons just above the keyboard, make them on-screen buttons and then give you the option to get rid of them by expanding the functionality of the touch enabled keyboard with gestures that replace the recent apps, home and back buttons.
And if all that physical goodness gets in your way from time-to-time, you can simply hit the [sym] key at the bottom of the keyboard to pop up the virtual keyboard and thumb away in conventional fashion.
Introduced in BB OS10, the KEYone keeps the Blackberry Hub app that a lot of fans enjoyed. Though it's missing a couple features, it's still pretty robust and a great way to catch all of your messaging in one place instead of hopping from app to app. In case you didn't know, you can connect the Hub to several of your social networks including Instagram and Facebook, as well as plug in various email providers, including exchange. One stop shopping for all of your messaging. BBM or Blackberry Messenger is still in the mix, but operates a bit differently on Android than it did on OS10.
The rest of the hardware is rather nice! The KEYone has an executive feel to it which includes a faux leather looking black back with aluminum around the rest of the phone. It feels great in hand, matter of fact, that's one of the first comments I generally receive when I've passed the phone around the newsroom for curious folk. On the left side of the phone, you have the power button, while the right side is where you'll find volume up and down buttons and a third button which is a cool idea, but it's actually more annoying than practical. That's the Convenience Key. You can assign a quick function to that button, which sounds like a good idea. I first used it to assign my wife's cellphone to it, you know, a speed dial of sorts. Until I accidentally called her a number of times just holding the phone, or pulling it out of a pocket. So, I decided to assign it to lock the screen, but that was a no go. It uses administrator privileges to lock the phone, so unlocking it requires you to use the pattern instead of the fingerprint, which is my preferred method.
THe top of the phone is where you'll find the SIM tray which also houses the micro SD slot and supports up to 2TB of storage. Next to it you'll find the 3.5mm audio port. Thought the phone utilizes USB-C, you won't need an adapter for your headphones. Next to the USB-C port you'll find what looks like stereo speaker grills but what you'll get out of the KEYone is just a mono speaker. I really like the look and feel of the phone. It is neither the thinnest or lightest Android handset on the market and that's ok. It is one of the best looking and most satisfying to hold.
The camera in the KEYone is made by Sony and similar to the one found in Google's venerable Pixel. The key difference being the lack of optical image stabilization and differences in software, i.e. the camera app. This camera app has both an Auto and Manual mode, which works well for me. In Auto mode, I was able to capture some great images during a beach day with my dog. The images were so clear and crisp that you could see the water droplets as they splashed off the rocks. At 5AM one morning, I was trying to take a picture of a billboard and Auto mode wasn't quite working for me so I put the camera into Manual mode and was able to adjust the ISO and aperture to get the image I wanted. The only caveat with switching the modes is that there isn't a fast way to do it, per se. You have to tap the cog in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, tap the drop down to choose the mode, then exit out of the menu and back into the camera. There are other devices where you never have to leave the camera interface to switch modes, so you don't actually have to take your eyes off what you're wanting to shoot to look over a menu.
Other than that, the phone's camera was a joy to use. It focuses quickly, the quick launch funtion which allows you to double tap the power button to launch the camera works as it should and you get a few filters to work with right in the camea if you want to get fancy.
The user experience on the KEYone is largely untouched by Blackberry, and you'll find little bloatware. That which the phone does come with, I wouldn't call bloatware. You'll also find some useful features like knock-on to wake the display and put it to sleep and an active display-like functionality which will show you notifications in black and white without turning the screen on. Similar to Samsung's Always On display, except these notifications aren't actionable.
Ultimately, if you're looking for an Android device, or any smartphone for that matter, that has a physical keyboard, look no further. This is it! You get the Crackberry experience you learned to love at one point in time, with an Android interface that is largely stock Android and a camera that takes pretty solid photos.
Disclosure: TCL provided me with a demo unit for the purpose of this review.