The rise and fall of Canadian technology giant BlackBerry is a well known story. But what you might not know is that BlackBerry’s climbing back up into popular culture once again with the release of its brand new phone, the BlackBerry KEYone.
The phone is BlackBerry’s first new offering I’ve paid attention to since I ditched my old Curve about ten years ago. Can it woo back business users and those for whom physical keyboards are a must have? I received one of the brand-new devices to test and review.
Blackberry KEYone now uses Android’s operating system to power the phone. That’s a big change from BlackBerries of old. Of course the device has a prominent physical keyboard on the front of the phone, and a much larger and crisper 4.5” display. (The last time I used a BlackBerry, I probably had about 3 inches of screen real estate, so this is a major upgrade since my last session with BlackBerry.)
BlackBerry Screen breaking – not attached to phone frame
While Blackberry touts its “strong aluminum frame, impact resistant display and soft-grip textured back” already there are reports the device isn’t holding up well to flex tests. Numerous reports have the device’s screen popping out the the device faces and bending.
I wasn’t going to test this out myself, but then the problem found me while I was trying to extract the phone from a Tumi Case that proved a little too snug for easy extraction.
(Watch the video in my review) Sure enough the screen started to pull away from the top of the frame. Yikes! Now there’s a noticeable gap between the screen and the phone. As soon as BlackBerry heard about my issue I was contacted and offered a replacement, and one arrived days later.
Apple faced bending problems a couple years ago, and that didn’t seem to hurt its bottom line, so it remains to be seen if this is a temporary setback or a bigger problem along the lines of the Samsung Note 7’s exploding batteries.
Statement from BlackBerry manufacturer TCL:
“TCL Communication has a long-standing track record of delivering high-quality devices to our customers around the world, and the BlackBerry KEYone is no different. To ensure the highest quality in the BlackBerry KEYone, we used strong, durable premium materials and conducted rigorous stress tests on the device throughout the product development cycle to ensure it meets the real life use standards our customers demand. While the BlackBerry KEYone is being met with great enthusiasm, we are aware of the concerns around potential display separation on the device. Out of the thousands of BlackBerry KEYone smartphones that have been shipped and sold globally, only a very small handful of customers have reported this kind of issue. Our teams are actively examining additional adhesive measures that might further strengthen and eliminate any possibility of display separation occurring. If a customer does experience this however, they’re encouraged to contact us for a device warranty replacement.
BlackBerry KEYone features
With a brand new ‘Berry in hand I was able to test the host of new features in the BlackBerry KEYone.
Keyboard shortcuts are cool
For starters, you can create shortcuts on the physical keyboard so that when you press a certain key, you can bring up things like your browser, contacts, or other apps. Using either a long press on the key, or a short one will take you to different options. While it is handy, it’s sometimes a bit of a struggle remembering which shortcuts are assigned to which apps and tasks. Presumably you’d add these slowly as you need them so it would be easier to remember.
I like having a long-press ‘B’ bring up my browser and long-press ‘E’ open up a new email window. The options here are endless.
The BlackBerry KEYone also has something called flick typing. This feature uses predictive text and gives you the ability to”flick” words onto the screen as you type. I did not find this very intuitive to use, as when I started typing words like ‘test’ and then tried to flick it onto the screen, it ended up flicking the host of random words onto the page. Like “tea” or “Testarosa”.
I went to BlackBerry’s help forums to try to figure out why this wasn’t working for me. Blackberry says, “to use a word that appears on the BlackBerry Keyboard, place your finger just below the word and flick it up onto the screen.
But it was just not working for me. It was either flicking random words there, or if I tried to flick it across the keyboard it was closing the email I was composing. Surfing the web for a solution and not finding anything satisfactory, I gave up on the flicking, and just used the predictive text the way I have on other Android or Apple phones; that is by tapping the word that I want. That worked perfectly.
Touch navigation – using keyboard as trackpad
A feature I did find insanely useful was the ability to use the physical keyboard as a trackpad. This makes it super easy to scroll through websites or lengthy emails. It works exactly as a trackpad should and was intuitive and responsive.
What can BlackBerry Hub do?
A unique feature on the BlackBerry KEYone (though it’s not new, it’s been around through several incarnations of Blackberry devices) is something called BlackBerry hub. The Hub looks just like an email inbox, and puts all your messages, social alerts, and notifications into one spot, so you can see everything at a glance.
How to get Facebook alerts in Blackberry Hub
Trying to get this feature set up was not intuitive. I tried to “add account” hoping to add some of my social feeds like Facebook to the Hub. Maddeningly, the only option it gave me was to add another email account. I couldn’t seem to find a way to add something that was not an email account. Back to the Internet, I searched in vain for help. No dice.
I had a bit of a brainwave and figured I should probably download and install the Facebook app on the device first, thinking that might somehow trigger the app to show up in the hub. Sure enough next time I accessed the hub I got an alert message that said “to see messages from your social and instant messaging account, please turn on notification access for BlackBerry Hub plus services.
Here’s how: Go to settings, Tap Apps, Gear icon, Special Access, Notification access and turn on Blackberry Hub+ Services switch. (Or just go to settings and search “Special access; way easier)
Next time I accessed the Hub, Facebook was in my list . Hallelujah!
The Hub can prioritize certain types of messages or accounts in the Hub which should let you prioritize things like urgent emails over things like minor social media updates.
Hub can also:
• Compose email messages and social posts, or respond directly to messages and calendar invites.
• See a curated view of your most important messages.
• File email messages and manage your folders.
• Automatically view grouped responses to easily open the latest message in an email conversation.
• Peek into your calendar to see your next five meetings.
• Snooze items and come back to them later, based on time/date, your location or your network connection.
While I did find the Hub useful, I eventually opted to nix my social feeds from it. It’s too easy to get distracted by someone’s new kitten when you’re looking for urgent emails and meeting alerts.
BlackBerry Security features
Security has always been paramount with BlackBerry. You get the encrypted BlackBerry password keeper — a folder where you can store your passwords securely, but also you can set up security alerts using The DTEK app. DTEK will automatically monitor your phone and apps and alerts you know when your privacy could be at risk, for example if someone is:
• Taking pictures or videos without your knowledge
• Turning your microphone on
• Sending a text message
• Accessing your contacts, location or financial information
While this was less of a draw for me I can see it being important for entrepreneurs, IT specialists and business types.
BlackBerry Calendar special features
The calendar app has a cool feature which streamlines things like meetings and conference calls. If you set up your appointment in the calendar, when it’s time to join a call, you’ll see a “Join Now” button that automatically dials you in. You can also set up separate Work or Home calendars to keep everything separate if you want that.
How is the Battery Life on BlackBerry KEYone?
The 3505 mAh battery in the new KEYone is apparently the biggest battery ever put into a BlackBerry. With a quick charge feature and power management functions the battery should last a full workday and not even need a charge by the time you wake up the next morning. While usage can vary depending on what you use the phone for, you can expect about 15 hours of general use and more than 100 hours in standby. That’s a lot.
Using the keyboards – BlackBerry KEYone
Of the first questions I got asked about this device when I posted my recent unboxing video (below) was, does it come with a virtual keyboard in addition to the physical keyboard? The answer is yes. You’ll need to enable the virtual keyboard in your settings menu. If you want to do this, here’s how:
How to enable BlackBerry Virtual Keyboard
1. Swipe the top of the screen to pull down the notification menu.
2. Tap the Settings gear in the top right.
3. Scroll down to Languages and Input.
Tap “Physical Keyboard” and turn “Show Virtual keyboard” on.
While it does provide you a large virtual keypad with big keys to type on, keyboards now take up more than half of the front of the phone, diminishing your nice big screen to just a few inches. I’m not sure why you’d want to buy a BlackBerry and then eschew the physical keyboard, but hey, to each their own.
BlackBerry KEYone – Offline use/ Airplane mode
Another question that came to me from a YouTube viewer who saw the unboxing video was whether or not emails are stored locally on the device or are kept in the cloud. The reason for the question as he explained it was that for business travelers if you were on a flight or otherwise off-line and need to access emails you need them stored locally. I reached out to my contact at BlackBerry to double check. I’ve been told that emails are in fact stored on the KEYone device so they can be accessed at anytime whether you’re connected to your network or not.
How is BlackBerry KEYone Camera
Of the biggest problems with BlackBerries of old was the terrible photo quality. BlackBerry paid attention to those complaints and has significantly updated the cameras on this device. With an 8 megapixel front camera with a wide angle lens and even a flash, it’s vastly improved. The main rear camera is 12 megapixels with improved sensors to take better photos overall.
Can attest to the fact the photos are definitely much better then they were five or 10 years ago, but at this point that’s be expected. No one carries cameras around anymore, so having a high quality camera in your mobile device is just standard nowadays.
BBM – BlackBerry messenger
No BlackBerry would be complete without BlackBerry messenger. This is super popular app was one of the first dedicated messaging apps that also boasted high-security for messages, as well as the ability to see when someone read your message or was replying. It’s back again, though I was unable to test this feature since my demo phone was without a SIM card.
Overall review of Blackberry KEYone Android smartphone
Dedicated Android users are bound to fall into use of this device rather easily. If you’re migrating back from an Apple device it will definitely be an adjustment. My overall feeling is that things on this phone are not very intuitive, but once you figure them out you can adapt. It might require a couple of Google searches or help.
Really love the physical keyboard. Maybe that makes me old school, but I find it very easy to type quickly on the keyboard. One of the things I remember from having an original BlackBerry is that you’ll need to grow your fingernails out a bit in order to make typing on the tiny rounded keys easier. That’s my pro tip to you.
The larger screen is very clear and easy to read and is more in keeping with how today’s devices are built. The camera is also vastly improved and is on par with many other devices when it comes to photo capability.
Blackberry KEYone sells for about $700 CDN. Of course with phones you can get them for free with the right data plan. USA pricing and availability hasn’t been announced.