A wise man once said, there are no shortcuts to success. Clearly, the man must have never crossed paths with a physical QWERTY-based BlackBerry. For if he did, he would have known, there’s a difference between working hard and working smart. BlackBerry and physical QWERTY keyboards were literally inseparable once upon a time. Every time you talked about a physical QWERTY keyboard-based phone — there were lots and lots of them, once upon a time — the discussion would invariably drift towards a BlackBerry.
Ironically, both BlackBerry and physical QWERTY keyboard-based phones are literally down in the dumps today. And yet, BlackBerry is back, and it’s back with a physical QWERTY keyboard-based phone. The phone in question is called simply the KEYone and with it, BlackBerry — the company responsible for making the physical QWERTY keyboard make sense — is aspiring to make the physical QWERTY keyboard make sense, one more time, even as it aspires to make sense — as a hardware company that can still do phones, albeit a little differently — among fans, enthusiasts and critics.
The BlackBerry KEYone comes with a full blown physical QWERTY keyboard, in addition to a full blown touchscreen. But more importantly, it comes with 52 custom shortcuts to get your job done.
Design and build quality
The KEYone looks (and feels) nothing like the iconic Curve or the Bold. It looks somewhat like the Passport maybe, but then again, it’s a lot more elongated and a lot more cramped both at the same time. It takes some visual cues from the forgettable chaos, called the Priv, but, other than the physical QWERTY keyboard that sits at the bottom of the screen, there’s no telling that this is a BlackBerry-made phone. A part of it is obviously because it isn’t a BlackBerry-made phone in the literal sense.
FYI: It has been sometime that BlackBerry stopped manufacturing its own phones. It outsources the job to third-party manufacturers now. Optiemus Infracom, if you haven’t heard already, is the home-grown telecom enterprise, responsible for manufacturing BlackBerry phones in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. All in all, BlackBerry now relies on three licensees to make and sell its phones globally. The software that’s inside these phones is, however, in complete control of the Canadian major.
The KEYone is an all-metal phone with curved 2.5D Corning Gorilla Glass 4 protection on the front. On the back, the KEYone sports a rugged material on top of metal. The BlackBerry logo graces the middle while a huge camera module with a dual-LED flash next to it, sits at the top. On the right, the phone comes with a convenience key that allows you to quickly access an assigned app or shortcut from anywhere on the device, provided that it is powered up. The volume rocker and a dual-SIM slot — the KEYone is notably the first BlackBerry phone in India to support dual-SIMs — also lie on the right. On the left lies the power button. The phone also comes with a USB Type-C port for charging and data-syncing and speaker cut-outs on either side.
The USP of the KEYone is its full-scale physical QWERTY. Unlike the Priv (BlackBerry’s last QWERTY phone) however, the KEYone features the physical keyboard in continuation with the touch screen. The QWERTY, just like it was in the Priv, supports touch-gestures like scrolling and Flick Typing for predictive texting, as also 52 app shortcuts via short and long press. The space bar, meanwhile, gets a new fingerprint scanner up-top that is claimed to unlock the phone in just 0.5 seconds. It is fast and very accurate: indeed a highlight of BlackBerry’s new phone. The phone also comes with touch-based navigation keys directly above the keyboard.
The BlackBerry KEYone comes with a full blown physical QWERTY keyboard, in addition to a full blown touchscreen. But more importantly, it comes with 52 custom shortcuts to get your job done
All in all, the KEYone isn’t out to win awards for its design (and durability), simply because it isn’t eyeing the commercial market, much like any other BlackBerry phone. It isn’t paper thin. It doesn’t have an edge-to-edge screen. It isn’t water-resistant either. Because its loyalties lie elsewhere, in the corporate boardrooms to be precise.
It is smart and sophisticated in a very minimalistic sort of way, the kind that business-men (and women) would likely appreciate. They would appreciate it some more, once they hold it in their hands. It’s very utilitarian, and very re-assuring. You’d have no trouble using it (on the go) with one hand most of the time and if I were a businessman that would really mean the world to me.
The BlackBerry KEYone comes with a bright and vibrant 4.5-inch 1080p screen with an unusual 3:2 aspect ratio. Straight off the bat, the KEYone’s display — and unusual aspect ratio — is designed for web-scrolling, jotting down notes, sending out emails: you know, all the typical boardroom stuff. It isn’t designed for multimedia consumption. Everything from Netflix to YouTube to regular 1080p videos you’ve saved on your phone’s storage will appear letter-boxed. Games and apps work fine though.
The 4.5-inch 1080p IPS display of the KEYone may not inspire the same level of confidence, on paper, as the high-end Priv but don’t let the numbers fool you. The KEYone has a fantastic display for its price. The phone has just the right amount of brightness and adaptive brightness works as it should. When coupled with the phone’s excellent viewing angles and non-reflective nature, the KEYone gives you a display that doesn’t leave you asking for more in bright and sunny environment.
Colours are more neutral and less eye-popping (as opposed to the Priv), but at least, they are more accurate. There’s also a settings toggle to manually control colour temperature, so that’s nice. If only, the KEYone also had an in-built reading mode, it would have been the complete package.
The USP of a BlackBerry has always been the software. But times, they are a changing. BB OS is gone, and moving on Android will be the de facto software that you’ll find in all BlackBerry-branded phones. The KEYone, as a result, ships with Android 7.1.1 Nougat and a near stock version at that. The extra apps (and features) that BlackBerry has incorporated in the phone are all directed towards enhancing the security and productivity of the device. I don’t see why anybody would mind that. Of these, the relevance of the former will depend on how you perceive your smartphone.
Just like the Priv, the DTEK50 and the DTEK60, the KEYone is also being pitched as the most secure Android smartphone in the world. BlackBerry claims that the KEYone will receive security patches the same day that Google pushes them out.
The phone has “device security built in from the start,” according to the company which, in all its fairness, sounds very reassuring. But chances are, many wouldn’t know (and understand) terms like hardware root of trust or secure bootloader, unless of course you’re a geek or a security professional. Also, the fact that the phone is literally encrypted to the T is hard to tell with a naked eye.
But then, there are also a few security aspects that you can monitor and control. The phone comes with an app called DTEK by BlackBerry that shows your device security status in real time. It doesn’t exactly seem like the gold standard though, as most of the time, setting up a mere screen lock entails in a ‘fair’ rating for the smartphone. Personally, I am yet to see the rating for my review unit fall below alarming levels. Perhaps, I haven’t been living on the edge. But, that doesn’t mean, the DTEK app is any less useful. The most useful aspect of the app, without a doubt, has to be in the way it allows you to manually control app permissions. It gives you even the most miniscule information about an app and also lets you to directly allow or restrict certain permissions or to uninstall the app altogether, from within the app itself.
The KEYone, because its software is so heavily inclined towards productivity, also has the potential of becoming a true workhorse, especially, for the business-oriented. The phone comes with productivity tools like the BlackBerry Hub, pop-up widgets, a productivity tab and support for up to 52 keyboard shortcuts.
The BlackBerry Hub is a unified inbox that integrates notifications from apps like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, et al, as well as from calendar events and phone calls. Moreover, the Hub also allows you to interact directly with these apps without having you to open them separately. Pop-up widgets, meanwhile, let you interact with certain specific app widgets directly from the home screen and without having you to open them separately. The productivity tab, on the other hand, gives you quick access to items by swiping from the right.
BlackBerry may not be looking to play the nostalgia card, but, there’s no denying the fact that the KEYone is a very nostalgic phone
Most importantly, BlackBerry has been able to well optimise the software with the hardware hand so everything runs like a breeze on-board the KEYone. And the physical keyboard, once you get used to it, could be a force to reckon with. It’s not just because typing on an actual keyboard comes as second nature to us, but, because the physical keyboard on-board the KEYone is more than just about typing text. The fact that you can use it as a track-pad while you’re brisking through a web-page is something only the KEYone can offer at this point of time. The fact that you can literally program every key on it to do stuff quickly and conveniently is something only the KEYone can offer at this point of time. And since the time I’ve used Flick Typing, well, my life hasn’t been the same again.
Performance and battery life
The BlackBerry KEYone is powered by a 2GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor clubbed with Adreno 506 GPU and 4GB of RAM. The phone comes with 64GB of internal storage which is further expandable by up to 2TB via a micro-SD card slot.
A simple Google search will tell you that the Snapdragon 625 is the first 600-series chipset to be built on the power-efficient 14nm finfet process. The technology essentially allows a processor — the Snapdragon 625 in this case — with multiple cores to hit higher clock speeds without overheating and draining the battery quickly. The Snapdragon 625, for your reference, consumes up to 35 per cent lower power than its predecessor (the Snapdragon 617), in typical usage scenarios, according to Qualcomm.
In layman’s terms, you’re more likely to get (much) better battery life and little (or no) overheating in phones powered by a chipset on the lines of the Snapdragon 625. In layman’s terms, a phone like the KEYone is more likely to give you a (much) better battery life and little (or no) overheating than phones like the DTEK50 (Snapdragon 617).
And it does.
But while the DTEK50 was a phone that cost around Rs 20,000 the KEYone has been launched for Rs 40,000. That’s enough to turn off many buyers from buying it, and instead spend their money on more powerful flagships from the likes of Google, Samsung, Apple and LG. The KEYone just can’t beat them. But then BlackBerry isn’t looking to kill anybody with the KEYone. For BlackBerry, the KEYone is a niche phone for people — corporates — who would rather prefer reliability, thermal efficiency and long-lasting battery life than sheer raw power. The Snapdragon 625 fits just right for that select group. In fact, it’s been a legend as far as thermal efficiency and long-lasting battery life is concerned. When clubbed with the reliability of BlackBerry’s well optimised software, the KEYone, is without a doubt a force to reckon with for its intended audience. Just don’t expect the moon from it, and it should do just fine.
Basic tasks are handled well. So is multitasking. It is only when you have multiple Chrome tabs and hard hitting apps all opened at once and you’re trying to juggle between them, that it shows signs of distress. Which is quite understandable. If you’re looking for more fire-power well it’s better you look elsewhere.
The KEYone comes with a pair of stereo speakers that work surprisingly well, although, peak volume levels could have been a little higher. Phone calls made with the phone are of excellent quality and I did not witness any odd call drops issues, beyond the usual, on my review unit.The 3,505 mAh battery inside the KEYone is another USP of BlackBerry’s new phone. Mixed usage which included an hour of video playback, half an hour of GPU-intensive gaming, 45 minutes of basic games, phone calls (to the tune of one hour), some music streaming and YouTube playback along with some web browsing gave me close to 14 hours on the device. A more generalised usage should see most users sail through one to one and a half days effortlessly.
Another highlight of BlackBerry’s new phone is Boost charging which can be considered as Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 on steroids. Every time you plug in a charger — any fast charger — you get two options: regular charge and booster charge. Charging the phone over boost mode automatically switches the phone into battery saving mode cutting off unnecessary apps so it charges all the more faster. If only they KEYone also had wireless charging.
The KEYone comes with a 12-megapixel camera — with a Sony IMX378 sensor — on the rear with f/2.0 “Large Pixel” similar to the one on-board the Google Pixel. The rear camera can record 4K videos. It may not be as good as the Pixel, but, the KEYone is definitely the best camera phone that BlackBerry has ever made.
Of course, Optical Image Stabilisation (even EIS for videos) would have been welcome additions, but, overall the KEYone seems a fairly capable camera phone on paper. It is a fairly capable camera phone in real world usage as well, at least, for the most part.
In good light and when shooting still objects – and also while doing macros or close-up shots — the KEYone works well with occasional bouts of overexposure, but overall it paints a pretty picture. Photos shot in tricky light come out quite decent as well. Low light photos have noise. This is the only area where rival flagship phones take the better of it, and leave you asking for more.
On the front, the KEYone comes with an 8-megapixel camera with f/2.2 aperture. The front camera is capable of shooting good selfies in good light with plenty of detail and mostly accurate colours.
Should you buy it?
Just like the Priv, the DTEK50 and the DTEK60, the KEYone has its software in place. It comes with decent hardware as well, and the physical QWERTY is a useful addition, the usefulness of which would depend on the end-user. Then, there’s the nostalgia. “I think that the whole nostalgia thing is very interesting. I only put a small amount of importance to that. I think people remember BlackBerry and they like the memory. I think that a lot of people like the physical keyboard. But I think as new people also get to understand the value of the physical keyboard: how fast you can be on it, and how accurate, I think you will start seeing this move way past just old BlackBerry users,” a spokesperson said to me not long ago.
BlackBerry may not be looking to play the nostalgia card, but, there’s no denying the fact that the KEYone is a very nostalgic phone. Because it was under development during the time when BlackBerry was still alive and kicking in the hardware space, chances are that it might just be the last of its kind. Chances are there may not be another old-school BlackBerry with a physical QWERTY ever. Even if there is, it’s highly unlikely that it would recreate the same magic and the same nostalgia. The KEYone barely does that after all.
The KEYone is still first and foremost an enterprise-only phone and the keyboard just adds a third dimension to the whole thing. BlackBerry is even pitching it that way, and the fact that it lives up to its reputation – of classic BlackBerry reliability and productivity – should attract consumers at the end of the day. For everybody else, there are definitely better options at around Rs 40,000 that offer more value for money. Not to mention, more power and better cameras.
As for the KEYone — that is priced at Rs 39,990 — well, it would still largely be a collector’s edition device – for a larger chunk of the audience — that you would want to buy if you have not crossed paths with the yesteryear classics like the Bold and the Curve.
- Good stuff
- Ergonomic design
- Physical QWERTY
- Good battery life
- Bad stuff
- 3:2 screen aspect ratio
- Cameras could be better
- Not powerful enough