PRODUCT OF THE MONTH BlackBerry KEYone
There’s much here for BlackBerry addicts to like, but little to sway anyone who was never addicted to a physical keyboard in the first place
Don’t worry, you haven’t accidentally fallen into an early 2000s timewarp: this is indeed a new BlackBerry phone, complete with keyboard. There are other echoes from the past as well, with the promise of ultra-tight security and a single app to handle all your messaging needs, whether that’s responding to someone on Facebook, replying to a text or channelling your fury into a 1,000-word email. Whether even hardened BlackBerry addicts will be happy to swallow the price is another matter.
SCORE ✪✪✪✪✪ PRICE £416 (£499 inc VAT) from pcpro.link/274bb1
In a world of bland, lookalike phones, the BlackBerry KEYone offers something different. With a 35-key Qwerty keyboard and several security features lying beneath the surface, it plays to both of BlackBerry’s traditional strengths.
A couple of things have changed. For one, this machine isn’t actually made by BlackBerry but by TCL Communications – BlackBerry pulled out of the device-making game last year, instead licensing its name to manufacturers. The second is that the KEYone uses Android 7.1, rather than a proprietary OS.
The security keys
Naturally, this isn’t raw Android but a heavily modified version. For once, though, that isn’t a bad thing. BlackBerry still makes the software and it knows what its customers want: water-tight security combined with simple, easy messaging.
And, if you’re willing to work the BlackBerry way, it succeeds. The BlackBerry Hub centralises all the
ways people can communicate with you, sweeping Twitter notifications, work email, home email, text messages and pretty much anything else you can think of into one area. It does mean you need to silence all the standalone apps, or you get annoying duplicates, but it works.
Likewise, the Calendar app sucks in all the feeds from, say, Outlook and Google Calendar into one view.
Then there’s security. DTEK by BlackBerry is an app that will give you an instant indication of how secure your phone is, and backs that up with useful tips on how to make your phone more secure still.
There are other familiar BlackBerry features: a verified boot checks for any unsolicited changes to the OS, with hardware tampering also monitored, while BlackBerry promises a speedy rollout of any Android security updates. Data encryption is on by default, too.
Back in the day, a physical Qwerty keyboard was so much faster than the predictive-text alternative. Now, with Swype-like technology built into every soft keyboard, that advantage isn’t so clear. Even after using the keyboard for two weeks, I felt I was typing slower with the KEYone than I was with an Android keyboard.
So I put this to the test. I timed myself writing ten sentences on my Nexus and then on the KEYone. The result was clear: it took 4mins 10secs on the Nexus and 5mins 2secs on the KEYone. Clearly, this isn’t a scientific test, but it does emphasise the advances made by soft keyboards over the past decade.
And note this was despite using all the nice advantages of the KEYone. For instance, after typing “to” the words “tomorrow”, “today” and “too” appear above the shortcut keys: swiping up on the keyboard towards the one you want selects it. This function works particularly well for longer words.
What slows you down are things such as numbers and capitals. For numbers, you must press the “alt” key and then, say, “w” for “1”. Likewise, unless you’re starting a new sentence or it’s obviously a proper noun, you must remember to press the shift key first. I also think TCL has missed a trick by not making the Enter key bigger; as things stand, you must search it out to make sure you hit it and not the backspace key.
One nice touch, and something no-one else can imitate, is the ability to add shortcuts to keys. I assigned “z” to Scrabble, which meant pressing it for over a second launched the one true word game. ( Words with
Friends? Pah.) There’s also a “convenience key” sitting below the volume controls on the right-hand side, which again you can set to be a shortcut key or set a specific function in particular apps (such as take a photo). I’m not a fan, simply because it’s easy to press by accident – I would rather this was the power button, which instead sits on the left-hand side.
Another potential timesaver is that you can swipe the keyboard up and down while browsing, which does start to feel quite natural in use. Using the fingerprint reader built into the spacebar also becomes second nature after a while. It’s a highly effective fingerprint reader too, proving to be both quick and reliable.
The inevitable side effect of adding a keyboard to a standard-sized phone is that it steals space from the screen. In this case, you get a 4.5in IPS display with the usual 1,080 pixels across but only 1,620 pixels from top to bottom.
It does feel squashed when you’re used to a taller screen, which can be annoying; because you can only read so many words on the screen at any one time, reading a web article involves more scrolling than with a “normal” phone.
The other downside is when watching videos. Rotate to landscape position and the image is squatter than normal, with black bars appearing at the top and bottom. Again, when you’re used to viewing videos on a full 5.5in screen, this feels like a step backwards.
In terms of figures, the KEYone’s screen holds up well. We measured brightness at 497cd/m2, and even on a sunny day the screen is easy to read outside. What’s more, it covers 96.5% of the sRGB colour gamut, and with 1,080 x 1,620 pixels packed into that 4.5in diagonal, its pixel density works out at a high 433ppi. This is a sharp, bright, colour-accurate screen. My only reservation is that its viewing angles drop off notably compared to rival top-end phones, meaning you have to keep the screen facing straight towards you.
The audio is also compromised because of a single downward firing speaker at the bottom of the phone. It’s loud, so if you’re using the KEYone for audio conferencing you should be happy, but other phones do this better. At least there’s a 3.5mm jack for headphones, and it’s sensibly placed at the top of the phone.
Yet another “blast from the past” is the design. We’re all so used to ultra-sleek designs that the 9.4mm depth of the KEYone, along with a curious mix of rounded corners at the bottom but square edges at the top, makes it feel retro. This feeling is only enhanced by the faux black leather on the phone’s rear. Tastes will differ, but I grew to like this: it feels comfortable in the hand.
Personally, I didn’t mind the extra weight and girth either. It’s now rare for a phone to be approaching 10mm thick, but in return you’re getting a 3,505mAh battery (the standard is now around 3,000mAh), which proved more than enough to get me through a full day’s use. Another big plus is support for Quick Charge via the USB-C connector and bundled charger: you
“Now, with Swype-like technology built into every soft keyboard, a Qwerty keyboard’s advantage isn’t so clear”
can jump from 0% to 50% in 36 minutes, according to BlackBerry’s official measurements.
All this is good news, but the KEYone didn’t excel in our video rundown tests (Wi-Fi off, screen set to 170cd/m2). It lasted for 12hrs 23mins, which is fine but unexceptional compared to the latest phones.
The same can be said for this phone’s speed. In general, Android 7.1 speeds along, and it’s rare that you’re left waiting for something to load. Again I used my Nexus 6P as a benchmark and found that it kept pace.
Arguably, that’s not enough. If you’re buying a premium phone, you expect premium performance, but here you’re getting a mid-range chip at best. The Snapdragon 625 processor inside the KEYone has eight cores running at 2GHz, but compared to the cheaper OnePlus 3T this is a generation behind – as the graphs for Geekbench 4 and GFXBench show. My one caveat is that Blackberry appears to have blocked transmission of results to Geekbench, so those figures are best estimates based on similarly specced phones.
TCL has lavished a little more money on the camera, a 12-megapixel unit with phase-detect autofocus, a f/2.0 aperture and a dual-LED flash. Outside, in good light, it delivers shots of a similar quality to the classleading Google Pixel and Pixel XL (perhaps not a surprise, as it uses the same Sony IMX38 sensor as found in the Pixel).
Indoors in low light, however, it’s a different story. Although colours are well preserved, details take on a soft, smeary appearance and anything moving will likely end up horribly blurred. Details in darker areas are also lost in a sea of shadow. Not great, and if you try to brighten things up with the exposure compensation control, you’ll find the result is even more blur. This is a device that’s badly missing optical image stabilisation, or OIS.
This is reflected in its video performance as well: you’ll need a tripod to keep things stable, which is a shame when it can record video in 4K at 30fps. Naturally, this eats into the 32GB of storage, which is why it makes sense to take advantage of the microSD slot. This supports cards up to 2TB in size and is hot-swappable.
Should you BUYone?
The “should I buy one?” question is far easier to answer with the KEYone than with most phones: if you’re limping on with an old BlackBerry, or still hanker for physical keyboards, then this is a great upgrade. As a 2017 update of a classic design, it works well in almost every way.
The built-in security tools – especially if you invest the extra in mobile device management software – should also make this an attractive choice for businesses that handle sensitive data.
But I can’t avoid the obvious criticisms. For £499, it should have a faster processor. The physical keyboard is well implemented, but will it really make you faster at responding to messages? Especially when you’re sacrificing screen space and adding girth to squeeze it in.
I like the KEYone – and I suspect that BlackBerry devotees will grow to love it. But the vast majority of phone buyers would be better off saving around £100 and choosing the OnePlus 3T instead: it outscores the KEYone for value, battery life, performance and – probably, ironically – speed of typing. SPECIFICATIONS Octa-core 2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor 3GB RAM Adreno 506 graphics 4.5in IPS screen, 1,080 x 1,620 resolution 32GB storage microSD slot (up to 256GB) 12MP/8MP rear/front camera 802.11ac Wi-Fi Bluetooth 4.2 NFC USB-C connector 3,505mAh battery
Android 7.1 72.4 x 9.4 x 149mm (WDH) 180 1yr warranty
ABOVE The KEYone includes the same 12-megapixel sensor as in the Google Pixel BELOW The KEYone’s retro looks are only enhanced by the faux leather back 53
54 ABOVE LEFT At nigh-on a centimetre thick, this phone feels bulky compared to its sleek rivals ABOVE The keyboard is – on the whole – nicely designed, with a fingerprint reader built into the spacebar