Black­Berry KEYone

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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. This writer for one is won over, as this phone is no gim­mick.


It’s no se­cret 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.

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 we’re pleased to report that this pos­i­tive feel­ing is only am­pli­fied by daily use.

Fea­tures New di­men­sions

The KEYone mea­sures 149.1x72.4x9.4mm, 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 on-screen 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 1620x1080 and 434ppi and uses Go­rilla Glass 4. Our re­view unit picked up a few sur­face scratches within the first week of use, but it feels 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 post­shut­ter soft­ware magic, but there’s plenty to like about KEYone’s au­to­matic cam­era set­tings.

Ef­fi­ciently un­der­pow­ered

TCL has made some in­ter­est­ing spec de­ci­sions, but they make sense to me. The octa-core 2GHz Snap­dragon 625 may not be cut­ting-edge high­end, 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 mi­croSD slot for ex­pan­sion up to 256GB.

Ac­cept­able nos­tal­gia

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 we 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, we 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 we’re 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.


The main thing they have re­luc­tantly asked for is An­droid. The KEYone runs An­droid Nougat 7.1, and Black­Berry prom­ises reg­u­lar se­cu­rity patches. The look and feel 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 we’re in the small camp of peo­ple who al­ready liked the de­sign of the KEYone be­fore we 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, and

so on. 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 we 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, we 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 we didn’t cram loads of fre­quently used apps onto my home screen, opt­ing in­stead for key taps. I also as­signed the pro­gram­mable con­ve­nience key to De­vice Search, al­low­ing us 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. 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 (see our test shot of St. Pan­cras over­leaf). 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.

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. We didn’t use it much but that’s tes­ta­ment to how pro­duc­tive we 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.


But then, the KEYone is the best Black­Berry phone for years. It has (fi­nally) suc­cess­fully melded clas­sic Black­Berry de­sign with the nec­es­sary mix of An­droid and nos­tal­gia. Im­por­tantly, the lat­ter is only faint this time – this is a de­vice for 2017, not 2007.

If you love your iPhone or Sam­sung, you’ll hate the KEYone and won’t even con­sider buy­ing it. But if you’ve made it to the end of this re­view, chances are you’re weigh­ing up a buy. If you think you’ll love the

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