These days, it’s rare to see a fresh new entrant launch themselves into the smartphone market. It’s rarer still to find one that sets its sights on the higher-end of things rather than starting somewhere more humble. Of course, the KEYOne isn’t quite a new brand. Rather, it’s the first foray from a rejuvenated BlackBerry – now manufacturing and designing phones through third party TCL.
The KEYOne attempts to mold together everything that worked about BlackBerry in its prime with all the power and versatility offered by the modern Android experience. After spending a few weeks with the handset, we’d say it mostly hits the mark – even though that recommendation does come with some important caveats. In short: it’s more-or-less what many expect a new BlackBerry to be. It’s solid and powerful but probably unlikely to be the right fit for everyone.
As previously mentioned, the KEYOne is intended to blend together classic BlackBerry with modern Android – and this idea is never more clearly realized than through the phone’s design. A camera and speakphone bookend one end of the KEYOne’s aluminum frame, with an old-school keyboard filling out the other. It’s got a heft and solidity that makes other smartphones feel flimsy and fragile by comparison. This “professional” feel is further (and physically) emboldened by the textured grip on the backside of the device.
The devices’ IPS LCD display itself is only 4.5-inches. However, it’s coated in Gorilla Glass 4 and boasts 24-bit color depth. Overall, I found this aspect of the device surprisingly robust but notably short of what other brands have packed into their flagships. There’s even a customizable trigger button on the right side of the device which can be configured to rapidly access any app of choice.
Likewise, the keyboard itself is also a little bit of a mixed bag. The experience is not quite on-par with a fully-blown keyboard but it does change up the equation in some significant ways. Obviously your mileage might vary but I found the keys slightly too small for my hands, which often resulted in typos (particularly when punctuation and/or a rapid use of the ALT key was involved). That said, the keyboard does incorporate its own touch and fingerprint sensor – which proved themselves really useful additions. You could log in within seconds by placing your thumb on the spacebar and flick-and-scroll through articles, websites and apps by moving your finger up or down the keyboard.
These design elements often coalesce well together with the software side of things. The KEYOne runs on Android 7.1 and, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 Octa-Core, that proves itself more than enough grunt to deliver a solid version of that experience. Like the handset’s aesthetics, it comes accompanied with a suite of classic BlackBerry features and functions – from the notification-aggregating BlackBerry Hub to the company’s own calendar and messenger apps. Essentially, everything old is new again. The last piece of the software puzzle comes in the form of the pre-loaded DTEK app, which promises to add an unprecedented level of security to your phone experience.
The KEYOne features a 3505mAh battery and a USB-C port for charging. TCL have talked up the KEYOne’s as close to 26 hours of mixed-use. In our time with it, we found it often delivered closer to only 20 hours. Still, that’s pretty considerable. More oft-than-not, the KEYOne was able to go the distance during a work day.
These strengths do a price, however. The KEYOne’s camera is supported by some great software but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really compete on image quality. On this front, it can’t really compete with similarly priced devices from Huawei, Oppo or HTC.The KEYOne’s rear shooter packs a 12-megapixel Sony IMX378 sensor. All told, the results (even in a picturesque Tokyo-setting) didn’t really blow us away.
The front-facing actually fared a little better, offering up 8-megapixel quality images with fixed-focus and an 84-degree field of view. Overall, the photography side of things stands out as an area where future iterations of this device could improve on things. However, at the same time, it’s worth noting that a high-end camera isn’t necessarily going to be as important for the kind of customers that TCL and Blackberry are trying to court with the KEYOne.
The value of KEYOne feels like it’s ultimately going to depend on what you’re looking for. It’s not going to be the be-all-end-all smartphone for everyone. However, for the right-kind of user looking for a smartphone as professional as they are, it’s a solid new addition to the high-end of the market well worth considering. It feels like an enterprise-level device, packed with everything you’d expect that entails.
The BlackBerry KEYone will be available for pre-order starting mid-June from JB HiFi at an RRP of $899.