TCL-owned BlackBerry has taken a stab at the Australian market again, with the release of an upgraded ‘Black’ version of its KEYone smartphone, featuring a ‘retro’ manual QWERTY keyboard, and a suite of security features claimed to make it “the most secure smartphone on the market”.
Once the brand of choice for “politicians, celebrities, crooks and business people” BlackBerry’s latest smartphone endeavours to blend both old school and new – however, is it enough to stand out in an extremely competitive marketplace, filled with artificial intelligence, OLED screens and a suite of other increasingly available high-tech features?
Following its unveiling at IFA 2017, BlackBerry’s KEYone ‘Black’ replaced a former silver matte exterior with a new anonized black surface.
For someone who wears make up, the ‘soft matte’ back is a haven for attracting dirt and debris, often found in powder or foundation products. It displays marks much more clearly. As a remedy, users can always purchase a phone case.
Perhaps the phone’s most notable design element is its manual QWERTY keyboard. Be warned, wherever you take this device, you will attract the attention of at least one confused stranger, wondering why you’re carrying around such a retro device in a touchphone world. Taking the BlackBerry KEYone to parties was especially interesting, and definitely became a conversation piece. [P.s. My father asked me if I was having money troubles, and had traded in my old phone].
Each letter of the QWERTY keyboard is programmable for a selected shortcut – e.g. ‘f’ for Facebook – which is convenient in theory, but an effort to instil as a habit, given an ingrained instinct to touch an app on the Home screen.
The keyboard’s spacebar also doubles as a fingerprint scanner, however, does experience noticeably more lag than the Motorola X4 or the Huawei P10.
The new KEYone Black features a 4.5 inch display screen with Corning® Gorilla® Glass 4, and is notably more compact and thinner than its predecessor. While the ‘Black’ is less weighty than the former model, the device is still notably thicker and heavier than other rival smartphones.
Specifications & Usability
In addition to the colour change, another revamp from the former KEYone is an increase in RAM – from 3GB to 4GB – plus a jump in storage – from 32GB to 64GB. Both devices offer microSD support for up to 2TB.
The KEYone Black utilises a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 chipset, a 2GHz Octa Core 64Bit Processor and runs on Android 7.1.
Concerning the device’s security-conscious claims, BlackBerry states the KEYone Black boasts a suite of added safety functions in its software, in addition to the DTEK app which offers control of apps which access a user’s personal data.
As a rather privacy-conscious individual I was eager to gauge the impact of the security settings throughout daily life. All in all, the DTEK app looks and functions notably similar to other high-tech security software offerings a user can purchase, and download to their phone, from the web. Whilst I’m not disputing the power of DTEK and BlackBerry’s security-conscious software, from a psychological point of view, I could not feel an overall difference, or one enough to stand out.
Regarding performance power, the KEYone packs a decent punch. I experienced no ‘freezes’ or lags, no matter how many applications I ran concurrently. Naturally, this isn’t a gaming focused phone, however, the phone was able to run moderately intensive games satisfactorily.
As a business-orientated smartphone, the KEYone does offer a logical interface catered to the modern professional. Receiving emails was almost instantaneous and in-line with my computer, whilst amalgamation to BlackBerry Hub was clear and functional. Users can access their personal and business email accounts through separate icons on the home screen, or alongside text messages and other notifications in BlackBerry Hub.
BlackBerry’s in-built Calendar app does leave much to be desired – it’s ‘monthly’ view is far less detailed than others. Users can either swap to an Android calendar or download a third-party app. What I did appreciate, however, is the ability to swipe the home screen to the far ‘right’, which easily displays upcoming appointments.
All in all, it really isn’t enough to set the BlackBerry KEYone Black apart – if anything the same features are easy to replicate on any Samsung, Huawei or other modern day smartphones. It raises the question of what exactly the KEYone Black’s unique selling points are, if the same level of business-orientation can easily be replicated on other more high-tech smartphones, simply by downloading and positioning the right apps.
Concerning easy of use, a major drawback of the smartphone concerns the use of the manual QWERTY keyboard. As an avid SwiftKey user (available on most Android smartphones) transitioning to the manual keyboard was both arduous and time intensive. Using the manual keyboard, I craved a touchpad for efficiency and speed. Typing lengthy emails and longer documents seemed too much of a laborious task – compared to a touch keypad – which is rather redundant for a business-orientated smartphone.
The KEYone Black does have the functionality to generate a touchscreen keypad, however, once popped up, the phone’s 4.5″ portrait screen is cut in half, which is a signifcant con.
Inputting emojis – be it on social media or WhatsApp – requires generating the touchscreen keypad, which not only reduces the viewable screen size, but also requires a few extra clicks[and extra time] not needed for touchscreen keypads. It seems this is not a smartphone conducive to social media.
Even with touch navigation embedded in the manual keypad, plus predictive text, I was still bemused at how much longer it took to type out messages/emails.
If you’re a user who has previously had a BlackBerry device and is well used to the manual keypad, or simply craves a nostalgic kick, this may be an appealing offering for you. However, if you’re thinking of transitioning from another mainstream smartphone brand, be warned, there will be a learning curve, so allow time for adjustment [and potential irritation].
The KEYone Black claims to boast the “largest battery ever found in a BlackBerry”, offering more than “all-day use” from its 3505mAH battery. Utilising Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, the Black is said to provide up to 50% charge after about 36 minutes.
Through my trial I found these claims to be largely substantiated. If I was performing rather basic tasks, I could get close to two days use. On average, about a day and a half.
Camera & Display
Compared to other rival offerings, here’s where the KEYone Black falls short.
The device features a 12MP rear camera, said to offer a wide aperture lens, and a 8MP front camera, with LCD flash and an 84-degree wide angle lens.
The camera performs well, but isn’t outstanding, especially when compared to the likes of recent Samsung Galaxy smartphones, or even the mid-range Motorola X4.
I found the camera had a slower shutter speed compared to other offerings, and was more prone to blurry images.
Videos were also prone to shaky recordings.
There’s also hardly any embedded photo editing tools, which means once again, the KEYone is not very conducive to social media. Whilst a user can download such apps from Google Play, the amount of effort required to ‘post on the go’ does put the KEYone Black at a comparative disadvantage compared to the likes of LG, Motorola and Huawei, who are much more switched on in this regard.
The Black’s 4.5-inch display screen is also not as crisp nor as vibrant as other similar priced smartphones. Watching YouTube videos was not an outstanding experience, given the lack of comparative sharpness and vibrancy.
The display screen’s 1620 x 1080 resolution did ensure text and icons looked sharp, however, darker tones do not display as rich as on AMOLED phone screens.
The screen’s 3:2 aspect ratio is also somewhat cumbersome when running video apps, with viewing angles also not as wide as on other rival devices.
All in all, good, but not great.
All in all, the BlackBerry KEYone Black stands out as a new and upgraded BlackBerry smartphone, set to strike a chord of nostalgia from the hordes of consumers who once prized the brand’s devices. However priced at A$899, compared to other similarly priced smartphones on the market, the device doesn’t present itself as a standout contender.
Yes, the KEYone Black claims to be a highly secure and business-orientated smartphone, however, the device’s unique selling points are questioned when aspects of such functionality can be added to more high-tech devices, at a similar [or marginally additional] overall cost.
The manual QWERTY keyboard serves as a nostalgic treat, but is more of a hassle for anyone used to the efficiency of a touchscreen keyboard. If you’re craving the ‘old school’ touch of something manual, this ‘retro’ feature is set to appeal, however, be warned you will have to add a few more minutes to every typing task.
The KEYone Black is undeniably a business-orientated smartphone, however, its lack of conduciveness to social media – such as typing emojis or delivering high quality easily Instagrammable photos – positions it behind other rival offerings. In today’s modern day world, many business personnel interact heavily on social media, and BlackBerry could have catered their design to this a bit more.
The device’s display screen and aspect ratio provide a less pleasurable video viewing experience – a notable disadvantage as video streaming on smartphones continues to soar.
Overall, the KEYone Black is set to appeal to those who once owned and loved a BlackBerry device. For the rest of the market, however, it’s unlikely to entice them away from more ‘modern day’ offerings from the likes of Samsung, Apple and Huawei.
(The BlackBerry KEYone Black is available to purchase outright from JB HiFi for $899)