BlackBerry Hardware, Google Android Software – A perfect marriage?
I would not be surprised if some reading the title of this post simply yawned and thought about moving on. BlackBerry, for many, is a name of yesteryear and not up to speed with the likes of Samsung and Apple.
To be brutally honest you would not be alone in this thinking and in part I agree, but….(yes there is a but) you need to consider the Priv for what it is, who it appeals to and understand that actually BlackBerry are not as down and out as you may think.
I will hold my hands up and say that for some time the Priv has been on my radar as a personal purchase and not for a long time have I felt so passionate about switching, so there may well be some bias in this review.
There are some surprises in just what the Canadian firm offer.
The Priv has all it needs to be a perfectly functional handset, but it does not have features like wireless charging and USB Type C connectivity that accelerate it to be up there with the best of the future-proofed handsets.
Outside of technical circles, wireless charging is still pretty much an unknown and is certainly not demanded and USB C is just another cable in many people’s eyes to add to the pile they already have. Thus the lack of this for me, even as a more technically aware user is not a big issue.
Under the body of this phone is still a solid specification that allows this to be badged with the ‘powerhouse’ title.
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 Hexa-core processor
- 3GB RAM
- 32GB Internal Storage
- MicroSD Memory Card Slot
- 5.4” AMOLED Dual Curved Screen
- Corning Gorilla Glass 4
- 18 megapixel Camera with 4K Video Recording
- 3410mAh Battery
- 4 Row QWERTY Keyboard
Solid, sturdy and premium are what come to mind when handling the Priv.
At 192g the Priv is not a lightweight and at 147 (184 opened) x 77.2 x 9.4mm it is not all that small either.
Particularly noticeable for me as my previous daily phone was the Z3 Compact which is small in comparison, but if you are used to a big screen, the Priv will feel similar in hand.
The display is silky smooth to run your fingers over and the back panel at first almost feels tacky to the touch, but it is just super grippy and really helps avoid the phone sliding out your hand.
Looking at the handset face on the 5.4” display dominates with a large single speaker sat just below the screen. There is a slim but obvious bezel to the screen that sits between the screen and speaker and it is from here that you push up to access the keyboard.
At the top of the screen is the earpiece and BlackBerry logo with the notification light and front facing camera in the top right corner.
The right edge is home to the volume up, mute key and volume down key, just above centre.
On the bottom edge of the phone is the microUSB jack centrally located and the headphone jack in the bottom right corner. Perfect placement in my opinion for when sliding a phone into a trouser pocket when headphones are connected.
The left side of the phone has the power button, the top a microphone SIM and MicroSD card slot.
Embossed in the centre of the rear cover is the BlackBerry emblem. Above this is the camera and dual LED flash.
There is a slight bit of give in the back panel, but in my opinion not as big an issue as some others have made it out to be.
The sliding mechanism is solid and smooth and upon sliding up to open, or down to close there is a satisfying clunk. Try as I may, there is no play in the screen. The sliding mechanism is tight and I believe more than capable of withstanding use for a long time.
At 5.4 inches this is verging on the larger side of what most people are comfortable using.
When you do begin using it though, you really appreciate the screen size and the quality.
At a resolution of 2560×1440, it sports an incredible pixel density of 540 pixels per inch. That’s 4x the amount of pixels of a standard HDTV. Images are crisp and bright and well balanced with helped by the OLED display technology.
I generally find myself using the screen at 40-50% brightness as it is so vivid and bright.
A nice touch is the ability to be able to change the white balance and colour saturation of the screen to your taste.
Being so large I personally was a bit concerned that I would end up putting it in harm’s way, but thankfully the inclusion of Corning Gorilla Glass 4 means the likelihood of scratches occurring are slim.
As I write this, whilst a few fingerprints are visible there is not one mark on the display and the phone has been properly ‘used’.
The curved edges make the device look and feel more premium. They do not serve a great deal of purpose for me. I have certainly not found them to be a hinderance.
When in use, there is an optional productivity tab that hides in the edge screen that you can flick out to get quick access to tasks, calendar appointments and emails. It is really quite handy, ideal for a glance at what is going on. Just need to get in the habit of using it.
Maybe a little sad, I think the best bit about the edge screen is the charging status that shows up the edge when plugged in. Changing from Red, to Yellow to Green depending on the battery condition. A percentage battery power is shown, as is the time remaining until the battery will be fully charged.
I think it is worth noting, that if you are like me and likely to find the power button on the left side of this large device a bit awkward to get to when in the hand, you can enable double tap to wake on the screen, but you cannot double tap to turn the screen off.
Mention the name ‘BlackBerry’ to anyone on the street and their initial thought would either be something along the lines of fruit or a handheld email device with a keyboard.
The point I am trying to make is that BlackBerry are known for keyboard based devices and whilst they have all touchscreen products the keyboard still reigns supreme.
The physical keyboard appears from under the display as you push it up. It is wonderfully hidden and many I have shown this too are amazed at how it all fits together.
Small it is, BlackBerry Classic key sized it is not, and is miles off the key size of the Passport, but it is functional.
I am blessed with small fingers but initially I struggled. Several weeks later I am getting the hang of it and loving the feel the keyboard gives.
Even if it takes longer to type out what I need, the experience is more enjoyable and I tend to make less mistakes, getting to the point where almost I could write something without looking at the screen.
The keys have a relatively small amount of travel but enough to know the key has been pressed. They are firm, not all spongy and lacking responsiveness. I feel the ‘alt’ and ‘shift/caps’ key are the wrong way round but that is just my opinion.
As you type on the keyboard, at the bottom of the display, predicted words will come up and a simple flick up on the keyboard will select the word predicted.
It is backlit and makes for typing in low light simple.
The physical keyboard does also offer one or two things extra.
Firstly, press briefly or press and hold on any key and you can set customisable shortcuts.
Want your email to launch when you press the letter ‘E’ no problem. ‘I’ for Instagram, consider it done.
Your home screen may well be setup with app shortcuts but how simple is this as just another option.
Secondly, the keyboard doubles up as a trackpad with touch sensitive controls for fine cursor control. This works in a number of ways. Use it to scroll up and down and around long web pages or documents with ease, no need to touch the screen. Scroll through news or social media streams, it just takes out some of that effort.
Then there is the really fine control you get when entering and managing text. Swipe across the keyboard from right to left to delete previously entered words one word at a time. Double tap the keypad and then slide left, right, up or down to move character by character. You can use this in conjunction with the shift key to highlight text even. This intricate control is fab when dealing with long pieces of text.
There is an on-screen keyboard and you can use this if you like, in fact you have to if the device is closed or in landscape orientation. Thus if you prefer on screen typing you can do this and the word prediction software built into it is very good to.
Begin typing words and the device will learn and present the word it thinks you want above the letter you are entering. A simple flick up allows you to select that word and very soon you can be entering long words with minimal key presses.
In its own right the onscreen keyboard could compete with that of Google’s, Swiftkey and more and it shows to me how BlackBerry even on an all touchscreen experience have focused on what they are known well for, keyboards.
If you were not aware the Priv is the first BlackBerry to run Google’s Android operating system.
I won’t get into the discussion (that often leads to debate) as to why and if this is the best choice for BlackBerry, but personally I think this is a good move.
Why? Well I am sold into the Android/Google ecosystem and this is the only device to offer this and a physical keyboard, so this is a massive plus for me.
Android has been rapidly developed and grown in capability and reach over the last few years.
BlackBerry have acknowledged this and ultimately they are about operating a profitable business and the Priv allows them to explore another possible route to achieve this.
Version 5.1.1 is installed on the device and whilst this is not the very new Android 6 (Marshmallow) this is not a necessity in my opinion; the device still does all it needs to generally speaking very well.
The OS is installed on the 32GB of internal memory leaving about 24GB available from the moment you begin using the device. The microSD memory card slot does support cards up to 2TB technically but 200GB is the largest available card at this time.
3GB of RAM is available in the Priv and 90% of the time the Priv handles tasks well. But, it can at times lag for up to 5 seconds. This should not be happening. I am confident it will be fixed in future updates but at times it lacks the premium feel.
It is worth noting that under intense use, on first setup, and when charging and using the Priv for navigation, the back of the phone does get hot. Not too hot to touch, but warmer than probably most would think normal.
If you are not too familiar with Android, it is a mobile platform that gives you functionality and productivity on the go. Google backed, the OS offers and application store with hundreds of thousands of apps, the ability to integrate email accounts, social media profiles and much more.
From making phone calls, to making documents on the go, to sharing your story with the world via social media, Android and the Priv allow just this. You can even have multiple user accounts.
The Priv is not weighed down by lots of BlackBerry customisation, but there is some and in my opinion what customisation there is, is not all that bad.
BlackBerry’s own launcher gives you quite some flexibility. From changing wallpapers to changing the order in which apps show. Begin typing and the device will start searching for a relevant result. Press and drag up from the home key and you can go to Google now, BlackBerry Hub or search; or indeed select your own shortcuts.
On the subject of shortcuts I mentioned earlier how the physical keyboard offers shortcuts, but there are shortcuts in the software too. These are in the app draw under shortcuts, but you can add these to your home screen to make life a lot easier.
From composing an email, to adding a contact or calendar appointment to starting a timer, there are loads of useful additions that make this device more powerful.
Let me quickly cover some of the other key software features.
The BlackBerry Hub brings all of your communications into one place so you can view and respond to all your messages from a single app.
Whether it is social media, email, text messages, calendar appointments, or phone calls, the BlackBerry Hub allows you to see and prioritise all your messages at a glance; so you never miss a message.
A nice feature the hub is, that has been brought over from BlackBerry 10. I do find it a bit overwhelming at times and often prefer to navigate into different apps at my own accord. There are some shortcomings like a lack of Whatsapp integration, but that is coming.
DTEK by BlackBerry
Whether it’s your financial reports or contacts or emails, your data is encrypted on Priv. Extra steps are taken at both a hardware and software level to authenticate Android in order to help protect you from malware and any unauthorised attempts to tamper with the OS.
DTEK is an app that acts as a dashboard to monitor and control application access to your microphone, camera, location and personal information. It provides a security rating for your device and suggests how to improve it.
Another nice idea, that lacks execution and massive purpose presently, but will prove more powerful when Android 6 rolls out to the device in the future. Android 6 should bring more control over what apps can access and do on your phone and this will provide an intuitive control panel for such.
Presently, having no pin or password on the phone will downgrade your rating and suggest you improve this as it poses a risk.
BlackBerry Pop-Up Widgets and Notifications
You can view any application widget by simply swiping up or down across the icon on your home screen, giving you fast access to the information you need, when you need it.
I like the idea but have not yet changed my working habits to make full use of this and I think the same will be said of many other existing Android users.
BlackBerry Productivity Suite
The pre-installed calendar application allows for control and more productivity on the go. When it’s time to join a conference call, the BlackBerry Calendar will present you with a simple ‘Join Now’ button that automatically dials you in. When receiving or creating meeting invites, you are presented with adjacent or conflicting appointments. In BlackBerry Hub, you can peek at your agenda with a simple swipe.
On top of this other enhancements include advanced interactions such as flip to mute, flip to save power and hold to stay awake.
Whilst some lag has been present and apps like DTEK are not quite as useful as they first seem I find it hard to criticise the Priv too much when it comes to software.
I personally need nothing more from the Priv when it comes to connectivity.
Bluetooth, WiFi, 4G, NFC is all present, as is GPS.
The microUSB port is used for charging and connectivity to a computer and this same port supports USB hosting (USB OTG) and video out with a SlimPort adapter.
This is really handy when travelling or wanting to share content on the big screen. Carry only a small cable adapter and share the Priv screen with that of a larger display.
As I mentioned earlier USB type C would have been a nice addition, but you like I probably have a plethora of microUSB cables about the place and I know which way around the cables go so it is not a big issue.
The single speaker on the front for me has been quite impressive.
Generally I do tend to stream audio to my car or home audio setup, so it is the odd video or sound clip that I listen to from the internal speaker. Or if on foot connect up headphones.
I have been impressed with the sound and the clarity overall. No it is not perfect, it is not HTC M9 Boomsound quality but few are.
The width of the speaker channel helps with volume and clarity when listening to it.
I think it is fair to say it is better than the Z3 Compact albeit not stereo.
The Priv by BlackBerry camera is engineered to deliver professional looking photos with minimal effort. With an 18 MP dual-flash camera, certified by Schneider-Kreuznach, it integrates technologies commonly found in professional DSLR cameras.
This all sounds lovely but to date the results have been somewhat mixed.
By no means are the shots really poor, but I certainly do not feel they are as good as they should be given the hardware. The good news is that improvements are coming in software updates.
Generally speaking well lit shots, typically outdoors were good in terms of colour and detail but low light, even with the flash became very noisy and not really up to the standard they should be.
Whilst there is a benefit to rich saturated colours the Priv offers in my opinion a more natural colour profile to the shot that can be tweaked more to your liking post capture if you wish to add a bit of vibrancy.
HDR is available and worth using at times if you do not select the ‘HDR Auto’ option, it can improve photos quite considerably.
The Priv has a range of settings that you can apply as you frame the scene, including live colour filters and exposure control.
Features like Phase Detection Auto Focus, Optical Image Stablaisation (OIS), and a dual-color flash are designed to help the camera focus instantly and accurately, and capture blur-free, realistic looking photos, even in low light.
They work quite well together but the camera software is a bit slow and catching the moment might be tricky when it can take half to a full second or so for the camera to capture the shot.
Video capture at night looks a bit grainy and could be better.
I have my photos save to a memory card. Quite regularly the handset will suggest it has re-detected the card as if I had removed it and put it back in. This is quite frustrating as it is a new card and it can happen time after time or not at all for a while.
When changing the image quality, you have the option of fine or standard and not by megapixel count as most users would normally be familiar with.
Video recording can be selected at various resolutions and frame rates, but the enhanced video stabalisation can only be switched on at select resolutions, which I do not understand.
If you want granular control of the camera, then this is not really the phone for that at this time.
The 2 megapixel front facing camera seems like a token effort and is poor show in today’s 5 and 8 megapixel selfie world. But, in BlackBerry’s defence I am not sure how many Priv users are going to be taking selfies.
There is no dedicated camera key, but the volume buttons can be used.
At 3410mah the battery built into the Priv is larger than many and as such you would expect decent battery life from it.
My findings have been a bit mixed and I can’t really explain why or what has caused the deviance in battery life.
I have not run strict test, but for the first few days I was getting somewhere in the region of 5 hours of screen on time. Other days it can be less than 4 hours, but on average it is around about the 4-4.5 hours hour mark.
This is likely in part by large media consumption and if all you did was knock out emails and a bit of web browsing the life will likely be at the higher end.
I certainly have not been worried about running out of power with this device and have on lighter days gone without charging the phone overnight which seems almost dangerous when I have been used to topping up my phones in the past.
There is a battery saver mode you can turn on or have it turn on automatically at 5 or 15%. Aside from this it is just sensible management if you want to conserve power.
The Priv has sent me on a bit of an emotional roller-coaster over the last few weeks. I have been really thinking long and hard about whether this is the device for me and would I keep it.
The answer is yes.
For having so long used a touchscreen keyboard it is taking time to get back to using the physical. When I do though, nothing beats that tactile feel in my opinion and that satisfying clunk that comes from sliding open the device is incredibly satisfying.
So solidly built, the parts that need improvement in my opinion is generally software and in time these improvements will come.
All things told then how does this unique proposition stand in the crowded smartphone market?
The truth is the Priv can stand confidently on its own to feet. It is a unique and select audience that will like it and be prepared to pay for it. That same audience may well be a little more accommodating of its pitfalls.
Yes there are areas which could be improved, but my goodness I think they have done a stellar job and for a first attempt at an Android phone they could have done considerably worse.
Samsung Galaxy S6 and the iPhone will give you better all round performance and value for money but does it give you a unique device that you feel compelled to use?
With continued commitment, I think that BlackBerry do still have a future within hardware. It may well be a small market share, but it is likely to be a profitable share.