Let's talk about the word "classic." Classic can mean "timeless," as in an ageless beauty that never fades or a joke with a punchline that always hits. It can also mean "old," like the candy red '57 Chevy you'll probably never see on a modern highway. Which one describes the BlackBerry Classic? Take a guess.
What Is It?
- Processor: Dual-core 1.5GHz processor
- RAM: 2GB RAM
- Screen: 3.5-inch 720x720 screen
- Memory: 16GB
- Camera: 8-megapixel
This is it. The bastion of BlackBerry. The company that used to rule the smartphone world is now reduced to this one phone and a few quirky variants. If the Classic doesn't woo the business-minded power user or the estranged BB fan, then BlackBerry will just continue its descent into obscurity.
The Classic is BlackBerry's latest smartphone, but it's also a throwback to the BlackBerry 9900 from four years ago. It's got a 3.5-inch square screen, a hardware keyboard, and no apologies whatsoever. At $US450 off contract, it's a mid-tier smartphone that isn't really trying to vie for supremacy. It's built for die-hard CrackBerry addicts still desperately clutching their personal messaging devices.
Say what you want about BlackBerry's lackluster software, abysmal app store, or its stubborn adherence to physical keyboards, the phones always look great. Light and shadow play nicely across the familiar black-and-silver body and the thin brushed chrome frets that separate each row of keys. Which are flat rows, not curved rows, but they feel good anyways.
In all the ways that matter, the Classic's keyboard is better than the Passport — the last phone that BlackBerry released. These keys are just plain satisfying. Clicking through texts, email, and searching the Classic's directory just by typing feels amazing. The rubberised textured backing on the Classic also makes it near impossible to drop this thing, which is good because there won't be many stylish cases for this guy.
The BlackBerry Classic is mercifully easier to hold compared to the Passport, but the relatively diminutive size hides considerable bulk. Weighing in at 179g, it's actually heavier than the iPhone 6 Plus, which has a monster 5.5-inch display. I didn't notice the weight too much until I began picking up other phones after using the BlackBerry for a few days. Nothing wrong with strong wrists, I guess.
The rest of the Classic's hardware annoyances are relatively minor. The power button is frustratingly at the very top of the phone, which I hate. Also the battery isn't removable, which is forgivable but I also hate. The BlackBerry does let you upgrade your device's storage up to 128GB, which I definitely don't hate.
Really, the Classic's design has pros and cons like any other smartphone. Yes, the physical keyboard hogging up precious pixel real estate will be a killer for most, but BlackBerry's appearance has never really been the problem. It's been everything else.
So, the Classic is meant for the business users and the BlackBerry devoted, right? The company's TV spot sure suggests so:
Except for this guy, who's responding to a sext or something with that under-the-table manoeuvre. Classic, right?
Point is, this phone is meant to get. down. to. business. So I decided I was going to test it in that environment, against the biggest "business" event on my work calendar — CES. I thought it'd be wonderful to use the Classic to "stay organised and in control" of my conversations and experience "power you couldn't imagine," as BlackBerry says on its website. This is going to be great!
Except that plan lasted about five minutes flat. Because apps. Because BlackBerry still barely has them.
With BlackBerry's latest operating system BB 10.3, you get your apps two places: BlackBerry World, and the Amazon App Store. In my Passport review, I mentioned how Amazon was a great addition because it at least made BB's app offering a marginal failure compare to a gargantuan one. But when preparing for CES, these two app stores together still couldn't handle everything I needed for work. There were essentially three apps that I needed to function while walking the show floor: Twitter, Slack and GroupMe. Twitter, to keep track of what my rivals were discovering and posting. Slack, to check in with the Gizmodo Mothership back in NYC. And finally GroupMe, as a persistent way to keep tabs on the other Gizmodians running around Las Vegas.
Twitter was an easy success. Even BB World has its own Twitter app. Slack: swing and a miss. Neither app store offered the convenient, work-based chat client. Third was GroupMe, which the Amazon Appstore thankfully offered. Ok, so we're at a cool 67 per cent. But then I actually tried to open GroupMe and got this:
Oh, well. That sucks. Now, we're at about 33 per cent and no earthly amount of extra credit is going to keep you from retaking Smartphone 101. Honestly, I could have possibly made do without the other two apps, but GroupMe was essential for me to know what the entire CES team was doing. I needed the app, and I needed it to work. I ducked into an abandoned phone booth, a setting that probably held a deep, metaphorical meaning for what I was going through but I was too flustered to dwell on it. I uninstalled and reinstalled the app five or six times with the same result: "Unfortunately, GroupMe has stopped."
I hopped online hoping for some tucked-away CrackBerry forum that would deliver me from my app suffering. Scroll, scroll, scroll...eureka, there it was! "Just sideload it." Sitting in that abandoned phone booth, fifteen minutes before a meeting, I had none of the necessary gear needed to sideload the app. Even if I did, smartphone reviews are usually written from an out-of-the-box, no-assembly-required perspective. So the answer didn't really help me. I popped out the SIM card, smashed it frustratingly into my Nexus 5, and worked the next few days with a phone that could actually do what I needed it to.
Once I was back home in NY and away from the CES chaos, I was able to sideload an alternative Google Play Store called Snap onto my Classic and began downloading my fill of Google apps. But now, I had to navigate three separate app stores, two of which Snap pretty much rendered useless. I also had to entrust Snap with my Gmail login credentials — a risky manoeuvre — to bring my app experience up to date with the modern era. I would think that people who wear suits, go to fancy meetings, and text suspiciously under tables would also like to use apps like GroupMe and Slack and other popular options for savvy businesspeople.
I wish that app availability was the only problem, but we're just getting started. There's also speed to consider. I could try to describe the zen-like patience you need to put up with this smartphone, but it's best to just show you.
Ok. For just a second, ignore how much nicer it would be to play a game on the entire screen. Here we have the BlackBerry Classic and the Nexus 5 — which is over a year old — both booting Badland. While the Nexus 5, which is over a year old, smashes through the loading screen and is ready to go in no time, the same isn't nearly true with the Classic. Also, the Nexus, which is over a year old, costs $US100 less than the month-old Classic. Something doesn't make sense here.
Google Now is the Harry Potter of voice assistants. Always there, right when you need it and able to slay any evil lingering questions with fast search results that are also integrated into Google's well-developed services, such as Google Maps, and other third-party apps. BlackBerry Assistant is like Neville Longbottom. It's dependable, sure, but it won't be winning the Triwizard cup anytime soon. Google Now is already display what I'm asking for but the BlackBerry Assistant had only just registered my query.
The Classic also has one of the longest boot times I've seen for a smartphone in the last couple years. It takes near a minute to get the BlackBerry going where the Nexus takes almost half the time. Slow, slow, slow.
BlackBerry Hub, Start Screen, and App Drawer.
BB 10.3 isn't all bad. I'm still a big fan of the BlackBerry Hub, same as I was when I gave it a test drive on the Passport. Of course, it would be even more convenient if I could put all my third-party apps into Hub. I also don't get to involved with filters and other "Pro" features. Just give me a constantly updating archive of my digital life, please and thank you.
Also, the stock lock screen with BB10 is pretty great, making all my information from my disparate accounts completely glanceable. When you click on an icon, you can pull up the last three tweets or emails and double tap to open. It reminds me a lot of Android's new notification screen with Lollipop. You can also just start typing whenever and you'll pull up BB's index, displaying apps, messages, contacts, or calendar events you might be searching for. Neat!
The battery also does an admirable job. You won't have to worry about packing any microUSB cable so you can charge during the day. Just make sure you top off at night.
Other than that, there's not much else to love. The app layout is reminiscent of iOS, meaning you have no apps drawer to hide all the apps you barely use from the homescreen. I've also never been a fan of the "recent apps" page acting as my start screen. It's ugly and honestly doesn't make a lot of sense. Make it a software button so I can choose to browse my recently opened apps instead of shoving it in my face.
Unfortunately, the 8 megapixel camera is no saving grace. Keeping with the BB Classic trend, the shutter speed on this camera is tremendously slow. I can say, with almost complete certainty, that photos of little Johnny's soccer game will come out blurry. It's probably set it to burst mode and just hope for the best. However, when conditions are perfectly calm, the results are decent enough. Here's what you're looking at:
Once I sideloaded the Snap app and started flooding the Classic with my often used Google apps, the experience started to suck a lot less. I was able to get stuff done, keep up with work, and also play games and watch Netflix. All things that would have been impossible otherwise. This isn't really a "like" for the Classic, but more of small prayer of thanks to smartphone Jesus that Snap exists.
Ignoring for a moment that the existence of hardware keys makes taking photos and watching videos on the Classic awkward as hell, I actually enjoyed using BlackBerry's QWERTY greatness. Typing away at emails wasn't just a nostalgia trip. It's strangely satisfying in ways that are hard to explain. I wouldn't say I prefer it over the software alternative, but I finally get why people are reluctant to let their physical keyboards go. I get it now.
For a mid-tier $US450 phone, the Classic looks and feels surprisingly good and the battery life really is fantastic.
But looks can be deceiving. This thing is so slow. You'd have to be incredibly patient or incredibly devout (or perhaps both) to put up with how unforgivably slow this phone is for 2015. I should never ever ever ever be able to outclass a smartphone with a device that's a year older and $US100 cheaper.
Three app stores. That's how many you need to make this thing even usable. Even then, you'll probably just use the sideloaded Snap store afterward, which begs the question: "Why don't you just buy an Android smartphone?" You can argue that BB's platform is more secure or something, but I had to fess up my login credentials to a third-party app just to fix this phone. Not sure if that security claim holds up after that.
A square 3.5-inch screen in the touchscreen smartphone age is too awkward to bear. Whether taking a photo, watching The Running Man, or playing Badland it felt like I was doing it all on a teeny screen because of the 16:9 ratio inscribed inside a 1:1 box.
I was really, really hoping that they would take the capacitive touch keyboard on the Passport and add it to the Classic, completely doing away with the borderline-useless optical trackpad and just letting you swipe across the keyboard instead. I was disappointed.
Should you buy it?
Do you refuse to listen to reason or won't buy anything that isn't BlackBerry? Then yeah, I guess. It does all your core smartphone-y things ok. You can tweet. You can post to Facebook. You can check your email.
But smartphones are increasingly becoming so much more than just that. They're the remote controls to our homes and the central devices in our social lives.
Even if you were comfortable sideloading all the Android apps you'd ever need, the experience still isn't seamless. Apps are still slow. They will crash or do other weird quirky things that would you'd never see on Android or iPhone.
It's just not worth it.
Update: The BlackBerry Classic is available through Telstra now for $504 outright.
Images and GIFS by Nicholas Stango