I really wanted to like the BlackBerry Priv. C'mon! Android on a Blackberry phone! Sadly, the company's latest, and possibly last, shot at appealing to users who've long since moved on falls incredibly short.
What Is It?
A $US700(!) Blackberry smartphone, and the first to run Android. It has a 5.6-inch display plus a slide out physical QWERTY keyboard. The "Priv" stands for privacy and privilege, which hints at built-in software designed to keep you and your information safe. Under to hood it packs a Qualcomm 808 processor, 32GB of storage, and a 18-megapixel camera with optical image stabilisation. The Priv will be available in the US from 9 November, and BlackBerry Australia has said it will keep us updated with any release dates it hears.
BlackBerry is collapsing, as it has been while now. But the notion of a BlackBerry phone that runs Android is intriguing — exciting even. Blackberry has developed some striking hardware in recent years, but the phones were always hobbled by the BB OS, which wasn't very good to begin with and didn't have any of the apps you wanted. Sure, you could get them from sideloading third-party app stores, but it was a pain, so opening itself up to the wonderful world of Android is smart.
Though BlackBerry is a shade of its former QWERTY glory, you gotta at least admire its willingness to keep on trying new designs. In recent years, many manufacturers have gone the route of just copying the iPhone. BlackBerry keeps trying to reinvent itself, albeit, in a physical keyboard prison of its own making.
Still, even from the outset, BlackBerry's move to Android with the Priv is way late — too late most likely to win anyone over, especially given the phone's absurd price.
How do you spell BlackBerry? Q-W-E-R-T-Y. The Priv continues BlackBerry's long tradition of pandering to the mythical, dwindling horde of HARDCORE users who love the physical keyboards which defined BlackBerry in its glory days. This despite the fact that it's a categorically outmoded design in the era of big phones with lovely touchscreens.
Though it's not noticeable when you first grab the phone, the slide-out keyboard ends up being the Priv's defining feature, if only because the rest of the phone has to be designed to accommodate it. It's thicker than most other phones. To its credit, the Priv isn't cumbersome — unless you slide out the keyboard.
As for the slide itself, it's got satisfying, sturdy action. The rest of the phone's build quality feels a little cheap, and after a few days it almost feels like the carbon fibery back is coming loose and might pop off one day.
The 2560 x 1440 AMOLED screen would be a nice touch — if BlackBerry hadn't gone with a curved display design that wraps along the long edges. It adds nothing to the experience of the phone, and often just makes text at each edge hard to read.
Whereas many manufacturers have made the switch to a USB-C charging port — with its super fast advantages — BlackBerry's still trapped in the past with a microUSB. The past. Kind of a recurring theme, huh?
So what about the Priv's keyboard? It's small, and the tiny keys are hard to press — it's more the sensation of button mashing than elegantly typing. What's more, with the keyboard slide out, the device is too top heavy to really use the keyboard nimbly. The weight also hurts your ability to use the cool touchpad feature that lets you scroll through webpages with a swipe. The keyboard ends up being an afterthought because it's so useless.
You interact with the phone as you should by touching — touching! — the touchscreen. The Priv is technically usable. I was able to make calls, check email, and look up directions, though it was often harder than it should have been. The Priv's carrier reception is significantly worse than any other phone I've used recently. I thought the days when you couldn't get service while standing outside were over, but the Priv proved me wrong. The spotty service felt like 2009.
When you are connected to your carrier, the Priv gets along more or less well, though, it doesn't have the zip of top Android phones like the Nexus 6P. The battery holds a days worth of charge. But if you're on your phone a lot, don't leave home without a charger.
BlackBerry had the good sense not to mess with Android's stock experience. The UI looks like Android 5.1. Great! BlackBerry does encourage you to use software like BBM, which I know fans used to love. I have no friends or professional contacts who still use the BlackBerry Messenger.
But the real relic is BlackBerry Hub, which is useful if a little irksome and dated. Hub is accessible from any screen by pulling a little tab that's peeking out from the side of the screen or by long-pressing the home button. Hub is BlackBerry's agenda and messaging center. As you login to accounts using the phone — say Twitter, Facebook, and Google — it populates Hub with messages and other information. The best part is having my calendar one swipe away at all times. The worst part is viewing all of my messages from across many platforms in a anxiety-inducing cascade.
And of course, we should address the matter of PRIVacy. BlackBerry's billing phone as the secure Android phone, which I suppose is something that will appeal to some business people and paranoid dads. The security features are outwardly visible through an app called DTEK which monitors your system and settings. The good news is that without doing anything, DTEK gave me an "EXCELLENT" rating for security, owing to my use of common sense measures like a lockscreen pattern, and opting to encrypt my data. I navigated to some sites I know to be riddled with malware, and DTEK did not appear to do anything. Maybe that means it's working?
At any rate, I got no indication that I was secure on the Priv than I would be by exercising everyday common sense on any other phone. It would have been almost magical if BlackBerry could have pulled off a Blackphone level of security while still holding on to the feel of stock Android, but that's not what the Priv is. Not even close.
One thing that works quite well is the Priv's camera. It takes solid photos in the dark, and the UI is easy to use. My one complaint is that the autofocus lag really slows you down and often ruins your photo op.
I like Android, but you get laggy performance for the money, as well as an outmoded design and terrible carrier service.
Should You Buy it?
I wouldn't, for myself, my friends, or even my worst enemy. I suppose there is a kind of person who might want a flagship quality phone that has a keyboard, even if the keyboard isn't totally useful. Some people might feel more comfortable with a dumbed down security app that's not doing much.
But there's nobody who wants to pay top dollar when there's a cheaper option that's much, much, much better.
Get the Nexus 6P instead.
Images by Michael Hession.