My first smartphone was a BlackBerry. Like many fans, I have long missed having the hardware keyboard that made BlackBerry phones so popular. But as I have said in the past, the software on BlackBerry phones had become atrocious, and so it simply wasn’t worth the trade-off.
The pitch with the Priv is simple: Using a BlackBerry phone no longer means having to make compromises. Everything you can do with your existing Android phone, you can do with the Priv. I’ve spent a week with the latest and greatest from BlackBerry, and I can confidently say the company has pulled this off.
Priv isn’t the best name for a phone. It’s supposed to stand for “privacy” (Okay, fine) and “privilege” (Really?). I’m not crazy about the Priv name, but at least it’s short. And as we well know, if it’s a hit, the name will grow on people.
So is it a hit? In short, BlackBerry did a lot of things right. A lot. In fact, I would almost call this the perfect phone for die-hard BlackBerry fans still hoping for a comeback, or even just business users who want security without feeling like dinosaurs. Thankfully, the “almost” is something that BlackBerry can address, as I’m about to explain.
The Priv is a gorgeous phone. To BlackBerry fans I say, this is what the BlackBerry Torch should have been.
The 5.4-inch, 540ppi display is awesome. I’m not a fan of curved edges on a screen, but I surprisingly didn’t mind the Priv’s — dual-curved is not a feature that I would specifically seek out, and I definitely wouldn’t pay extra for it, but BlackBerry’s implementation is not as jarring as that of some other phone makers.
Because you can’t talk about smartphones nowadays without discussing the camera, I’ll get that out of the way quickly. The 18MP rear-facing camera is solid, but it’s not exactly top-notch. It takes great pictures, but if you’re looking for a camera phone, you’ll probably want the absolute best, and that will take some shopping around.
The front-facing camera is a small disappointment at 2MP. This is not a phone designed for selfies.
At 9.4mm (0.37″), the Priv is incredibly thin for a slider. In fact, I accidentally stumbled on a little game to play with unsuspecting friends. I would hand them the phone without much explanation, simply asking them what they think. They would play around on the touchscreen for a bit, as with any other phone released in the last five years. When it looked like they had gotten a good handle on it, I would reach over and slide out the keyboard.
Shock, awe, and excitement were the usual reactions. It came as a surprise because they were so used to doing everything on Android using the screen.
And that’s really what the pitch for the Priv should be: You can use this phone just like you would any other Android slab. It handles Google’s mobile operating system just fine. But, when you have something longer to type, the BlackBerry keyboard is right there.
This, of course, comes with a tradeoff. The Priv weighs 192g (6.77 ounces). That’s definitely heavier than almost every flagship smartphone released this year, though not by any amount you’ll notice. If you have the Priv in one hand and another new phone in the other, you’ll be able to tell the difference. But many phablets are heavier, so don’t worry, BlackBerry didn’t make a brick.
Physical and virtual keyboards
Having a hardware keyboard again is superb. I can type faster than with a touchscreen (though there is some ramp up time, to be sure), I can once again type without looking at the keyboard, and it just feels great to use.
As someone who went through multiple Bolds, I’m naturally inclined to prefer that keyboard. But the keys have to be flat for a slider, and that’s frankly okay. At the end of the day, this is still a BlackBerry keyboard.
Did I mention you can use the Priv’s keyboard to scroll? It responds to touch, meaning you can move around the Android interface, a website — or really anything you would navigate by touching the screen — simply by swiping left, right, up, and down directly on the keys. This means you can move around without blocking what you’re looking at. It’s not a feature that I found myself using much, but I can see how it can be useful if you deal a lot with documents and pictures on your phone.
The slider works well and feels like it will last (BlackBerry claims it put one unit through a million slides and didn’t see any obvious breakdown). But there are some things you have to get used to. For example, I found myself repeatedly touching the area I wanted to type before realizing that a virtual keyboard won’t pop up because I have the physical one open.
Also, if you slide the keyboard open, the screen naturally turns on. If you slide the keyboard closed, though, the screen doesn’t turn off. This is deliberate, and it actually makes a lot of sense. The Priv has a touchscreen, which means that you can use the phone for all sorts of things beyond typing. And, if you do want to type, you can do so without the hardware keyboard, because BlackBerry has, of course, included a virtual keyboard.
I can’t say that I like BlackBerry’s virtual keyboard, especially because the keys don’t line up with the physical keyboard. All the extra keys you need are in different places, which can be a little annoying if you move between the two a lot. But if you can get over that, the beautiful thing is that this is Android. That means you can do a hell of a lot with this phone, including installing any keyboard that you want.
The biggest fault with the Priv, by far, is that it doesn’t come with Marshmallow. This is incredibly disappointing, especially given that you can already buy other phones that ship with Android 6.0.
BlackBerry’s explanation is three-fold: This is the company’s first Android phone, it had to make significant modifications to the operating system, and U.S. carriers require a lot of lead time, which means that the company just didn’t have enough time to make those changes if it wanted to get the device out in time for the holiday season. That may be, but BlackBerry also would have had a lot less work to do in terms of security had it started with preview builds of Android 6.0 and worked forward from there.
Nevertheless, despite all the changes BlackBerry made to improve security on Google’s mobile operating system, the BlackBerry Priv is really running Android:
This is not a fork. It’s Android, with all of Google’s apps and services, including the Google Play store. I only ran into one glitch with one specific app, when it wanted to open the virtual keyboard even though I had the hardware keyboard open. Other than that, all the Android apps I normally rely on worked without a hitch.
The Priv’s most unique software addition is DTEK, an app that is meant to secure your phone and help you monitor what’s happening on your device. It lets you see everything that every other Android app is accessing (you can drill into specific permissions and see how often requests are being made to check your personal details), which is great for the privacy-conscious, as well as giving you an overall security rating (red, amber, or green) based on what features you have turned on or off. It’s a decent start, but I’ll be curious to see how BlackBerry builds it out alongside Android 6.0’s new permission model.
I have to say that I’m not a fan of BlackBerry Hub. I like the idea: All your messages (emails, text messages, social notifications, and so on) available in one place. The truth is that it’s just not very reliable, and there’s no reason to go to the Hub if you’re getting everything via Android notifications anyway. It didn’t take me long to abandon it, switching to Gmail and the rest of Google’s apps.
The other customization that BlackBerry has included is a different view for Android’s app switcher. It frankly drives me insane. I much prefer the standard Android one where every app is the same size. The really annoying thing is that BlackBerry’s implementation seems to randomly pick the size it wants to give apps. It’s a mess.
Keeping all that in mind, BlackBerry didn’t screw up the great apps that Android comes with. Or, put another way, all the stupid BlackBerry apps are no more.
There’s no BlackBerry browser, no BlackBerry Maps, and gone are the shoddy picture, video, and music apps. BlackBerry didn’t have to build any of those for Android; it just leaned on Google’s own solutions.
And the best part is that apps like Chrome and Google Maps are all maintained like any other app that Google owns. Regular, reliable updates for all your core apps, and BlackBerry itself doesn’t have to worry about any of them.
Performance and Battery life
The BlackBerry Priv is fast. You can probably find an Android phone that will outperform it, but you won’t notice any obvious slowdowns when you’re actually using it.
BlackBerry didn’t cut any corners here: It features a Snapdragon 808 processor and 3GB of RAM, and though it only has 32GB of space, it’s expandable via microSD. Again, you can find smartphones with better specifications than that, but the Priv isn’t meant to out-spec all Android phones.
That said, the BlackBerry Priv does take quite some time to boot. This is because it’s loading all of BlackBerry’s security features (read our deep dive here). Once it’s loaded everything, though, it’s very quick. Thankfully, I didn’t find any reason to have to reboot (the days of removing the battery to reset your BlackBerry are long gone, which is a good thing, given that the Priv doesn’t have a removable battery).
One interesting note. Soon after I set the device up, I noticed it was running hot and the battery life was draining incredibly quickly. At the same time, I realized my emails weren’t syncing properly, and so it soon became clear that the three issues were related.
Once I fixed the shoddy syncing situation (I removed my email addresses and added them back), I had the exact opposite experience. The device runs cool, and with moderate use, I was surprised that my battery life was at 50 percent to 60 percent by the end of the day.
This is possible because a 3410 mAh battery is crammed into the Priv. This is impressive, given the size of the phone. BlackBerry also included a nice touch for when the phone is charging: a clean animation and charging indicator:
Keep in mind that these decent battery life figures don’t reflect any significant software tweaks, as the Priv doesn’t have any of Marshmallow’s battery life improvements. In short, you can get two days of battery life if you really want, and with intense usage, you can definitely expect the Priv to last a full day.
That said, all batteries degrade, and because nobody outside BlackBerry has used the Priv for more than a week yet, we simply don’t know how long a charge will last after you’ve had the phone for a few months, and longer.
Once I got past the aforementioned syncing problems, I found that BlackBerry Priv zipped around like you would expect from any flagship Android phone. This really is just a top-of-the-line Android phone with a physical keyboard and some added BlackBerry layers.
In short, the hardware is all there (though some users may lament the lack of a fingerprint reader), and while the software isn’t perfect, it’s still greatly improved. The Priv is only going to get better.
CEO John Chen has said that if his handset division doesn’t turn a profit next year, BlackBerry may exit the phone business. The Canadian company is betting big on Android, so I expect there will be frequent software updates.
BlackBerry told me that Android 6.0 work has already begun, and while a timeline isn’t available just yet, I’m betting Marshmallow will be on the Priv in just a few months. Still, this shouldn’t hold you back if you want a slider with a physical keyboard. If you do, look no further than the Priv. If you don’t, there are plenty of Android phones to choose from.
If you want a BlackBerry phone that runs Android but that isn’t a slider … sit tight. BlackBerry has more Android phones coming, and you can bet they won’t all cost $699 — we’ll likely see some at CES 2016, if not sooner.
And you can bet they will ship with Android Marshmallow. By that point, I expect the Priv will be powered by that great gooey goodness, too.
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