BlackBerry truly surprised us with the Priv. The move to Android-powered handsets was an obvious last-ditch effort to stay relevant in the consumer handset business. I hoped the Priv would get BlackBerry back into the consumer business but it seems fated to live in the shadow of a glorious past.
The Priv is an almost elegantly designed phone that’s sleek, feels great in the hand and fits perfectly in your pocket. It’s got a matte black rear with a full screen upfront that slides up to reveal a physical keyboard. This was the Priv’s defining feature when it was first announced and once we got over the fact that BlackBerry was launching an Android-powered handset, we couldn’t contain our excitement about the keyboard. Now, touchscreen keyboards are great but the feel of a physical keyboard beneath your fingertips, especially a BlackBerry keyboard that’s always been crafted so well, gives a pleasant dose of nostalgia especially if you spent a considerable amount of time tapping away on a BlackBerry during the company’s peak in the last decade.
The Priv’s isn’t your standard physical keyboard. Taking cues from the BlackBerry Passport, this it comes with gesture capabilities. You can drag your finger up and down to scroll any page or app you may be on, with quite a few other handy shortcuts baked in. For example, when typing, you can swipe up to input an auto-suggested word. However, these gestures aren’t very smooth and get tiring once the novelty wears off after the first couple of days. However, every now and again I do enjoy swiping the screen up to play around with the keyboard.
If there’s a mobile phone manufacturer that’s known for solid devices after Nokia, it’s BlackBerry. Even with a slider design, the Canadian company managed to create a sturdy piece of hardware with a woven glass fibre back and a Gorilla Glass 4 display coating, which is enough to alleviate anyone who deems themselves clumsy.
One jarring design component that I never got entirely used to was the standby/power button on the left side of the phone instead of the right. The right side had the volume buttons and a mute button that’s only real use was to mute calls, which is handy but seemed unnecessary to make an entire button for it when most phones achieve the same through their volume down button. Thankfully, BlackBerry allows two other ways to switch on the display without the use of the button. You can double tap it, and the screen also wakes up when it’s moved from a flat surface or out of your pocket. Now, the latter feature was quite cool in the beginning but became a little erratic, waking up with slight movement without me picking it up or not waking up when I did actually pick it up so I switched it off and just relied on double tapping the screen, which is my preferred method.
Display and software insights
The 5.43-inch screen is curved on both sides giving it a Samsung Edge feel that looks great but the AMOLED display leaves a lot to be desired. With a resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 (540 PPI), I was disappointed with the colours and brightness even though the AMOLED should have provided a much brighter landscape with deeper colours. There was an odd motion blur effect emanating from darker images while scrolling through Facebook or any image-heavy site that I never I quite got used to. The curved edges of the screen look great but have no function as the Edge phones do. It does, however, show a green bar running up the right side of the phone from the bottom when the battery is charging. It’s a quaint use of the curved screen.
BlackBerry’s Productivity Hub has come a long way from the older devices. It rested on the right side of my screen as a thin tab which required a gentle swipe for it to show up all the necessary BlackBerry apps such as Mail, Calendar and Messages. They all seamlessly integrated with my Gmail account and would collect in one place where I could browse messages and mails.
The OS is BlackBerry’s own version of Android Lollipop with a few aesthetic changes. The company retained the red notification icon above each app that denotes an unread notification. The application drawer scrolls entirely downward and if you swipe to the right you’re able to access widgets and shortcuts. This feature was a pleasant surprise and I hope other manufacturers take note. The other main customisations were under the hood to make the phone more secure using the Dtek security application that aims to make your phone difficult to hack into and teach you how to be a more secure smartphone user in an age of constant cyber peril. I kept avoiding this though and Dtek would constantly remind me my security level was only fair, which I would forget about entirely in a few seconds.
This is where things go downhill for the phone. Everything checks off with the Priv but if it could only take great pictures and much better selfies then we would have had a winner on our hands. We’re unfortunately in an age where the power of the camera does a lot of talking for a smartphone and the rear 18-megapixel camera sounds good on paper but the software doesn’t give it any leverage and what you’re left with are below-average images. You can forget about taking a picture in low light and never turn on the front-facing 2-megapixel camera because it’ll be a noisy affair. Having said this, if you’re not overcritical about your phone-clicked images like me, you might just be fine with the quality of images you get. I find this has become a very subjective debate. And the Priv does boast 4K video at 30fps with the rear camera and 720p with the front-facing camera.
Performance and battery
The Priv comes with a 1.8GHz hexa-core 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor with 3GB RAM and 32GB of internal storage. This isn’t the fastest processor out there but it certainly isn’t shabby for BlackBerry’s first foray in making an Android device. The phone worked smoother than expected; I faced no lagging or loading issues, switching apps was quick when there were many open and multitasking background apps would make it a little warm but wouldn’t interfere too much with what I was doing in the foreground.
BlackBerry packed in a massive 3,410mAh battery that lived up to its promise. I don’t classify myself as a heavy user but am not far off, and the battery gave me a full day’s worth almost every day. There were some days when I cranked up the usage to 110 and I needed to recharge by 8-9pm, but still better than most of the competition out there.
I have honestly never been a fan of BlackBerry. The devices were fine but the OS made me cringe. The prospect of Android on BlackBerry was very promising and could have even worked, but without something fundamentally challenging its competitors, the Priv is just another decent smartphone out there that’s easily forgettable to people who aren’t bothered with the brand or an excellent physical keyboard. The premium pricing doesn’t help BlackBerry’s case either. I enjoyed the phone every day in almost all aspects but at no point did I think this is the one for me. The physical keyboard was mainly used forcefully for the sake of the review, when I wasn’t just playing around with the gestures.
I wonder what RIM’s next experiment will entail – Windows 10 maybe?