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BlackBerry KeyOne: Our first take

BlackBerry's $550 KeyOne targets physical keyboard lovers

BlackBerry’s KeyOne is a promising Android phone targeted toward people who prefer physical keyboards, as well as BlackBerry’s suite of secure apps. 

BlackBerry kicked its own BlackBerry Operating System to the curb last year in favor of the more popular Android OS, and it no longer manufactures its own phones.  But the Waterloo company isn’t exiting the business anytime soon. Rather, BlackBerry has partnered with Chinese company TCL to release Android phones under the BlackBerry brand name. Its latest phone is the KeyOne, a traditional BlackBerry phone with a full QWERTY keyboard.

More: BlackBerry hits rock bottom in phone market

If you’re unaware, TCL manufactures phones under the Alcatel brand name. BlackBerry’s first devices under the new partnership with TCL were the DTEK50 and DTEK60, which are rebranded Alcatel phones announced and released toward the end of 2016. They all carry the same software experience that includes the BlackBerry Hub, the DTEK security app, and the famed BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

The same applies for the KeyOne. What makes the KeyOne unique compared to the company’s first Android smartphone with a keyboard — the Priv — is the product’s tier.

“In hindsight, it was probably not the place for us to launch the first Android device,” Bruce Walpole, general manager of BlackBerry Mobility, told Digital Trends about the Priv. “If I was to say where did we maybe misstep? Probably the tier — the product is still innovative because of the slider but in trying to be everything to everyone … you weren’t necessarily best in class.”

We managed to get some hands-on time with the KeyOne here at Mobile World Congress. The software isn’t the final build yet, but it’s close.

Something different

BlackBerry’s latest mantra is “Distinctly Different.” There are a ton of all-glass Android slabs on the market, but hardly any with a physical keyboard. The company understands that while there may not be many people that want a physical keyboard anymore, there’s still a market for it. It’s why the DTEK60 and DTEK50 exist as alternative choices for people who want big screens with BlackBerry brand name as well.

For all you hardcore BlackBerry fans, the KeyOne’s unique quality is its backlit QWERTY keyboard with capacitive gesture capabilities, akin to the physical keyboard on the Priv. That means you can swipe up and down, left and right on the keyboard to move through your home screen, or even scroll through apps.

A fingerprint sensor is embedded into the space bar on the front of the device. We couldn’t test it out yet, but it’s a unique way of adding the sensor onto the front panel, rather than extending the bezel to accommodate it. Above the keyboard are capacitive navigation buttons that offer strong haptic feedback.

More: BlackBerry sues Nokia, alleging networking patent infringement

The device carries a rectangular shape that’s quite elongated due to the physical keyboard, but the screen — protected by Gorilla Glass 4 — is only 4.5-inches. It’s easy to hold with one hand, but it can be slippery at times. That’s in part due to the soft-touch textured back.

The KeyOne is a little chunky and it feels like a brick — that’s not an accident. The company was quick to remind me of the days when its devices were known for their durability. BlackBerry is confident the anodized aluminum frame that surrounds the phone will protect the device from most accidental drops.

The Mercury runs Android 7.1.1 Nougat.

There is a headphone jack and down-firing speakers. Sitting in between the speakers is a USB Type-C charging port. The power button is on the left, and the volume rocker is on the right above the Convenience Key. The Convenience Key, which is available on the DTEK60 and the DTEK50, is a customizable hotkey for specific apps or tools, such as the camera.

Speaking of customizable keys, KeyOne owners will be able to create up to 52 shortcuts with every key on the keyboard. For example, you can set a quick press on “I” to open Instagram, and a long-press on “I” to open your inbox.

Specs and camera

BlackBerry’s 4.5-inch screen features a 1,620 x 1,080-pixel resolution, with 424 pixels-per-inch. The display looks vibrant and colorful, and the keyboard’s capacitive gesture capabilities mean there are fewer opportunities to leave fingerprints smudges all over.

It’s powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 625 and 3GB of RAM, which seemed to perform exceptionally well in our brief tests, with no lag or stutters whatsoever. If you were hoping for a Snapdragon 835 or 821, that’s not the market BlackBerry is going for with the KeyOne.

The 3,505mAh battery should help keep the device alive for a while, and BlackBerry has a unique feature when you plug in the Typc-C charger — you’ll get two options: One to charge the device normally, or another to switch the device into a battery-saving mode-like state so it charges even faster. The phone supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0, so charging speed should be relatively quick. BlackBerry claims you can get to 50 percent in 36 minutes.

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It only comes with 32GB of internal storage, but there’s a MicroSD card slot that allows for expandable storage up to 2TB. It also has an NFC sensor, meaning you will be able to take advantage of Android Pay.

The front camera packs 8 megapixels, and it can take 1,080p videos at 30 frames-per-second with video and image stabilization. The rear camera has 12 megapixels (with large 1.55µm pixels), and it uses the same Sony IMX378 sensor as the Google Pixel. The camera took great shots indoors with decent lighting and there was very little shutter lag, but in low-light areas, some images were blurry.

A security-focused Android 7.1.1

The KeyOne runs Android 7.1.1 Nougat, and BlackBerry’s mobile team will continue to issue digitally-signed security updates for the device — including Google’s monthly security updates for Android.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The user-interface is almost exactly stock Android, but BlackBerry has added few of its own tweaks to the OS. For example, the overview button shows previous apps in a grid-like layout. You’ll also find pre-installed BlackBerry apps, such as BBM, BlackBerry Hub, and DTEK by BlackBerry, the company’s security software that easily tells you the current status of your device.

On standard Android Nougat devices, multi-window mode is usually compromised when you need to type something, as the keyboard would take up a large part of the bottom app’s space. What’s neat with the KeyOne is that you’ll be able to type in multi-window without sacrificing any screen real-estate thanks to the built-in keyboard.

We saw no hiccups in the software, even if it wasn’t the final build. It’s as close to stock as you can get, and BlackBerry’s overview screen is also more useful than what’s available on stock Android devices.

Can the KeyOne be BlackBerry’s comeback?

The Priv was supposed to be BlackBerry’s splashy comeback into the mobile arena, but its high price deterred many from jumping back. The DTEK50 and DTEK60 have been around for a few months, but it’s hard to tell if they’ve turned the heads of enthusiasts — or anyone.

The KeyOne is promising because it will be the go-to device for people in search of a physical keyboard, though the market is likely not large. Will it attract people away from Apple, Samsung, or Google? It really comes down to if you prefer a physical keyboard, and if you like BlackBerry’s security-focused apps. Chances are the device won’t see mainstream appeal like in BlackBerry’s prime, but there’s potential in the enterprise market.

The BlackBerry KeyOne will cost $550 in the U.S. and it will be available unlocked and from various carriers in the second quarter of the year, likely April. It’s clear that even with the price tag, BlackBerry is not interested in the flagship tier for this phone. Still, for the processor it has the price may be a little too high compared to competitor’s devices — you can get a phone with a Snapdragon 820 for as low as $400 after all.

But, from our brief tests, the KeyOne seems like a good smartphone — and it’s hard to find one these days with a solid keyboard. The price may be justified.

We’ll update this article when we receive final release date information.

Highs

  • Runs near-stock Android 7.1.1 Nougat
  • BlackBerry is promising fast security updates
  • Physical keyboard has gesture capabilities
  • Solid build quality
  • Fast, smooth performance

Lows

  • Keyboard feels a little cramped
  • On the bulkier-end of phones
  • Slightly blurry photos in low-light

Article originally published in January. Updated on 02-25-2017 by Julian Chokkattu: Added in the official name of the device, final specifications, as well as more hands-on impressions.