Lusting for a physical keyboard on a smartphone? You’re not the only one. We’ve seen TCL’s success in licensing the BlackBerry brand name to create phones with keyboards again. But those devices at the moment don’t look anything like most smartphones — there are no large screens with slim bezels, hole-punch cameras, or notches in the displays. If you want a physical keyboard on a phone with a spacious, modern-looking screen, you’ll want to keep an eye on a London company called F(x)tec, as its Pro 1 smartphone is worth a look.
Why a phone with a keyboard? Well, the founders of the company wanted to make one for themselves.
“There’s still a huge following and a huge desire for things like buttons, keyboards,” Adrian Li Mow Ching told Digital Trends. “So for us, we’re users — we’re customers of smartphones — and we wanted to bring those things back.”
The team wanted to pair the keyboard with a modern screen. Samsung’s latest Galaxy range have some of the thinnest bezels (edges) around the screen, so you’re getting a beautifully large screen. The BlackBerry Key2 has a 4.5-inch screen, and it’s not ideal for consuming a lot of media.
F(x)tec’s Pro 1 has a 5.99-inch AMOLED screen with a 2,160 x 1,080 resolution, so from the front it looks like any contemporary smartphone, with Gorilla Glass 3 protecting it. The bezels surrounding the screen are quite thin, and watching movies and videos will feel natural (by today’s standards). You’ll also get the benefit of sliding the screen to the side to unveil a backlit QWERTY keyboard with 64 keys.
Typing on it didn’t feel like a challenge — the keys were a little hard to press, but I can’t give any kind of final word on the experience as I only used it briefly, and because the keyboard is still a work in progress. The company said the final version will feel different.
The sliding mechanism feels satisfying, and the company has tested it more than 100,000 times and found no failures in the operation, so you shouldn’t need to worry about it wearing down after some use. Sliding it open does require a bit of force, and you’ll need to get used to the motion of opening it. Once open, you can use the keyboard to prop the phone’s screen up, which is ideal if you’re watching a movie on a plane.
You can move around the stock Android 9 Pie interface with the keys on the keyboard, and by the product’s launch, you’ll be able to create keyboard shortcuts to open apps. So if you tap “I,” you can set it to open Instagram — this is a feature we’ve already seen from TCL’s BlackBerry devices.
Android Pie is mostly unchanged, but the F(x)tec team made some quality of life improvements to make the software work better with a keyboard. For example, gesture navigations don’t work naturally when a phone is in landscape mode, but on the Pro 1, you can simply swipe the home button left to start scrolling through Recent apps.
The phone feels nice in the hand, but turn it around and you may be a bit disappointed in the rear. It has a dual-camera setup, but the rest looks dull, with a cheap-looking back. There’s a fingerprint sensor on the right edge of the phone so you can unlock it quickly.
The Pro 1 is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 processor — so a flagship chipset from 2017 — with 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of internal storage. There’s a MicroSD card slot if you need more space.
The front camera has 8-megapixels, and the rear has a 12-megapixel camera paired with a 5-megapixel lens used for depth. We haven’t had a chance to test the cameras, and even though the company’s founders said it’s using the same Sony sensor as the lauded Pixel 3 camera, it doesn’t mean photos will look anywhere near as good. It requires testing. Uniquely, though, there is a physical shutter button on the side of the phone to use with the camera.
There’s a 3,200mAh battery in tow, along with Quick Charge 3.0 for faster wired charging, dual stereo speakers, a headphone jack, and NFC for Google Pay.
Pricing and availability
These are solid specifications for a phone, but it’s the price that’s a bit of a letdown. The Pro 1 will be sold for $649 (649 euros) on F(x)tec’s website, with a ship date of July 2019.
That’s more expensive than the OnePlus 6T, which has a newer processor, and is more polished — likely in every way. But it comes down to how much you crave a physical keyboard, and if you’re at the point of throwing your all-glass touchscreen smartphone at the wall, maybe it’s worth shelling out for the Pro 1.