Google IO 2017 Coverage

BlackBerry KeyOne review: Embracing Android with a real keyboard

It’s 2017, and no, BlackBerry’s not dead yet. Weird, right? We’ve seen the company stumble since the advent of the modern smartphone and only recently come back into the fray with some oddball phones, like the Priv, that haven’t really made a dent in the market. 

After the Priv, BlackBerry technically stepped away from the smartphone game entirely, opting instead to license out some of its software while passing hardware creation over to TCL. It’s been a bumpy road, but BlackBerry hopes it has finally found a way to stay relevant in a drastically different mobile industry.

That’s where the BlackBerry KeyOne comes in. It’s the first premium device created by TCL with BlackBerry’s name and supposedly a return to form for the enterprise-focused company. That’s not to say that this device won’t or can’t appeal to a mainstream consumer, but BlackBerry knows its strengths and is playing to it.

Design

There’s really no other way to describe it: the BlackBerry KeyOne is a weird phone. It’s a pretty typical touch-ready smartphone like what we’ve seen for the better part of the past decade, but there’s a giant physical keyboard right on its chin.

That’s not to say the design is bad. It’s just really odd for a phone in 2017. The keyboard adds noticeable thickness to the device as a whole, but it also gave BlackBerry a little wiggle room in fitting a bigger battery into the chassis.

The bright side is that the extra thickness makes the phone really comfortable to hold despite its elongated shape. After years and years of phones getting razor-thin, it’s actually pretty nice to hold something that doesn’t feel like it’s going to break if you bend it even a little bit.

The top of the KeyOne houses a microphone and the headphone jack while the bottom sports the USB-C port and two speakers.

You’ll find the power button on the left side of the device, and a volume rocker and another power button on the right side.

Just kidding, the thing on the right isn’t a power button. It’s actually called a “Convenience Key” but you’re going to hit it thinking it’s a power button because it’s right where your thumb rests if you’re holding the phone right-handed. You can remap this key to a few different things, including a shortcut to locking the screen, but if you’re like me you’ll accidentally hit it 40 times on the first day and turn it off entirely.

BlackBerry’s KeyOne has a face with a front-facing camera, an LED notification light, capacitive buttons, and a big keyboard. Now let’s talk about that keyboard.

The last smartphone with a physical keyboard that I owned was the original Motorola Droid, which was way back when Android was young and fresh on the scene. Even back then I barely used the physical keyboard, and it’s just as hard to use one today. That’s not saying it’s a bad physical keyboard, because there’s only so much you can do with a physical keyboard on a phone this size, but it’s so awkward after years of getting used to tapping a glass screen and relying on autocorrect.

The good news is that the slow, deliberate typing on the keyboard is significantly more accurate. Autocorrect is still there, but you probably won’t be making nearly as many typos. If you turn the phone sideways, you can still get Android’s default landscape keyboard, but then you have… two keyboards. And the screen is already relatively small, so that entire implementation is just funky.

The keyboard does sport some pretty nifty shortcuts and tricks, however. The fingerprint scanner of the phone is built into the spacebar button, and you can scroll by swiping your fingers up and down the keys. You can erase words by swiping left on the keys, and you can assign shortcuts to nearly every single key from your home screen. Want the A key to launch Amazon when you long press it? You can do that. Want an M key long press to call your mom? You can do that, too. It’s a really innovative use of a keyboard on Android, even if you do lose half your screen all the time.

Hardware

 BlackBerry KeyOne
AnnouncedFebruary 25, 2017
ReleaseMay 2017
Display4.5-inch (1620x1080) IPS LCD
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 625
RAM3GB
Storage32GB w/ microSD cards slot
Rear Camera12.3MP with dual-LED flash, phase detection autofocus (PDAF), 4x digital zoom
Front Camera8MP
Battery3505mAh (non-removable)
ChargingUSB-C with fast charging
SoundBottom-facing speakers
SoftwareAndroid 7.1 Nougat with BlackBerry Hub
ConnectivityBluetooth 4.2, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, NFC
SensorsAmbient, proximity, accelerometer, gyro, compass, barometer, fingerprint
Measurements149.3 x 72.5 x 9.4mm
Weight180g
ColorsBlack

Performance

I’ll be honest here. I don’t know what magic sauce Qualcomm uses in its Snapdragon 600 series, but I’ve had significantly better experiences with these upper mid-range processors than everything else they offer. And yes, that includes the Snapdragon 800 series as well.

Performance on the KeyOne is just fine. The Snapdragon 625 is powering a small display that’s not even Full HD (1620×1080) and it flies. With fewer pixels than what’s in your average flagship, the processor just never breaks a sweat. Paired with 3GB of RAM, there’s not much this thing can’t do, especially when you’re talking about business and social tasks.

The screen is less than high definition, but it’s also a little bit smaller next to your typical Android device. It’s a 4.5-inch screen, despite the phone being really, really long thanks to its keyboard. This means that you’ll get a pretty decent pixel density even with that lower resolution, so text looks crisp, images look good, and brightness is decent. It won’t blow you away like a premium Samsung AMOLED display, but it’s very solid for an LCD panel.

The speakers are speakers. They work. They don’t sound good, they don’t sound bad. BlackBerry jammed a giant physical keyboard on the bottom of this thing that’s permanently in portrait orientation, I hope you weren’t expecting a device focused on media playback.

Battery

I cannot stress enough how absolutely phenomenal battery life is on the KeyOne. I’ve reviewed many, many phones, including devices from the other side of the fence, and nothing has done as well as the KeyOne. I imagine it’s a combination of the small, slightly lower resolution of the screen, the relatively clean software, and the extremely efficient Snapdragon 625. BlackBerry has created the perfect combination of hardware and software for battery life.

Assuming you aren’t playing any games or watching an excessive amount of YouTube, you can realistically get close to 10 hours of screen-on time on a single charge from the KeyOne’s chunky 3505mAh battery. Over a couple of days I could get around 7 or 8 hours of screen-on time and nearly 48 hours away from the charger, which is insane.

Small caveat, though. I don’t talk on the phone much. If you’re an enterprise or business user, there’s a good chance you’ll be making real phone calls talking to real people (yuck) which I fortunately do not have to do very often. But even accounting for that, I’ve still never managed to get anywhere close to the same battery life with any other device I’ve ever used.

Software

BlackBerry didn’t do much to interfere with Android on the KeyOne, aside from adding a few of their own security tweaks and apps. That’s a good thing, too, and it seems like it helps out the performance and battery life quite a bit.

You’re getting Android 7.1.1 Nougat with a very minimal skin and BlackBerry’s entire suite of apps and services. That includes some basic, extra apps like BlackBerry Messenger (I’m sure someone still uses it, right?) and a task manager, but also some pretty intricately adjusted system-level services like your contacts list and the calendar.

When BlackBerry chooses to tweak a default application, it’s very clearly business-focused. That means you’ll get plenty of options to view and sync multiple accounts, keep up with meetings and appointments, and manage security, but it also means some superfluous stuff like emojis and color are absent here. For most people, probably not a big deal, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I enjoy some of the fun design work that other OEMs put into their apps. Sometimes, anyway.

Security is probably the biggest focus for BlackBerry right now, and that shows in the KeyOne. There’s a useful app called DTEK that checks your device security for you and makes suggestions to make it more secure, a password manager application, and top notch encryption on everything. It’s one of those under-the-hood features that are hard to list in a 30-second ad, but they’re very appreciated nonetheless.

Overall, it’s plain, but very business focused. None of the tweaks really get in your way if you don’t want them, but some of them, like being able to assign shortcuts to physical keyboard keys and the BlackBerry hub for managing every bit of communication on your device, are fantastic to have.

Camera

As I said earlier in the review, this is a phone that’s made for professionals and enterprise customers, not the average smartphone buyer. Unfortunately, that means the camera has taken a backseat to the other more business-centric features.

It’s not like the KeyOne has a bad camera, and in some instances it actually took surprisingly good shots, but for the most part things got noisy and were way too warm. Not exactly what you’re looking for in a $600 investment.

Low light shots are especially meh. The manual mode will let you adjust shutter speed and ISO settings to improve things, but the automatic mode just straight up struggles all the time.

The lighting either looks funky, or you’re going to see too much noise.

On the bright side, the default camera app has a very functional manual mode that should help diehard photographers get a little more out of the KeyOne’s camera. I’m not sure how much overlap there is between a customer that needs a BlackBerry and someone that’s really into photography, but the option is there.

Closing

BlackBerry and TCL actually did a really fantastic job on this phone. Battery life is fantastic, it’s a very secure device thanks to BlackBerry’s enterprise enhancements, and that keyboard is flexible and versatile. Despite all of that, though, you really have to wonder who is supposed to be drawn to this phone.

Is it enterprise customers? Maybe. Samsung and Apple have courted that crowd pretty successfully while BlackBerry flailed around after the original iPhone launch, and now BlackBerry has ferocious competition from Samsung since they’re both running Android. You can argue that the physical keyboard is a selling point, but aren’t we all used to digital keyboards and autocorrect at this point?

Is it for the average customer? Almost definitely not. I wouldn’t expect to see any carrier deals with the KeyOne, and I don’t see the physical keyboard attracting any new users. It’s a fun little nostalgia experience, but I don’t think any of us actually want to go back to tapping real keys again, and BlackBerry Messenger has already lost to WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, et al.

Battery life and performance on this thing are top notch, but it’s only real standout feature is a gimmick that I don’t think anyone is going to want in 2017. If you don’t think you’d mind getting used to a real keyboard again, I’d say go for it, as this phone is looking like one of the best productivity powerhouse smartphones we’ve ever seen. But if you’re looking for a Netflix machine that can double as a great Instagram camera, well, that’s a much more difficult sell.

The KeyOne is fantastic, but it’s niche, and that niche disappeared a few years ago. Although, if I had a time machine, I’d love to see what would’ve happened if this was BlackBerry’s answer to the iPhone back in 2007.


About the Author: Jared Peters

Born in southern Alabama, Jared spends his working time selling phones and his spare time writing about them. The Android enthusiasm started with the original Motorola Droid and an unhealthy obsession with fixing things that aren't broken. This accidentally led to being the go-to guy for anything more complicated than a toaster, which he considers more of a curse than a blessing. Jared is enrolled in online classes at the University of Phoenix, and spends his spare time on video games and listening to music.


  • nearvanaman

    “only real standout feature is a gimmick that I don’t think anyone is going to want in 2017”

    If that was true, they would sell zero phones :)

  • will

    I can’t take this review seriously.
    I doubt if reviewer actually used the phone as it has bottom firing Mona speaker and not front firing speaker’s.
    The speaker is actually better than most devices I’ve used with stereo speakers

    • Justin_Herrick

      Where are you Jared mentions front-facing speakers? The spec sheet/table says bottom-facing. And it’s clearly shown in pictures.

  • http://www.sk1wbw.wordpress.com/ Wayne Williams

    I have money set aside for this when it’s released this month. I already have a 128 gig sd card coming to get ready.