While BlackBerry proper is no longer making its own hardware, BlackBerry phones aren’t dead for good.
TCL, the Chinese tech firm that picked up the branding rights to the once-leading smartphone maker last year, unveiled the BlackBerry KeyOne, a device that aims to win over BlackBerry diehards by slapping the company’s trademark physical keyboard onto a modern Android phone.
We got a sneak peak at CES back when the device was going by its codename, “Mercury,” but TCL made the name, specs, and price official at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona this weekend.
Here’s what’s new.
TCL has made a couple of BlackBerry-branded phones thus far, but the KeyOne is the first to really go after the 'BlackBerry' aesthetic. It's not particularly thin, but it looks professional, with a grippy rubberised back, aluminium sides, and a black-and-silver finish.
Think of it like a beefed-up candybar phone. And like most new phones nowadays, it also charges over a newer and faster USB-C port.
Any discussion about the KeyOne begins and ends with that QWERTY keyboard, though. It spans across the width of the phone and, based on our time with the device, feels adequately clicky and responsive. It also has a tiny fingerprint sensor built into the space bar.
The keyboard supports touch gestures, too. That means you can swipe across it to move through whatever is onscreen.
You can also turn each key into an app shortcut. If you're always on Snapchat, for instance, you could make so long-pressing the 'S' key opens that up.
Will that be faster than simply hitting an icon on the display? Probably not, but it should make using a physical keyboard feel a little more natural with Android.
Above the keyboard is a 4.5-inch display with a plenty-sharp 1620 x 1080 resolution. The last few TCL-made BlackBerry phones have done well in this department, so there's reason to think this will look nice as well.
And since there's a physical keyboard built-in, the entirety of the screen can stay dedicated to whatever you're looking at.
Still, the display will be one of the smaller ones on the market, so the KeyOne isn't the kind of phone you'd buy for ploughing through videos or games.
Unfortunately, the rest of the KeyOne's spec sheet isn't terribly impressive. The whole thing runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor, a fine but decidedly mid-range chip that can be found on devices that cost around $300 today.
There's 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage beyond that, which should be fine. The latter can be upgraded up to 2TB of space with a microSD card.
One upside, though, is battery life. The KeyOne packs a hefty 3,505mAh battery into its frame. Combined with the not-high-end chip, it should last a good while on a single charge.
Emphasis on the 'should' -- we'll have to test further before making any judgments.
The same goes for the cameras: There are 12- and 8-megapixel shooters on the front and back of the KeyOne, respectively, but we haven't been able to test those out just yet.
The whole thing will run on Android 7.1 Nougat, which is up to date. BlackBerry's software doesn't mess with the OS as much as others, but as with past phones, there'll be a handful of customisations that are mostly focused on boosting security. The usual slate of BlackBerry apps -- like BlackBerry Messenger -- will be there, too.
You can check out our review of last year's BlackBerry DTEK50, which was also made by TCL, for a look at what the skin is like. To be clear: While TCL is manufacturing and shipping the hardware here, the software is still coming from BlackBerry proper.
In any case, the pre-loaded apps could be useless for many, but BlackBerry has done well to implement Google's monthly security updates in a timely manner in the past. That can't be said for most other Android phone makers.
Unless you're very into the idea of a physical keyboard, though, the KeyOne might be a tough sell. TCL says it'll cost $A779 when it launches sometime in May/June. That's harsh when there are phones that cost $200 less with flashier and more powerful hardware, but it is cheaper than the iPhones and Galaxys of the world.
Also hurting the KeyOne's chances of success is the fact that it won't be sold through any carriers to start. The unlocked model will work with any of the big four, though, which is great.
We'll have to live with the KeyOne for a while before we can say whether or not there's room for a physical keyboard on a phone in 2017. It's hard to imagine it'll be that much faster. But it's it's felt competent for what it is thus far, and, if nothing else, it's something legitimately different.
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