Here’s what I think is going to happen to smartphones.
Today, most name-brand smartphones look and feel about the same. The trend with the latest top-end phones is to shrink the borders around the display, but that’s well on its way to being commoditized as well.
But for most phone makers, the “follow the leader” strategy isn’t working. Apple and Samsung are, for the most part, the only ones who consistently sell to a mass market.
Eventually, these other companies will have to stand out or go away. If they do the former, I think we’ll see a new wave of hardware that plays to specific niches. There’d be a phone for gamers, a phone for camera fiends, maybe even a modular phone. Would all of these be good? No. It’s also worth noting that many companies have tried and failed on this route before. But with better tech to work with, augmented reality coming, and a much larger pool of people to sell to, it may be time to try again.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying the BlackBerry KeyOne is a quality phone, but only for a very particular group of people. More specifically, the new $US549 device — which is technically built by Chinese brand TCL but uses BlackBerry’s branding and software — should align well with anyone who misses the feel of a physical keyboard. What’s more, it’s the only good phone for that group.
For everyone else, though, it’s probably overpriced.
I’ve been using a pre-production unit of the BlackBerry KeyOne for the past two weeks — here’s what it’s like:
The KeyOne does well to replicate the classic BlackBerry feel. It's a busy, grown-up device -- all black and silver, with a grippy, rubbery back accented by rounded aluminium sides. It's thicker (0.37 inches) and heavier (6.35 ounces) than an iPhone 7 or Galaxy S8, but not to the point of annoyance. There's a heft and solidness to it that keeps it from feeling cheap.
That said, it's not much of a looker. Between the contrasting materials, the weirdly prominent proximity sensor on the front, the big cutout at the top, the slight camera bulge, and that plastic keyboard, there's just a ton going on here. It's got the 'professional' vibe that BlackBerry is known for, but there are too many lines for it to ever be stylish.
It also lacks any official waterproofing, which is a disappointment given how much it costs.
At the center of the KeyOne is a 4.5-inch IPS display. It has a resolution of 1620x1080, which is more than sharp enough. It's not the brightest I've used, and colours aren't nearly as vivid as they are with the best OLED displays, such as the one on the Galaxy S8. But phone screens have become so good in recent years that even a middle-of-the-road option like this should be perfectly fine for most.
It's also small. That's not a bad thing in and of itself, but because the phone itself is fairly big, the small screen mostly serves to make watching videos and playing games less enjoyable.
If there was any doubt over how this phone is meant for working more than entertainment, that should squash it.
The bigger source of awkwardness is how tall the display is. It has a 3:2 aspect ratio, which makes the KeyOne a bit narrower that some of its peers. This allows you to see more of a webpage than you would otherwise, which is great, but it means you'll get letterboxing -- i.e., black bars on the sides -- with some videos.
It also makes easier to wrap your hand around the width of the phone, but more difficult to reach from top to bottom with one hand. If you want to text with any sort of speed, you'll likely have to use two hands.
One particularly useful feature is the 'convenience key.' It's nothing new, but it lets you program a shortcut to an app of your choosing. If you're a Twitter addict, for instance, you can set it so tapping the button on the KeyOne's side immediately opens Twitter, regardless of where you are in the phone.
As for the rest of the hardware, there's a USB-C port on the bottom, and a headphone jack on its top. Flanking the USB-C port are a couple of speakers, which sound fine, but aren't as loud as they could be.
The big deal, though, is that keyboard. It has 35 buttons in total, with the full QWERTY layout, and additional numbers and characters tied to each key beyond that. Cleverly, the KeyOne also bakes the fingerprint sensor into the space bar; that didn't give me any major issues, but it could stand to be a bit faster.
That said, this was a pre-production unit, so BlackBerry could tidy that up before the retail release.
Everything about the KeyOne hinges on this. The keyboard is a jarring shift away from the all-touch phones, and it is constantly and significantly slower than swiping along a virtual keyboard. That said, using physical keys makes it far easier to avoid typos, and there's still an odd sense of delight that comes from having something tactile in your hands. It's like holding a Polaroid in a world where your photos are usually kept behind a screen.
The layout itself feels a bit cramped at first, but over time, I came to enjoy the feeling of knowing that what I typed would always be exactly what shows up onscreen. Too often, swiping a virtual keyboard results in weird autocorrects or suggestions you don't want. Here, there's no guesswork. The keys are clicky and responsive.
TCL is selling the KeyOne on the idea of it being more productive, though. The keyboard doesn't help with that. The iPhone bet right when it said most people could do more with virtual keys, so, unless you've somehow never been able to make the transition, the reasons for liking this are more aesthetic than pragmatic. It will have its audience, but there's little reason to convert if you're not into the idea of a physical keyboard already
For what it's worth, the KeyOne does what it can to adapt its physical keyboard to Android. It's touch-enabled, so you can swipe across the keys to scroll through whatever you're reading onscreen. This mostly worked, but I did have some moments where it wasn't precise. More useful is the ability to program app shortcuts to each key. If you're always using Snapchat, for instance, you can make it so long-pressing 'S' takes you right there.
Another clever feature lets you flick up to quickly select a suggested word while typing.
All of this stuff was featured on BlackBerry's last proper phone, the Priv, but it still makes the keyboard a little more comfortable to use with a modern smartphone. Still, getting comfortable with these things takes time, and they mostly exist to solve problems that the keyboard creates in the first place.
Beneath the hood, the KeyOne runs on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 625 chip and 3 GB of RAM. It's not the smoothest with gaming, but it's speedy enough to do most of the things you normally do on a phone without significant delay. The problem is that chip can be found on phones that cost about $300 less.
In terms of pure performance, the KeyOne is competing more with the Moto G5 Plus than the Galaxy S8. It works well enough for most, but you can just do faster for the price, and it likely won't be as robust over time. Again, the story here is how much value you put in that physical keyboard.
The upshot of the Snapdragon 625 is that it's efficient. That, combined with a beefy 3,505 mAh battery, means the KeyOne gets lots of battery life. It's not the longest-lasting I've used, but I could consistently get through a heavy work day without worry. It also recharges quickly, and the optional 'boost mode' that lets you shuts down background processes while the phone is refilling is particularly handy.
I did experience an issue that caused the KeyOne's battery to drain faster than normal when in standby, but a recent software update from TCL appears to have patched that up during the review process.
While TCL is making the KeyOne's hardware, BlackBerry still runs the software show. For the most part, that's a positive: The whole thing runs on Android 7.1 Nougat, which is about the most recent version, and it doesn't try to totally revamp the clean interface that Google has already put together.
It does pre-load a good chunk of BlackBerry apps, but those aren't the worst add-ons. The BlackBerry Hub app lets you bunch up texts, email accounts, Slack messages, and the like in one handy spot (though it takes some tinkering to avoid being a mess); the 'Productivity Tab' is a slide-out menu that quickly shows your upcoming calendar events and text messages wherever you are (and is totally removable if you don't want it); and BlackBerry Messenger is still BlackBerry Messenger.
BlackBerry has built a reputation for selling secure software, so TCL is playing up the KeyOne as a safer device than its peers. But, this being an Android phone, some of that is overblown -- things like fully encrypted storage are standard on all recent Android devices, and BlackBerry's DTEK app, while useful as a centralised place for security settings, is mostly a placebo for managing permissions you could manage in the main settings app already. If a big exploit arrives, there's no way to guarantee the KeyOne won't be affected.
The real value here is in how quickly BlackBerry updates its phones to support Google's monthly security patches. An extraordinary number of Android devices neglect to do this regularly, leaving themselves open to potential exploits. BlackBerry is one of the few that takes it seriously, and has generally been good about keeping things up-to-date every month.
That said, it won't be as fast as Google's own Nexus or Pixel devices, which get their updates straight from the source. Those phones will be much quicker to get overall Android updates, too, since BlackBerry will still have to manage the usual mess of carrier testing before getting new versions of the OS.
The KeyOne's camera isn't in that top tier occupied by the Galaxy S8 and Google Pixel, but it's respectable. It's a 12-megapixel shooter with an aperture of f/2.0. Photos are sharp, with good detail and generally accurate (if not lush) colours in good light. BlackBerry's camera app is easy to manage, too.
It isn't as nimble with autofocusing as some of its peers, however, and the lack of optical image stabilisation means you'll need steady hands to avoid blurring. Like most phones, it can also produce a fair bit of noise and lost detail in darker settings -- but it doesn't totally fall apart, and its flash is actually decent.
For what it's worth, the 8-megapixel front camera will hold its own for Skype calls, but produces photos that are often too soft to be anything special.
The BlackBerry KeyOne is a classic 'candy bar' phone for modern times. Its niche will probably love it -- it looks like a BlackBerry, feels like a BlackBerry, it lasts long, and its keyboard is both clicky and cleverly put together. For the rest of the world, it's too pricey for what it's packing.
For a higher-end Android phone, we recommend the Google Pixel and Galaxy S8, in that order -- though a follow-up to the former is coming in the next few months. The OnePlus 3T is much faster for more than $US100 less, meanwhile, while LG's G6 and Huawei's Mate 9 are premium options as well.
None of those phones can really compare to what the KeyOne is doing, though. That's the point. TCL has made a device that caters well to what keyboard-craving users are left -- the questions now are how big that group actually is, and if it's priced itself out of favour with them. History suggests it has a long road ahead of it.
The unlocked version of KeyOne will be available in the US on May 31, and will support all four major mobile networks. The device will be sold through carriers later this summer. TCL has confirmed that Sprint will be one provider.
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