I was in the audience when BlackBerry announced the BlackBerry Z10. The CEO at the time, Thorsten Heins, proclaimed "BlackBerry is back!" Of course, that was just the start of BlackBerry 10, which didn't do much to change the company's fortunes in the face of competition from iOS and Android. BlackBerry wasn't "back" and while it's still sticking with that operating system, it's also finally and rightly, trying something new.
That's where the Priv comes in. It's the company's first foray into a smartphone that runs a full version of Android. But it doesn't compromise on what some of us still love about BlackBerry – the hardware keyboard, the dedication to security, and top-notch hardware design.
Jon Rettinger and I have been testing two BlackBerry Priv units, both on AT&T, for the past couple of weeks. One is a review unit and the second I bought on my personal AT&T account. Yes, like others out there, I've been antsy for a BlackBerry that runs Android.
We're not here to report back on whether or not this device will "save the company " as so many people have asked, but rather to report back on how well the phone executes on BlackBerry's attempt to build a good Android phone.
Spoiler: It's darn good.
There are aspects of the hardware that I love and some that I don't. The large Quad HD display is pretty good. The viewing angles are solid, and the curved edges create an almost bezel-less look. It doesn't get as bright as competing devices, which bothered me but not Jon, but is otherwise crisp and colorful.
There's a large speaker along the bottom of the phone that gets pretty loud, though not as loud as one might think given the size of it. I do like that it's forward-facing, though, which was great for gaming, watching movies or taking a speakerphone phone call on my desk.
The button placement is a bit awkward, I don't like how the power button is on one side far away from the volume keys, and that there's an additional key between the volume buttons. That's supposed to be for toggling the silent mode on and off, but it pulls up a menu that requires you to do it. I wish it just turned the option on and off.
I love the soft touch back. BlackBerry described it as a glass weave. It feels grippy enough that you don't feel like you're going to drop it, but not overly gummy like it has residue on it. It's nice and soft and, even after more than a week in my pocket, still looks brand new without any scratches.
The keyboard is great, and I got used to typing on it for almost every task from emails to participating in GroupMe and Slack texts. I wish there was a way to squeeze in a dedicated number row, but BlackBerry has those doubled up on some keys, or available through software keyboards that can be accessed by swiping up on the hardware keyboard. There's a good amount of travel for each key, and while typing felt cramped at first, I was flying away after a couple of days.
The sliding mechanism feels solid and I suspect it will easily hold up for use. BlackBerry said it specifically tested this so that users don't have to worry about deterioration over time. I did notice, however, that the phone creaks a bit when the keyboard is stowed away. I suspect this is because of the extra parts needed for this all to work, and it doesn't feel cheap, it just gives a bit when you press on the back or front of the device, as if something is wobbling.
You'll find a USB port on the bottom of the phone, next to a 3.5mm headphone jack, and an 18-megapixel Schneider-Kreusnach camera on the back with dual-LED flash. The top of the phone is home to a nanoSIM tray and a microSD card slot. The latter is a must-have for me, so I'm glad it's an option.
Finally, the BlackBerry Priv also supports wireless charging in the U.S. if you buy it from ShopBlackBerry or AT&T. It's slow to charge this way, and the charging seems to be somewhere near the butt of the phone, so it doesn't sit well on my charging pads. But Qi is there if you want to use it. I wasn't able to test PMA support.
In general, I think the BlackBerry Priv looks and operates like an expensive, first-class smartphone. It'll be right at home in suit pockets, but still offers a unique and playful curved design.
The BlackBerry Priv runs Android 5.1.1 Lollipop. Don't expect to jump to Marshmallow anytime soon – the company says it's working on it, but you likely won't get the update until 2016. That's OK by us, because BlackBerry keeps the experience pretty close to stock.
There are some neat BlackBerry features laid on top of Lollipop, though it doesn't feel as wallpapered as something like TouchWiz does. You can hold the circle menu button – the home button – to bring up Google Now, Blackberry Device Search application or BlackBerry Hub. The first two are self-explanatory, and the third will be familiar to BlackBerry 10 users.
BlackBerry Hub provides an all-encompassing space for most notifications, such as email and calendar alerts, Facebook and Twitter notifications and more. It can feel like information overload at times, and while it's convenient to have a home for everything, I was receiving duplicate notifications for Gmail and other apps. Sure, I can turn off one, but then BlackBerry Hub starts to feel less convenient. Also, with two email accounts, several calendars, Twitter and Facebook coming in, the experience got sluggish at times. I suspect BlackBerry can improve this with future updates.
There are some other unique functions that BlackBerry added. The notification shade is tweaked to show apps that have activity – like a notification in Periscope or a breaking news story in CNN. Each just has a red star on it to let you know something is up. Additionally, there's a function for apps on the home screen that lets you view widgets by swiping down across them. It's the same batch of widgets that you can apply to your home screen, and they pop up with each swipe. It's convenient and a nice touch I'd like to see incorporated by other launchers.
BlackBerry's software also takes advantage of the curved display. A swipe from the side of the screen, where there's a small customizable bar, will show you a peak at the calendar, BlackBerry Hub, a To-Do list or your favorite contacts. It's clean and fast, and I mostly used it for quickly peaking at my upcoming calendar appointments. Of all the features BlackBerry loaded on the phone, this is the one I liked most.
BlackBerry takes advantage of the curved display to show a small charging indicator as the phone charges. A line that runs along the edge will increase in size and change from red to yellow to green as the battery juices up. I really enjoyed this feature, but it's not groundbreaking by any means.
I enjoyed the software in general but will note once again that it's not all perfect. The system got a bit sluggish at times with a lot of apps running. There were also some bugs that I noticed but Jon didn't. My system would hang at times and become unresponsive for about 5 seconds. I also ran into an issue where my phone would crash every single time I tried to change the default calendar. I worked with BlackBerry tech support and filed an official bug report, but still don't have a solution.
Jon never ran into this bug, though he was running slightly newer software that wasn't available for my AT&T-branded unit. That raises another point worth making: BlackBerry will issue updates faster to phones purchased through ShopBlackBerry.com, so you might want to consider that before buying a carrier-branded unit.
BlackBerry says that the name "Priv" stands for Privacy and Privilege. The latter seems more like marketing speak, but the former is important to most of us in an age where it seems like everyone's vulnerable to prying eyes. BlackBerry says it bolstered the Android kernel with additional security features like "Hardware Root of Trust," which the company describes "a hardware-based root of trust is established during processor manufacturing by injecting cryptographic material that's later used for device authentication and secure boot." The secure boot sequence guarantees only a BlackBerry signed OS can be booted and constantly analyzes the hardware and software for any tampering.
Most users won't run into these features, which is sort of the point. BlackBerry wants to offer a secure phone without getting in your hair. There is a compelling application called DTEK that lets you know how secure your device is, and which apps have access to what permissions. An indicator points to red for an insecure phone, yellow for a moderately secure one and green for an excellent security rating. I let Facebook have access to my location, for example, but can prevent other random third-party apps that don't need my location to function from accessing it. With a device lock screen code active, data encryption active, and factory reset protection on, I had an excellent rating. Leaving developer options on and allowing some apps that I didn't download from the Google Play Store to run decreased my score a bit.
Sure, there are third party applications that offer what DTEK does, but I have a hard time believing a lot of consumers think about that naturally. It's nice that BlackBerry puts this front and center.
The BlackBerry Priv features two cameras, a 2-megapixel front-facing camera and an 18-megapixel rear-facing shooter. The primary camera is slow, but churns out some pretty solid pictures in all lighting conditions. I actually went into this review not expecting much from it, considering that BlackBerry's cameras of late haven't really wowed me at all. But, turns out, I was wrong.
The camera was reliable and took solid pictures out at dinner in low-light situations, in gray skies out on the golf course, and on sunny days around town. I noticed that it takes about a second to capture, which is slower than most phones these days, and my camera seemed to be slower than Jon's which was running newer software. That suggests that performance can be tweaked in the future.
I don't do a lot of filming, but I shot some 4K video using the Priv and it turned out pretty solid when I played it back on the screen. I wish there were other options, like Time Lapse, which I've enjoyed using on other devices recently, but it doesn't have that option natively.
The front-facing camera is pretty laughably bad. The resolution isn't up to snuff and the colors are all wrong. I often had a blue hue to my face unless the lighting was perfect. Outside on a really bright day, during a football game, the camera was OK. Otherwise, it wasn't worth using at all. So don't buy this phone if you're after really great selfies.
It's funny, the TechnoBuffalo team was just joking about how we really don't need a section for "call quality" any longer, since most phones these days are more than capable of performing admirably without frequent dropped calls. I won't bring back the section yet, but I do want to bring up one issue I had. The BlackBerry Priv had a harder time maintaining a signal inside my apartment than other phones. It typically had about 1 bar or less (no signal at all), while others usually maintain 2-3 bars of service. It didn't seem to be an issue in any other area than my apartment, but I just wanted to mention it.
As for performance, the Snapdragon 808 processor handled most tasks and gaming just fine. With a bunch of apps running, however, I did notice a slowdown as I moved through the operating system. It was never too bogged down to handle, but there's a noticeable difference between the Priv and the LG V10, which has the same processor but 4GB of RAM.
I ran an Antutu benchmark for the folks who prefer to hear the raw numbers. It scored a 42,583, which is lower than last year's Galaxy Note 4, the ZenFone 2, the G4, the MX5, the Moto X Style, the Nexus 6, the M9 and several other phones. In other words, the performance seems to be on a par with last year's handsets. But, again, this is just a benchmark and didn't seem to reflect real world performance, which I thought was just fine.
Finally, I was usually able to get through a full day of use out of the BlackBerry Priv. Sometimes I needed to charge at my desk to give myself an extra boost toward the end of the day, just in case I felt I was running low before dinner or something, and that's when the Quick Charge 2.0 support was appreciated. It's supported, though the Priv doesn't ship with a Quick Charge 2.0 charger in the box, so I had to use one I have on hand.
"It's easily one of the top phones of the year and earns our "Buy" rating."
I'm not going to beat around the bush, you should buy the BlackBerry Priv. I think many of the folks who are asking whether or not they should buy it are the ones who, for years, have been saying they wished that BlackBerry would just make an Android phone. Well, it's here now, and you should show your support by buying it.
The BlackBerry Priv performs really well and I dig its focus on security in an age where I feel I can't be too careful. I really, really like the physical keyboard, which I'm more than accustomed to. I also dig that the camera is good enough, if a bit slow. Pair that with a solid AMOLED Quad HD display and expandable storage, and I really have a phone that checks all the boxes for me.
I think the BlackBerry Priv is a treat – BlackBerry fans are going to love it, and so will Android users. It's easily one of the top phones of the year and earns our "Buy" rating. As the title says – yep, I'm in love with a BlackBerry again.
Disclaimer: I used a BlackBerry Priv I bought from AT&T for 10 days before writing this review. Jon used a review unit from BlackBerry for about two weeks.
- Great design
- Solid battery life
- Good keyboard
- Wireless charging
- Slightly buggy
- Slow camera
- Front-facing camera is really bad
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