If your love affair with smartphones started before the iPhone, you probably had a phone with a physical keyboard. For most Nokia fans, devices like the Nokia E7 and Nokia N97 bring back certain memories. For others, there's devices like the BlackBerry Tour, or the HTC Desire Tilt. For me, the Nokia N900 brings back fond memories of a simpler time.
QWERTY keyboards may have been replaced by sleek, dark slabs, but BlackBerry has proven there is a market for keyboard-equipped phones. Now, there's another option – meet the F(x)tec Pro1, a slider phone with a large screen and a 5-row QWERTY keyboard.
Check out the MrMobile hands on – can this phone steal his keyboard-loving heart?
One of the F(x)tec co-founders, Liangchen Chen, was involved in the failed project to bring a QWERTY keyboard mod to the Moto Z series, but that didn't deter him. Instead, he teamed up with Adrian Li Mow Ching and Leon Feng to build the modern slider that they always wanted to use.
The F(x)tec Pro1 is the spiritual successor to devices like the Nokia N900 and E7, both of which were the inspiration for this throwback to the past. It's more than just a remake of a classic however, as it's got the flagship specs list many of its ancestors lacked. It also has several subtle tweaks to the design and user experience, which aim to address key pain points with previous devices.
Take the N900 for example; it was a beautiful device – I remember lining up at the Nokia flagship store on London's Regent Street to buy one – but the top row of keys pushed up right against the screen. Adrian told us in a briefing at MWC that the company took special care to ensure the top row of keys was slightly smaller on the F(x)tec Pro1, in order to address this problem.
Similarly, a big problem with landscape keyboards – and something that BlackBerry's keyboard resolves – is the added distance between keys. To combat that, and ensure the typing experience is comfortable, FxTec has clustered the letter keys in the middle of the keyboard. This has also meant lots of added space for keys such as Control, Shift, Fn, Symbol, Escape, Arrow keys and two delete keys. We're told the company is also planning to enable key mapping like a BlackBerry device, so you can set different keys as shortcuts to launch certain features or applications.
The hinge pushes out to 155 degrees but feels surprisingly solid in the hand. That's the best thing about this phone – everything feels well-built. There's also that reassuring snap when you slide the keyboard open. The keyboard itself is fantastic to type on – I wasn't expecting it to, but it was gorgeous to type on. The company says the early engineering sample we used is only about 75% ready, which means there'll be more refinements before the phone launches in July.
What about beyond the keyboard? The specs we mentioned before are plentiful, including a large 6-inch AMOLED screen, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, a type-C port with HDMI out and a 2-stage camera button that's reminiscent of Nokia phones of old. The bottom is aluminum meaning there's no wireless charging, while the rest of the phone is cast out of magnesium to deliver a sturdy, yet lightweight, overall profile.
The volume of the phone means there's also space for dual speakers – which are quite loud – a dual camera (the main sensor is the 12MP sensor used in the Pixel 3), and a 3,200mAh battery with quick charging support. It runs on Android Pie with a mostly stock-like experience, although F(x)tec have made some tweaks to ensure the landscape mode works on the homescreen and in certain apps.
Of course, there are some compromises every time someone tries to build a smartphone this niche. The display is only Full HD+ so it's not super-sharp but is plenty detailed. It's protected by the older Gorilla Glass 3 standard, which means it isn't as durable as newer devices. The Snapdragon 835 processor powering the entire package is two generations old, and not as fast as the latest Snapdragon 855. When you consider the $649 price tag, we might have expected to see better specs, but the processor should still deliver the performance you'd expect from a niche flagship product.
Ultimately, F(x)tec know one thing for certain – they are offering something that's not available anywhere else. For example, take my father – he held onto his trusted BlackBerry Bold for years beyond its expected life span and still loves the Nokia E90 communicator. He's now using a Galaxy Note 9 (after several years on Galaxy devices), but still laments the loss of the keyboard. There are many people out there who miss the devices of old, and the F(x)tec certainly delivers on this promise.
Whether there are enough of these folks to make the Pro1 a success remains to be seen. Similarly, whether the company can deliver on the hardware inside the camera, make the software responsive to a form factor that's not traditionally supported by Android, and deliver excellent battery life are all questions we'll have to answer in a full review.
In the meantime, I'm super excited that one of my favorite devices in history has been reborn and I cannot wait to spend more time with it. Are you excited by it? Let us know in the comments below!