It wasn’t always about touchscreen smartphones in the past. While the world has already moved on to modern touchscreens devices, there are some who still prefer powerful productivity devices to get the job done on the go. BlackBerry isn’t just giving up yet and we now have with us the new TCL manufactured BlackBerry KEYone. Read our review of the BlackBerry KEYone below.
Design and Keyboard
Back in 2016 when BlackBerry had announced their departure from producing smartphones, the Canadian company decided to design keyboard-equipped smartphone for one last time, despite the weak reception of the BlackBerry PRIV. TCL, who currently holds the licensing rights to manufacture and sell BlackBerry branded smartphones, officially started off with the DTEK 50 and the DTEK 60, and the latest being the all-new BlackBerry KEYone.
The day when the KEYone arrived at our office, we had also received the latest HTC U11 and the Samsung Galaxy S8 for review. Upon using the Samsung and HTC flagships, it felt to me like was holding a gadget made of precious gems from the future. But the KEYone gave off the impression that it’s a serious working tool for getting the job done in the right way.
The KEYone isn’t the typical smartphone that you would expect with thin bezels and body profiles. As you can see, the KEYone is quite thick, measuring 9.4mm and weighing 180g. That said, I was surprised that the smartphone felt right in my hands and well balanced, without any strain of using a heavy device. The design on the edges features a unique aluminum frame that seamlessly flows towards the back panel.
The main display is 4.5-inches in size and features an aspect ratio of 3:2 that’s beneficial for the perfect reading screen ratio. The IPS display has great viewing angles. The edge of the display features a slight curvature that connects seamlessly with the curved aluminum frame. While the display of our review unit has cool color temperatures, I did come across retail units that had warmer colors and all the settings were the same.
The curved edge of the display serves as the shortcut to quickly access messages, contacts, and settings. You can also see the battery charging status on the edge panel while charging the smartphone. On the top of the display are the 8MP front camera, the large phone speaker, and the sensor. Speaking of charging, the USB Type-C port is situated at the bottom of the device with two speaker grills placed on either side of the port. The sound quality of the speakers is quite good, although the audio felt muddy at times. The button placements of the smartphone include the power button on the top left side and the volume rockers, and the Convenience Key on the right. For all those right-handed users out there, accessing the left-sided power button is going to a bit of a problem to always reach and will take some time in getting used to it.
I tried to see if the Convenience Key can be programmed to act as the power button but that wasn’t possible. That said, the buttons are quite well built with no wobbling issues as you would notice in cheap smartphones. The smartphone also has a headphone jack on the top.
Some of the BlackBerry smartphones come with a soft textured finish on the rear and the KEYone follows the same tradition. There is no doubt that the soft back panel helps a lot to comfortably hold the smartphone with better grip. The 12MP camera module on the rear side is very large with a silver rim and complimented with the dual-tone flash. I guess BlackBerry loves to use large camera modules on their flagships.
Now comes the best part. If there is anyone who knows how to do smartphone keyboards right, it’s undoubtedly BlackBerry. For so long have I been waiting for BlackBerry to introduce a smartphone that features a built-in keyboard and a design that isn’t so fancy like the slider based BlackBerry PRIV. The KEYone with its keyboard reminds me of the old candy-bar style Nokia smartphones.
Each row of the keyboard is separated by the same kind of silver rims that’s seen on older BlackBerry devices. The keys are backlit and the tactile feedback is quite good with a pleasing audible sound for each press. The keys are made of soft plastic which is not a bad thing. Keep in mind that the KEYone units sold in the UAE have Arabic letters also included in the keyboard.
Besides the usual QWERTY keyboard layout, there are two CAPS keys on either side, the enter key, a symbol key that actually pops up the onscreen keyboard, the ALT key, spacebar, and a dedicated mic key. Speaking of which, BlackBerry did a smart move by embedding the fingerprint scanner within the spacebar. You can unlock the device with the spacebar scanner without the need of reaching the awkwardly placed power button. The speed of the fingerprint scanner is really fast. The spacebar also features two tiny lights that blink when you wake the display from the sleep state. Quite a handy feature when you are in a dark situation.
Upon using the keyboard for a few hours, I was quite impressed with the typing comfort and the easiness of using it. There was a bit of strain on my right hand at times for the first two days, but I can assure you that strain was subsiding and I used the keyboard like a champ. I enjoyed typing this review on the KEYone where ever I went: at work while standing in the metro, while walking around the Ibn Battuta Mall, in the Nova Cinema and while walking through the streets of Karama. In short, I’m kind of addicted with this keyboard.
Specification and Performance
While the device is sold at a premium price, the BlackBerry KEYone features the power-efficient Snapdragon 625 processor that’s based on the 14nm fabrication. The chip includes eight low-power Cortex A53 cores, clocked at 2GHz speed. The smartphone also comes with 3GB RAM and 32GB internal storage with an option to expand using a MicroSD card.
Along with the latest Android 7.1.1 Nougat OS, the KEYone comes pre-installed with the best of BlackBerry software and security enhancements. Some of them include the BlackBerry Hub that combines all your emails and messages in one place, the DTEK by BlackBerry to monitor the privacy and security aspects of the device, the good old BBM, Password Keeper and more. Users will also be able to program all the alphabetic keys on the keyboard as shortcuts for applications, which is very ingenious. It’s also great to use the split-screen functionality without worrying about the onscreen keyboard that usually takes over a large portion of the display, thanks to the physical keyboard. Despite the lack of a high-end processor, the KEYone performed exceptionally well all the time. After using most of the social messengers and memory hungry applications such as Facebook application, Twitch, YouTube and Chrome, I didn’t notice any degradation in performance. My Antutu test run got a score of 63307 points.
However, there are some bugs and performance factors that BlackBerry should address. Opening applications with the programmable keys on the keyboard is slightly slower than opening from the main screen. I’m talking about just a few milliseconds of delay, so there is no need to get worked up about it. I also noticed that the scrolling gesture of the keyboard for web pages and menu lists aren't as smooth as using the main touchscreen display.
Out of all the BlackBerry devices released till date, the KEYone holds the best smartphone camera combination. The main camera is the very same image sensor that’s used in the Google Pixel smartphone. It’s a 12MP Sony image sensor that’s backed with an aperture of F2.0. The aperture is good enough to create smooth background bokeh and improve low-light photography.
You can choose the camera aspect ratio of 1:1, 3:2, 4:3, or the standard 16:9. The camera is capable of capturing video at 720p/1080p with 24fps, 30fps, and 60fps and 4K at 24fps and 30fps. However, it was odd that the camera didn’t allow to use video stabilization for 1080p 60fps and 4K. The camera also features HDR, Panorama mode and more. Users will be able to use manual controls for the camera. The front 8MP camera comes with an aperture of F2.2 and 1080p 30fps video recording.
The camera performance of the main camera is quite good during the daytime. However, I did notice that the processing time takes a toll when HDR is on. Night shots are just decent, to say the least with some visible noise and some blur due to the lack of proper optical image stabilization. The front camera image quality is just normal as compared to other devices. Check out some of the same images below.
The KEYone houses a large 3505 mAh with Quick Charge support. However, you do get an option to activate Boost Mode while you connect the USB Type-C cable. Boost Mode basically clocks down all the features so that the smartphone can charge more quickly. Applications that require real-time syncing will only do only when you open the application in Boost Mode. Upon my usage, the KEYone was able to go on for a day and a half while I typed articles, checked emails, IM messengers and YouTube. One hour of YouTube streaming at FHD resolution took 15% battery, while on WiFi. I also ran the PC Mark battery life test that lasted for 6 hours and 45 minutes.
With all the touchscreen smartphones around, many would wonder why would you ever need a device with a built-in keyboard. It’s not just about the type of input, rather, it’s the feel and satisfaction that you get after typing with the world’s best Android keyboard. The screen isn’t as big as what the competition offers. But that’s the whole point because there is enough screen estate for any user whose sole purpose of wanting the KEYone is to experience a great QWERTY keyboard. And I can tell you that it feels very good to get back to the traditional button input than a touchscreen. It’s nostalgic for sure.
The performance is solid but with some minor bugs that can be rectified and the battery life is also fantastic. The camera is good, but certainly not the best around. The build quality is top-notch despite the thickness and it fits comfortably well in any hand. However, the smartphone doesn’t boast features like dual-SIM, water resistance, and wireless charging, but it does have a fingerprint scanner, which is a first in a BlackBerry designed smartphone and NFC connectivity. I’m glad that BlackBerry didn’t omit the MicroSD card slot and the headphone jack, which is becoming a trend for many smartphone makers.
Overall, the BlackBerry KEYone is an Android smartphone that’s highly recommended for any power user or any previous BlackBerry user who wants a solid-performing smartphone. The price is a bit steep for its specifications, but BlackBerry has certainly caught my attention and many others around. The BlackBerry KEYone Android smartphone is priced at AED 1999 in Dubai, UAE.