I’ve written a lot of reviews over time, but this is probably the most difficult one I have had to write in a while.
That’s because the BlackBerry Priv for me—an ardent BlackBerry follower and honorary member of the Android Army, the device represents many things at once—A BlackBerry, an android device, the start of something new and possibly the end of an era. The device embodies so much that every time I have picked it up in the past few weeks, I have felt a rush of emotions.
On that backdrop, let’s get into the review. However for some context, I should state that before picking up this device for review, I’ve lived for the better part of a year with a BlackBerry (Passport) and a Samsung (Galaxy S4) as my main devices side-by-side, an arrangement often punctuated by an iPhone which I use as a backup device or other review devices, but on most days, I have had those two devices by my side.
Hardware design has always been a BlackBerry strong point, and in more ways than one, the Priv represents the pinnacle of the BlackBerry engineering team’s efforts over time. It’s sleek, modern and “hip” without losing the “all business” aura that has become synonymous with BlackBerry hardware. In a sea of android black slabs, BlackBerry has managed to carve a device that stands out without being loud.
As impressive as the looks are, the real engineering genius is not in what you see. First, while the device isn’t a lot thicker than most of its peers, it houses a full QWERTY keyboard underneath its display. Even with the device in hand, the slide out keyboard isn’t apparent, in fact during the review period, I’ve had people pick it up, play with it and return it without realising that it had a physical keyboard; thanks to how well distributed the device’s weight is. This balance is amplified when you pull out the keyboard. Its fully extended self isn’t top-heavy like you would expect. It’s balanced.
The screen slides up (or down depending if you’re pulling the keyboard out or sheathing it) smoothly and snaps in place with a satisfying click. BlackBerry claims the mechanism, which it calls SmartSlide is made from aircraft-grade aluminium and having used the device for a bit, there’s no reason to dispute that it is. It’s solid.
However, for all the genius on display, there’s one nagging issue with the Priv’s hardware. For some weird reason, there’s some empty, clickable space at the back of the device, which just doesn’t flow with the build quality everywhere else on the Priv. It’s almost as if BlackBerry had intended to put something there and changed their minds at the last minute. At first, I assumed it was just a problem with my device, but a second device had the same issue.
The first thing that will probably catch your eye about the Priv is the aluminium base on which its edge-to-edge curved, 5.4-inch display sits. The next thing that catches your eye would probably be the display itself—its beautiful.
It’s an AMOLED, covered in Corning Gorilla glass 4, curved at both sides with a resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels and 540 DPI. I typically go into reviews wanting to find shortcomings about everything, but I honestly can’t put my hand on any in the case of the Priv’s display. It’s up there with the very best displays out now.
If I was being nit-picky, I’ll say the curved edges really add nothing to the viewing experience. They definitely make the device a lot easier to hold and a lot easier on the eyes though. In terms of functionality, they do get some use, first as a cool battery indicator that keeps you posted on the battery status while the device is charging and there is also an activity tab, out of the way on the right side of the display which you can pull up to provide you with the most pertinent info from Hub, Calendar, Task, and Contacts at a glance.
Underneath the display is a front facing stereo speaker, which compliments the display well, when you’re watching videos. It is loud without being noisy and recreates a wide variety of sounds with amazing depth and detail.
[blockquote right=”pull-right”]A lot of the buzz the Priv has gotten isn’t about the screen though, but rather about the keyboard underneath it[/blockquote]
First there’s the debate whether hardware keyboards have a place at all in the smartphones of today considering how good software keyboards have gotten. There’s also the curiosity to see whether BlackBerry, which traditionally makes the best keyboards in the business will be able to tame android, because up until the Priv android arguably hasn’t had any decent hardware keyboard.
The keyboard itself is what you will expect from BlackBerry—well-spaced, angled, easy-to-hit keys in the QWERTY layout. However it’s not the standard BlackBerry affair. It’s custom built with the Priv in mind, you won’t find the frets between the rows you may remember from the Bolds, Q10, the Classic and the Passport, but they are also a clearly different design from fretless BlackBerry Curve keyboards of the past. What’s important though is, the keyboard works well (much better than I expected if I am being honest). If you have ever used a BlackBerry you will feel at home at once with the keyboard. It will do all that you remember, from the keyboard shortcuts, to selecting text. Everything is translated from BlackBerry to android flawlessly.
Beyond being an input method, similar to the Passport, the Priv’s keyboard is also a touch sensitive track-pad you can use to scroll and navigate your way around the device. This is particularly helpful when you are reading a book, or browsing a webpage. The ability to use the whole screen without the interruptions of your fingers is great.
If you’re coming from the BlackBerry Passport though, the keyboard may feel a bit cramped at first, but considering how wide the Passport is, that’s understandable.
BlackBerry’s excellent BlackBerry 10 software keyboard has also been ported to android for the Priv and it’s pretty much identical to what’s obtainable on BlackBerry 10, with swipe-able word suggestions embedded into the keyboard to flow with your typing sequence. It’s as brilliant, maybe a tiny bit slower than on BlackBerry 10, but I’m not sure if that’s actually true or if it’s a bias. In any case, there’s a host of 3rd party keyboards on Google Play if you need more options. So far, I haven’t found the need for one.
Neither keyboard feels like it was built for a rigid purpose, I find myself using the physical keyboard to scroll and type long emails or posts, while the software keyboard is mostly relegated to instant messaging and one-handed use. Each individual’s usage will vary, and I think it’s great that you get the options.
At a time when most OEMs are dialling back to 12-megapixels as the default option for main cameras, the BlackBerry Priv ships with an 18-megapixel Schneider-Kreuznach® certified one, with dual LED flash and Optical Image Stabilization.
[blockquote right=”pull-right”]It’s pretty good. However, it’s slow.[/blockquote]
It’s pretty good. However, it’s slow. The delay between when you hit the shutter button and when the image is actually taken is at least half a second and that sometimes is the difference between an epic shot and meme material. The delay also means there’s a high incidence of blurry shots as a result of moving on after tapping the shutter button without waiting for the image to be processed.
Aside from the lag, there are no other complaints about the camera. When you do take a good shot, the results are amazingly detailed, even in low lighting conditions. The camera UI is well thought out as well, with most of what you will need even as an advanced photographer (such as manual exposure adjustment) accessible as menus layered on the viewfinder without feeling cluttered.
The camera also has a few neat tricks, which further extend the experience. For instance, there’s a pretty neat live-filter mode, which lets you take photos with a filter on. Holding down the shutter button will take in burst shots of 5 frames per second, and BlackBerry has also made the volume keys and space bar on the keyboard shutter buttons so you can comfortably pull off shots regardless of the orientation.
The camera is also great for shooting videos and comes with 6DOF video stabilization, 4x digital zooms, 4K video at 30fps and1080p video at 60fps capabilities.
[blockquote right=”pull-right”]The front camera is a standard 2-megapixel camera that like most front cameras is nothing to write home about.[/blockquote]
Here are a few sample photos with the camera.
So far, I’ve talked majorly about the hardware visible on the outside, with the general opinion that they are mostly solid. The insides aren’t any different. With 3GB RAM, a Snapdragon 808 Hexa-Core (64 bit) processor, 32GB storage expandable by up to 2 TB, via microSD and pretty much all the other hardware options you’ll expect from a 2016 flagship (technically it’s a 2015 device, which makes it all the more impressive) it’s got everything an android device needs to be great given the right software.
[blockquote right=”pull-right”]So how then does BlackBerry software fare?[/blockquote]
BlackBerry’s take on the software of the Priv is one, most android purists will like. Visually, there’s not a lot of difference between the BlackBerry launcher and vanilla android, and while BlackBerry has made a few customizations, more often than not; they are out of your way, enhance the experience and can be turned off at will if you don’t like them.
The general theme with regards to BlackBerry’s approach to android seems to be not to break anything that works, while subtly adding layers of BlackBerry security and productivity enhancements. Some of those enhancements make android a lot more useful to me.
For instance, one of my annoyances with android pre-marshmallow is the messy app permission situation. The Priv while still on lollipop offers you a granular way to disable whatever app permission you choose to. BlackBerry also tackles the problem of widgets, which while useful, often fill up the screen too fast to have all your favourite apps display them. You can swipe up or down on the icon of pretty much any app that supports widgets to see the widget pop-up. Then, there are the quick action icons which let you jump right into an action (e.g composing an email or jumping right into your BlackBerry calendar), which are mighty helpful.
Notifications also have been tweaked from being the long boring list, to a list with you can quickly filter by app, to help you focus on what needs to be done without having to tip-toe over the multitude of notifications.
BlackBerry has also added some gesture control to quickly launch some apps. By default, swiping upwards from the home key towards the left, top or centre will launch BlackBerry Device Search (a pretty powerful offline search tool), Google Now and the BlackBerry Hub respectively. These swipe shortcuts can be reconfigured to apps of your choice.
The BlackBerry Hub itself is BlackBerry’s universal inbox solution, which attempts to tame the constant bombardment of messages and notifications the average person gets today. It offers powerful ways to filter and sort through your notifications, and deal with them. Unfortunately, unlike on BlackBerry 10, aside from emails, there’s not a lot of actions you can perform without having to open the app in question.
It is one of those features you’d either love or hate. I’m personally in the middle—not sure whether I like it or hate it. Coming from the BlackBerry Hub on BlackBerry 10 to the one on android, the difference in depth, functionality and number of apps that are compatible for hub notifications is quite evident. The android version however, has a neat snooze feature for emails a la Google’s inbox, which hasn’t made it to the BlackBerry version yet.
[blockquote right=”pull-right”]While it is evident that a lot of brilliant ideas have been put together to make the device tick, the software does have some bugs. [/blockquote]
While it is evident that a lot of brilliant ideas have been put together to make the device tick, the software does have some bugs. The BlackBerry Hub app for instance crashed 3 or 4 times during the review period without any warning, Instagram also crashed a lot—particularly when scrolling through the timeline. It tended to freeze at random video posts (always video) and stop responding.
Instagram woes aside, the rest of the device is surprisingly fluid and snappy at doing most things. At points when I had more than 30 apps running in the background, it didn’t stutter or skip a beat.
The device does tend to get warm though, presumably when the processor is doing some heavy lifting, but the incidences were too erratic for me to lay hold of what exactly was responsible. For instance, while setting the device up (specifically when transferring my content using the provided content transfer app), the device got so hot that I could barely hold it. Since then, it’s gotten noticeably warm a couple of random times, but never as hot as during the content transfer.
The 3GB RAM and Snapdragon 808 processor are more than enough to handle most tasks (it handled all the ones I threw at it actually), without breaking a sweat, however in the process, the Priv may get a bit too warm for comfort.
Battery life is another area where BlackBerry has excelled, particularly with its last few devices (BlackBerry Z30 and the Passport) so naturally, I was curious as to how well it would do on android, which naturally is resource hungry.
BlackBerry rates its 3410mAh battery as enough for 22.5hrs of mixed use. In my experience, I typically got around 12-14hrs though many would consider me a heavy user. My typical day would start at 6:30am with a morning run, with the Nike + app accessing location services and a Moto 360 connected via Bluetooth, and then a mix of work emails, instant messaging and other social media apps on blast through most of the day, one or two shows streamed over Wi-Fi via Plex, some web browsing, pulling up locations on maps, some music streaming over Bluetooth e.t.c. I typically get the low battery notification at 15% around 7-8pm. A less intense user should be able to push it to BlackBerry’s quoted time but I didn’t try to.
There’s a Battery Saving mode, which turns off a few services and slows down the rate of battery burn, but I never needed to call upon it during the review period.
[blockquote right=”pull-right”]The battery will get most users through the business end of the day without issue.[/blockquote]
BlackBerry also has the quick charge feature built into the device, but includes a regular charger only in the box, so if you want faster charging, you will need to buy a separate charger.
A BlackBerry Priv review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning security, because for BlackBerry, everything does boil down to security. BlackBerry admits that its future as an android only OEM, depends on whether it is able to secure android as well as it has secured its own OS and while it’s still has some way to go in that regard, it’s done a darn good job at first attempt. That’s why till date, more than a thousand dollars up for grabs for anyone who is able to root the device is still unclaimed, even though BlackBerry has publicly outlined the steps they have taken to harden the device (see here and here).
[blockquote right=”pull-right”]The security approach on the Priv is top to bottom.[/blockquote]
Besides all the advanced stuff like the hardened kernel and scanning mounted files, even the really basic stuff, like the excellent picture password (ported from BlackBerry 10) is present to provide an easy way to unlock your device while keeping it secure.
Then there’s DTEK, the front-facing side of all that effort into bolstering your security and privacy (did I mention that the Priv stands for Privilege and Privacy?). The app basically constantly monitors all the aspects of your device and presents you with an at-a-glance audit of your security status, and offers you the options to take further protective action or receive alerts when something goes wrong.
All in all, the BlackBerry Priv comes across as a well thought concept that’s been brought into reality. The attention to detail in most aspects of the hardware and software is at very impressive levels. However, the fact that the same level of detail is lacking in areas like the hollow back or crashing apps means there is a lot of room for improvement.
I really didn’t expect much from the Priv to be honest, not because I have no faith in BlackBerry’s engineering, but rather because BlackBerry has had a history of almost-but not-yet-quite-there first attempts (see the BlackBerry Storm, Playbook and BlackBerry Z10 for reference).
[blockquote right=”pull-right”]The Priv though, has surpassed my expectations in almost every department.[/blockquote]
The Priv though, has surpassed my expectations in almost every department by miles. That’s not saying it’s bang on the money right now, there are a few hiccups here and there, but fortunately they mostly are stuff that are fixable via software updates, which BlackBerry does monthly by the way.
If you’re torn between BlackBerry 10 and android, need an android phone with a keyboard, want a device geared towards productivity without sacrificing the joys of android, care about having a secure mobile device that runs on android, or are a past BlackBerry user who misses it, but is now stuck on android, the BlackBerry Priv is without a doubt the device to go for.
For someone who is already hooked on a high-end android device, the BlackBerry Priv is a harder sell, not because it doesn’t do enough to sway your purchase decision, but because you’ll have to try one to find out if the experience is worth switching to and the current price of around N220,000 is quite a high price to pay for a trial.
With news of two lower priced android BlackBerry devices in the works, I’m excited about the future of android BlackBerry devices.
Personally, I’m keeping the BlackBerry Passport and replacing my Samsung with the Priv.
Just after writing this, BlackBerry announced the android Marshmallow update for the BlackBerry Priv, which appears to fix some of the issues we mentioned in the review. We’ll update the review when the update eventually gets to these parts. In the meantime, you can check what’s new here.