BlackBerry PRIV Review:
The BlackBerry PRIV is one of 2015’s most exciting releases. Here’s our review of BlackBerry’s FIRST Android handset
BlackBerry has been the underdog for a a good long while now, in fact the times when the firm’s handsets were popular and sold well now seem like a distant, fuzzy memory. We’ve also endured many years of annual predictions for the company’s “imminent demise”, with doomsayers claiming the once-great device-maker is finished. Breathing its last. So far this has proved untrue, but at the same time, it hasn’t managed a spectacular comeback just yet either. It has been treading water with just enough innovation and consumer interest to limp along.
But what’s happening now is very interesting indeed. You know that bit in Hollywood action films where someone says a plan is so crazy that it just might work? That’s basically what the BlackBerry Priv is. Crazy in a good way though. BlackBerry has made a good go of tempting developers and consumers onto BB10 and, as good as that platform is, many are just too entrenched in Android. So fair play to BlackBerry for swallowing its pride, being pragmatic and picking an option that could actually work – adopting Android on its own hardware.
BlackBerry has been beavering away outside the spotlight for most of the year. CEO John Chen has been open about the company’s problems, financial issues and plans going forwards. BlackBerry released a couple of handsets, drilled down on its BB10 software and, behind the scenes, began work on its path to becoming one of Google’s hardware partners. The significance of this move cannot be understated and it shows the company is willing to do whatever it takes to make itself relevant once again.
Hardware and software have never been BlackBerry’s problem, though. The company excels at both and has done for a good many years now. Where BlackBerry falls short is applications and content. And in today’s mobile space this is a bad thing to suck at — consumers expect and want to be able to access popular applications and content on their mobile devices. If they cannot they will simply go elsewhere.
Apple and Google have this side of things nailed. iTunes and the App Store, and Google Play are excellent media stores jam-packed with movies, TV shows, apps and games. You can switch between an iPhone and an Android phone with minimal fuss — the apps and services (say, Google’s) look, feel, and work the same. And when something new comes out — an application or game, for instance — you KNOW it will come to Android and iOS first.
For the longest time BlackBerry has been the mobile space’s whipping boy but unlike Microsoft the company has consistently refined its mobile software over the years, adding in new features and capabilities, like BlackBerry Blend and full support for Android apps inside BB10. Granted, a lot of this has gone under the radar of most people but those who are accustomed to BB10’s inner workings can attest that, save for the application void, the platform is one of the best in its class.
BlackBerry adopted Google’s Android platform for its latest handset in a bid to solve its application shortfall problem, hoping to attract floating voters from Apple and Google’s camp. The BlackBerry PRIV is the first handset of its kind from the Canadian phone-maker and there is currently A LOT of hype surrounding it.
BlackBerry isn’t exactly in rude health at present but things, should you care to investigate, appear to be changing for the better within the company, under the steady stewardship of CEO John Chen. Last year’s BlackBerry Passport while not a commercial success compared to the iPhone 6 or Galaxy Note 4 was an awesome piece of kit that was almost unparalleled in the mobile space. And this goes doubly for BB10, a truly astonishing mobile platform when placed in the right hands.
For the most part BlackBerry has done everything right. It did good hardware and it did excellent software. But — and here’s the rub — that’s not enough these days, not when EVERYBODY is addicted to iOS and Android. BlackBerry even admitted this when I picked up my review unit, stating: people love the hardware and services but they do miss having access to the biggest and best applications and content. No S**t, BlackBerry!
You might not agree with this statement and feel BB10 offered everything you needed, and for the most part you’d be right — the platform itself was spectacular. Thing is consumers en masse want apps and games and access to the content and services they’re used to on Android and iOS. This is just the nature of today’s market, like it or not and this is where the BlackBerry PRIV comes in — BlackBerry’s most consumer-facing release EVER.
But was it worth the wait? Let’s find out.
BlackBerry PRIV Review: Design
I’d seen the leaks and read the reports and knew ALL about the specs and hardware before my briefing with BlackBerry. I had a pretty solid idea about what the PRIV would look and function like. At least I thought I did, but once I sat down and looked at the handset I realised it was VERY different looking in real life — the pictures really do not do it justice.
The PRIV is bigger and has a lot more presence than I had anticipated. The first thing I noticed about the handset was its display; the curved QHD panel looks utterly stunning. The finish and gait of the handset is pure BlackBerry, with its traditional silver-on-black livery, but it also looks completely unlike anything the company has ever produced, sort of like the bastard child of the Galaxy S6 EDGE and the Passport.
BlackBerry’s never had any issues with creating premium, great-looking handsets, so I wasn’t surprised by just how attractive the PRIV was. It is definitely a lot more modern-looking than what came before and is obviously designed to pique the interest of your average iPhone or Samsung user — basically, most people nowadays. But the PRIV is no clone. It has more than enough going on with its design to separate it from the pack and, no, I’m not just talking about its slide out QWERTY keyboard.
The PRIV has an odd and very intriguing profile. The display (and entire front of the chassis) is curved, sloping gently down to the sides, while the top and bottom, in direct contrast, are completely flat — so much so you can stand the handset up on its end. And it is this contradiction in design language that makes the PRIV so interesting to behold — it’s soft, yet hard; angular but also smooth.
The PRIV measures in at 147 x 77.2 x 9.4 mm and weighs 192g. It’s robust in the hand and feels sturdy, but this was down for two reasons: 1) the PRIV is a large handset, so BlackBerry wanted to make sure it felt solid in the hand, and 2) BlackBerry wanted to fit a MASSIVE battery inside it and this obviously requires more space. I wouldn’t describe either of these things as concessions, though. I’ve been using the iPhone 6 Plus for over a year now and if I could change one thing about the handset it would be to make it slightly thicker, as it does have a habit of slipping out of my hand at the most inopportune moments.
The PRIV features microSD-support, which can be found next door to the SIM-tray on the top of the handset. The Power/Unlock key is located on the left side of the handset, just over mid-way up. The volume rocker is on the right side in the same position. Both are easy to access but you can wake the handset simply by double-tapping on the display. Sadly, the battery is not removable. To access the QWERTY keyboard you simply slide the display up, an action that can be completed with one hand or both.
The back of the PRIV is constructed out of some kind of exotic, Kevlar-style material that is apparently used inside fancy planes and spaceships. The only thing that breaks up the flat, rubberised feel of the back panel is a silver BlackBerry logo and the porthole-style housing for the PRIV’s 18MP camera. All in all the outer chassis of the PRIV is basically just what you’d expect: professional, premium and very well put together.
BlackBerry Priv SIM-Free Shipments Delayed
There’s been a slight hiccup at BlackBerry’s end, apparently. According to a report from reputable Canadian news sourceMobileSyrup, BlackBerry has stated it has been “overwhelmed” by consumer interest. The firm has already begun shipping pre-ordered unlocked SIM-free handsets purchased directly from its own webstore, but that’s specifically orders that have already been placed. Word is that demand has been so high it can’t keep up just now. So BlackBerry has pushed back the shipping date for any orders made from now, specifically if you order a Priv right now it won’t ship until November 23.
BlackBerry confirmed it would operate shipping in phases, with November 23 being phase two
BlackBerry PRIV Review: Keyboard
One of the BlackBerry PRIV’s bug USPs, depending on who you speak to, is its slide-out QWERTY keyboard. These things have been a staple of BlackBerry handsets since day one, but whether they’re relevant these days, particularly when you have a touchscreen keyboard as good as the one aboard the PRIV, remains to be seen.
Whether a physical keyboard is an actual demand these days remains to be seen; no one seems all that bothered about them when they’re buying iPhones or Samsung Galaxy handsets. But perhaps they do have a place in today’s market, for some users? I know I loved the one aboard the Passport, which looked great and performed even better.
This isn’t the Passport, though. It is the PRIV and it has more in common with a Galaxy S6 than it does with anything BlackBerry has previously released. For this reason, I kind of get the impression that the keyboard was stuck on because, well… that’s kind of what BlackBerry handsets are all about. Or used to be, anyway.
The PRIV’s isn’t great if I’m honest — and I really do enjoy a good QWERTY keyboard on my phone. It lacks the tactility and precision of the Passport’s and, while it does have a few nifty tricks up its sleeve, you can use it to scroll through menus and the like, it just doesn’t live up to expectation. A nice addition to a very different-style of BlackBerry, yes, but something the phone could also have survived without, which brings me back to my original point: is BlackBerry’s obsession with keyboards built on nostalgia or actual consumer demands? After trying to use this one for two weeks, I have to admit, it sort of feels like the former…
BlackBerry PRIV Review: Display
BlackBerry has never been one for keeping up with the Jones’, but this year’s PRIV bucks that trend with its bleeding-edge specs, cutting edge design and awesome hardware. And nowhere is this more apparent than the PRIV’s utterly gorgeous, 5.4in curved QHD display which is by far and away one of the most impressive looking panels I have ever seen. But when you see its resolution (1440 x 2560 pixels; 540 ppi pixel density) this is kind of a given. Still, it’s nice to see BlackBerry matching the biggest and best players in the Android space.
Viewing angles are superb. Ditto for blacks and colour-fidelity in general. I really enjoyed the look and feel of the Galaxy S6 EDGE, despite the fact such screen technology is largely pointless, and it is much the same here, save for a handy battery-charging level which pops up when you plug the handset in to charge. Beyond this the curved display is essentially ALL ABOUT aesthetics. Nothing more, nothing less. But like the Galaxy S6 EDGE it really bloody works! The PRIV’s display looks simply amazing — from all angles.
BlackBerry PRIV Review: Android Lollipop…
This is easily the most important aspect of the PRIV. BlackBerry adopting Android is HUGE. Not only because it is the first instance in the company’s history where it hasn’t used proprietary software, but also because it is arguably the only card the company has left to play before calling it quits for good as a handset maker. John Chen has even stated the company will exit the phone-making business if it doesn’t return to profit in 2016. So, yeah, the stakes are pretty HIGH.
Sensibly, BlackBerry has left Android’s UX well alone. Boot up the handset and what you’re presented with, after logging in, is essentially the same deal as you get aboard Nexus and Motorola handsets. And this is a very good thing, indeed — Android no longer needs a custom skin layered over the top of it, despite what Samsung and HTC would have you believe. There are whiffs of BlackBerry smattered throughout, however, such as the Android version of the BlackBerry Hub, accessed by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, as well as the traditional BB notification icons. Everything else, more or less, functions just as it does on normal Android handsets.
BlackBerry has made a few changes to the UX, but nothing drastic: the app tray is a down-scroller here, widgets and whatnot are accessed via swiping right and there is something called the BlackBerry Productivity Tab, which sits on the right hand side of the display and can be accessed from anywhere in the phone. Inside you’ll find your calendar, task list, BlackBerry Hub, and contacts list. It’s handy, but you need to get used to using it before it really comes into its own.
BlackBerry Reveals Android Marshmallow Update Plans For 2016
Well kind of. Yes folks, we’ve known for some time the BlackBerry Priv would launch with Android 5.1.1 Lollipop onboard, but we also knew that Marshmallow was coming – and of course it’s now here as a more up-to-date build of the software. So does BlackBerry have plans to update the Priv after launch? In a word, yes.
It’s not quite as straightforward as that though. BlackBerry president of devices Ron Louks has confirmed that the Priv will be updated to Marshmallow “sometimes in the new year”, but hasn’t narrowed it down. It’s wide open at this point, but at least we know it’s coming.
What’s more, Louks also confirmed that going forward BlackBerry intends to keep pace with Google’s release of subsequent patches, stating that the idea is to follow each Google rollout within 30 days. Good going, here’s hoping the firm can stick to that!
BlackBerry LOVES security and prides itself on offering best in class solutions to its customers. Using Android created quite a few problems for the company in this regard, as it is no longer in complete control of the software running on its devices. Nevertheless, the engineers at BlackBerry took measures into their own hands, adding in a cryptographic key at hardware level, augmenting the Linux kernel and, if that wasn’t enough, they even included the Dtek security app which monitors what’s going on in your phone and reports anything nefarious.
Beyond this BlackBerry has promised a three-prong approach to Android security going forwards, which is detailed in full below:
Android Monthly Security Updates
Each month Google releases to BlackBerry and other Android OEMs a security bulletin containing a list of recently discovered Android vulnerabilities. Approximately one month later, Google exposes these in the public domain, so it is critical that BlackBerry release software in advance of public disclosure. BlackBerry will release these monthly updates to users that have purchased PRIV through shopblackberry.com and to PRIV resellers (carriers and other authorized dealers) that have agreed to participate in our regular monthly update program and facilitate rapid approval of our monthly updates for over-the-air (OTA) to subscribers.
Some critical Android vulnerabilities – for example, one that can be easily and remotely exploited with a publicly disclosed method to execute “root” privileged malware – simply can’t wait for a monthly update cycle. Depending on the severity of the problem, complexity of the fix, and timing relative to the monthly update cycle, BlackBerry will opt to perform a hotfix, where the code to address only the specific critical problem is pushed to customers. Because a hotfix is typically limited in scope, the balance between a longer testing and approval process and the risk from the critical flaw makes this approach an important addition to helping keep users safe and secure. While BlackBerry will work with its go-to-market partners on approval and delivery of hotfixes, BlackBerry has the ability to directly patch all PRIV variants and will do so when necessary to protect users and enterprises.
Historically, IT has managed the delivery of OS updates to business PCs. By controlling when and to which devices and users that patches are delivered, IT can avoid expensive software incompatibilities and ensure that the security issues most important to the business are mitigated. In the mobile world, enterprises have lost this control. BlackBerry aims to bring back this control through BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and OTA management systems.
With respect to performance, the BlackBerry PRIV is an odd one. In most instances the software runs fine and is similar to what you’d experience on any top flight handset from Google, Samsung, HTC or LG. But every now and then it seems to fall over itself and is overcome with these horrible, spluttery fits where everything just stops working and the only way around this is a reboot. I don’t know if this was specific to my handset or something experienced by other reviewers, but it was certainly unexpected, given the specs and price of the PRIV, and it occurred often enough for me to make a mental note about it and include it in my review.
Perhaps these niggles can be ironed out with an update?
BlackBerry PRIV Review: Specs, Hardware & Performance
Like Apple, BlackBerry has never been one for Keeping Up With The Jones’ when it comes to spec and hardware. Previous handsets have been decent, most notably the Passport, but most have settled for middling spec and hardware because, put simply, people used BlackBerry’s differently to how they use Android phones.
The PRIV bucks this trend in SPECTACULAR fashion. Looking like the Samsung Galaxy S6 EDGE and packing specs and hardware to rival it, the BlackBerry PRIV is the most powerful and feature-packed phone BlackBerry has ever released. Hell, it’s probably one of the best phones on market at present in this respect too. But as Apple likes to teach us once a year: specs and hardware aren’t everything.
Here are the BlackBerry PRIV’s specs in full:
|Operating system||Android 5.1.1 Lollipop|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 (8992) Hexa-Core, 64 bit|
|GPU||Adreno 418, 600 MHz|
|Display||5.43-inch curved AMOLED, 2560×1440 resolution (540 ppi)|
|Memory||3GB low-power RAM|
|Storage||32GB Flash storage
MicroSD up to 2TB
|Rear camera||18MP, f/2.2, OIS, phase-detect autofocus|
|Front camera||2MP, f/2.8, 1.75um pixel size|
|Battery||3,410 mAh, 4.4volt
|Charging||Quick Charge 2.0
Qi wireless (some models)
|Size||147 x 77.2 x 9.4 mm
184 x 77.2 x 9.4 mm (keyboard open)
|Network||FD-LTE: Band 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 17, 20, 29, 30
HSPA+: Band 1, 2, 4, 5/6, 8
Quad band GSM/GPRS/EDGE
Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, USB 2.0
For the most part everything does tick along nicely but, as I mentioned above, there are some notable glitches (at least on my handset, anyway) when the PRIV simply becomes completely unworkable. I don’t know what causes this and I don’t know if it affects ALL handsets but I do know that when it happened the handset is basically unusable until you’ve switched it off and turned it back on again. The PRIV also features QuickCharge but for some reason mine did not work. Again, I have no idea if this is specific to my handset or not — either way, it’s a bit disappointing.
This is the first time BlackBerry has used Android though, so I am more than willing to give the company the benefit of the doubt. Nailing software and getting it perfectly integrated with hardware is VERY difficult and it has taken the likes of Samsung and HTC years to get it 100% right. Everything else, beyond this, is very tight. The new BlackBerry Hub, while not quite as intuitive as it is inside BB10, is a welcome addition to the Android experience, giving you A LOT more control over your notifications than the traditional, slide-down menu.
At its core, though, the PRIV kind of feels just like any other Android handset. It does everything they do, with access to things like Google Now and Google Play, just with a few additional extras peppered ontop. Given time, and providing things like the Hub and Blend (sadly, not present here) are developed further, BlackBerry could really begin to carve a niche out for itself in the Android Kingdom.
BlackBerry PRIV Review: Camera
The 18MP sensor on the BlackBerry PRIV is EASILY the finest camera unit ever fitted to a BlackBerry handset. Images are crisp and detailed and there are plenty of settings and effects for augmenting shots both prior and after the fact. The rear setup, to be specific, is an 18MP Schneider-Kreuznach-certified imaging sensor. Think Carl Zeiss optics, like on old Nokia handsets, and you’re in the same ballpark of what this essentially means — very good imaging but not quite as good as it sounds.
The PRIV will not replace your DSLR, like, at all, but it is perfect for what 99.9% of people’s require from a camera, meaning it is more than decent enough for uploading images to Facebook and Instagram. The UX is easy to use and there are plenty of nice filters to make your shots look more professional. Images for the most part are great, as you can see below. I have ZERO complaints in this regard.
The BlackBerry PRIV features optical image stabilization (OIS), phase-detect auto focus and the ability to record 4K video at 30fps. In this respect it matches and in some cases surpasses pretty much every currently available on market. So if imaging is something you look for in a handset, the PRIV’s setup should cause you no concern. It’s not the best by any stretch of the imagination but it is certainly closer to the top than most current players.
BlackBerry PRIV Review: Battery
The PRIV features an utterly MASSIVE 3,410 mAh battery inside its chassis and BlackBerry promised me a full day’s usage without worry. To date, the only handset I have ever used that actually managed to achieve this was Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus — my current daily driver. Based on the size of the battery and BlackBerry’s expertise with software and optimisation, I had high hopes for the BlackBerry PRIV.
The reality is quite a bit different, though, unfortunately. During my two week test of the handset, the PRIV seldom made it through a full day — 8am to 11pm — without requiring a top-up at some point. Now, this real-world type of battery testing is entirely subjective to how I used the phone — your experience might be different — but I did notice the PRIV eats through charge at a rather alarming rate when you’re actually using it, something I’m assuming BlackBerry is very keen for you to do.
For instance, while checking emails and the like over coffee most mornings I was able to drain around 15%-20% off the battery in about 30 minutes. On my iPhone 6 Plus, for the sake of comparison, the same ritual took about ~5% of the handset’s charge. Again, this is something that can potentially be resolved with further optimisations to the software, every phone is different in how it manages power consumption, but this is something BlackBerry really needs to drill down on because the PRIV is VERY thirsty for power and this has a very negative effect, obviously, on its overall performance.
So what’s causing this? I’d argue the QHD panel. But it could just as easily be something else. Part of me wishes BlackBerry had used a 1080p display on the PRIV, too. I don’t think anyone would have minded. QHD panels are great when they don’t KILL battery life, but in this respect — if, indeed, it is the culprit — I’d take a few extra hours of actual usage over slightly crisper visuals EVERY day of the week.
BlackBerry Priv Review: Verdict
It’s very popular to bash BlackBerry these days. The once-great company has had a turbulent couple of years and, should things get worse, will exit the phone-making game altogether. Basically, in most people’s eyes BlackBerry can do no good. This was evident when it released BB10 and when it launched the Passport and it is evident now with the release of the BlackBerry PRIV.
The PRIV, because it runs Android, is seen by many as the company’s last ditch, fumbling attempt at making itself relevant once again. It is also a HUGE talking point for the mobile technology space, sort of like if Apple decided to release a Windows 10-powered iPhone. But this is all by the by. BlackBerry has pedigree and it has consistently shown this over the past few years with advancements to BB10, the release of BlackBerry Blend and, of course, the excellent BlackBerry Passport.
The PRIV isn’t perfect, as I’ve noted throughout this review, but I have tried to be as diplomatic as possible, highlighting why certain things might not work quite as well as they should, commending its positives, and attempting to explain the presence of certain performance gremlins. This is a new beginning of sorts for BlackBerry and the true test of the PRIV is not sales or this first batch of reviews, but how it develops in the coming months once BlackBerry has some user data to work with and can update the software accordingly.
I wanted the PRIV to be perfect; the best of both worlds — Android and BlackBerry in one. The marriage isn’t a disaster, not by a long shot, and BlackBerry has made all the right decisions. The overall experience of the using the PRIV is just slightly hampered by a few performance bugs. Beyond this I have ZERO complaints, though I do admit the keyboard could have been A LOT better — or just left off the device entirely.
Handset makers rarely hit the nail in the head first time around when releasing a new handset running new software. It takes time to finesse things and gain an understanding of the software’s nuances and finer points. For a first attempt, though, the PRIV is more than adequate as an Android device. I just don’t know if this will be enough for the majority of people.
Speaking from a personal perspective, I have now switched back to my iPhone 6 Plus. I need a phone that can consistently last all day with issue. Nevertheless, I will be keeping a close eye on BlackBerry’s software updates for the PRIV to see how things change in the coming weeks and months.