Leave it to BlackBerry: just when you thought hardware keyboards were a thing of the past, they release a new model with a QWERTY keyboard. Nope, it doesn't run BlackBerry OS, it runs Android. The company formerly known as RIM hasn't had an easy time in the past few years; their market share dropped precipitously and they're now selling less than a million phones per quarter (Apple and Samsung sell tens of millions per quarter). Elegant and likeable though BlackBerry OS 10 may be, it came too late and Android and the iPhone had grabbed the majority mindshare. In a way, the BlackBerry Priv may be too late too. Two or three years ago when BlackBerry users were jumping ship in droves and adopting iOS and Android, a "BlackBerry-ized" Android smartphone would've been a hit. Take the things you know and love about BlackBerry and bring them with you to Android, BlackBerry brand included. Now that BlackBerry OS phones have single digit market share, I fear that most folks have already adapted to Android and have perhaps forgotten about the BlackBerry features they once enjoyed. Let's hope I'm pessimistic, because the BlackBerry Priv is a lovely smartphone, and I'd like to see the company recover some of its former ingenuity and glory.
The first hurdle is the price: at $699 the Priv has a flagship price ($249 with 2 year contract on AT&T). To get folks to part with that much money the brand has to be hot (again, Apple and Samsung, and even Moto and LG... sorry BlackBerry fans) and it has to bring compelling features. The Priv's unique features are the sliding QWERTY keyboard and some security and privacy features. The name Priv is for "privacy" and "privilege". The first speaks for itself, and the second (though I find it a bit classist and snobby) is for the high end design and build quality. The Priv is an attractive phone with a uniquely BlackBerry look. The soft touch, grippy carbon fiber back feels great and looks classy.
The solid keyboard slider mechanism is BMW smooth and the curved glass is modern, if not Samsung Galaxy S6 edge derivative. The phone is heavy enough to feel like a quality piece but not so heavy as to drag your pants down. It is top-heavy when the keyboard is deployed, and that makes the small keyboard difficult to use one-handed, unlike BlackBerry models of old like the Bold. At the same time the keyboard is a bit small and narrow to accommodate the vertical slider design, so it's not the easiest to use if you have large hands or long fingers. That said, the signature waterfall sculpted keys are pleasingly tactile, and you can run your finger lightly over the keyboard as a trackpad replacement. It's not as comfortable as the BlackBerry Passport keyboard, but that phone is unusually wide while the Priv has absolutely normal dimensions when the keyboard slider is closed.
The phone has the usual micro USB port for charging and syncing and a 3.5mm headphone jack. The power button is on the left (good since you won't mistake it for the volume controls) and volume up and down buttons are on the right side. It has a silence button, but it doesn't work like BlackBerries of old--it simply brings up the volume controls and thus seems redundant. Other goodies include a 5.4" curved AMOLED QHD 2560 x 1440 display, a microSD card slot and a rear 18Mp camera.
Calling and Data
BlackBerry phones generally have excellent call quality, and the BlackBerry Priv is one of the best sounding phones we've used in years for voice calls. Voices are clear and full and volume is a little bit louder than average. As cell phones go, this is the next best thing to having your call recipient in the room (we tested the AT&T model for this review). The front-facing loudspeaker is average, and Bluetooth call quality was very good with the Bluetooth headsets and car built-in Bluetooth we tested. Data speeds were typical of current generation smartphones over AT&T's 4G LTE network, which is to say good.
Performance and Horsepower
The Priv runs Android 5.1.1 on the capable 1.8 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 CPU with Adreno 418 graphics. This is a high end CPU that's bested only by the Snapdragon 810 in Qualcomm's lineup and by the latest Exynos CPU used in the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Note 5 lines. The hexa-core Snapdragon 808 generates less heat and potentially offers better battery life than the 810, and that's a good thing because the Priv gets surprisingly toasty and doesn't have particularly good battery life. This CPU is also used in the LG G4 and Moto X 2015 edition, where it runs cooler, and we can only guess that the Priv's slim design and carbon fiber back transfer heat to your hand more than the thicker (at the middle) curved-back LG and Motorola phones. The Priv won't come close to burning you, but it can make your hands sweat when downloading a queue of app updates or playing games. Performance levels on benchmarks are similar to other Android phones with the same CPU, and on paper the phone is fast enough to take even demanding tasks. I say "on paper" because the Priv sometimes has small lapses or hiccups in performance in everyday tasks, though it performs well in demanding games and streaming 1080p video. I suspect some performance tuning and software/firmware updates could ameliorate this (and it's a good show for BlackBerry's first Android smartphone).
The US AT&T and unlocked GSM model have 3 gigs of RAM and 32 gigs of storage. There's a microSD card slot to expand storage for multimedia files and other documents. The phone ships with Android 5.1.1 rather than 6.0 Marshmallow, which should be available in 2016. That hurts a bit since some new Android phones are shipping with 6.0 (Nexus 5X and 6P of course, as well as the HTC One A9).
Deals and Shopping:
BlackBerry Priv Video Review
Priv-iness and BlackBerry Touches
The BlackBerry Priv has two main privacy and security features. The first is bootloader protection that checks at each boot to make sure the phone is running a genuine BlackBerry Android kernel (great for those who fear having their phone compromised, bad for alternative ROM enthusiasts). The other security-minded feature is an app called DTEK (sounds like "detect"--get it?), that looks for security holes like apps that ask for deep privileges and nudges you if you haven't set a PIN or turned on screen lock. DTEK is not unlike third party security apps available in the Google Play Store, but we give it points for being a preinstalled reminder to be mindful of privacy and security settings.
Those who've used BlackBerry OS phones will remember the little asterisk that appears next to your calendar, email and BBM apps if you have items to attend to, and that carries over here. So does BlackBerry Hub, a unified place to catch up on email, Gmail, calendar reminders, SMS and BBM messages and more. It's a great idea, but for those who have several email and social networking accounts, it can easily become an overwhelming mess of notifications. If you're a BlackBerry OS user, you'll know best if Hub is a wondrous or messy thing. And yes, there's a blinking notification LED too.
The rear 18MP camera is a bit higher resolution than the 16MP average (not that you'll see the difference when only 2MP are at stake). BlackBerry uses an f/2.2 Schneider-Kreuznach lens and the camera has a two tone LED flash and OIS. These are impressive specs, and the camera app is intuitive and pleasing to use. It shoots decent 4K video @30fps, and OIS reduces jittery footage mishaps. On the downside, the camera app is sometimes slow, and both exposure and white balance aren't as good or consistent as we'd like. It's a good camera, but the top camera phones like the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Note 5 family models and the LG G4 and LG V10 take noticeably better photos and video. If you're a casual snapper, you probably won't notice the difference, but for those who are picky about their photos and videos, the difference is clear.
The Priv has a front 2MP camera, which is actually on the low side in terms of resolution for smartphones in this price range. It does a decent job with Skype calls and selfies have reasonable detail.
The Snapdragon 808 combined with a QHD AMOLED display should yield good battery life in conjunction with the ample 3,140 mAh battery that's sealed inside. Alas, in our tests, battery life was so-so, even when BlackBerry Hub was only configured to check for Gmail and SMS messages. As with the occasional minor performance stutters, we suspect this is something BlackBerry could address with a software or firmware update. In our tests, with light to moderate use, the phone lasted from 8am to 7pm, while competitors made it to bedtime.
For their first foray into Android, BlackBerry has made an impressive phone. It has an elegant and unique design and it brings some of that BlackBerry OS goodness to Android. Build quality and design elements are top notch and this is pretty much the only current Android phone to offer a hardware keyboard. The rear camera is good, though the software needs tuning and voice quality is top notch on our AT&T model. That said, this is an expensive phone, and for those who aren't BlackBerry fans, we're not sure it offers enough to capture significant sales.