The BlackBerry PRIV (as in PRIVacy) is the first true Android phone from the company, and it comes with exactly what made BlackBerry great: a good physical keyboard. On paper, it seems like a dream come true for BB fans: finally, a handset that merges the positives of both Android (Apps) and BlackBerry (text communications + keyboard).
It almost sounds too good to be true, but it is. The question is: is it really as great as you think it is, or are you just reminiscing about the old good days when smartphones didn’t exist and BlackBerry was the best smartphone in town?
The reality is somewhere in between and this review will try to show you what using the BB PRIV is like, so you can decide for yourself.
First, let me tell you a bit how I use my phone, so that you can extrapolate how different it is from your own usage model.
I mostly use it for email, Facebook, web browsing and news apps. That is 90% of what I do on the phone. I rarely call or get calls, and I launch games only if I’m exceptionally bored.
I don’t have lots of apps: maybe 25 at most, and I use about 10 on a regular basis, so my phone isn’t a cluttered mess.
BlackBerry knows all too well that battery life is a critical aspect of all phones, but even more so for busy professionals who have been its traditional customer base. To that end, it has included a 3410 mAh battery in the BB PRIV, which makes it one of the largest capacity for a 5.4” smartphone.
The actual battery life with your own usage model is impossible to predict using synthetic benchmarks. However, within a software platform/OS, the battery capacity remains the most important factor for real-world battery life.
You should also consider the fact that modern fast-charging techniques can replenish your battery within 1h30. Unfortunately, the PRIV does not support wireless charging out of the box. That would have been great.
The PRIV has a very cool battery charge status indicator in the form of a colored bar on the OLED display. It tells you where it’s at and there is no need to turn the phone on.
Camera (excellent, slow shutter action)
The Camera of the BB PRIV features an 18 Megapixel sensor and an f2.2 lens system “certified by Schneider-Kreuznach” (big name, old-school lens company). It has phase detection AF system to allow for faster auto-focus (AF) and even has an optical image stabilization system (OIS) built-in.
The photo quality is excellent in general. In broad daylight, the higher megapixel count translates to sharp and nice images. In low-light, it is also great, and overall, it can compete effectively with the king of the hill: the Galaxy S6 series. In some situations, the BB PRIV can even beat the S6 camera in terms of noise (less of it) and sharpness (thanks to clever image filtering).
However, the BB PRIV achieves this by having a very slow shutter action, which is intolerable these days. While the S6 takes a shot nearly instantly, the BB PRIV can take 0.5 seconds to be done with the shot (I’m eyeballing here, but it’s noticeably slower). The user experience is greatly affected, for a relatively small difference in image quality.
This is because the PRIV camera app relies heavily on post-processing to make the photos look better. There’s a lot of work going into removing noise and smoothing out the edges. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think that’s worth the extra shutter lag.
The good news is that you can download the Google camera app, and get a much faster shutter action. It’s still not as fast as Samsung, iPhone or OnePlus, but it’s much faster than the built-in BB Camera.
You can have both camera apps installed at the same time anyway, so there’s no harm in trying. Without the extra filtering, the final photo quality is just shy of the Galaxy S6’s, but the BB PRIV is probably the second-best, which is no small feat.
Display (very good+)
The display quality of the BlackBerry PRIV is very good. Thanks to the OLED technology, it is capable of displaying true black color, and its contrast is beautiful. Out of the box, the display isn’t as saturated as the Samsung ones, but you can tweak this in the color settings.
Beyond the pixel and color quality, the integration to the phone’s chassis is pretty neat, including a smooth glass edge on either sides. Yet, it’s no Galaxy S6 Edge+ (which gets an “excellent” rating), and its display to body ratio could be better – this is most visible when the screen is ON.
By the way, the PRIV display would deserve a much nicer default set of Wallpapers… Here are some HD Wallpaper ideas in case you need some.
When the screen is OFF, the display integration is very good and most people that have seen the phone have been impressed by the design. “Wow, that’s a BlackBerry?” was the most common remark I’ve heard.
Industrial Design (8/10)
Since we were just talking about design, let’s dive completely into it. As I said previously, I find the industrial design to be a success. Creating a QWERTY-slider phone which doesn’t look like an oddity is no small feat, and the fact that the rest of the industry had given up is proof of that.
You may wonder how this affects the handset thickness and yes, there is an impact. Here are some side-by-side photos with popular phones such as the iPhone and the Galaxy S6. This will give you a good idea.
The BB PRIV feels good in the hand, thanks to its curved shape. In fact, if you only take its shape, it feels like the Lumia 920 which was also great. Since it is a little bit thicker than iPhones or Galaxy phones, I found the grip to be better, and the phone is less prone to slippage (and therefore breakage).
The Power control is on the left side, while the right side features the Volume control, along with a physical general volume control button that pops dialog from which you can tweak sound and alerts.
The top of the phone has one SIM tray and one Micro-SD tray (2048 GB max.). This latter is a big deal to extend the device storage cheaply and efficiently. This could be a big deal if you have a lot of email attachments, photos, 4K videos or HD movies.
At the bottom, you will find the classic micro-USB port and a 3.5mm audio port.
The back cover has a Carbon/Kevlar texture with the BlackBerry logo in the middle. Since the BB logo is actually nice, it looks pretty classy. My specific unit doesn’t have a carrier branding, but this will surely vary depending on your location/carrier. I hope that BlackBerry keeps branding to a minimum.
The texture in the back is not prone to fingerprint smudge, which is nice when you come from a glass/ shiny metal phone…
I give this design an 8/10 rating because it is quite successful, given the presence of a physical keyboard. That said, in pure aesthetics, the extra thickness, and the overall build cannot challenge the top phones out there.
"BETWEEN VIRTUAL KEYBOARD AND BB 9000 PHYSICAL KEYBOARD"The must-see highlight of the PRIV is the physical keyboard obviously. The keyboard can be easily revealed by putting pressure on the bottom ridge of the screen. There’s also a little spring action that helps the screen go all the way, so you only need to get it started.
The keyboard itself is surprisingly comfortable and is easily the best slider keyboard I have seen on mobile. Ironically, it crushes the Galaxy S6 snap-on QWERTY keyboard accessory.
I don’t think that it is as good as something like the BlackBerry 9000 which remains the “gold” standard to me. I know, it’s unfair to compare a slider and a non-slider keyboard, but I think that what people want to know is what the “absolute” keyboard performance/comfort is like: somewhere between virtual keyboard and BB 9000/9900.
Your mileage will vary depending on your current screen-size and performance of your virtual keyboard typing. Coming from a 5.7” phone with resizable keyboard, my virtual keyboard is actually significantly larger than the PRIV’s physical keyboard, so the impact isn’t mind-blowing. If you come from a smaller phone, switching makes a bigger difference.
Would I switch to the PRIV just for the keyboard? Probably not, because I have gotten used to typing on virtual keyboard. Also, I’d love it if we could program/select that closing the keyboard also puts the phone to sleep mode.
Software: Android 5.1.1, Blackberry-loaded
Virtual keyboard (excellent)
"VIRTUAL KEYBOARD: SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY"Interestingly, BlackBerry’s software keyboard is excellent too. It’s not surprising for a company that has a history of text-communication expertise. The BB virtual keyboard is more responsive (low lag) than any other that I have tried.
This proves what we all know: Keyboard developers should spend their time reducing the lag close to zero, instead of adding little-used (paid) features or themes. Blackberry, I would pay $10 to get your keyboard on my Android phone. Shut up and take my money.
Android 5.1.1 and future updates
The phone will ship with Android 5.1.1, but many people have been pressing BB to know what the update schedule was going to look like. It is not a surprise that Google will continue to be the fastest OEM to update, followed by “Pure Android” OEMs.
BlackBerry faces additional time pressure because it is making a number of changes to the original Google release to customize to “BlackBerrize” the user-experience.
This means that BlackBerry will take more time to re-integrate this work for subsequent updates. At the moment, BB executives have been straightforward with us: they say that they need to go through at least one round of updates before being able to predict how long it would take in general – fair enough.
DTEK is a security assistant that I found to be quite effective. Security is one of the most important aspects of phones, yet one of the most boring and confusing. DTEK makes it easy to see the low-hanging fruits and offers to help you fix them quickly. In general, it’s a one-time setup thing that you won’t have to worry about again. Just do it.
Of course, BlackBerry spent a lot of time making sure that legacy BB users find a footing very quickly. the BB Hub, BBM, BBM Meetings are all part of an overall BB experience that reminds me of previous BB devices. This will prove to be priceless for die-hard BB users who already have a BB account and contacts on these networks. To the rest of us, you may be persuaded to join, but it’s not a life-changing experience.
I’ve used BB Hub as my main email app during the review. Out of the box, it doesn’t quite come the way I wanted it, but the options are very rich and I was quickly able to configure the Left Swipe to “flag” emails, and the Right Swipe to delete them. Since my phone is mainly an email Curation device, this is important to be as productive as possible with gestures — because press & hold is less efficient.
It is possible to add a bunch of email accounts in BB Hub, and by default, Facebook, SMS, phone calls and emails are merged into one stream.
With a Snapdragon 808 processor, the BlackBerry PRIV is designed to provide a very decent user experience, at limited cost for BlackBerry. It is not designed to win benchmarks, and to be fair, our field experience has proven that Gaming is the only application that really makes a huge difference in the “real world” user experience.
Of course, a faster chip can burst in and out of high-speed mode faster, which is always a little better. But I think that in BlackBerry’s current situation, it had to make some choices, and this is not a bad one.
I think that this handset could have had a better Basemark OS II score, since I know that the Snapdragon 808 architecture is capable of something better. But maybe there were thermal restrictions or other issues that got in the way.
The user interface is running at 60FPS, and there’s no obvious hiccups. I suspect that you may spot some app loading differences with fast IO phones like the S6, but unless you play high-powered 3D games, you’ll be just fine.
Value proposition (expensive)
At $699 (unlocked), the BlackBerry PRIV competes within a Premium market segment. It has the premium camera and design, but not the premium performance that would shine in these hard, cold, numbers
The data shows it, the BB Priv isn’t a “deal” in terms of value for the money. It is clear that from a price/value perspective, even “expensive” phones like the Note 5, S6 or iPhone 6/6s can deliver better value for the money. This is not an easy spot to be in.
Conclusion (for BB lovers first)
At the end of the day, the BlackBerry PRIV value comes from the fact that
- It has a good physical keyboard
- It is a true Blackberry device
- The design and camera are nice.
You get all the Android and the BB strengths in one nice package. If that sounds like a great proposition, you may just fall in love with it.
If you don’t really care about any of the BlackBerry features we described, then move on and pick another Android device. The competition is really stiff, and there’s something for everyone.
The BB PRIV is a good entry into the Android market, given BlackBerry’s time and budget constraints. I appreciate their hard work on this one.