This isn't a typical review of a smartphone. I usually don't write those, because I'm not as good at it as others are and I've worked here long enough to say things like "I don't wanna" and almost get away with it. But sometimes, I want to make words about a phone that can be read alongside a proper review from one of the guys who are great at writing them. That's what this is because I need to make words about the KEYone.
The BlackBerry KEYone is one of the finest phones you can buy today. I know, that sounds like it's full of hyperbole and something a person would be paid to say, but trust me on this — it's an honest opinion from a dude who has been around smartphones, and BlackBerrys, since they were invented.
BlackBerry and I got a divorce when BBOS died.
Some of you guys already know, but I'm a BlackBerry guy at heart. At least, not if you count the gap between BBOS 7 and Android known as BB10. I still think the best smartphone I ever had was my old 8830, back when Sprint was good and BIS was a thing. I talked my boss into letting me keep it rather than "upgrade" to a newer Curve. When both of those things changed, I did, too.
While BB10 turned out to be a fine OS, at first it just didn't offer anything I wanted. I missed the awesome way email and messaging was handled, and it wasn't enough of an "entertainment device" to make me give up my iPod. I get that RIM had to change to try to stay in the race and that these things take time, but they lost me. I already had an Android phone (the HTC Hero) because I wanted to tinker with Linux on a phone, so I went for it. In retrospect, I'm glad I did. Especially when I took the KEYone out of the box and everything went full circle.
I'll come right out and say it, this is the best BlackBerry has offered (yes, I understand the relationship between BlackBerry Mobile and TCL, but still, it's a BlackBerry) in a long while and a pretty damn good Android phone at the same time. It's also the phone that might finally pull you away from BlackBerry 10.
Tired of phones that are paper thin and can't go all day without plugging it in? Me, too. Apparently, the people who designed the KEYone are as well and didn't try to chase the unicorns from Apple and Samsung. No matter why it was designed the way it is, it works.
When you hold the KEYone you're going to notice, too. There's a reason why every review says the same thing: It's built solid, out of "high-end" materials and machined exceptionally well. It feels like a tool in your hands.
Every word written about how solid the KEYone is built is true, and here are some more.
The display is better than it should be. I'm used to screens from Samsung and Google, and they're pretty great. While the KEYone screen isn't as bright or as big, I haven't missed anything in the time I've been using it. It's also nicely beveled and inserted in the frame with no gap, which helps that premium feel thing it has going on. I was sure I'd hate watching a video or reading a web page or book on the KEYone, but I was wrong and it's a really nice LCD display that works just fine for doing the things I do with a smartphone.
Maybe if I played a lot of 3D games or tried to edit photos or video on a phone I'd have a different opinion, but I don't. If you're looking for a media-centric phone, you might not like it as much as I do. And that's cool — there are a lot of phones out there that can fit you better.
I'm also feeling pretty good about the "guts" inside of it. There's a reason they went with the Snapdragon 625. It's the same reason Motorola did with some of their recent "flagship" phones: The battery life. Compared to stronger processors, you get almost the same performance with almost double the time on your battery. You might see a wonk from time to time that can be attributed to not having the fastest mobile CPU, but those are few and far between while the battery life is always there.
Battery, Battery, Battery. You measure the life in days not hours.
One thing I think they should have done (and should do for the KEYtwo) is used 4GB of RAM. Loading the core BB experience in memory and keeping it there would do away with some of the software slowness people have seen. A phone with a "light" OS can get away with 3GB of RAM, but the KEYone would still benefit from the extra GB, especially while BlackBerry keeps improving the BlackBerry app suite. When they get it as fine-tuned on Android as it is on BB10, then it won't matter.
The rest of the base hardware meets or exceeds my needs so I don't have much to say. The touchscreen is responsive, the fingerprint reader is fast and the camera takes decent pictures without trying. I expect these things to work with no issue, so not having a complaint is akin to being great.
And that's why we're here. There are two types of people in this world: Those who love having a physical keyboard on their phone and those who are wrong. Seriously, though, if you're a fan of having the qwerty experience in the palm of your hands you'll love this thing.
If you listened to the special KEYone podcast we recently did, you heard Kevin, Bla1ze, Daniel Bader and I try to describe the keyboard in relation to the BlackBerry phones everyone has used in the past. That's tough because it's different. So I'm not going to try to tell you it's like a mix of a Bold 9000 keyboard and the touchpad you use to get in the building where you work or anything of the sort.
The Keyboard is good for more than texting your friends or family: You can write reviews like this with it, too.
The keys are individually beveled rectangles that make me think of the word lozenge for some strange reason. They don't have a single corner that's raised so you can tell when you move from one key to the next, and the dot on the D key is the only indicator to help you know where your thumb is. When I first saw it, I was a little worried. But I'll be damned — it works just great. I'm typing this with it, in bed, beside my wife while she watches Netflix.
There's just enough of a bevel between the keys so you can quickly learn where your thumb needs to go and the flat smooth top means you zip between them quickly without pressing any random keys. That's important for gestures and swiping. Don't worry about the way the keyboard is made or being able to adjust. If my crusty thumb (seriously, my wife says my fingers are like leather) can do it, yours can, too.
The best part of it all is the software that powers it. You're a BlackBerry fan and know what can be done with a combination of physical keys and smart software. You've seen in with the Classic and the Passport, as well as the Priv. Minus a gesture or two (and I have no idea why they were left out) it's the same experience you already love. And it will only get better because the folks in Waterloo do nothing but work on software to make stuff better.
Android is fun for people developing an operating system. There are some rules you need to follow if you want Google to give you all their software for free, but other than that you can do anything you want. Unlike some companies who abuse this to make a mess you can't get away from (I swear working at Android Central makes me thankful for anything that's not orange and blue and bright green) BlackBerry Mobile leaves the majority of it simple, uncluttered and refined.
What they did focus on is extending the security features and adding their software suite on top of Android 7.1.1. And that makes a difference. Some people want everything plus the kitchen sink on their phone, but there are also folks who want a basic system without random apps and services constantly running and doing things they'll never want to use. I'm one of the latter and like what BlackBerry has done with Android and love how they did it.
All of BlackBerry's software acts like an app and not an intrusion of the system itself. You don't want to use the Notable app? They just disable it and it never wakes up and never does anything. Nothing else depends on it being there doing things when you're not using it. You'll find this with other phones and some of the stuff they add to Android, but BB's software takes things up a notch and lets you disable things like the BlackBerry Hub+ Service, which is a core component of their software. Basically, you can shut the whole thing down except for DTEK, which apparently will never die. I have a long list of reasons why DTEK is useless to me and if you find me wheeled up to a bar one evening we can spend a pitcher or two discussing them.
Now I'm not saying you should disable everything BlackBerry added, but it's important to know that you can. Not only is it a pretty nice user convenience thing, but it's a privacy thing, too. If you do not want to use a thing, that thing should never be allowed to do it's thing. Android could use more of this.
Speaking of the Hub. You probably have seen people say the software can stutter on the KEYone from time to time. It's true. It doesn't happen very often since BlackBerry updated the software on the pre-release phones, but it still happens. This is mostly the fault of the Hub and the Productivity Tab. I know this because my KEYone uses the Google Pixel launcher, has everything BlackBerry shut off (except for that damned DTEK app) and I just don't see it anymore.
It took years to "fix" the Hub on BB10. Let's hope it's done faster this time.
This doesn't surprise me (Mr. Mobile and I spent a while troubleshooting what might be the problem when he was doing his awesome thing that he does) and it's really good news. Since all those things can be updated independently through the Google Play Store (seriously, I f'ing love it when a company does that) the software jank can be fixed in house and we can all click a button and update it.
Don't be discouraged at the thought of all this. There is no phone (or computer) made today or ever that runs 100% lag-free. Even the kings of smoothness — the iPhone 7 and Google Pixel — will twitch and stutter every now and then. Hardcore fans of either may not admit it, but that doesn't make it not true. The KEYone, with all the BlackBerry bells and whistles enabled, is more than acceptable when it comes to the performance of the software.
That "Most Secure" thing
I take issue with any company claiming they make the most secure anything. I'll say that upfront. I'll also say that most of the preconceived ideas people have about Android being insecure are wrong, too. You'll find that the people who claim it either have an agenda or simply confuse security with privacy.
Android is a very secure operating system until you make it insecure.
The problem is that it's easy to make Android insecure. You can literally tap a virtual switch and install any garbage-ware you want, then say no when the OS tries to stop you. You can also do this on the KEYone. It's the flip side of letting people do whatever they want when it comes to installing apps. You still have to agree to all the permissions, but we all know nobody reads or understands those and just says yes. Boom — you have an insecure phone that's wide open for malware and all the rest of the shit the internet is filled with.
The alternative is to force everyone to use an iStore when they want to install an app and make it difficult and expensive to publish apps on that iStore. This is a much better security model, and I don't knock Apple for doing it this way. The two ways of doing it are just different, and one is better at some things while the other is better at other things.
BlackBerry does a few things that beef up the security, and a few things that Google does and every other company making Android phones could do if they wanted. Together, it all makes the KEYone a very secure mobile device as long as it's used as intended — with Google Play Services updated and running and apps downloaded only through Google Play.
As long as you keep sending critical updates as soon as they are available, you call it anything you like, BlackBerry.
One important thing BlackBerry does is the verified boot process. Every time you turn on your KEYone the installed OS is checked to make sure it is 100% unchanged from the way BlackBerry wrote it. BlackBerry uses what they call a Hardware Root of Trust, a proprietary technique that adds security keys to the hardware itself. The KEYone, like the Priv and both DTEK models, is never going to run an operating system that isn't signed in-house in Waterloo. Yes, I know never is a big word and we shouldn't say it, but I'm saying it.
BlackBerry is not the only company who does this, though. But don't let that take away from the fact that they are doing it, and appreciate that security is at the forefront of the phone as a whole.
There's some debate about BlackBerry fixing what wasn't broken here.
But the most important thing BlackBerry does when it comes to security is care, and update. There is a reason Google and Qualcomm and Broadcomm and every other company involved in making software that runs on a phone send out software patches. Things need to be fixed before someone exploits them. It's important that the companies who use this software take these patches and promptly deliver them to the people like you and me who are using the phones. Unfortunately, in the Android world, that means Google and BlackBerry are the only two companies who do it correctly.
The debate about BlackBerry fixing what isn't broken when it comes to device security is always going to be there. At the same time, it's fine for BlackBerry to toot their own horn because they are doing things the right way when so many other companies aren't. Anyone who thinks any software is free from any exploits likely doesn't write it for a living. If your phone hasn't been updated this month, do you trust that you know more than the bad guys?
I won't say a BlackBerry is the most secure Android phone, but I will say it's one of the few companies who can get away with that tagline. You keep doing what you do, BlackBerry.
The KEYone is my new phone
Changed my phone number for Signal and Allo from my Pixel to my BB Keyone. Shit just got serious now.— Jerry (@gbhil) May 5, 2017
Yeah, there are a lot of words here, but added together they all mean one thing — the KEYone is the phone I'm using every day.
And that's by choice. Like a mechanic who may have an awesome set of Snap-On ½" sockets that I really want, the tools of the trade here at Mobile Nations are phones. We all can pretty much use whatever phone we want to because we need to use a lot of phones. I have the latest Android phones from just about every company who makes them at my disposal, and I'll stick with the KEYone.
If I were able to design Android with a keyboard, it would look a lot like this.
This is Android with a keyboard done right. Hell, done better than right and there are things here I never asked for because I never thought of them. I just click with a keyboard on a phone, and I know a lot of you guys and gals do, too. If you're one of them, make sure you take a look at the KEYone. I know it's not BB 10, but let's be honest — BB10 is dead. Eventually, you have to find something new. I went through it with BBOS and the death of, and you'll have to go through it now.
The good news is that the KEYone is there to bridge the gap. It's the best BlackBerry you can buy and a great Android phone all at the same time.
Unlock your productivity with the Android-powered BlackBerry KEYone!
- View all of our BlackBerry KEYone Help and How-To Guides
- Join our BlackBerry KEYone forums
- Learn more about the BlackBerry KEYone
- Where to buy the BlackBerry KEYone
- How to get the most out of Hub on the BlackBerry KEYone
- These BlackBerry KEYone launcher tweaks will amp up your productivity
- Five great Android Nougat features on the BlackBerry KEYone
- Five hidden BlackBerry KEYone features you might not know
- Getting started with photos and videos on the BlackBerry KEYone
- Top BlackBerry KEYone keyboard tricks that will change your life
DISTINCTLY DIFFERENT, DISTINCTLY BLACKBERRY
BlackBerry KEYone pairs the best of BlackBerry’s software and security with TCL Communication’s commitment to delivering high-quality, reliable smartphones to customers around the world.
Beyond the iconic BlackBerry design that’s been curated for the modern user, the BlackBerry KEYone comes with a number of additional features that truly reinvents communications for the professional consumer.
- Built to last – An iconic BlackBerry smartphone made reliable for the demanding user, the BlackBerry KEYone combines a sleek aluminum frame and soft grip textured back built to offer the best in durability.
- Runs Android™ 7.1 Nougat – Giving users access to the entire Google Play store and apps - and will receive Google™ security patch updates.
- The keyboard reimagined – Forget what you knew about keyboards, the BlackBerry Smart Keyboard goes beyond typing. It can be easily programmed to launch up to 52 customizable shortcuts, providing even greater ease of use. And use it to scroll through web pages, the picture gallery or to take a picture.
- Loaded with BlackBerry® Hub® – Bringing all your messages into one consolidated place; including emails, texts and messages from any social media account.
- Unrivaled security features – The BlackBerry KEYone is designed to offer the most secure Android smartphone experience possible.
- Long battery life – Featuring the largest battery ever found in a BlackBerry smartphone, the BlackBerry KEYone offers roughly 26 hours of mixed use, thanks to its 3505mAh battery.
- Impressive photo quality – The BlackBerry KEYone includes a 12MP rear camera with an industry leading camera sensor that captures sharp, crisp photos in any light. And for when you have to take a video conference on the go, it includes an 8MP front camera with fixed focus and 84-degree wide angle lens.
- 4.5-inch IPS LCD display
- 1620x1080 resolution
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor
- 8x 2.0Ghz Cortex A53 cores
- 3GB RAM
- 32GB internal storage
- microSD card slot
- 12MP ƒ/20 PDAF rear camera
- Dual-tone LED flash
- 8MP ƒ/2.2 front camera
- 3505 mAh battery
- USB-C, Quick Charge 3.0 + boost charging
- Android 7.1.1 Nougat
- DTEK security suite
- FIPS 140-2 full disk encryption