Review: BlackBerry Priv marries the new with the familiar

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Reverting back to a physical keyboard might be a step too far for most modern smartphone users.

blackberry, priv, blackberry priv
BLACKBERRY PRIV
THE GOOD: Apps, apps and apps. Familiar BlackBerry tools and features. Great battery life.
THE BAD: Questionable design materials and high price.
RATING: A A A A

It’s been a few years since it became evident that the mobile phone wars had boiled down to two competing powers: Apple and Google.

The biggest casualty of that shakeout has unquestionably been Canada’s BlackBerry, which has seen its once-commanding position atop the smartphone pile dwindle to less than one per cent global market share. To say that BlackBerry is now just a shell of what it once was is an understatement.

Some observers, analysts, critics and even shareholders for years urged the Waterloo, Ont.-based company to give up on its own software and instead join Google’s Android wave.

Continuing to insist on maintaining and expanding a third operating system, they said, was a bad idea in a field that is all-dependent on apps since the creators of those apps just don’t have the time or money to redesign their creations a third time.

BlackBerry is finally acquiescing to that reality with the Priv, its first Android phone, releasing on Nov. 6. The company says its still plans to make devices based on its own BlackBerry 10 operating system, but it remains to be seen how long that will continue.

Will the shift pay off, or is it too late for BlackBerry now that Samsung, HTC and others have cornered the market on Android, at least in the West? It’s probably too early to answer those questions, so in the meantime let’s take a look at the Priv, which I’ve been using for the past week.

The Good:

Using the Priv, in comparison to previous BlackBerry devices, is a breath of fresh air. With Android running under the hood and therefore full access to everything in the Google Play store, there’s no more angst about apps – as in, will my favourite app be available?

In almost every case, the answer to that question is now “yes.” There’s no outright lack of apps, no worries about it being a ported Android app running on BlackBerry, no having to side-load anything. Just good old apps – and tons of them. Hurray!

One problem all Android phone makers face, however, is differentiation. With all the phones running the same operating system and apps, they’ve had to resort to different hardware features or slight variations on the software, some of which definitely qualify as unnecessary bloatware.

That’s not the case with the Priv, which is full of distinguishing BlackBerry features – some of which are actually useful.

My favourite is DTek, a tool that tells you how secure your phone is with a red, yellow or green security status level, along with tips on how to improve it. Encrypting your data and setting an access PIN will, for example, raise the level. Leaving your data unencrypted will lower it.

DTek also provides a nice, clean summary of how apps are using your phone, as in which functions they’re accessing. This way, you can see whether your flashlight app is unnecessarily accessing your contacts or location:

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The only downside to DTek is that it doesn’t yet let you do anything about apps that are accessing more than they need to. The only recourse to, say, a flashlight app that is needlessly using your location is to get rid of it entirely. There’s no option to simply turn off the offending parts of its access.

At a briefing with journalists last week in Toronto, BlackBerry executives said that capability is coming at some point, either through DTek or Android itself, or possibly a combination of the two. When that may happen is anyone’s guess.

Still, the core idea behind DTek is solid because it will provide better transparency on what apps are doing. Some developers may even be shamed into dialling back their unnecessary invasiveness.

Another of the Priv’s differentiating features is the BlackBerry Hub, which has been transported intact from the company’s own BB 10 OS. It’s a popular feature that many – or should we say the remaining – BlackBerry users tend to like as it centralizes all communications into one spot.

Email accounts, text messages, tweets and so on can be accessed through what is effectively one app. It’s very handy.

Long-time BlackBerry users will also appreciate the asterisk indicators on their apps. Get a new Facebook message and the familiar red star will show up on the corner of the app. There’s also the flashing notification light on the top right of the phone – it wouldn’t be a BlackBerry without it.

The Keyboard:

Of course, the Priv’s biggest differentiating feature is its slide-out keyboard. It’s the same physical keyboard that die-hards love and, amazingly, it doesn’t make the phone that much thicker. The Priv is only a shade fatter than most competing devices.

The keyboard is bound to be a polarizing feature. There is still a segment of long-time BlackBerry users out there who never gave up on physical keys and who have also actively rebelled or refused to use touchscreen keyboards, but I suspect those people are in a continually shrinking minority.

Most smartphone users have either moved on to touchscreens and learned how to make them work, or they never knew the physical alternatives in the first place. Moreover, touchscreen keypads have become bigger and therefore easier to use as devices themselves have gotten larger.

Put it all together and it amounts to the physical keypad now being harder to use, with a re-learning curve, at least for me.

The Priv does also give users the option of a touchscreen keyboard, which includes BlackBerry’s unique predictive text feature, but the physical keys are its main selling point. If you’ve moved on and don’t want to re-learn, there’s little reason to get the Priv.

The good news on this front is that BlackBerry says it will be releasing additional Android devices, some of which presumably won’t have physical keyboards. With the Hub and an improved DTek function, that would be worth a look.

The Camera:

I’ve generally judged smartphone cameras by the yardstick set by Apple, since the iPhone has for years led the way in top-notch mobile imaging. That’s changing, though, as competitors have made significant strides.

The Priv’s 18-megapixel camera is surprisingly good, although its results may be boosted by what is also a great screen. The quad-HD screen boasts a resolution density of 540 pixels per inch, compared to iPhones and their 401 ppi. That’s nerd speak for saying that the Priv has a sharper display.

Photos taken in good light look great. The Priv’s unaltered shots have greater contrast and therefore come a little darker, although that can show up as more brilliant colour. Here’s a comparison between the Priv and last year’s iPhone 6 Plus:

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The greater contrast and deeper blacks can also result in greater detail, as in the photo below. The iPhone picks up details that are further away, but the Priv looks sharper with less muddiness and greater detail:

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The results are a little more lopsided against the Priv in lower-light conditions. Though no smartphone takes really good photos in such circumstances, the iPhone clearly captures brighter photos with fewer shadows than the BlackBerry:

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All told, the Priv’s camera is surprisingly good and not necessarily a deal breaker like it has been on many Android phones.

One other great feature: the battery. I’ll spare the technical details here, but BlackBerry boasts good battery life – and they ain’t lying. In the week I’ve been using the Priv, at a fairly regular pace, I’ve only had to plug it in for a recharge two or three times. It can easily get through two days, which is impressive.

The Bad:

If we were to stop there, the Priv would be a decent option for buyers who are looking for something that is at the same time familiar, but also different – so long as they like and can use a physical keyboard, of course.

But BlackBerry has made some questionable choices that weaken the Priv’s overall proposition.

The first is the use of Android Lollipop, which is in the process of becoming last year’s operating system. Many new devices are using the latest version, Marshmallow, which includes better app management, permissions and voice assistant functions.

The Priv’s differentiating features – the keyboard, the Hub and DTek – may be the ironic hindrance here, since customizing Android to work with them likely required more time for BlackBerry engineers. It’s an unfortunate trade-off, since it gives the Priv more unique features but forces it to miss out on Marshmallow’s new functions.

BlackBerry representatives say the Priv will eventually be able to update to Marshmallow, but there’s no timeline on that yet. With wireless carriers sometimes getting in the way of those updates, there’s always the risk of extended delays.

The Priv also features a screen that curves on both sides, similar to Samsung’s Edge series of devices. It adds a bit of glam to the phone and ostensibly creates another surface on which separate, custom-made apps can run – the Priv features a charging progress bar on its edge when plugged in, for example.

I’m not a fan, not just because it’s superfluous, but also because it causes my fingers to slip off the sides of the touchscreen keyboard while typing, resulting in frequent errors. Maybe this is BlackBerry’s way of urging users to type on the physical keyboard, but it’s otherwise an unnecessary addition that inflates the cost of the phone.

Cost is perhaps the Priv’s biggest problem. At $899 (Canadian) unlocked, it’s way too expensive for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, it’s on par with what competing top-end devices such as the iPhone are selling for. With so many previous BlackBerry users having lost faith and moved on, the price needs to be considerably lower to lure them back for another try.

Trying to compete at the same cost from such a weak position hints at the same sort of hubris that has laid BlackBerry low over the past few years.

More poignantly, the Priv has a rubberized back, which is out of step with the more durable metal finishes used by the likes of Apple and HTC in their flagship devices. It’s a phone that doesn’t necessarily feel premium, selling at a premium price.

I’d like to have seen BlackBerry transfer some of the expense that doubtlessly went into the dubiously useful curved screen to a better, more solid finish.

The Bottom Line:

All things being equal – and they essentially are now that BlackBerry has gone Android – the decision on whether or not to pick up a Priv rests on two factors: the keyboard and the price.

If you’re a die-hard keyboard user, or a long-suffering and self-loathing touchscreen keyboard user, the Priv is likely to be a godsend and well worthy of the high price. If, however, you’ve moved on from physical buttons, there are other comparable or better devices – Android or otherwise – that can be had for the same cost or less.

Ironically, the entire reason for the Priv’s somewhat strange name – derived from privacy – isn’t yet a major selling point, even if it is the centre of BlackBerry’s marketing campaign. DTek is a great idea, but without enabling anything but a take-it-or-leave-it choice when it comes to apps, it’s not yet truly useful.

It’s a tool that could spark a change in how apps are used and disseminated in the future, but in the meantime it doesn’t make the Priv that much more private.

All of that said, it’s great to see a BlackBerry device that isn’t excluded from the broader mobile revolution that’s happening through apps. BlackBerry engineers also deserve credit for making a phone that is at the same time familiar and different.

Will that translate into sales? Again, we’ll have to wait and see.

BlackBerry supplied a loan unit for the purposes of this review.

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