Blackberry 10 is an excellent operating system, but it’s fair to say at this point that it’s lost any and all hope of winning over the casual consumer. It’s snappy, has a few neat features, and gets constant accolades for its security features, but without a thriving app ecosystem and no real way to try to force one, the company is hard-pressed to keep up with iOS and Android in the public conscious.
Which is a shame, because you like seeing the “home team” succeed, and Blackberry is the single Canadian company in an ecosystem fight involving the usual three American monoliths; Apple, Google, and to slowly growing extent, Microsoft. But what’s always made Blackberry great hasn’t necessarily been forward-thinking software, but it’s best in class hardware.
While the company hasn’t scrapped its efforts on BB10, nor (for the sake of corporate clients) should it, Blackberry has decided to do something new. They’ve launched the Priv, a flagship device that’s distinctly Blackberry, yet running Android. Telus gave me the opportunity to play with one for a couple of weeks after launch, so here’s a few thoughts that I had while using it in the way that I normally would.
Things I Liked About The Priv
The Form Factor
The Priv is a very, very cool looking phone. The highlight that has drawn everybody in is it’s vertical slide-out keyboard, and we’ll get to the performance of it later, but I’m very impressed with how Blackberry managed to keep the phone as slim as many of the other flagships while effectively making a two-piece device.
Of course, that comes with concessions; the lens on the back bulges out, much like the last two generations of the iPhone. Also like the iPhone and the latest wave of Samsung flagships, it doesn’t have the traditional Blackberry removable battery; though they’ve packed a massive 3450mAh battery in to mitigate the need to swap, and kept the microSD card slot at the top of the device.
Other things have been done to give the device a “premium” feel. The back has a carbon fiber coating that’s extremely grippy; I tend to put cases on all of my phones because I don’t like how slippery they are, but the Priv feels good on its own. The speakers are built into the bottom of the keyboard, which is not only an excellent location for listening but gives you a lip that makes it easier to slide the keyboard in and out from.
The 5.4″ QHD screen, by the way, is gorgeous as well. It appears to be curved like the S6 Edge and Edge Plus, but it’s flat; the glass panel is the only curved part. Even still, it maintains a nice feel, as a result, and Blackberry pushes the illusion further by displaying your charge along the border while the screen is “off”. As an AMOLED display, all black pixels are turned off, which saves battery life and makes darker applications look all the nicer.
So, about the keyboard. Much like having Android is what makes this different from other Blackberries, having a physical keyboard differentiates the Priv from other flagship Android devices. Those who jumped on the smartphone bandwagon early probably had either (or both of) a Blackberry or a Palm Treo, which excelled not only for their ability to take advantage of cellular data and WiFi but for their full QWERTY keyboards that made texts and emails a breeze.
As someone who had three Blackberries before switching to a variety of devices in the other three platforms, I was curious to see how I’d fare going back to a keyboard. Touch keyboards were terrible a few years ago, but as screen sizes got larger and third party companies started fighting to create the best input methods, typing on a screen has become much easier.
After using the Priv, I’m torn. I do feel that three years of using large phone’s touch screen has made me content with sticking to touch, but there’s a certain thing to be said about tactile feedback and knowing where your thumbs are. It’s like typing on a computer; I type fastest on laptop chiclet keyboards, but vastly prefer my mechanical on my desktop if only for the inner satisfaction of each press. The Priv’s keyboard feels just as comfortable, if not more so than any QWERTY keyboard I’ve used on a phone. It also has the scrolling features that the Passport has on BB10, which I love.
Also notable is the software keyboard, which is directly lifted from BB10. I actually loved this so much that I ripped the APK off of my Priv to use on my other phones; Blackberry’s method of word recommendation, which places suggested words above letters on the keyboard for you that you can slide up to select, is faster than any other suggestion engine on a first or third party keyboard.
Stock Android + Extras
I can’t understate how important having Android on this device is, at least concerning selling it to the casual consumer. Not that the Blackberry App store is empty, but many of the world’s most popular applications are nowhere to be found. BB10 users have resorted to sideloading Android Applications onto the device, made possible by emulation built into the OS. It provided some support but wasn’t always the most stable experience.
The Priv takes the opposite approach. Rather than trying to force the Android Experience into its ecosystem, Blackberry has integrated their experience into Android. Personally, I think they did a fantastic job of it.
Blackberry took the approach that Motorola has over the past few years, and rather than completely reskinning the OS like Samsung, HTC, LG, and others have, they’ve added a couple of layers of software that can quickly be switched away from. Don’t like Blackberry Hub? Stick to messaging and email. Don’t like Device Search? Stick to Google Now. Don’t like the Keyboard? Stick to Google Keyboard. Blackberry Launcher too annoying for you? Use Google Now Launcher or whatever third party application you’d like. It’s incredibly easy to scale this device down from Priv to Nexus with a keyboard, but to be honest, you don’t need to.
Blackberry’s tweaks, for the most part, actually improve on the OS.
I’m a gigantic fan of Blackberry Hub, for example. Hub integrates a wide variety of your forms of communications into one central location; calls, texts, emails, BBMs, Facebook, Twitter; almost anything under the sun. I would’ve enjoyed having Facebook Messenger support as well, but so far it hasn’t been added. Even still, it’s a nice way to see all of your messages at once.
The calendar is another fantastic add. I’ve been dying for a calendar app on any platform that does Agenda View well, and as you can see in the fourth screenshot, the Blackberry Version nails it. I also like that you can peek into your calendar with a simple drag while checking your emails, and as you can see below above, you can also access your calendar, contacts and the like from the launcher with just a simple gesture.
There are other Blackberry specific features that I didn’t use all that much; Device Search carries over, BBM is as integrated as you want it to be (I moved on after 2011), and DTEX gives you security recommendations based on your usage, which is a nice touch if you care about where your information goes (I tweet dumb things and take weird selfies, so this wasn’t as important to me).
Things That Weren’t For Me
It Gets Pretty Warm
Many were surprised to see a expensive, flagship Android phone hit the market this year with a processor other than Qualcomm’s top-end Snapdragon 810. The 810 was probably the most-used chip in flagship devices this year, being featured in the OnePlus Two, HTC One M9, Google/Huawei Nexus 6P, and the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL. It’s an absolute beast of a chip, running eight cores, but it’s got a fatal flaw; it gets very warm with heavy usage.
Knowing this, Blackberry stuck with its nearly as snappy six-core counterpart, the Snapdragon 808. It’s the same chipset used on the LG G4 (my primary device that I praised heavily), and a few other devices this year, and is no slouch. What’s important though is that it doesn’t have heating issues… unless you’re using a Priv.
Don’t get me wrong, your Priv won’t burst into flames. But if you spend any significant consecutive time playing games, using the camera, or doing anything overly intensive, this thing will get toasty. I accidentally left Snapchat on as my last used app (an enormous no-no on Android, as it keeps the camera going) before locking my Priv, and after a few minutes, I noticed. Beyond the massive battery train, my leg legitimately started to feel uncomfortable from the heat. Overheating can damage the device at worst and throttle the processor at best, so I suggest you keep caution if you’re a power user.
As for why the 808 reacts differently on here? Probably due to the thin build. There’s not much room for it to vent, or to put in a fancy cooling system as the 950 XL has with its 810.
Battery Life Wasn’t Amazing (For Me)
When the processor starts throttling, the battery life suffers. This is something that I noticed; I could go forever on days where I would click my screen on for a second, check my notifications, and move on, but when the phone started to work itself, it ate through its large battery, often struggling to hit three hours of screen-on time. Results have been mixed amongst different users, leaving many debating whether certain units have been defective or not, but I imagine it comes down to usage habits. A casual user will probably get better battery life than they’ve ever seen before, but in my experience, this didn’t stack up well against any of my daily drivers going as far back as my iPhone 4S; including three Galaxy Note’s and my G4; all of which had lower battery capacities.
The Front Facing Camera Is Far From Flagship
The one thing that I came to appreciate on the G4 was the best-in-class front camera. It had an excellent lens, a powerful sensor, and the software gave it a consistent flash-like experience to keep your selfies looking as fantastic as possible. The Priv delivers none of that. The front camera is just barely better than a budget phone and trails devices even a quarter of the price.
The photo on the left comes from the Priv. It has a 2MP sensor and no form of illumination. I took it in an extremely well-lit area to get the best quality photo that I could. On the right, is the G4 in the basement of a dark bar. Despite this, it’s photo is vastly more detailed and sharper than the Blackberry’s.
Blackberry could have improved on this with a better sensor at the front, but in an AMA they did on Reddit a few weeks ago, admitted that there wasn’t enough room to place anything more powerful into the device without making it thicker. Even still, things can be done on the software end to improve on this; LG’s implementation of a white border around a smaller preview to add brightness was ingenious and should be added to every manufacturer’s camera app.
With that said, this is very much a personal preference. I’d wager that the average Blackberry user isn’t going to be pulling out their phone for selfies very often. With that said, nearly every other phone in this price range has a better implementation, be it software, hardware, or both.
As for the back camera, the 18mp shooter is decent enough; not good enough to brag about, not bad enough to complain about. I noticed that it focuses very fast, which I like, though if you’re a power user, you’ll probably end up wanting to use an app other than the stock camera app to do your finer shots.
Who Should Get This Phone
Despite is downfalls, the Priv is still one of my favourite phones on the market today. I think this should be an automatic consideration for anybody who is still on the Blackberry ecosystem and wants to immerse themselves into the vast marketplace and customization options that Android and the Google Play Store offers while still keeping a lot of the familiar hardware and software options.
For those who are invested into Android already, it’s a bit of a tougher sell. The physical keyboard is a lot of fun but ultimately not a must have, and while the hardware is very sleek, there isn’t a defining spec that will drag you in, particularly with the high price tag. Software features like Blackberry Hub and the software keyboard are neat additions on a lightweight variation of the OS, but it may not be enough. If you’re a hardcore enthusiast, I would suggest staying away; the battery life just isn’t there, and given the emphasis on security, getting into the bootloader may be a pipe dream.
The Priv is an easy choice if you love physical keyboards, haven’t owned an Android device before, enjoyed your time using Blackberry before, want something with a little bit more emphasis on security than other Android devices, or just wish to support a Canadian company. Beyond that, it’s a great choice to consider, but not an automatic.
If nothing else, I’m very excited to see what happens with the second generation of this device; it’s an amazing first effort from a software perspective from a company that’s brand new to the OS; it’s now a matter of ensuring the hardware matches.
The Priv can be purchased from Telus for $410 on a 2-year contract ($890 no term)