Nokia (re)launched the Nokia 3310 and pretty much covered the tech world in a blanket of nostalgia. And now it is the turn of another ailing smartphone giant to try to do the same, albeit not as drastically or as dramatically. Blackberry, which was one of the leading contenders in the smartphone segment, had pretty much faded away as the demands of the consumer changed with time. But has since been trying to make a comeback in the phone business with the launch of the Android-driven DTEK50 and DTEK60, and the BlackBerry Priv. And if there is one thing we have learned from the Nokia 3310 launch, it is the fact that nostalgia can definitely help you get eyeballs and attention. Can the return of the good old QWERTY keyboard do the same for BlackBerry?
The company has launched the BlackBerry KEYone Limited Edition Black smartphone in India, which is slightly better than the original KEYone launched in the international markets. But what is nostalgic about this? Well, if there was one thing BlackBerry was famous for in the past, it had to be its physical QWERTY keyboards. And while we have heard rumors in the past that the company will not produce phones with physical QWERTY keypads, it has launched the KEYone that pretty much puts a full stop to that story because the smartphone comes with (wait for it) a physical QWERTY keyboard, apart from some decent specs. But is the combination of physical QWERTY keypad nostalgia and Android enough to make the BlackBerry KEYOne a hit?
This is soooo BlackBerry…
As soon as we took the KEYone out of the box, it screamed “BlackBerry” to us. The iconic physical keypad reminded us of the good old days when everyone wanted a BlackBerry mainly for the physical QWERTY keyboard. Of course, there is more to it as well. The smartphone comes with a 4.5-inch HD+ display protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4 with a rather unusual screen resolution of 1080 x 1620 pixels, but which is bright and delivers a high pixel density of 434 ppi. Below the display are the trademark three capacitive Android navigation buttons to take you a step back, to the home screen or to open recently opened apps. The display is bright (574 nits we are told) and colors look vibrant and poppy.
Just below the display is the much talked about QWERTY keypad of the phone. We have had the BlackBerry KEYone with us for a short while, and our experience of the keyboard has been a little underwhelming (and we have used BB devices before). The keys seemed a little too small and very glossy we felt that the BB phones in the past had a better keyboard-feel to them. But these are early days – perhaps we will get used to them. The fingerprint scanner is placed on the front and is actually in the spacebar on the physical keypad – a neat touch. It works just fine. One of the highlights of the physical keypad is the fact that all of the keys on it can be customized and locked to different functions. Want even more customization? There is customizable key present on the right side of the phone as well!
No, there is no dedicated BBM BlackBerry button or a physical trackpad, but the whole keyboard can act as a trackpad – you can scroll up and down or swipe left or right by just moving your fingers on the physical keyboard, which might seem initially unusual but is rather cool, once you get the hang of it. Apart from the display and the physical keypad, the front of the phone sports the selfie camera, the earpiece and the proximity sensor.
Compact and premium looking
While the smartphone is not really huge in terms of screen size or its overall length of 149.1 mm, it is rather bulky as compared to many high-end smartphones at 9.4 mm thickness. The semi-thick sides of the smartphone are curvy. The left side of the phone holds the lock/ power button while the right side comes with the volume rocker and a customizable key which you can use to launch any of your favorite apps. Along with the two buttons, the right side also shelters the hybrid SIM card slot that accepts nano SIM and micro SIM or microSD card. And before you ask, yes, this is the first BlackBerry device with dual SIM support.
The back of the KEYone has the 12-megapixel circular primary camera on the extreme top left along with a dual tone LED flash. The back of the phone is slightly textured and is not covered in metal but in a very fibre-like substance, giving the back a textured feel. It can get a little dusty sometimes but is grippy. Right in the middle of the back is the iconic BackBerry logo whose silver adds some bling to this otherwise rather sober looking device. The top of the phone is kind of boxy and holds the 3.5 mm audio jack while the base of the smartphone sports the USB Type-C port and speakers.
The BlackBerry KEYone fits easily in one hand, and the curved sides and the textured back also offer a firm grip over the phone. Overall the phone looks and feels very premium with its black metallic frame and textured back. And that QWERTY keyboard will turn heads in the touchscreen era.
Underwhelming specs for the price…and overwhelming competition
But if the KEYone looks premium, its spec sheet is a tad more humble in comparison. Especially when you consider that the phone is priced at Rs. 39,990. We are not going to complain about the display’s resolution because 1080 x 1620 is very respectable for a 4.5-inch display. The real disappointment is that the KEYone is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 625, a processor which we have seen in devices that cost less than half as much. Yes, it is coupled with 4 GB RAM with 64 GB internal storage that can be expanded up to 2 TB via microSD card, but we were expecting a flagship level processor in the day and age of devices like the OnePlus 5 and Honor 8 Pro. BlackBerry has also decided to steer clear of dual cameras and has a single 12-megapixel primary camera with PDAF along with dual tone, dual LED flash, and an 8-megapixel secondary camera. No OIS, though, which at this price is again a little disappointing. In terms of battery power, the device offers a 3505 mAh battery with support for Quickcharge 3.0 which means you can have a couple of hours worth of battery in just 10-15 minutes. BlackBerry claims it is the biggest battery ever on a BlackBerry device and given how good the Snapdragon 625 is in power management, we are sure it will turn in a decent performance, but once again, we are now getting accustomed to bigger batteries. On the connectivity front, the phone comes with USB Type- C port, NFC, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS.
Blackberry is betting that the device’s security features (it calls it one of the most secure phones in the world) and pure Android will help it tide over those relatively modest specs. The KEYone comes with Android Nougat 7.1 out of the box with minimum bloatware, and BlackBerry claims to be the only brand other than Google to be issuing monthly security updates to its Android devices. There is BlackBerry’s own DTEK security that monitors how apps on your device are behaving, and BlackBerry Hub which places all your messages and social network notifications on one compact screen.
Lots of keys, but is it enough?
Keeping in mind the price tag of the BlackBerry KEYone, the phone faces stiff competition in the segment where it has just landed. The likes of OnePlus 5 (and even the OnePlus 3T), the Honor 8 Pro and the LG G6 offer better hardware at comparative prices and so does rather embarrassingly its own brother, the BlackBerry Priv, which sports a larger, higher resolution AMOLED display and a slide out keyboard, allowing you to use the device as both an all-touch and a traditional BlackBerry. Stock Android fans can also look at the Moto Z2 Play with its support for mods, and even the slightly older Moto Z itself.
It is all really going to boil down to the user experience then – the combination of stock Android, BlackBerry security and well…yes, the QWERTY keyboard, which attempts to evoke nostalgia even while adding a few new touches. Will they save the day for the KEYone? Wait for our final review.