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BlackBerry KEYone hands-on review: the physical keyboard that will never die

Update: Available in the UK as of May 5

Though MWC officially kicks off on Monday, February 27, many of the biggest manufacturers are already getting a head start in presenting their newest devices prior to the event this weekend. This is the case for BlackBerry as well, the long-standing manufacturer just dropped its latest smartphone, the KEYone, which was code-named Mercury. Here are our first impressions of the BlackBerry device with the trademark physical keyboard.

BlackBerry KEYone release date and price

Having briefly shown its face at CES in Las Vegas under the codename Mercury, the new BlackBerry KEYone was finally made official at MWC 2017. The smartphone will be available worldwide, but an exact date for the US is as yet unknown. The device will come to the UK on May 5. As for the price, the KEYone will go for $549 in the US and £499 in the UK.

BlackBerry KEYone design and build quality

The KEYone is a phone created with hardcore fans of BlackBerry in mind. While some previous smartphones like the DTEK 50 may have been disappointing, this isn't the case for the KEYone, which is the first smartphone of a new generation of handsets manufactured by TCL (a second should be launched this year). The new arrival has a clear mission: to please those who still like a physical keyboard. This market which has been abandoned by other manufacturers is nevertheless according to the brand still acclaimed by many users, including former BlackBerry users, who aim above all for productivity with their smartphone. The phone is therefore designed for professionals. The haptic feedback that a physical keyboard produces is impossible to achieve with a virtual one. There are some people who still swear by it.

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The front of the KEYone / © ANDROIDPIT

In terms of design, the Priv-style slide-up format has been kicked to the curb, adopting instead a one-piece structure made up of a display and a QWERTY keyboard. Despite the physical presence of the latter, the device still manages to remain quite compact. It is smaller than many other contenders on the market, most of which opted for a 5.5-inch format (Google Pixel XL, iPhone 7 Plus, OnePlus 3T…). Below the display, BlackBerry has conserved the capacitative navigation buttons from Android.

AndroidPIT BlackBerry KEYone keyboard
A keyboard closeup. / © ANDROIDPIT

Despite the body being made out of aluminium and BlackBerry promises good stability, the keyboard is constructed out of plastic and the back of the smartphone has received a soft-touch textured back. To stay with the times, BlackBerry also decided to include a fingerprint scanner that has been integrated into the space bar of the keyboard on the front of the device.

AndroidPIT BlackBerry KEYone back 4
The rubbery back of the KEYone. / © ANDROIDPIT

The keyboard, just like the one on the Priv, can also recognize gestures. This means that it does not only serve the purpose of typing, it can also be used as a trackpad. You can swipe your finger up and down, right and left in order to gain access to your home screen or launch various apps. Other functions include copy and paste, keyboard shortcuts using short or long press for each letter of the every letter on the keyboard, U for Uber and F for Facebook, for example, and double-tap to bring up the cursor. No extra home key was created, the space bar works both as a fingerprint scanner and the home button, in addition to the Android home button found on the phone as well.

In fact, even though the keyboard seems quite simple at first glance, it hides a wealth of features and is very comfortable to use with both hands.

AndroidPIT BlackBerry KEYone MWC 2017 swipe navigation
Swipe navigation will be possible with the keyboard. / © ANDROIDPIT

The rest of the device is set up rather traditionally. The volume buttons are located on the right side with the Nano SIM card found above, while on the left you will find the power button. The USB Type-C and speakers are located on the bottom, with the headphone jack on the top (BlackBerry decided to keep this feature, while other manufacturers are debating removing it completely).

AndroidPIT BlackBerry KEYone bottom
USB Type-C and speakers on the bottom. / © ANDROIDPIT

Even if the build quality is on the whole is fairly serious, the rear coating is a bit of a surprise and gives a lower range feel than some competing flagships. It is also important to clarify that while BlackBerry deals with the design and promotion, it is TCL, a Chinese firm, which manufactures the smartphone. TCL is not a newcomer in the industry, the company has already made Alcatel smartphones.

BlackBerry KEYone display

The BlackBerry KEYone has a 4.5-inch Full HD display with a resolution of 1,620 x 1,080. It has 433 ppi and a 3:2 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, seeing as I first tried the device at the press conference in Barcelona while indoors, I was not able to test the display’s capabilities outdoors in natural lighting.

BlackBerry KEYone software

It is Android 7.1 Nougat, which will run on the BlackBerry KEYone. BlackBerry has confirmed that security updates will be released continuously throughout the life of the device, including, of course, the monthly security updates from Google for Android. BlackBerry also encrypted the processor for more security.

AndroidPIT BlackBerry KEYone security
The DTEK app in action. / © ANDROIDPIT

If you are familiar with BlackBerry smartphones running Android, you’ll already be used to the setup on this year's newcomer. The interface is very similar to that of stock Android, albeit a few BlackBerry additions that target organization, security and productivity. Brand apps such as BBM, BlackBerry Hub and DTEK are therefore housed on the device. The device will focus on security, and the DTEK app will help give users more personalized privacy and security options by managing app permissions in great detail.

BlackBerry KEYone performance

Under the hood, the KEYone is powered by a Snapdragon 625 processor by Qualcomm with an Adreno 506 GPU. For those who expected to get the jacked up Snapdragon 835, you’ll be disappointed seeing as the latter is reserved for the first batch of Galaxy S8 devices by Samsung. That being said, the octa-core processor that ticks at 2 GHz is hardly shabby. The CPU will also have an X5 LTE radio which will allow for two times faster download speeds compared to previous models. Paired with 4 GB of RAM, the BlackBerry offers fluid performance that will likely not disappoint. This is, however, just a first impression in consideration of the tech specs delivered and what was initially observed at the press conference. We will give a more accurate assessment of the performance after we've had a chance to do a full review.

AndroidPIT BlackBerry KEYone snapdragon
The KEYone will have a Snapdragon 625 processor / © ANDROIDPIT

BlackBerry KEYone audio

The KEYone offers stereo speakers. This area is also difficult to adequately assess after just minutes of usage in the noisy room reserved for testing after the press conference. We’ll be able to better judge the quality of the audio in the calm of our office back home after MWC.

BlackBerry KEYone camera

For the camera, the BlackBerry KEYone offers a 12 MP main camera (a Sony IMX378 sensor with an f / 2.0 aperture). No optical stabilization is present. The front camera has 8 MP and an f / 2.2 aperture.

AndroidPIT BlackBerry KEYone front
The camera in action. / © ANDROIDPIT

BlackBerry KEYone battery

Again, lengthy battery tests will have be conducted in order to deliver a final verdict, but with a capacity of 3,505 mAh, it is likely to not disappoint. It should be able to reach 50 percent in 36 minutes with Quick Charge 3.0. The presence of Nougat's Doze mode also ensures that owners would get good battery life out of the phone. The final review will reveal more.

BlackBerry KEYone technical specifications

Dimensions: 149.3 x 72.5 x 9.4 mm
Weight: 180 g
Battery size: 3505 mAh
Screen size: 4.5 in
Screen: 1680 x 1080 pixels (433 ppi)
Front camera: 8 megapixels
Rear camera: 12 megapixels
Flashlight: Dual-LED
Android version: 7.1 - Nougat
RAM: 3 GB
Internal storage: 32 GB
Removable storage: microSD
Chipset: Qualcomm Snapdragon 625
Number of cores: 8
Max. clock speed: 2 GHz
Connectivity: HSPA, LTE, NFC, Bluetooth 4.2

Early Verdict

BlackBerry is not dead and the KEYone is the proof (thanks to TCL). The phone’s slogan “Distinctly Different” is actually spot on, seeing as the device comes with a physical keyboard, a rare trait in today's market. Clearly, the smartphone is promising, with the inclusion of a fingerprint scanner and Android Nougat on board, and will surely wow the crowds. The only setback is, of course, the slightly lower build quality, but it will still be able to attract a professional audience that prioritizes productivity.

Samsung, Apple and the other major players don’t necessarily need to worry, but those averse to virtual keyboards will be happy that BlackBerry is still present on the smartphone market.

What do you think about the KEYone? Has BlackBerry succeeded in making a smartphone that will stand out and excel in 2017 or is the phone resting too much on its nostalgic laurels? Are you a fan? Let us know in the comments below.

15 comments

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  • Not able to change the battery! What do you do if and when the mobile freezes? Or the battery is flat? I would buy this phone as I would like to have a physical keyboard.

  • No heard news about Blackberry for a long time lol

  • Blackberry phones have the best build design in my opinion. And the back of the keyone looks the same as the classic, rubbery texture. I have never had a issue with the feel, grips perfectly in the hand, never come close to dropping the phone. Unlike iphones and samsungs, which clearly seem intentionally designed to be dropped to make more money out of glass repairs. Everyone I know have cracked their phones. But not a blackberry

  • Is WhatsApp going to support this new blackberry? Thanks

  • Thee cheers for BlackBerry and TCL for designing and manufacturing a phone that is "distinctly different" with its versatile physical keyboard. There's is a large enough enterprise and consumer audience that have been waiting for this form factor. With a solid marketing push it could be a "door opener."

  • I have never been a Blackberry fan don't ask me why, because I couldn't answer owned one many moons ago, I always used to like the look. Have owned a lot of smartphones from various makers, so decided to give the Blackberry Priv a go when it came out and if I'm honest it has surprised me in a positive way. I read a lot of negative reviews about the phone and I'm somewhat baffled, are these people testing the same phone to the one I use. I use my phone quite a lot, the calendar and organiser multiple times daily, write emails texts constantly, listen to music watch youtube videos and for me the Priv excels in all areas, even the camera is excellent as photography is part of my work. It's such a shame that people even tech websites seem to follow each other and once mud is thrown it sticks to that brand. I would go as far as to say it has been the best phone I've owned and from what I've seen I'll be buying the Keyone once it's available. It's totally different, and I disagree that the materials used looks cheaper it looks a quality piece of kit to me and I hope it sells by the barrow load.

  • Dean L. 1 month ago Link to comment

    I use a BB bold for work and despise the BB OS. Had four of them and the keyboards failed on three. And I do like using a swipe style keyboard, just makes typing more efficient. So I'm thinking that this may not be the best choice for me. I am glad to see they finally buried the BB OS. But I'll wait for the reviews before I make a final decision.

  • Finally. Blackberry the REAL smartphone.

  • I don't like phones made out of glass, to be honest its the most ridiculous material you could use for a phone, slippery, fragile and marks easily. I like this approach to give a better feel, like the LG V10, its sensible to protect something that is expensive, used so much and so easy to drop.

    • Loie Favre
      • Admin
      • Staff
      1 month ago Link to comment

      True that Marc. Like The Jornado, who also agrees in the comment below, perhaps this new material is just what users need and not some slab of metal that easily slips or smudges with fingerprints.

  • So you feel using materials that make a phone easy to hold (and much less pointlessly slippery than metal or glass) gives it lower build quality...? Metal unibody is becoming more and more boring and the glass sandwich technique was great 3 years ago. I think soft touch materials with grip make actual sense for something meant to be held in one hand and it's kinda depressing when brands get docked points for trying to do something that makes sense. Just my opinion.

    • Loie Favre
      • Admin
      • Staff
      1 month ago Link to comment

      Thanks for your comment The Jornado. I suppose you are right, better grip and comfort are important aspects when considering quality. As you say, it goes against the grain of what has been popular on the market for the last while, but is the glass/metal trend really that user friendly? Probably not. Blackberry said in the press conference that the KEYone will not only be slip-resistant but extra sturdy in the case it does actually drop.

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