Blackberry Keyone back in black edition
I’ve been a huge fan of the back to the future approach of TCL and their rendition of BlackBerry. Paired with Android and some real well-designed hardware, they’ve carved out a niche market in the smartphone world that is truly unique. So you can imagine how excited I was that BlackBerry has released a full QWERTY Android phone. As a bonus, they made it completely black and threw an extra gig of RAM with more internal storage. So say hello to the BlackBerry Keyone Black Edition.
4.5″ scratch resistant screen
12MP rear camera
Touch-enable QWERTY keyboard
4GB of RAM
64GB of storage plus microSD
8MP front-facing camera
I had a limited amount of time with the original Keyone last year and came away impressed with the hardware. The Black Edition is exactly that. A black Keyone. There is zero difference on the external hardware and design otherwise. Honestly, I’m OK with this. BlackBerry’s history includes multiple refreshes of models with new aesthetic tweaks. The Keyone’s closest cousin for BlackBerry would have been the BlackBerry Passport which had at least 3 different variants over the course of 2 years.
The exterior hardware is all but identical to the existing silver models. You get the same great QWERTY keyboard candy-bar design and rock-solid build materials of aluminum and soft-touch back plate. On the bottom, you have the USB-C port and dual down-firing speaker grills. To the left, is one lonely power button. On the opposing right, you have the volume rocker and convenience key. This is one set of selections that I wish BlackBerry would consider changing. Almost all Android OEMs have the power and volume to the right. I like the convenience key being here, I just wish they’d reverse the layout to power on the right and convenience on the left side. Rounding out the hardware, you will find the now “classic” 3.5mm headphone jack.
Click on any of the images above to see a larger version.
Pros and Cons
Amazing keyboard with touch scrolling
All-day battery life
Great build quality
Redundant apps and Hub
The internal hardware is where BlackBerry made some significant changes for the good. You’ll see an additional 1GB of RAM for better multitasking and app management. This is the first tangible difference I found with the standard Keyone and the new Black Edition. The original would become sluggish in a few hours of light usage and you’d see the 3GB of memory depleted with 2.5-2.8GB constantly being used.
I’m glad to report that this bump in memory has real results. While the used memory stays relatively the same, it offers the OS a nice level of breathing room to not make the system bog down. I rarely see the same hindered transitions or frozen app screens that I saw with the regular Keyone. It really should have had this from the start and I may have never left the Keyone last year if it did.
This is a “some good, some bad” scenario with BlackBerry. If you want the latest Android OS version as soon as possible, then it’s never going to be for you. BlackBerry is still running Nougat 7.1.1 with no real official word on their upgrade path to Oreo. The company says it’s coming but they won’t offer any expansion on the statement (to give hope on it being imminent). If this is something that will hold you back on a phone purchase, then you may want to look elsewhere.
The other knock for me on the general software is the BlackBerry Suite of apps. BlackBerry has simply exerted too many resources into redundant programming in my opinion. Much like Samsung, one of BlackBerry’s earlier Android partners, there’s just additional apps that cover the same ground as Google official ones. I don’t need another Contacts, Phone, and Calendar app on my phone. Google had me covered in that regard.
To top that off, BlackBerry has taken that a step further with offering their own notification layer with BlackBerry Hub. As a former BB10 user, I completely appreciated the fresh take on aggregating apps and notification within that system. For those that don’t know, the Hub is an application layer that aggregates all your notification into a single location for services like email, Facebook, and Twitter. However, with the maturity of Android, and especially notifications, I would have rather seen BlackBerry and TCL skip this one. It’s a redundancy that will most likely only confuse users with the opportunity for double notifications. Honestly, once I disabled all these extra apps and installed Action Launcher I was perfectly happy with the rather stock build of Android that BlackBerry has otherwise.
One strong point of the software is security — a classic for BlackBerry. The Keyone one comes with a hardened kernel base that offers some stronger security patches than those found on other Android phones. They also offer their DTEK app that helps monitor your online safety with an eye on what services you use and how reputable they may be. BlackBerry and TCL have also been one of the faster manufacturers in pushing out Google’s security patches on a regular basis.
Once you get used to the base software, you’ll find that BlackBerry has left the general navigation and OS relatively clean. You have a stock feel in the launcher and menus. Speaking of the launcher, you have some nice shortcuts with the keyboard thanks to BlackBerry Launcher. You can assign app shortcuts to every key. Want Twitter to launch with a long-press of the letter “T”? Done. Do you need Chrome at the ready? Set it up for the letter “C”. Well, you get the drift. It’s a subtle, but nice, touch to utilize the physical keyboard within the system.
And speaking of the keyboard. Let’s get to my favorite feature, which is scrolling. The keyboard is touch-enabled much like the trackpad on a laptop. With this enabled, you can scroll through most apps without touching the screen. Instead, you just glide your finger up and down on the keys and the pages respond accordingly. I did say most on purpose a few sentences ago, however. I found certain apps refused to work with this with Feedly being the most significant in my app drawer. Even with a few quirks, I really like this feature to again utilize the keyboard in a meaningful way and recognize that the form factor is tall in height by design. You can now interact without using both hands or straining your reach.
Real World Use and Performance
I had very little issues with using the BlackBerry Keyone Black Edition as my daily driver. The bump in RAM has made a huge difference in performance from the base Silver model. I no longer see the almost complete lockup of the OS I was seeing with the previous 3GB variants after a week of it powered on. To be brutally honest, it’s what the Silver Keyone should have been. I would still be using my Silver CDMA Keyone if it had the extra RAM — even over my Pixel 2 XL.
Everything else was extremely good. The camera takes acceptable, but not great shots. The battery life was fantastic at well over 28 hours of real use. The Snapdragon 625 is starting to be a dated chip, but overall I didn’t really notice after I settled in with the device for a few days. If you’ve never used a Pixel, you may not recognize it at all, and even if you have, I think it would fade within a week.
I found the Keyone to be exactly what BlackBerry claims it to be. It’s a total throwback in that’s it was meant to bring BlackBerry users a blast from the past in an unapologetic way. It’s for us “old nerds” who remember the gratification of banging out emails on a physical keyboard. And with the Black Edition, BlackBerry has nailed it. It hits all the checkboxes Crackberry users looked for: great keyboard, incredible battery life, and hardened security. One challenge I would make is don’t hold back on the next edition. Give me top-notch specs in a single SKU and make it available for all the major US carrier bands. I like what TCL and BlackBerry have done with the Keyone, and with rumors of the next model in the works, I look forward to its evolution.