BlackBerry Priv Review

BlackBerry Priv

It’s no secret that I used to be a huge BlackBerry fan.  My first post on this site was about the Waterloo-based company, and at my university graduation, my classmates awarded me the “Most Likely to be the Last BlackBerry User on Earth” award.  For real.  But shortly after that, I was tempted by the apps and hardware of Android, and jumped ship.  It’s been two years since, and with the release of the BlackBerry Priv, the best of BlackBerry is now on Android.  So does it do the job?

The BlackBerry Priv is the company’s first foray outside of their proprietary BBOS or BB10 operating system, and onto Google’s open-source Android platform.  To ensure the BlackBerry experience is not lost, BlackBerry has done a number of things right with this device like including a slide-out physical keyboard, the BlackBerry Hub, Universal Search, and an LED light to name a few.  The solid hardware, combined with Android Lollipop, make for a great smartphone experience.  This is a phone that I would absolutely buy for myself.  I love the look of stock Android, and BlackBerry has left it mostly untouched, adding a few tweaks throughout that all focus on making the user more productive.  It’s the Motorola approach to software, and I’m a fan.

Hardware

The first thing one notices about the BlackBerry Priv is the stellar build quality of the device.  BlackBerry Priv KeyboardThe phone looks amazing, with its curved glass complimenting the thin and sleek design of the Priv.  This should not be a surprise to BlackBerry users, who have come to love the durability and build-quality of BlackBerry devices.  The Priv is no exception.  The rear of the device is made of a carbon-fibre material that has incredible grip.  I easily held the device in one hand on an angle with complete confidence that the Priv would stay put.  As the Priv is a vertical slider, there is a hardware keyboard hidden under the large 5.4″ QHD AMOLED display.  To open it, you simply push up on the metal lip that is placed just above the front-facing speaker on the Priv.  With just the right amount of force, the screen slides up and reveals a backlit, touch-sensitive keyboard.  The mechanism has a spring to it, and feels so great that I found myself constantly playing with it over my two weeks with the device.  It was slightly addicting (Crackberry anyone?).

BlackBerry PrivThe hardware keyboard on the BlackBerry Priv is what people are most excited about with the device, including me.  The keys are backlit, touch sensitive for scrolling through webpages and emails (my favourite feature), and have minimal travel.  Unfortunately, I found the keys too small and close to together to really add value.  Sure, I was able to type while walking, but I felt the size of the keyboard was slowing me down and I would have been faster on the virtual keyboard.  When my dad (who currently uses a BlackBerry Classic) tried the device for 3 days, he found the same thing: the keyboard cannot compare to a non-slider BlackBerry keyboard.  This ultimately hurts the device, though think someone who hasn’t used a BlackBerry in a while wouldn’t have face the same issue.  Despite this, I found the touch-sensitive features of the keyboard extremely useful.  Similar to the BlackBerry Passport, you can swipe backwards to delete a word, swipe down to gain access to special characters, and even use the keyboard a virtual trackpad to move the text cursor around the screen.  I love this feature, and think BlackBerry has created something truly innovative and useful with this technology.

Inside the Priv there is a Snapdragon 808 processor, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage upgradable through microSD to 200GB.  BlackBerry has put top-notch specs in the Priv, and it pays off.  Performance is incredibly fast and I found everything to worksmoothly.  The cameras inside the BlackBerry Priv are decent, with an 18MP shooter on the back, and a 2MP front-facing camera.  The pictures I took with the Priv were nice, but not amazing.  If you love BlackBerry, you understand that they focus their efforts in the areas of build-quality and productivity software, so the camera is not going to be best-in-class.  The camera quality was good, and the camera software has tons of options, including a really nice manual exposure dial.  I was happy with the picture quality of the device, though found the camera to be a bit slow when trying to capture a moment before it was missed.

The battery on the Priv is a large 3410 mAh battery, which adds some weight to the device, but ultimately leads to a long battery life that will most definitely get you through the day – and then some!  I’m thankful that BlackBerry prioritizes battery life, given how important this is to their users.  I would take a thicker phone any day to have longer battery life (a common discussion point as Apple reduced battery size in the new iPhone 6S).  BlackBerry has made a sleek device, and the large battery does not detract from the design whatsoever.

Software

Things start to get interesting when you turn on the BlackBerry Priv, as BB10 is gone, and Android is the new focus.  You’re greeted with a sleek boot animation combining the BlackBerry logo on a shield held by the Android robot.  The image conveys a sense of security on an OS that has typically been panned as the least secure mobile operating system.  BlackBerry knows security is important, however, and has added an app called DTEK where users can easily manage installed apps and track potential security gaps in your settings.  It’s a nice touch, but I think BlackBerry could have made this more appealing to users by giving it a better name and making it more prominent in the OS.  I mean, what does DTEK mean anyways?BlackBerry Priv Hub

At the core of the Priv is Android Lollipop 5.1 (Marshmallow upgrade in the works), and BlackBerry wants you to know that.  No longer are you going to have to settle for the ‘app gap’, or dealing with BB10’s frustrating lack of Google Play Services.  The Priv has it all, and current BB10 users are going to be love it.  On top of the stock OS, BlackBerry has spruced up the operating system by sprinkling some BlackBerry magic throughout.  This is the Motorola approach to software, not the heavy skinning done by Samsung or LG on their phones.  It’s a strategy that works, giving users a tweaked launcher, app drawer, email app, and app switcher.  The tweaks BlackBerry has made to Android are all with purpose.  They enhance the OS with the goal of driving user productivity, and this comes through clearly.  The app drawer has built in search, the app switcher has been redesigned in a grid format and with a new ‘DTEK BlackBerry PrivClose All’ button, and the homescreen supports popup widget, which can be activated by swiping up over an app icon to make the widget appear.  These popup widgets almost mimic the behaviour of Apple’s 3D Touch on Android, giving users the ability to peek into apps with a single gesture.
The big addition to the Priv is the BlackBerry Hub, BlackBerry’s proprietary unified inbox for all of your messages and notifications from every app.

Unfortunately, this is where BlackBerry’s Android additions fall short.  On a BlackBerry 10 device, the hub is an amazing place that allows apps to embed themselves inside the hub for a one-stop shop for everything.  Users move from notification to notification seamlessly, without the need to switch apps.  The Hub on BlackBerry 10 also supports great gestures like pinching to see unread messages, or only priority messages, depending on what the user selects.  Unfortunately, this is not the experience of the Hub on the BlackBerry Priv.  Due to restrictions with the Android OS, BlackBerry has managed to integrate only a few apps into the Priv’s Hub, namely email, SMS, BBM, phone calls, calendar, Facebook, and Twitter.  And only email is truly baked in.  For the other apps, you are taken out of the Hub and into a completely separate app when you press a notification or want to read a message, with no easy way to jump back to the Hub.  This defeats the purpose of the Hub, and removes the increase in productivity that one is meant to gain from it.  I did like the Hub’s email app, which gives the ability to snooze emails to action at a later date, location, or when connected to Wi-Fi.  It’s a useful feature that many email apps currently lack.  The popular pinch gesture from BlackBerry 10 is missing on the Priv, but I hope that it is added in a future update.

The Good

  • Stock Android with sprinkles of the BlackBerry experience throughout allow for increased productivity
  • No shortage of quality apps due to Android
  • Well built for durability with a sleek profile that hides the slider keyboard well
  • Great battery life will get you through the day (and then some)

The Bad

  • Keyboard is less comfortable to type on than the BlackBerry Classic or Passport
  • BlackBerry Hub is not integrated enough to add value
  • Camera is slow to take photos (though a recent update bring improvement)

Some Extras

  • When charging bedside, there is a thin green line displaying battery life along the edge of the curved dispay. When you turn off your lights to go to sleep, this charging line immediately disappears. A nice touch as people would not want to see the bright green light while sleeping.
  • Notification badges on app icons!
  • Notification filtering the notification drawer is an amazing addition that lets users manage notifications with a single touch.  This works both on the Lock Screen and Notification Shade.
  • Frequent updates to core app through Google Play.  Camera was already updated with new features a few weeks after launch.
  • Quick access to calendar, email, contacts, and to-do list from any screen by swiping in from the side
  • Swiping up from the bottom of the screen allows for Hub access, Device Search, and Google Now, with the ability to customize these to launch any app.
  • Keyboard Shortcuts are a BlackBerry throwback and make their Android debut on the Priv
  • Great transfer software makes moving from BB10, Android, or iOS a breeze
  • A huge number of homescreen shortcuts allow for quick access to actions like “Send my boss an email”
  • Added flip to mute, flip to save power gestures are a nice addition

BlackBerry Priv: The Verdict

With the BlackBerry Priv, BlackBerry has delivered a solid device that brings much of the BlackBerry experience to Android, with a few kinks.  The device excels with great hardware, good software, and useful tweaks to the core Android OS.  If you’re an Android user looking to be more productive, try the Priv.  If you’re a BlackBerry 10 user looking to trade off a great keyboard in favour of a better app ecosystem, try the Priv.  I definitely think BlackBerry has accomplished something great with the Priv, and has the opportunity to sell a lot of phones.  In reviewing the phone for two weeks, I had more people than ever ask to try out the device than any other phone I’ve had.  I just might be switching back to BlackBerry for my next device.

The BlackBerry Priv is available at Rogers for $399 on a 2-year contract, or $800 off-contract.  See below for some screenshots of features that I enjoyed on the device.

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