Sunday, November 8, 2015

BlackBerry Priv Review: Impressive, Tragic Comeback

BlackBerry, BlackBerry, what have you done? After years of decline, mediocre hardware and software and near collapse we’d all given up on you. Even your most loyal fans (and they are really loyal) were finally prepared to move on… and then you make this.

Spoiler alert! The BlackBerry Priv is very good. It’s not perfect, but it’s far better than anyone had any right to expect from a first generation Android device that melds so many polar opposites: touchscreen and physical keyboard, premium design and rubberised finish, Google’s OS and good security.

The Priv may come too late to save BlackBerry, but it’s exactly what BlackBerry needed. It’s also exactly what Google needed: a phone designer brave enough to make something physically different and skilled enough to prove Android can have great security – when handled right. The Priv is the anti-Galaxy, and all the better for it. If this is the end for BlackBerry, it’s at least a poignant way to bow out…

The most interesting phone of 2015? Image credit: Gordon Kelly
The most interesting phone of 2015?

Design – Back To The Future
Even if you know next to nothing about the Priv (it’s short for ‘Privacy’ by the way, not toilet) you’ll know it’s main talking point is the brilliant/brave/bonkers inclusion of a physical sliding keyboard. And the fact BlackBerry has integrated it well is fundamental to any chance of success the Priv has.

Yes adding a slide-out keyboard makes the Priv a little fatter and heavier than you might expect for a phone with a 5.4-inch display (147 x 77.2 x 9.4 mm and 192g). Yes it can feel a little off balance at first with the rest of the phone stretched high above it, but the spring loaded sliding mechanism is rock solid and the keys tactile (if a little crowded for my liking). It has also learnt new tricks as scrolling can be done by swiping across the keys.

A 'smart' physical keyboard. Image credit: Gordon Kelly
A ‘smart’ physical keyboard.

I’ll be the first to admit I’ve never been a fan of physical keyboards so I’m probably not best placed to criticise them. I’m also not convinced the Priv will win over die-hard virtual keyboard converts, but there’s an unmistakable enjoyment to typing long emails or messages without filling half your screen with a virtual keyboard (though you can if you want). It’s the past showing the future it isn’t necessarily better, but it does offer valid pros and cons.

The rest of the phone is similarly (and reassuringly) contradictory. It’s curved glass front hides a display that’s actually flat, the well sculpted lines are finished with a rubber trim that does feel luxurious and provides the practical grip owners of Apple and Samsung phones can only dream about. Meanwhile the aforementioned bulk means you can miss that the Priv has both a front mounted speaker and some of the thinnest bezels on the market.
The Priv has very thin bezels despite managing a front facing speaker. Image credit: Gordon Kelly
The Priv has very thin bezels despite managing a front facing speaker.

I recognise that the design of the Priv will be polarising, but in a time where every phone looks the same that should be celebrated. It’s an Android touchscreen phone that’s also unmistakably a BlackBerry. Hardcore BlackBerry fans will love it and, for the first time in a long time, BlackBerry may collect some new fans along the way.

Display – Playing Straight With Curves
Switching on the Priv for the first time I was initially disappointed. Having been wowed by the curved displays of the Galaxy S6 Edge and S6 Edge+, discovering the curves on the Priv were superficial with the visible display stopping noticeably before the edge is a downer.
The display also isn’t the best around. Sure it’s a 2K (1440 x 2560) AMOLED with ludicrous 540ppi, but colours aren’t overly vibrant and it’s not as bright as leading Android devices like the LG G4, Nexus 6P or any of Samsung’s premium Galaxy range.
The 'curved' Priv glass hides a flat touchscreen. Image credit: Gordon Kelly
The ‘curved’ Priv glass hides a flat touchscreen.

Then again, with time, I think a flat screen with curved glass may prove a very smart move. It’s the best of both worlds: the curves look great with the Priv switched off and the UI isn’t warped at the edges when it is on. It also means you don’t continually register accidental touches every time you reach for the opposite corner – something that’s driven many Galaxy Edge/Edge+ owners to distraction.

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