Saturday 7 July 2018

BlackBerry KEYone

It's in my hand! And the first thing I notice about it is the heft. It feels solid and heavy, robust and substantial. It's reassuringly chunky and thick. It's also tall. Before it arrived, I'd not thought about height really, but it's a long device. Everywhere it's black, it feels and looks really classy and impressive. It's a shame therefore, about the silver/chrome coloured finish around the edges and forehead. Almost immediately, I was wishing it was all black.

The back has a rubbery, grippy finish, though I still feel as though I need a TPU, which is coming! The Power Button on the left, Volume Rocker on the right and Convenience Key below it all feel well finished and sturdy to the press. The Nano SIM/MicroSD Card Tray feels well made and not dodgy, like the average Sony version. USB-C Charging at the base is flanked by the speaker/microphone grilles and Front-Facing Camera with Telephone Earpiece holes and other sensors sit on the forehead - again, which would have been better and hidden in black. The camera lens is small, of course, but the protective glass around it is a big circle. Can't help thinking that's a design feature as I don't really see why it needs to be that big.

And so to the keyboard and (apart from the Priv) the only currently available Android device with one. In fact, in terms of phones being currently made, it's unique, I think. Maybe there's some phone out East which most of us don't know about, but certainly this is true of the mainstream. I have a Blackberry Passport here to compare with this and even though this one is physically smaller, there's something about it which makes it nicer to use than the Passport's. Probably the overall width of the device. The keys are almost flat facing, but have a very slight dome. They are not like the Blackberry keys of old which were purposefully angled facing the outside of the device for each side's incoming thumb-approach. It's more like the Nokia E6. Not domed to the same degree at all, but with more of a similar styling.

I'm not convinced about the space-bar. It works very well as a fingerprint scanner, fast and flawless, but the 'face' of it is 'grooved' out so there's effectively a squared dimple in the middle, taking up most of the size of it. That's absolutely fine for fingerprint scanner duties, but when it comes to typing, it's inconsistent with the domed finish of all the other keys and makes the brain work harder to adapt. (There's also no reason that I can see why they couldn't have made the space-bar touch-to-power-off the screen as well, like Motorola.) The silver bars between the rows give definition and perceived separation, but it's mostly psychological as the 'bars' are actually recessed below the level of the dome of the keys. The keys are glossy and the whole area acts as a cursor-field for scrolling the screen. That works pretty well, as it did on the Passport, keeping grubby mitts off the screen. Yes, it's shiny and glossy, but unlike others, I think this is just fine.

I have found myself holding the device in two hands using thumbs, but I guess each person will use it how they like and no doubt Blackberry diehards will be able to teach us a thing or two about productive use. I have found that the keyboard is very usable, though, and as +Steve Litchfield said in Phones Show 309 (, there's a pacing that one has to adjust to and approach to re-learn. It's different and slower (at least at first) and makes a person think, consider and move with more measure than how most of us have been able to use on-screen keyboards after a decade of use. I have found that in a very short time, I have got used to working with it, though I can do without the swiping-up feature to finish off words. I turned it off. One of the most annoying things initially, however, is the time it takes to get brain into gear in order to use less oft' needed keys. Like Emoji and numbers and other characters.

Pressing the Symbol Key brings up a virtual keyboard above the real one (yes, taking up screen space) which has three rows of characters, second press gives you more, including a Numeric Keypad. Once it's open, if you want to 'go virtual' you can press a little blue dot, bottom-left which switches between the options too. I think I'm more likely to go this route for numbers than pressing the physical Alt key for one number (or double-press to lock and remember to double-press to unlock when finished). I guess these are all moves which the brain will get used to and persevering with the switch for a week or two would get one into the groove. There's all sorts of tweaks and adjustments that can be made to the behaviour of the keyboard and buttons in Settings.

Above the physical keyboard, there's the Android Back/Home/Recent buttons. Some have complained about this as a waste of space as they could have been utilised on-screen, instead of being capacitive, thereby following the trend of Pixel doing the same and gaining a tad more screen. I personally don't think this matters much. There's enough screen to do most things. As I said at the outset, it's a tall device and I think that the dimensions work really well.

The speaker is utilitarian. It's OK, but will win no awards nor make a party beat-box out of the KEYone. The volume is OK'ish. The quality is OK'ish. Great for podcasts and audiobooks, but look elsewhere for grander media consumption. The USB-C has rapid charging of the 3505mAh in-built battery and, as +Steve Litchfield reported, the battery life is really very good and the device charges up again very swiftly, especially to 50% (in 36 minutes).

I have assigned the Convenience Key to Voice Search, but you can use it for pretty much launching anything. Only trouble is, it doesn't seem to work unless the screen's on. Neither does OK Google as a general command for Voice Search. It only works when the screen has been fired up. This seems to still be a feature that very few devices have enabled outside of Pixel. Which is a shame. It also doesn't seem to talk to me at all. Every Google Voice Search comes back with a text search result, not verbal, even though Speech Output is On and Trusted Voice is set to work. No doubt if I changed the Language setting to USA, this would work. But plenty of other devices now work in this respect, though set to UK. Double-tap-to-wake the screen is selectable but it only gets you to the lockscreen, not beyond (without some setting of SmartLock, like Tursted Place etc.). Though, if you double-tap the screen when it's off, look at the lockscreen, you can then say OK Google and you get a Search dialogue. You can then ask your question but you still won't get the answer on-screen until you unlock the device. Having said that, it seems to work for some commands from Off - like telling it to Play (music). So there are ways in. Kind of! All feels a bit half-baked, confusing and inconsistent. Incidentally, Double-tap-to-off the screen works from the homescreens, but not anywhere else, nor with other launchers.

The 4.5" (diagonal) IPS LCD screen covered with GG4 is bright, sharp and clear. In sunlight, even without full brightness, it remains usable. For the first time in a long time, I've not opted for Google's Now Launcher. The Blackberry one seems just fine and has the feel of the Now Launcher anyway. There's a handy 5x5 grid for homescreens and a range of adjustable options for their Launcher, including Dark Theme. This makes some of the system screens default to near-black instead of white, like the App Drawer, but not Settings screens. Lots to play with for the tinkerer, though. The swipe-right for the Google Now Cards is not available, but can be invoked in a number of ways including tapping on the Google Search Bar Widget (if left in place) or assigning the Google App shortcut to the Homescreen.

Talking of shortcuts, there's three dots under some of the Apps which, when swiped-up let you view some options for (instant-view-only) widgets for quick info. Seems like an unnecessary addition really. You can turn it off. I did. As I did with most of the Blackberry stuff, frankly. Those coming here from Blackberry will, of course, love the way of working with the Hub, and swipe-in from the side Summary of the day etc. but I'm afraid that I just find it confusing and distracting and opt instead to just use the apps for GMail, Calendar, Messaging, Hangouts etc. The Hub and associated clever stuff has a feel of Windows Phone c.2010 about it, trying hard to pull everything together but actually, causing confusing for us folk who are not already baked into Blackberry and used to using Apps for doing stuff. But it's something which could be considered later maybe for a different approach.

There's a great deal of freedom to be gained by using the super keyboard without a huge Hub/BB learning curve, so it's far from lost on people new to Blackberry. Maybe that's where I went wrong with the DTEK60. You can also turn off the launcher and use another, of course, but if you do, as I said, you lose some of the features like double tap to wake/screen-off and the very attractive battery charging green 'line' up the right. Recent Apps has been implemented with some options. You can set it for be a scrolling 'Rolodex' as is usual, or if you fancy it, 'Masonry' which is a creative block-mismatch pattern of different sized tiles or the HTC-like Tile/simple grid pattern.

To mop up the rest, the Blackberry KEYone now has Android Nougat 7.1.1. on-board with April 2017 Google Security Update, though no Google Assistant. If you use the Google Now Launcher, the Homescreen Shortcuts on long-press work fine. There's 3GB RAM and a Snapdragon 625 under the bonnet which keeps it ticking along nicely. Just as fast as the Moto Z Play, and I had no complaints about that. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack (not to be expected now) though it is bizarrely everso slightly not 'central' on the top of the phone and just looks odd. Still, at least it's there. Testing with Bluetooth, Wifi, NFC, Android Pay and Cellular works perfectly and I've tested them all. Ringtones are loud and call quality, hearing and being heard, just fine. There's 32GB Storage included with expansion via a card, as mentioned earlier. There's a 12MP shooter on the back and 8MP on front (check Steve's review for a breakdown of that) and the camera performance looks just great.

My overall verdict is that I love it! Of course I've only had it in hand for a couple of days but I've surprised myself already with the speed at which I have got used to input via the great feeling keyboard. I love the quality of the build and for the first time for a long time, it feels like we have a classy device with a USP which makes it different and interesting enough to make it a keeper and great success with me at least. Of course, your mileage will vary, but I've got fat thumbs and big digits but am doing just fine - even better than the Passport. There's just something about it which 'works'. Great design and, at last, a real peach of an Android device to shout about and enjoy using. Don't want to give it back now! It's £499 to buy, but it's not alone in that territory and if you want this great hardware keyboard experience, you ain't got no choice!

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