Think "BlackBerry", and the next word to follow might well be "keyboard". That this Canadian company once built such a loyal following around one singular hardware feature was impressive enough, but what was even more so was that their smartphones became not just another tech trend, but an entire way of life. Whichever camp you found yourself in at the time, we believe you'll agree that BlackBerry has its name firmly etched in the history books, and not those of tech, mind you - the history books, period.
In the world of tech, the days are long, but the years are short. A gradual shift to touch and apps caught the company almost by surprise. However, BlackBerry, unlike Nokia, managed to stay in the game by converting to Android. The Priv was the first BlackBerry to try to make peace with all camps, packing a lightly customized version of Android 5.1 Lollipop and a slide-out keyboard under a 5.4-inch Quad HD AMOLED display. Today, we have the KEYone, whose name is a clear reference both to the future and the history of the company. The KEYone is now the one BlackBerry needs, but is it the one the people deserve?
The KEYone is the first Android-based BlackBerry to adopt the so-called "monoblock" design: a physical keyboard below a portrait-orientated display.
The build, as one would expect of a true BlackBerry, is top-notch. An aluminum unibody with rounded edges melds nicely into a soft-touch rubber back cover, elegantly dimpled but with a slightly raised camera lens ring and somewhat jarring fluorescent orange and yellow LEDs for the two-tone flash. At least on the Black Edition that we were offered for review, it all comes together almost perfectly, with barely visible antenna lines.
The sleekness of the KEYone's rounded form proved to be the first ergonomic bugbear that really hit home for us, for despite the soft-touch backing, it proved almost as difficult to keep in our hands as Gollum's precious One Ring - a problem seemingly exacerbated by the weight distribution, which appears to be somewhat toward the top of the phone. More than several times, it slipped out of my hands and onto the carpet (thankfully), making me wish that some of that coating had made its way on to the sides of the phone as well.
The power key on the left side, as well as the volume keys and a customizable "convenience key" on the right, have chamfered edges, and do not feel loose or click when touched. However, the placement of the power key directly across from the convenience key made for a host of irritating mis-operations.
On the bottom are a USB Type-C port and a set of speaker holes, only the right one of which actually contains a speaker - though it is perfectly serviceable for music, with reasonably deep bass (considering it's a phone) and little discernible distortion at peak volume.
Then we come to a second issue: the use of a display with a 3:2 display aspect ratio. While this is a necessary evil to keep the form factor to a manageable length, and the 4.5-inch IPS LCD panel is excellent in all kinds of lighting, with bang-on colors and contrast, it results in a less-than-optimal experience when it comes to media consumption, as you'll see black bars around the edges of YouTube videos and some photos:-
And with more ergonomic bones to pick, let's pick apart that killer BlackBerry feature...
It goes without saying that a keyboard on a BlackBerry has a lot to live up to. It must not just be a good keyboard - it has to be great, possibly even perfect. That's why, alas, we have mixed feelings about the keyboard on the KEYone.
The good is that the keys look and feel great enough. They're arranged in three rows, with each key made of hard-wearing polycarbonate, rather than some sort of rubber. Dab-smack in the center of the spacebar is a fingerprint sensor that's accurate, though not quite as fast as that on, say, a OnePlus 5. Each key is evenly backlit, and they're very well laid-out (with the exception of the Alt key where we'd expect the Shift key to be.) Additionally, the keyboard itself is touch-sensitive and works as a trackpad in apps, allowing you to scroll both horizontally and vertically. Three-choice word suggestions are also provided on-screen, just above the keys, and you can select a suggestion by swiping upward on the keyboard. You can even set up to 52 customizable shortcuts to open apps.
And now for somewhat more grave news, before which we must qualify this reviewer's large hands and fat fingers: To start with, the key rows are too short vertically, resulting in a good workout for the thumbs, helped (or not) by the keys also being inadequately indented, as well as requiring a bit more force to depress than expected. The problem is, for folks raised on a diet of software keyboards, all of this adds up to a certain psychological effect - the same reviewer soon found that typing seemed extraordinarily tiring, and then he realized why: he was now typing at half the speed he would have been on a software keyboard.
Another bugbear has to do with the Android navigation keys, which are located just above the keyboard, and too close to it for comfort. We think that BlackBerry is aware of this, for the sweet spots of these keys appear to have been made extremely small (which resulted in multiple taps being needed from time to time) - yet too many times we still found ourselves returning to the home screen or opening the recent apps panel while typing.
On-screen keys would have been the way to go, but this would surely have been an even more unpopular move, given the already scarce screen real estate.
As our enthusiasm for what we hoped would have been the KEYone's most outstanding feature leaked away by the hour, we were itching to just enable the in-built software keyboard to get that drunk text or message to Mama over with - which, by the second day of testing, we shamefully admitted to doing.
Doubtless the KEYone's keyboard is extremely precise, and in the right hands - or the hands of BlackBerry aficionados - it may well be a treat to use. But consider yourself forewarned: try the phone out at a store before committing.