BlackBerry Keyone review: Not a bad phone, but far, far too expensive

Price when reviewed

I wasn’t a technology journalist when BlackBerry was top of the world. In 2017, that feels a bit like writing “I wasn’t a wildlife reporter when triceratops was all the rage,” but it’s actually not as long ago as it feels. There was a time when nobody could conceive of a business phone without a keyboard designed for fingers the dimensions of cocktail sticks.

That fall from grace was swift, and the BlackBerry was last seen with a market share that could be rounded to 0.0%. TCL Communications saw the potential for homeless keyboard warriors and snapped up the rights to sell phones under the BlackBerry brand – and this is the result: BlackBerry’s flagship for 2017, the Keyone. Sure, it runs Android N, but it has the keyboard, BlackBerry Messenger and the heft of old. Is it any good?

BlackBerry Keyone: Design

Even as somebody who never wrote about BlackBerry when the Canadian company was in its pomp, there’s a certain pang of nostalgia you get by picking up the device: it’s unapologetically chunky. By today’s standards, though, it’s plain anachronistic. At the bottom of the device are curved corners, while the top is cut off at an angle. It has a reassuringly hefty rubberised back that feels nicely grippy; it’s large and heavy (at 180g it makes my 152g Samsung Galaxy S7 feel practically non-existent), but in a solidly comforting way.[gallery:1]

Of course, the big difference is right there, front and centre: 34 tiny plastic physical keys and a spacebar, occupying the bottom fifth of the device. That spacebar also doubles as a fingerprint scanner, by the way, which is handy when you remember it’s there. Other than that the only real nod to the year 2017 is the presence of a USB Type-C port for charging.

I was pleasantly surprised with how much screen real estate this leaves: a 4.5in display with a 3:2 aspect ratio. Android scales down to this screen nicely and you don’t feel like you’re losing much by having the keyboard in its space. One minor annoyance, however, is having to use the home, back and menu buttons on the bottom of the screen for Android functions, which means moving your thumb above the keyboard.

One final note on the design: underneath the volume rocker on the right-hand side is a button that doesn’t actually do anything out of the box. BlackBerry calls this the “convenience key” and the idea is that you can bind it to any app you want. That means that whether you want it to bring up the camera or play sitcom sound effects on cue, your wish is BlackBerry’s command.

BlackBerry Keyone: Screen

Typically the screen dominates your smartphone. The Samsung Galaxy S8 I reviewed recently had a screen to body ratio of 83.6%. The BlackBerry KeyOne is just 55.9% screen.[gallery:2]

The good news is that, in practice, that still feels like plenty, although I found it awkward at times, having to stretch my thumb past four rows of physical keys to reach the bottom of the screen.

All that said, as displays go, it’s a decent one. The 4.5in IPS display has a resolution of 1,080 x 1,620, meaning a pixel density of around 433ppi. It’s perfectly sharp; colour reproduction is good, too, with 96.5% of the sRGB colour gamut covered; and brightness reaches a respectable 497cd/m2. That’s not as bright as the very best we’ve seen but it means you shouldn’t struggle to read it unless it’s unfeasibly bright outside.

BlackBerry KeyOne: Performance

At this point, all impressions are pretty decent: if you want a smartphone with a keyboard and don’t want to butcher your Galaxy S7 by adding one of those bulky keyboard cases, then this seems like a strong contender, right?[gallery:4]

Okay, but put away your credit card for a moment. Let me introduce you to the specifications. Before I do, let me remind you that this is a phone that costs £500. Five hundred pounds. A monkey. 50,000 pence.

You’re looking at a handset with a 2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor, backed with 3GB RAM. The Snapdragon 625 processor – the main meat of what you’re paying for – is the very same processor you’ll find running the show in the Lenovo P2 and the Moto G5 Plus.

Those are phones that retail for £200 and £250 respectively. Again, the BlackBerry KeyOne goes for FIVE HUNDRED POUNDS.

If you haven’t already closed the window in disgust, allow me to show you what that means in the real world. Here’s how the BlackBerry KeyOne coped with the original Manhattan test in GFXBench:gfxbench_manhattan_gfxbench_manhattan_onscreen_gfxbench_manhattan_offscreen_1080p_chartbuilder_2

That’s one frame per second more than you get than in a handset less than half the price. The OnePlus 3T pushes nearly five times as many frames per second, and it does so for “just” £101 less.

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