BlackBerry KEYone review: The best keyboard phone, but does that still matter?

Alex Kidman 14 June 2017 NEWS

Quick Verdict
If you're a long-term BlackBerry fan and can deal with that slightly slick keyboard feel, you'll be right at home with the KEYone.

Strengths

  • Great battery life
  • Clever keyboard
  • Inbuilt enterprise-grade security
  • Information focus

Could be better

  • Uneven performance for its price
  • Camera is only good, not great
  • Small display


The KEYone is the best BlackBerry in years, but the market for it is still quite niche.

I've been writing about phones for long enough that I can still well and truly remember when BlackBerry was the undeniable king of the hill. BlackBerry handsets were the combined iPhone and Galaxy phones of the day, desirable by many and always interesting. Then smartphones hit the market hard via the iPhone 3G, and it all rather went tumbling downhill for BlackBerry as a handset manufacturer.

Buy the Blackberry KEYone 4GB/64GB

Buy the Blackberry KEYone 4GB/64GB from Amazon AU

The Blackberry KEYone combines innovative features with a sleek design to give you the power to do everything you want – faster.

View details

In the enterprise space it retained a niche largely for its impressive security credentials, but for regular consumers both the desirability and innovation in the BlackBerry handsets being offered rapidly declined.

Yes, there were die-hard BlackBerry fans out there, but relatively few, and that had the effect of also turning developers away from the platform. The late era switch to Android did help a little there, but it wasn't much of a surprise to see BlackBerry itself switch off the production lines for hardware after the disappointing BlackBerry PRIV.

Which makes the BlackBerry KEYone a really fascinating concept. It's the first BlackBerry device not manufactured by BlackBerry itself, that task having been outsourced to TCL. TCL's phone heritage lies in the Alcatel brand of phones, typically low-cost devices, and that's not traditionally been the BlackBerry story. The KEYone launched at Mobile World Congress earlier this year, with its local debut set for July at an asking price of $899.

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Design

The design of the KEYone is still distinctly BlackBerry, with a very conservative look and a 4.5 inch display resting atop that famous BlackBerry keyboard. In the hand, the KEYone feels very solid and rather thick compared to most other flagship devices. It measures in at 149.1x72.4x9.4 mm with a carrying weight of 180g, making it a somewhat bulky competitor in the flagship space, but nothing too onerous for day to day usage.

The closest competitor in feel that I've tested this year would probably be the solid metal body of the LG G6, although the KEYone does feature a textured back that assists in overall grip. Anyone looking at the KEYone is still very much going to pick it as a BlackBerry handset, but then there's really no competitors in the smartphone-with-a-physical-keyboard space any more. This gives it a certain retro style charm, even though this is very much a 2017 flagship.

When you first pick up the KEYone there's a 50/50 chance you'll get the power button wrong, because aside from the regular volume control, there are buttons either side that could switch it on. It's on the left, with the button on the right being the "convenience" key that can fast launch apps or other tasks at will.

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Camera

BlackBerry doesn't have a stupendous reputation in the camera space, but it has become an increasingly important factor in smartphone choice. The KEYone is equipped with a 12MP F/2.0 rear sensor and 8MP front selfie camera that perform adequately with a slight tendency to underexpose shots if taken automatically.

The inbuilt camera app is an essentially no-nonsense affair, and perhaps BlackBerry's own developers realised the exposure issue, because it's by default available as a slider within the standard camera app.

The functional reality for the KEYone is that while it's not a truly stunning camera option, it's the best camera we've seen on the BlackBerry platform to date, so if you're a long-term aficionado it will represent a step up, but for the wider Android audience, it's much more of an average option. Here's some sample shots taken with the KEYone's rear camera:

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Keyboard

The real star of the show remains the keyboard, which fundamentally has the same general feel as those classic keyboards of old. Maybe it's the time distance from the last BlackBerry keyboard, but it did feel marginally more slick on the surface than the older keyboards. Equally, that could be the fact that it now also serves as a full touchpad for swiping, as well as incorporating a fingerprint reader in the space bar. Swipe gestures can also control other inbuilt app features, such as adjusting exposure in the camera app.

BlackBerry as a platform was always about rapid data dissemination rather than apps, and that's still quite apparent in the KEYone, with a range of features designed to get you to your messages or content as rapidly as possible. Individual keys can be set as fast app launchers, the classic BlackBerry Hub is still present if it suits your needs, and the whole effort is backed up by BlackBerry's own DTEK security suite. If there's one key reason to opt for the BlackBerry KEYone over other Android options, it has to be the keyboard.

Performance

The keyboard is the reason why you'd buy a BlackBerry, and there's no competition there if you want physical keys. However, the KEYone is running on Android, and that means that most apps presume that there's no keyboard at all.

This leads to uneven performance in apps, because while some behave acceptably by automatically dropping the keyboard, some don't. Some apps decide that landscape mode is appropriate for screen display, but on the KEYone's 4.5 inch screen, that doesn't always scale all that well.

TCL has also incorporated standard Android back, home and task buttons above the keyboard, but this too robs the KEYone of a little bit of screen space, as well as meaning that for some apps you've got to tap up from the keyboard to access them. None of these issues are terrible flaws, but they're noticeable irritations if you're more used to the regular Android approach.

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From a benchmark performance perspective, the KEYone is configured at a level that we'd comfortably call mid-range, but not much more, with a Snapdragon 625 processor, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage plus microSD expansion. At an anecdotal level, apps ran acceptably well for the most part once screen size issues were resolved, but never to a degree that you'd call exceptionally fast.

Benchmark comparisons for the BlackBerry KEYone were hard to come by, with Geekbench 4's CPU test resolutely failing to finish every time we ran it. 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited did run, with results that didn't exactly peg the KEYone as your next entertainment powerhouse. Here's how it compared against a range of premium handsets:

To be entirely fair, BlackBerry doesn't sell the KEYone in any real way as an entertainment phone, but it's still a sign of its weak performance that it can be outpaced by any number of mid-range or budget phones.

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Battery life

One of the benefits of only having a 4.5 inch screen and a Snapdragon 625 on board is that the KEYone's power draw should be relatively low. It's built with a relatively hefty 3505mAh battery on board, and it's one that brings the power. In anecdotal use full day battery life is entirely achievable. The KEYone did baulk at fully completing Geekbench 3's battery life test, refusing to give us a battery score, but we did manage to run it to give a battery life time, where it clocked in with a solid result. Here's how it compares against other premium handsets with that test.

Bear in mind, however, that with no battery score, it's hard to tell how hard the KEYone pushed its processor. Still, it's an easy all-day phone for most users, and with Qualcomm's Quick Charge 3.0 built in, it's also capable of fast charging when it does run low on power.
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Verdict

There's little doubt that a core BlackBerry loving demographic will largely welcome the KEYone, but market share figures would suggest that this is the very definition of a niche audience. If you're a long-term BlackBerry fan and can deal with that slightly slick keyboard feel, you'll be right at home with the KEYone.

In the broader phone market, and especially against other Android alternatives, however, it's a harder sell. The KEYone will sell in Australia for $899 outright in July, with no announced carrier partners as yet, and that gives you plenty of choices in the regular Android world.

On a pure performance basis we'd suggest the excellent and identically priced Huawei P10 for its superior performance and camera. If your budget can stretch to it, the Samsung Galaxy S8 remains the best Android handset available right now, with the added appeal to BlackBerry users of Samsung's own robust Knox security built in. If you wanted a phone with the same rather serious style, the LG G6 is also a worthy contender, and naturally, Apple would be happy to take your money for an iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus.

Buy the Blackberry KEYone 4GB/64GB

Buy the Blackberry KEYone 4GB/64GB from Amazon AU

The Blackberry KEYone combines innovative features with a sleek design to give you the power to do everything you want – faster.

View details

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