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December 20, 2015

Living with the BlackBerry Priv hooked me on its keyboard

by John_A

When my colleague Dan reviewed the BlackBerry Priv, he was understandably cool about it. You’re paying a steeper-than-average price ($699-plus in the US) for a phone whose selling point is its slide-out keyboard. That’s a big gamble when there are more affordable touch-only phones that are also more powerful. But what’s it like if you take that plunge? I’ve spent two months living with a Priv to find out. All its stand-out features and quirks are still there, but I’ve found myself gradually drawn in by that keyboard — enough so that my opinion of the phone has changed for good. Slideshow-349703

Yes, a lot of the issues with the keyboard remain. It’s narrow, tightly spaced and otherwise not the best keyboard BlackBerry has ever made. (To me, that honor goes to the Bold 9900.) Also, a slider design on a large 5.4-inch phone creates a unique problem: It’s so tall in its extended mode that I occasionally had to hold it close to me to avoid banging against nearby objects. For that matter, the software autocorrect would sometimes fail to kick in while I was using the physical keyboard, leaving me to correct typos like it was 2006 all over again.

But when everything works, it works. It’s not so much the speed — it’s not that much faster than using a touchscreen keyboard — as the feel and how it frees up screen space. There’s something satisfying about flicking out the keyboard to wake the phone and dash off a message. And hiding the software keyboard is just perfect for chat apps like Hangouts, where all that newly freed-up real estate lets me track more of the conversation without scrolling. Although the on-screen keyboard is well-done, I found myself leaning toward the old-school buttons when I had the chance.

BlackBerry Priv keyboard

Part of the appeal comes when I do have to scroll, mind you. The keyboard’s gesture support is inconsistent, even within apps (Flickr reverses scrolling directions in different sections, for instance), but on the whole it’s very useful. I can read an article without obscuring the page, or follow the strands of a long Twitter conversation without lifting my hands off the keys. While I didn’t use the other features much (such as selecting text or erasing whole words), they were nice to have now and then. These gestures were also present on the Passport, of course, but it’s still great to have them here too, especially when there’s a rich app ecosystem that can take advantage of those keyboard swipes.

How does the rest of the Priv stack up, you ask? Pretty well, actually. The quad HD display and 18-megapixel camera remain good but not great, and the battery life with heavy use (e.g., social networking and music streaming) is merely average despite the big 3,410mAh battery. However, the phone could almost always keep up with what I wanted to do. The Snapdragon 808 chip and 3GB of RAM aren’t as powerful as you’ll get in some phones in this class, but they’re still up to the job of driving a flagship device. About the only let-down was the low-light photography, which was reasonably bright but also noisy and colorless (though it did get better, as you’ll see below). You could never touch the Priv’s keyboard and still get a pretty solid smartphone.

And yes, moving to Android has done wonders for the BlackBerry experience. As good as a few elements of BlackBerry 10 were — multitasking in particular — it’s refreshing to have an ample supply of native apps, instead of repackaged titles or, more often, nothing at all. Instagram? Flickr? Swarm? Yes to all of them. BlackBerry’s custom touches are generally welcome, too, like pop-up widgets and stars to indicate apps with notifications. Some of the software is superfluous outside of certain business users; I didn’t really need DTEK’s security audits, for instance. All the same, I’d say BlackBerry struck a fine balance between maintaining Android’s strong points and catering to faithful users.

BlackBerry Priv's backside

I’d add that BlackBerry has been good about supporting the Priv in the time I’ve used it. A major December update improved performance across the board, including the camera’s low-light quality. On top of that, there have been numerous app updates to tweak the functionality and fix bugs. It’s still not flawless: One recent crash forced me to reboot the phone. However, this is the kind of tremendous post-launch support that I wish other phone manufacturers would offer. That extra level of care stems partly from make-or-break necessity (BlackBerry may quit hardware entirely if sales remain poor), but it’s greatly appreciated.

My main concern is that the Priv isn’t quite as transformative an experience as BlackBerry arguably needs it to be. I did get hooked on typing on that hardware keyboard, but I felt back at home the moment I went back to typing on glass with other phones. The physical keys weren’t so addictive that I found myself missing them dearly, and that’s a problem when rivals like the Galaxy Note 5 and Nexus 6P are faster, take better photos and otherwise sport more bells and whistles. Even so, I’m going to miss the Priv — and that’s something I haven’t said about a BlackBerry in a long time.

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