After almost a year of speculation, leaks and rumours, BlackBerry CEO, John Chen finally announced its all-new flagship Priv smartphone in September 2015. The Priv is a first BlackBerry smartphone to pack in some updated hardware like the Qualcomm Snapdragon 808, but more importantly, it is the first smartphone to be powered by Google’s Android ecosystem.
Considering that this reviewer has used a BlackBerry Bold, a Passport and the recent Classic, there was indeed a lot that one would expect from the Priv. It has got the hardware and now even the capable software chops, thanks to Android. More importantly, it has one big thing that no other BlackBerry has had in the past, complete access to each and every app in Google’s Play Store (no more side-loading like the Passport). Something that BlackBerry fans until now, could only dream about. From Google Maps to Tinder, its all finally in a BlackBerry smartphone.
So with so much hardware and software, there is indeed a lot one can expect. Problem is that this is a BlackBerry. A brand that many iPhone users would refer to as a dinosaur in the age of drones. So will the Priv be able to propel the brand from the stone age and bring it at par with smartphones from the best Android manufacturers today? Let’s find out!
Build Quality: 7/10
The BlackBerry Priv’s design is attractive and has more in common with the Passport, compared to any other BlackBerry smartphone in the past. And we really liked the back, so much so that we will begin with the back instead of the front of the device. Hold the Priv and the texture back with a carbon-fibre-like weave, not only feels durable, but gives a good grip as well.
In fact, we could say that the Priv is one of the more grippy backs compared to flagships we have seen in recent years, that mimic the metal iPhone and are slippery at best. It almost feels like the designers wrapped the metal skin with a cloth like material as it does flex quite a bit when pressed near the BlackBerry logo on the back. The thin back however did pose a problem when it came to the phone’s heating issues (more in the performance section).
Coming to the front, we have a the gorgeous Quad HD display with a dual edge curves on the left and right sides. Around the display, is the only sign of the metal frame that keeps the smartphone together. The rest of it remains hidden under a plastic skin, that merges with the textured cover at the back.
At the top we have the receiver, proximity and ambient light sensors and the front facing camera sitting on either side of the BlackBerry logo, that still feels in place unlike HTC’s that sits at the bottom.
On the top side we have two trays and a secondary mic for audio. The first tray is for the single nano SIM card while the second tray is for the Micro SD card for storage expansion.
On the left we have just a power button while the right side has the traditional BlackBerry set up with the volume rocker and the mute button in the center.
At the bottom we simple have a micro USB port that is used for charging and data transfer and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
Also at the bottom we can just see the perforated speaker grille that resides in the chin. Pushing with a thumb on the metal rim above the speaker, reveals the physical QWERTY keyboard. We loved how smartly, BlackBerry managed to fit in a full capacitive physical keyboard in a frame so thin, but it does come with its drawbacks.
The keyboard similar to the one on the Passport, is a capacitive one, meaning that sliding your finger over the keys will allow you to scroll through threads on all native apps (and even third-party ones) and makes for a great scrubber when your entering text. The slider mechanism is not lanky and pops open with little force.
While the design is attractive with the curved display, it was not a great experience when it comes to the usability factor. The metallic buttons on the sides felt a bit unfinished and sharp around the edges and lacked sufficient travel. The most irritable bit is the chin where your pinky ends up supporting the behemoth, especially when the physical keyboard is slid out.
The chin does not feel comfortable and we wished that it were a bit rounded. More importantly this is one of the few Blackberry devices that has sharp corners. Older Blackberry devices were usually rounded and felt really nice and comfortable in the hand, similar to what we have on the Classic.
Coming to the drawbacks of the keyboard, the keys feel stiff and lack travel due to the smaller width of the smartphone. To give you an idea about how the keys feel, its safe to say that the keys have more in common with the Passport than those on the Bold or the Classic, which have a lot of travel. More importantly, the keys (again thanks to the slim build) seem to be squashed together and this often ends up pressing down more keys than one, even with the diamond shaped pattern that helps each key stand out. So while we were excited about the keyboard at the beginning of the our review, a few days into the same and we quickly ended up sliding it back up since BlackBerry’s software keyboard did everything a lot quicker and more accurately.
Overall, the build quality shines and this something we have come to expect from BlackBerry over the years. But the sharp design makes using the keyboard a bit annoying (and painful at times).
As BlackBerry Priv owners, users for once will not have to shy away when it comes to features and hardware specifications. The Priv sports a 5.4 inch Quad HD AMOLED display that sports a stunning pixel density of 540ppi, making pixel-peeping very hard indeed.
Inside, we get an updated chipset in the form of a 1.8GHz hexa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 (MSM8992) with a dual plus quad core setup and the Adreno 418 for graphics. There’s 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage that is expandable via a dedicated microSD card slot, that accepts cards of up to 200GB in capacity.
Coming to the camera bits, we have an 18 MP, f/2.2, Schneider-Kreuznach optics with OIS and a phase detection autofocus system (PDAF) along with a dual-LED flash for the primary camera setup. On the front we get a 2MP unit.
On the connectivity front we get Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth V4.1, NFC and a microUSB 2.0 SlimPort 4K that provides up to 4K Ultra-HD, high-resolution content playback to displays.
High on top of our list favorite features about the Priv, is the display. The Display is an AMOLED panel with a Quad HD, 2560×1440 pixels array. It is really sharp and you really cannot check out the individual pixels no matter how hard you try.
The colour saturation was accurate and BlackBerry’s Colour Adjustment feature allowed us to change the saturation and white balance to our liking. Corning’s Gorilla Glass 4 does a great job of protecting the display and an even better job at protecting it from smudges and grime thanks to the oleophobic coating.
Using the device outdoors did not prove to be a problem as it was bright enough and able to showcase colours accurately in direct sunlight as well.
The BlackBerry Priv packs in Google’s Android 5.1.1 along with some nice customisations from BlackBerry. While the interface certainly looks stock and more in line with Google’s Nexus devices, it does pack in some interesting bits that make BlackBerry’s efforts worthwhile.
The notifications tray that usually shows off every single notification all at once, now has filters thanks to BlackBerry. The tray will by default show all you notifications together, but tapping on the icons above (that also show the notification count for each app) will segregate the notifications by app letting you read only what you need to and ignore the rest. A handy trick indeed.
Next up we have another handy option for those who like widgets but hate to have them on their homescreen. BlackBerry has a unique way of letting you access app widgets (provided they support them). The apps that support widgets are indicated by three dots below the icon. All you have to do is swipe up or down on the app icon and the widget instantly pops up. Makes for a great way to peek into your Gmail inbox without even opening the Gmail app.
Other handy software customisations include the ability to customise the long press on the home button that is usually reserved for the Google Now launcher. BlackBerry lets you add up to three options in all and this can include anything from BlackBerry Device Search (default standard) to Google Now, to the BlackBerry Hub or any other third-party app.
Talking about long-presses, the physical keyboard has another software trick apart from scrolling. Long pressing on a key can launch any app installed on the phone. In short, BlackBerry lets you link any key from the physical keyboard to any app that will launch upon being pressed down.
Coming to the BlackBerry bits of the software, we have the BlackBerry Hub, the all essential aggregator of your BlackBerry messaging experience that BlackBerry has managed to bring on to its Android device.
In short, BlackBerry users will not be too happy, as the swipe options inside the hub are limited and will only let you schedule a notification to show up later or delete a message or notification from the app. While the idea of the Hub worked really well on BlackBerry OS 10, on Android, it makes little sense.
This is because there is already a notifications tray that does a better job (more so with BlackBerry’s customisation mentioned above). Also BlackBerry has added another feature that finally takes advantage of the curved edges of the display.
Called the Productivity Tab, the tiny, (almost unnoticeable) tab hides on the left or right side of the display. Swiping on it reveals a floating (semi-transparent) widget-like feature, that lets you add an event, check your calendar, add a contact, or even call someone without leaving your current app. The idea is that the Productivity Tab floats above everything else on your smartphone’s screen so it can be accessed from anywhere, apart from inside a game (that goes full screen). Frankly speaking, this what the hub should have been like with all the power, flexibility and goodness of an Android notifications bar.
And there is more. With the focus on security and privacy (that oddly misses out on a fingerprint reader) we have an app called DTEK that will scan your Priv for security-related problems and give suggestions to improve the same. Other apps include a Content Transfer and Password Keeper that lets you store your passwords securely. Apart from the Hub there are other apps that come from BlackBerry as well. These include Notes, Tasks, Calendar and Contacts. Sadly what is missing is the Gallery app which is replaced by Photos and a Music app that is replaced by Play Music. While we did not miss a custom Music app, we did feel the pinch with Photos as the app by Google will only let you access the DCIM folder (Camera Images) and nothing else. To share saved files, videos and documents we ended up downloading a third-party file manager, which was a bit of downer considering that many will use this smartphone a productivity machine.
With updated hardware inside we did not hesitate to put the BlackBerry Priv through its paces. The smartphone performed fairly well on benchmarks but was not a contender for the Snapdragon 810 chipsets inside most currently available flagships.
While the smartphone ran games and apps fairly well with minimal stutter, and no lag, we did notice the device heating up quickly. We do understand that most Android flagships do heat up a bit while gaming and expected the same from the Priv as well. What we did not expect, is the smartphone to heat up while downloading data on Wi-Fi.
The Priv is indeed one of the hotter smartphones we have tested so far. In fact, we even managed to get a temperature reading of 91 degrees centigrade from one of the cores while downloading a 1.2 GB app from the Play Store.
Thankfully, we experienced such high temperatures only while downloading data on Wi-Fi and not so much on a 3G connection. But the smartphone does remain warm most of the time and will only remain cool in air-conditioned environments.
The textured back does not make things any better when it comes to the smartphone’s heat-related issues. The heat issues that crop up when downloading data could make a lasting impressing on your index finger since the material used on the back is a bit thin. At times it did feel like you finger was placed directly on the processor making it too hot to touch. The heat issue could indeed be due to a kernel problem as the smartphone remained warm through out our review and only cooled down when it was not in use. BlackBerry could fix the same in a software update, but we guess the company is working on the Marshmallow update right now, so users will have to wait a bit longer.
Coming to the other performance related bits, audio quality while placing calls was indeed a big plus. The Priv delivered superior voice quality and the caller on the other end could also hear us with any problems. Audio quality while listening to music was pretty much spot on and the same can be said about the speakers that were really loud. In fact they could be loud enough to place a conference call via the smartphone speaker.
Another fine feature of the BlackBerry Priv is indeed its camera. The camera delivered surprisingly sharp images thanks to the f/2.2, Schneider-Kreuznach optics. The images showed little or no purple fringing with good saturation levels. Colour reproduction was pretty accurate and we rarely needed to use the camera’s built in filters.
Note: Images have been resized below. To see the high resolution images please click on the images. Alternatively, you can also check out the BlackBerry Priv album on Flickr
Images shot in HDR mode (above) were sharp and the smartphone managed to capture images in quick succession leading to little or no ghosting.
The camera was quick to lock focus even in low light. Talking about low-light, the camera managed to get some good-looking images (above) in auto mode with the noise under control.
The camera’s interface was simple and offered minimal manual functions, but with such a great setup we rarely needed to change anything. In fact this is the best camera smartphone to come from BlackBerry in long time. And the same can be said about the phone’s video recording capabilities that shoots 4K videos at 30fps and 1080p videos at up to 60fps without a hiccup. Indeed the camera is one feature that could put the BlackBerry Priv up there with the rest of the flagships.
Battery Life: 7.0/10
After unboxing the Priv we really had our doubts that the smartphone would even score a 6 out of 10, thanks to its heating issues. But as we browsed online for answers, we realised that it does take a few days to adapt to the user’s usage patterns. And thankfully it did just that.
The smartphone easily got us through a work day and had some battery to spare at the end of the day as well. Even with is lithium-ion 3410 mAh battery life is not stellar but simply fair as you can see from the PC Mark battery life test results below.
While the smartphone barely lasted for 5-6 hours initially, after a good 3 days the Priv finally found its sweet spot. With plenty of calls, WhatsApp messaging and two email accounts on push along with a bit of hot-headed gaming and photography, we managed to keep the Priv running for up to 7 and a half hours. Skip on the photography and gaming and staying connected to Wi-Fi, we managed to keep it running for a good 16-17 hours.
Verdict and Price in India
At its pricey Rs 62,990 price tag, the BlackBerry Priv remains in a really tight spot. This is because it has more cons than pros even though the pros are really good.
We like the stock-like interface and the plethora of customisations options that the company has pulled off well for its first shot at Android. What we did not like was the BlackBerry Hub, as we expected to be a replacement for the notifications bar, which it clearly is not. BlackBerry should have stuck with just one way to deliver notifications to the user instead of providing three in the form the of the tabbed notifications tray, the Hub and the Productivity Tab. Oh, and let’s not forget lockscreen notifications as well. We really like the implementation of the Productivity Tab and hope that BlackBerry builds on it (or even renames it as the Hub for that matter) and kills the notifications tray altogether.
Right now the Priv does not appeal to a BlackBerry fan thanks to badly implemented Hub, average keypad and not so thumb friendly interface like on previous BlackBerry devices. Neither does it appeal to an Android fan since the keyboard is nothing to talk about and neither are any of its features good enough to bring it on par with the offerings from Samsung, Sony or Motorola. Motorola for example offers a better package with its Moto X Style that comes with similar hardware at less than half the price (Rs 26,999). And then there are other business oriented smartphones like the Note 5 (Rs 47,900) that do really well as all rounders in the Android realm by working with its S pen stylus.
The company really needs to make up its mind and build a better BlackBerry smartphone and not just another Android smartphone with some BlackBerry bits inside. In short, the BlackBerry Priv is recommended only to loyal fans who have been waiting for a Blackberry device that plugs into Google’s services, provided they have not moved on to Apple or Samsung already.