In these very privacy-conscious times, BlackBerry is a brand that rings true. The company’s smartphones are trusted by governments, and they infuriate governments, because BlackBerry communications are as secure as BlackBerry wants them to be. That’s a strong brand to bring over to the notoriously information-porous land of Android, and BlackBerry is doubling down by calling its new phone the Priv, short for privacy.
But while the Priv ($817; 32GB) is a blessed oasis for physical keyboard fans, its privacy-centric features are only a notch above Google’s Nexus line, and you pay in money, size, and weight for everything else. That makes the Priv a niche device for keyboard addicts, and not the broadly ideal Android device for the post-Snowden era.
Large, but more importantly, heavy, the BlackBerry Priv measures 5.8 by 3.0 by 0.4 inches closed, rising to 7.2 inches long when opened, and weighs a hefty 190-gms. The back is a grippy, slightly waxy matte fiberglass with a BlackBerry logo and a noticeable camera hump. The front is mostly the 5.4-inch, 2,560-by-1,440 AMOLED screen with curved edges, with a large front-facing speaker below it. There’s no fingerprint scanner.
But you’re here for the keyboard, right? Push up on the slight lip at the bottom of the screen to reveal the four-row QWERTY keyboard, which is a little disappointing, I’m sorry to say. It’s the smallest flagship BlackBerry keyboard in a while. It’s just as narrow as the BlackBerry Classic’s, but the rows of keys are a little squatter and less sharply sculpted.
The keys themselves are just about as clicky as the Classic’s, which isn’t as clicky as older BlackBerry devices’ keys. It maintains the frets between the rows, and I love how the keyboard also works as a trackpad to position your cursor when entering text. When you extend the keyboard, the balance is absolutely terrific—there’s no chance it’ll flip out of your hands while you’re button-mashing. But the small, cramped keys aren’t nearly as friendly to big or clumsy thumbs as older BlackBerry keyboards were.
If you absolutely, positively need a QWERTY keyboard, this is still a BlackBerry, and you’ll still probably be able to fly while typing on it. The phone also has a very good, customized touch keyboard, with big letters and the ability to swipe up to autocomplete words at any time. But there’s one annoying software bug: I found that the phone would sometimes drop the first letter of input when I had just launched an app.
This happened most frequently when using BlackBerry’s otherwise excellent on-device search function, which gives you relevant apps, messages, and contacts when you just start typing from anywhere in the interface. Eventually you get used to typing “Aamazon” instead of “Amazon,” but really, this shouldn’t be an issue at all.
Voice Quality and Networking
The Priv is one of the best voice phones I’ve used all year. On local mobile networks, the Priv delivers very loud maximum speakerphone and earpiece volume with zero distortion or wobble. General transmissions through the mic are also very clear. Noise cancellation took care of strong background noise, but there was some computerization of my voice when it had to deal with it. The speakerphone also transmits well, although some wind noise came through. As a giant slab to make voice calls on, the Priv is top-notch.
Battery life is excellent. I used the phone for an entire weekend without charging it and still had 25 percent of the battery left. On our LTE video streaming test, the Priv got 8 hours, 17 minutes on its 3,410mAh battery, which is very good, but doesn’t show its fantastic standby time.
Performance and OS
The Priv uses a 1.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor and comes with 3GB of RAM. In terms of benchmarks, the Priv scored around 44k on AnTuTu and 4,300 on PCMark. Performance isn’t technically laggy, but there are some complex animations and missed touch or typing inputs that might make you feel like it is.
Sometimes the phone just won’t recognize swiping to unlock the screen, for instance. That can get really frustrating. The Priv runs a very, very heavily BlackBerry-fied version of Android 5.1 Lollipop. It’ll eventually get Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but don’t hold your breath.
BlackBerry’s proudest feature has always been how it handles email and notifications. Like BlackBerry 10 devices, the Priv has the Hub, a unified inbox merging alerts, emails, text messages, Twitter, and Facebook. By swiping in from the right edge of the phone, first you see your calendar appointments, then you can drop down to new emails, to-do lists, and favorite contacts. That’s all stuff other Android devices can manage with widgets, though.
Apps on your home screens with new content—even Gmail—have little BlackBerry “star” badges appear on them. Notifications on the home screen are sorted by category, with the number of new calendar, email, and “Lollipop system” notifications shown. When you put the phone into a flip case, the notifications pop into the window, in black and white.
As mentioned earlier, if you start typing on the keyboard, from anywhere in the interface, it launches BlackBerry’s on-device search capability, giving you relevant apps, contacts, messages, and actions.
The full range of standard Android icons, widgets, and Google Play apps are available, although over on the third home screen panel, BlackBerry stacks a huge number of BlackBerry-specific shortcuts to Hub actions for people who really want to immerse themselves in the Hub experience.
BlackBerry says the Priv is the most secure Android phone for a few reasons. BlackBerry embeds crypto keys into the hardware during manufacturing, which the company claims makes it more difficult to crack or hijack than other devices. BlackBerry has also committed to monthly security updates, with hotfixes coming faster if necessary, although full OS version updates such as Marshmallow may take a lot longer.
From a consumer perspective, though, it’s hard to find a lot of advantages over a Marshmallow-based phone running BES12 email and BBM Messenger, both of which are secure and encrypted. Marshmallow also has full-device encryption, and offers granular app-based permissions that the Priv doesn’t have. If you agree to use Google services on the Priv, you give up all your data to Google anyway.
BlackBerry’s other nod to security is an app called DTEK which gives you a supposed security rundown, telling you which apps are accessing your personal data. That’s interesting, but without the power to revoke those privileges—which requires Marshmallow—it’s a little futile.
Camera and Multimedia
The Priv comes with 32GB of internal storage, of which 23.86GB is accessible. You can also add a microSD card, including the big 200GB SanDisk Ultra, so storage isn’t a problem.
The Priv’s 18-megapixel camera is marred by persistent autofocus issues indoors and out, which make it annoying to use. In testing, the autofocus would just sometimes spontaneously drop out of focus, even in a series of photos of the same subject. A string of outdoor, daylight shots of people showed overly aggressive noise reduction smoothing out faces, so that everyone looked a little waxy up close.
As night fell, images got much softer, and very desaturated. Once again, aggressive noise reduction kept speckles out of photos, but everything looked smeared. Any motion resulted in blur. Indoors, I had many of the same problems.
The front-facing camera records 720p video at 30 frames per second indoors and out with little trouble. The main camera records 4K video at 30fps with optical image stabilization, which is successful enough, although if you drop to 1080p you can get additional stabilization which really smooths out hand jitter. Unfortunately, videos recorded with the main camera were plagued by an autofocus that kept shifting in and out.
Music and video playback, on the other hand, is as terrific as you’d expect given the front-facing speakers and big, high-res AMOLED screen. Really, nothing beats music coming directly at your face. The phone was able to drive Bowers & Wilkins P5 Wireless headphones (in wired mode) without a problem, with a mids-focused sound signature. The specs don’t show support for high-res audio files, but frankly, I can’t tell the difference in audio quality beyond 320kHz anyway.
I’ve been reviewing BlackBerrys for more than 7 years now, and it’s funny how the company’s heritage comes through on the Priv. It’s a terrific voice phone, with great battery life and a solid keyboard. It’s also really heavy, expensive, and a bit peculiar. For something called the Priv, it doesn’t offer much more immediately obvious privacy than a Nexus phone running Marshmallow, BES12, and BBM.
And its BlackBerry-specific messaging software, while undeniably elegant, makes a case for BlackBerry to release a terrific Android software suite, not a custom phone. I’m also now just plain confused by the company’s strategy. It’s committed to BlackBerry 10. It’s committed to cross-platform software.
And now it’s committed to this very thick Android skin, which takes a considerable degree of engineering. That’s a lot of commitments for a company which isn’t as big as it used to be, and that makes me worry about feature updates—especially the critical Marshmallow update—for this phone.
For messaging-focused keyboard lovers, the Priv really competes with BlackBerry’s own Passport. But the Priv’s keyboard isn’t quite as compelling as the Passport’s, which is larger and has a slab form factor that lets you whip it out more easily. Ultimately, the Priv is for those desperate for a physical keyboard. While that’s a niche, it isn’t a very large one any more.