Ironically, it took not BlackBerry to make a BlackBerry Smartphone that pushes all the right buttons. The KEYone by BlackBerry Mobile (TCL) merges the best of the classic BlackBerry experience with Android Nougat in a package that is undeniably and distinctly BlackBerry.
The quick take
The KEYone got me out of CrackBerry retirement and using a BlackBerry Smartphone again (and loving it!). I have no shortage of phones at my disposal and can reach for an iPhone or Google Pixel or Samsung Galaxy whenever I want. Since picking up the KEYone, I’ve never felt that urge. What more can be said than that? With battery life that will last you all day and night (and well into the next day) and a smart physical keyboard that makes typing on buttons feel new school again, it’s a communication-centric phone that power users will love.
- Insanely Good Battery Life
- Distinct BlackBerry Styling
- Looks Premium, Feels Premium
- Comfortable, Accurate keyboard
- Fingerprint Sensor in Spacebar is Magic
- Swiping on Keyboard is Magic
- Android brings with it all the apps
- Great camera… on a BlackBerry?!! 🙂
- 3.5mm headset jack (thank you!)
- Battery life so good, mention it twice! In the photo above that 24% at 4:07pm is on Day 2!
The Could Be Better
- 32GB of memory OK; would gladly pay for 64GB or 128GB
- 3GB of RAM OK; a 4th GB may improve zippiness under heavy load
- LCD display is really good; OLED could be epic
- Make it waterproof somehow?
- Integrate BlackBerry Launcher settings like keyboard shortcuts into System settings
- Add wireless charging (even though you don’t need it)
- Love to see it in more colors down the road
A New Era of BlackBerry Smartphones
BlackBerry KEYone Full Review
Yes, BlackBerry still exists. No, they don’t make smartphones anymore. Yes, there are still BlackBerry Smartphones being made and will be for a long time to come. Spread the word!
Confused? That’s ok. You can read this article to clear up the confusion and listen to this podcast if you really want the full explanation. The long story short is that the company known as BlackBerry, who patented push email and helped pioneer the smartphone industry over 15 years ago is now a software company.
The BlackBerry brand to most of us on planet earth, more than software is better known for hardware, specifically BlackBerry Smartphones. So to ensure BlackBerry Smartphones continue for the long haul, BlackBerry has entered into licensing agreements with select manufacturing partners to design, build, market and support BlackBerry Smartphones. The biggest licensee is TCL Communication, and under the brand BlackBerry Mobile the KEYone is the first BlackBerry Smartphone they are bringing to market.
While BlackBerry supports BlackBerry Mobile in the software and security hardening of the KEYone, it’s important to know that this really is a BlackBerry Smartphone being brought to market by another company altogether. Their website is www.blackberrymobile.com (not blackberry.com), you can find them on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube under the handles @blackberrymobile or @bbmobile.
BlackBerry Mobile is really being built up as a new team and organization and beyond the KEYone they are committed to bringing more Android-powered BlackBerry Smartphones to market (sorry BlackBerry 10 fans, but that ship has sailed). The KEYone is exciting first phone, and it’ll be exciting to see what they offer next.
About This Review
I (CrackBerry Kevin) have been super lucky to have been using the KEYone for over two months now, since it was first announced at Mobile World Congress. I first went hands-on with the KEYone in January in Las Vegas at CES, and liked the pre-production unit so much that I came out of BlackBerry retirement in February to celebrate CrackBerry’s 10th Anniversary.
As part of the celebrations, I even had the honor to get up on stage and help officially unveil the BlackBerry KEYone to the world as MC for the launch event. The KEYone units I’ve had in my possession to date, including my official review unit, are considered pre-production and have still been receiving software updates – that said, my experiences with the KEYone have been super solid throughout – the one you buy should be even better.
Disclosure: In case you didn’t figure it out from the BlackBerry KEYone ads on the CrackBerry, BlackBerry Mobile is an advertising partner with CrackBerry (we often see manufacturers buy advertising for their phones across Mobile Nations sites). You can read here for more info on that if you like.
BlackBerry KEYone Video Review
Why read when you can watch a video? In 13 Minutes I highlight what I love and what can be improved on the KEYone. I think the video does a good job of laying out the real value proposition for the KEYone – this is a phone for power communicators who like a physical keyboard (and those people are going to LOVE it).
BlackBerry KEYone Features & Specs
- 4.5-inch IPS LCD display
- 1620×1080 resolution
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor
- 8x 2.0Ghz Cortex A53 cores
- 3GB RAM
- 32GB internal storage
- microSD card slot
- 12MP ƒ/20 PDAF rear camera
- Dual-tone LED flash
- 8MP ƒ/2.2 front camera
- 3505 mAh battery
- USB-C, Quick Charge 3.0 + boost charging
- Android 7.1.1 Nougat
- DTEK security suite
- FIPS 140-2 full disk encryption
BlackBerry KEYone Hardware Impressions
With a name like KEYone, the physical keyboard is clearly the primary story of this phone. When as a phone manufacturer, or as customer, you choose to sacrifice the amount of real estate dedicated to the display to instead have a keyboard there that’s always present, you’re making a distinct choice to build a phone that’s more communication-centric vs. media-centric.
The design of the KEYone is such that you don’t feel like you’re making a compromise at all. Compared to older QWERTY BlackBerry designs of the past, like the BlackBerry Bold 9900 or even the newer BlackBerry Classic, the KEYone’s 4.5″ display with 3:2 aspect ratio in portrait orientation feels positively huge. Compared to other popular devices like the standard-sized iPhone 7, Galaxy S7/S8 or Google Pixel, they KEYone’s display feels relatively on par. And even compared to large screen devices like the iPhone 7 Plus or Google Pixel XL, which were the two phones I was actively using before upgrading to the KEYone, moving over to the KEYone was easy – I’ve never yet felt in all my time with the KEYone that the display feels small.
It’s a surprising form factor to look at when you first see it — and photos don’t do it justice — you really need to see the KEYone in person and hold it in your hand to truly appreciate it, but the “form factor” truly works. That the KEYone looks and feels so incredibly premium makes the overall design work that much more. I could see this general device ID working for years to come – I wouldn’t be surprised if the KEYtwo (if and when released) would feature a similar hardware design. When you get it right, you get it right.
If you were concerned that not BlackBerry making a BlackBerry Smartphone could result in a phone that feels unBlackBerry-like, those fears are eliminated the moment you pick up the KEYone.
If you were concerned that not BlackBerry making a BlackBerry Smartphone could result in a phone that feels unBlackBerry-like, those fears are eliminated the moment you pick up the KEYone. Clearly, the KEYone looks like a BlackBerry. From the front, the back, the sides, the device is unmistakably a BlackBerry. More importantly though, is the feel of the phone. At 180 grams, the KEYone is a dense phone, in a good way. Picking it up, it has that heft you’d associate with something like an expensive mechanical watch strapped on your wrist. The sizeable battery and BlackBerry’s choice of metal frame contribute to the weight and the soft touch rubber backside make it a phone that’s comfortable to hold and is easy to grip. The KEYone belongs in your hand.
A Smart Physical KEYboard
I find it magical how BlackBerry continues to pack more and more technology into the physical keyboard. It used to be that programmable shortcuts were the one smart feature of a QWERTY phone like the KEYone. Being able to map dialing contacts or opening apps to the push of a button was the additional benefit beyond the accuracy provided by pressing buttons vs. tapping on glass. And the KEYone does offer plenty of shortcuts – up to 52 to thanks to the ability to distinguish between short press and long press actions, where one button can now serve as two shortcuts. The shortcuts are getting smarter too. For example, pressing H (for home) can open up the maps app with your home location already programmed in. How cool is that?!
The KEYone’s keyboard is touch capacitive. Beyond pressing buttons you can actually flick auto-suggested words up onto the display while typing. You can also use the keyboard as trackpad, thumb scrolling your way through your inbox, feeds or webpages. This is an innovation that was first introduced on the BlackBerry Passport and also featured on the BlackBerry Priv and I’m happy to see it on the KEYone. We now live in a smartphone world where far more people have experienced a touchscreen smartphone than a phone with physical buttons and most people don’t know a keyboard can work this way – whenever I give a demo of the KEYone to someone who is unfamiliar, swiping on the keyboard blows them away. If typing on buttons could be considered old school in 2017, the ability to swipe on the keyboard makes it it feel new school again.
The newest innovation to the keyboard which is unique to the KEYone, is the implementation of a fingerprint sensor in the space bar of the keyboard. This feature allows you to unlock your phone with your fingerprint. It works incredibly well. There’s even the surprise flourish of a tiny LED light on either side of the spacebar that will light up to prompt you to use your fingerprint. It’s magical.
I’ve been really happy overall with the typing experience on the KEYone. I’ve mainly been on touchscreen smartphones the past few years, so it took me a couple days to get used to typing with buttons again and a couple more days to fall in love with it, but I’ve been rocking the buttons hard ever since and loving it. There are many areas where typing with buttons trumps typing on glass – be sure to check out this video where I dive into the details.
As for the typing experience itself, I’d rank the KEYone’s keyboard right up there among my BlackBerry keyboard favorites. The Bold 9900 still ranks supreme as the best physical keyboard ever built for typing experience, but the KEYone isn’t too far behind. The buttons have a good feel and bounce rate when pressed, and there’s a nice roll to the buttons as you move your thumbs left and right over them which helps your thumbs dance with rhythm as you type . The keyboard is compact without being too tight, which makes the keyboard efficient to use. I know many BlackBerry Passport users love that device’s ultra-wide three row keyboard setup. Personally, while comfortable thanks to the wide grip I always found it a bit inefficient to use because you have to move your thumbs so far for every key press. To me, the ultimate compromise is a keyboard that is small but big enough that you can find and press the buttons accurately. And the KEYone delivers on this well. Based on photos I was initially concerned that the KEYone may feel top heavy while typing, since the display is so tall and the keyboard is mounted quite low on the phone. In use, I’ve never felt an issue here – it’s easy to grip and type on the phone.
Bottom line, if you like a physical keyboard on your smartphone phone, you’re going to quickly grow to love the KEYone’s keyboard.
All Day, All Night (and then some) Battery Life
This is the killer feature of the BlackBerry KEYone. If you haven’t yet, be sure to watch my BlackBerry KEYone review video which is effectively a gush fest for the KEYone’s battery life.
BlackBerry packed a LARGE 3505mAh battery into the KEYone, which is the biggest battery ever put into a BlackBerry and is large by any standard. Combined with BlackBerry’s choice of energy-efficient Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 chipset and you have battery life that’s tough to kill before you go to bed. It really is an all day, all night and good chunk of the next day battery, even under HEAVY use.
With the KEYone, you’re never going to get stranded with a dead battery.
It doesn’t matter what features or specs a phone has, if the battery is dead it’s a paperweight. With the KEYone, you’re never going to get stranded with a dead battery. There’s no need to subconsciously throttle back your device usage to get you through the day either. You can do whatever you want on the KEYone all day long and it’s going to take it and you’ll still have juice in the tank when you go to bed.
I love it. I’ve been traveling a lot in 2017 and I’ve always found roaming to be typically hard on batteries (coupled with the fact you end up using your phone more for things like Google Maps, don’t have WiFi locations saved, etc.). Even in these demanding situations the KEYone battery lives up. I guarantee every review you read about the KEYone is going to highlight the battery life of the phone. It’s that good.
If you ever do need to recharge during the day, the KEYone features Quick Charge 3.0 technology and prompts you to select Boost Mode when you plug it in which enables charging up to 50% in 36 minutes. In over two months, I’ve never needed to use – the battery outlasts me and I plug it into charge at night.
A Very Good Camera
Over my years of reviewing BlackBerry Smartphones, I’ve always glossed over the camera section of the review. BlackBerry has never had a great reputation for taking amazing photos.
The KEYone changes that with a camera capable of snapping glorious photos. If you check out @crackberrykevin, or better yet, @blackberrymobile on Instagram, you’ll find plenty of examples of #ShotOnKEYone photos that will turn your head.
The KEYone shares the same 12 megapixel Sony IMX378 sensor that is used in the Google Pixel which receives a lot of rave reviews for its camera. It lacks the electronic optical stabilization goodness of the Pixel while recording video (it’s really amazingly smooth on the Pixel), but overall takes really nice photos. In outdoor or optimal lighting situations it’s fantastic. In low light it’s pretty good – there’s some room for improvement here compared to the best low light smartphone cameras out there, but again, for a communication-centric device BlackBerry Mobile did damn good on the KEYone’s camera, and I can see it improving overtime with continued software rollouts.
The camera app itself is very powerful and easy to use. There is a Pro mode available, so if you know how to take photos you can squeeze every micron of goodness out of the sensor. I’m not that guy though, so I mainly leave the KEYone in auto mode. There are filters you can apply to the camera before you take the photo. With no filter enabled, the colors are quite accurate, if not a little more natural/cooler than compared to the default camera settings on phones like the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy or Google Pixel. If you enable the Vivid filter, the colors will get a little more punched up to be more like these three phones. I usually just leave the camera with no filter, but if I’m looking for that better than real life shot, then I enable the Vivid filter.
As for front facing camera, the 8 megapixel sensor does a good job with selfies – that you can tap the spacebar to snap the photo is a nice touch that helps improve your selfie game when your arm is stretched to the max.
Completing the Hardware Story
For many years, the smartphone race was just that… a race to see who would build the best smartphone, cramming in the latest specs and claiming the title for a few weeks or months until the next competitor crammed even more cutting edge specs in. The smartphone industry is now much more like the automotive industry. It’s about choice. It’s not about who can build the best vehicle at any expense, but what’s the best vehicle for your needs – do you want a $100,000 sports car to rip around in and rack up speeding tickets that runs out of gas in a hurry, or do you need a $35,000 mini-van that can haul the family around to soccer practice back and forth with as minimal trips to the gas station as possible?
With the KEYone, BlackBerry very intentionally picked the specs and hardware components they wanted in this phone based on the target user fitting this power communicator persona. When it comes to chipset, battery size, screen size, and camera, they made all the right choices to deliver a compelling experience for this type of user. This means the KEYone won’t be dated in three months – this is a phone that’s going to have a long shelf life to it.
Outside of the key hardware specs already highlighted, everything in the KEYone has met or exceeded my expectations through normal use.
The 4.5″ LCD display is bright and vibrant, with a pixel density of 443 pixels per inch. The 3:2 aspect ratio means you’ll lose a little bit of screen real estate while watching videos in landscape, but it’s minimal. Again, if you want a media-centric phone the KEYone may not be for you, but as a phone that puts the priority on communications first this is a tiny compromise compared to the benefits of the design. With their deep blacks and vibrant colors, I do personally love OLED displays – I would put this on my wishlist for the KEYtwo, but overall I have zero complaints about the display.
Many of the BlackBerry faithful were hoping for “stereo speakers” to be present on the KEYone. It doesn’t have that, but rather a single downward facing mono speaker. I don’t listen to music much on my KEYone, or any smartphone for that matter (tiny smartphone speakers are never going to cut the mustard for my ears). When I do listen to music from my phone it’s typically connected to a bluetooth speaker like a UE Boom, my Bose Earbuds or powering my home’s Sonos setup, or better yet when I’m putting my audiophile game on I’m plugged into my wired headphones from B&O or Master & Dynamic (yes, the KEYone does have a 3.5 headset jack!). That said, the speaker performance has been pretty solid for when I do watch the odd YouTube video or take calls on speakerphone. It’s loud and clear.
Overall telephony and communications with the KEYone have been solid with my time thus far on the KEYone. Calls are crisp whether on the handset or through bluetooth connected in my car (Tesla Model S) and I’ve had solid bluetooth performance with the variety of bluetooth devices I’ve used the KEYone with.
The KEYone comes with a 32GB of storage memory and an expandable microSD slot — in the same tray as the SIM card — that can handle up to an insanely large 2 terrabyte microSD card. You can’t easily find microSD cards that big of course (and I’m assuming they’d probably cost more than the KEYone’s $549 price tag itself), but you can pick up a 200GB SanDisk microSD card for about $75. Pretty reasonable, and it’s nice to know you can pack a lot of additional storage onto the KEYone. And you’ll probably want to. That the Android OS system storage itself consumes nearly 10GB or the 32GB doesn’t give you a ton of space if you’re the type of person who has a lot of photos and videos on their phone. 32GB is by no means a deal breaker and was a smart call to help keep the KEYone’s price tag down — especially as this will be a phone that makes a lot of inroads into business and enterprises where that extra storage isn’t that critical and not something businesses want to pay for if not necessary. That said, I’m the type of person who will always opt for more memory, so I’d happily pay more for the KEYone to ship with 64GB or 128GB of internal memory by default.
The final hardware features I’ll mention in this review are much-loved BlackBerry specific features.
The KEYone features the programmable BlackBerry Convenience Key, which used to be ubiquitous on BlackBerry Smartphones but in more recent years disappeared from hardware. Located on the lower right side of the phone, you can customize the Convenience Key like you do a keyboard shortcut, to either open an app or complete an action like speed dialing a contact or viewing today’s agenda. Given that the Hub swipe gesture is not present on the KEYone, I think a lot of BlackBerry Hub fans will find themselves setting the Convenience Key to launch the Hub, making it easily accessible regardless of what you’re doing on the phone. Other favorites of mine include using it to launch Google Assistant, or to toggle and on off the KEYone’s flashlight/torch functionality, for those times when you know you’re heading into dark places for the and will be needing a guiding light (which apparently for me happens on a more regular basis than you may think!). When on calls, the Convenience Key also serves as a mute key (note – gone is the play/pause/mute button typically found between the volume up/down keys). It’s nice to see the Convenience Key on the KEYone – it further builds into that KEYone name and it’s little utility-first features like this that made me a fan of BlackBerry to begin with.
The KEYone also features the infamous LED light, which flashes when you receive notifications. The light is RGB, which in certain apps allows for the color of the light to be customized. To be honest, this feature was one of my favorite features in my early days of BlackBerry, because back then I only received emails or text messages (and the occasional BBM). In 2017, we’re so connected and message so much that I have to disable the LED or it would just be constantly. That said, I still love that it’s there. Without it, it wouldn’t be a BlackBerry!
All the Apps!
BlackBerry Android Software Experience
The BlackBerry KEYone runs Android Nougat, the latest available version of the Android operating system. While many long-term remaining BlackBerry fans would prefer the KEYone run BlackBerry 10, going Android makes the KEYone a far more appealing device to me and many other former and never owned a BlackBerry users.
Most former BlackBerry users, myself included, left BlackBerry due to a lack of apps, or at the least were forced to carry a second iOS or Android phone with them in order to have all the apps they needed or wanted.
The adoption of Android by BlackBerry immediately solved this decade-long app problem that plagued BlackBerry. With the KEYone, I’m back to being a BlackBerry user and not needing to lug around a second device.
I refer to my colleagues at Android Central for their expertise on Android, and they agree BlackBerry has a done a good job of leaving the Android Operating system fairly stock while through the BlackBerry launcher adding in features that truly add value while making the experience more BlackBerry-like. From an Android user perspective, one of my favorite features of the BlackBerry Launcher is that they put the the notification badge (aka the BlackBerry “Spark” or “Splat” on) onto the application icon. Stock Android doesn’t do this and it drives me nuts. The BlackBerry Launcher also allows for icon packs to be swapped in and out, so if you want a different look you can modify that without losing functionality. Keyboard shortcuts on the KEYone are tied to the BlackBerry Launcher app though, so if you are an Android tweaker and want to use a different Android launcher altogether on the KEYone you are going to lose some of that functionality.
The KEYone comes pre-loaded with many of BlackBerry’s apps, including the BlackBerry Hub and DTEK. The Hub is BlackBerry’s unified inbox on steroids, which allows you to pretty much connect all of your email, messaging and social accounts to it so all your communications are in one stream. DTEK is BlackBerry’s security app, which gives you insight into how locked down (or not) your KEYone is. Now that BlackBerry BlackBerry (not BlackBerry Mobile) is a software company, you’re starting to see them ramp up their efforts in app development. BlackBerry Notable is a new app that allows you to mark up screen captures with ease, and Privacy Shade allows you to get your James Bond, blacking on your screen and only revealing content where you drag your finger.
The nice thing about Android compared to other operating systems like BlackBerry 10 or iOS is its flexibility. If you want to change something, you likely can. For example, as much as so many people love the BlackBerry Hub, I personally am not a fan of it. Between all of my communication and social accounts, I simply receive too many messages a day to want to have everything coming into one location. I use my phone in a much more compartmentalized fashion – I check email when I want to do work. I open Instagram or Twitter when I have a few minutes to kill. When it comes to text messages, I want to be notified immediately. On the KEYone, thanks to Android, I simply chose to remove the Hub altogether – something I could never do on BlackBerry 10. I like having the power to choose.
I’ve watched Android evolve over the years, having even reviewed here on CrackBerry the original Android-powered T-Mobile G1, which ironically in true BlackBerry fashion had a physical keyboard and even a trackball!
Android has come a long way since those early days and with Nougat I feel like it’s finally there – it’s smooth, it’s easy enough to figure out even if you’ve never used Android before and the availability of all the apps in the Google Play store make it worth any nitpicks you may come across (and again, the general flexibility of Android means you can probably fix anything that bugs you if you want to). We’re also crushing here on CrackBerry with BlackBerry KEYone User Guides, so if you’re moving over to the KEYone from BlackBerry 10 and have questions, we’ve got you covered.
BlackBerry is of course known for their industry leading security, and on the security front BlackBerry has Android locked down and has kept their word on staying committed to rolling out Android Security updates in a timely fashion.
Having had the KEYone since February on a pre-release model that still featured a software build from early January, I’ve watched the software experience improve steadily these past couple of months with every update pushed out. Even during the review period with my official KEYone review unit this past week, on the eve of this review going live a software update became available that seems to have further improved the overall speed and smoothness of the device. I expect we’ll see software updates continue to rollout for the KEYone relatively often – there’s a lot of new tech and functionality packed into the KEYone and I’m sure as more people log time with the KEYone they’ll find more ways to optimize the experience. That said, even on my earliest pre-release build of the KEYone there were no showstoppers in the experience – I’ve been pretty much addicted to the experience since week 1.
Final Thoughts – Pushing All The Right Buttons
My wife is the best observer as to whether or not I like a tech product and if you ask her she’ll tell you how much I love the KEYone, not based on what I say or have written here, but based on the fact that since getting one that it’s rarely not in my hand. To quote her, “oh, that CrackBerry guy is really back”.
The BlackBerry KEYone has brought back the BlackBerry Addict in me, but it’s much better than the “good ‘ole days of BlackBerry” because the KEYone is such a better phone than what we used a decade ago. There’s something about the KEYone experience, between the look and feel of the hardware, the physical keyboard and that insanely good battery life that just make it a phone you want to hold and use, and even when not in use I catch myself staring at it (it’s so much more demanding of my eyeball’s attention than a boring slab device).
As I said at the start of this review, the story of the KEYone is the physical keyboard. By default that means it’s not a device for everybody, but if you’re a former or current BlackBerry user and you like the benefits that a physical keyboard provides, this is the phone for you. Buy it as soon as you can. At $549 outright, it’s reasonably priced for a premium feeling phone. Even for those who have never used a physical keyboard on a smartphone before, as long as they’re willing to commit a week to it to learn it and get comfortable on it, I could see first timers really falling for the KEYone. I wouldn’t call the KEYone a nostalgia device – it’s much more than that, but there is a nostalgia factor that does feel compelling and very in right now so I wouldn’t be surprised to see first time BlackBerry users on the KEYone simply because it’s so distinctly different in an era where smartphones have mainly been about sameness.
Coming into 2017 I wasn’t expecting to see a new BlackBerry hit the market, never mind a new BlackBerry that kicks ass and I find myself really loving, so for that I’m thankful and excited to see BlackBerry Mobile picking up on what BlackBerry no longer wanted to be in the business of doing. After a lot of years of BlackBerry heartbreak, the KEYone feels like a fresh start for a new, modern era of BlackBerry Smartphones.
Two CrackBerry Thumbs Up!