Back in the day, BlackBerry towered over the business world, owning 40 percent of the smartphone market. But BlackBerry missed the touchscreen boat by an intergalactic distance. The stock crashed, thousands were laid off, the two co-CEOs left, the replacement CEO left. These days, BlackBerry sales are probably around 1 part per million.
Today, there’s a new BlackBerry phone called the BlackBerry Priv—a name derived, apparently, from Privacy and Privilege. This new phone comes with an operating system no BlackBerry has ever run before: Android.
It can run, therefore, the hundreds of thousands of Android apps—a welcome change for previous BlackBerry fans who had been stumbling along without the benefit of apps like Netflix and Uber. Android means that that this phone gains the Siri-like wisdom of Google Now. It gets Android’s dictation feature for quick spoken-text entry, which is much better than BlackBerry’s own.
The first Priv runs the Lollipop version of Android; a Marshmallow version is due in January.
But there’s another startling aspect to this phone: It has a concealed, slide-out, physical keyboard, making it the only major Android phone available today with actual typing keys.
Priv in the hand
At nearly 7 ounces, the Priv is heavy—33 percent heavier than, for example, an iPhone 6. And it’s big—big enough to carry a 5.4-inch screen. It’s a little thick, too, although the screen actually curves around the right and left edges like a Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+, which helps to disguise the bulk.
(The curved glass doesn’t actually offer any particular features, except for a cool colorful battery “gas gauge” that creeps upward on that edge as the phone charges.)
Despite all of that, plenty of people accept the Priv’s size and shape without ever suspecting that a thumb keyboard slides out from behind, with a satisfying, frictionless ssshhhhpp! and rock-solid, wiggle-free stability:
This is not, by the way, the really famous BlackBerry keyboard. It’s smaller and doesn’t have the horizontal guide ridges. But it’s a pleasure to type on, it never autocorrects your words to something stupid, and it lights up. It’s also, believe it or not, a trackpad. That is, you can drag your finger lightly across the physical keys to make things move on the screen. That’s how you move the cursor through text. You can also swipe left across the keys to delete what you’ve typed. And you can flick upwards from one of the BlackBerry’s word suggestions to flick it into the text.
The keyboard is also heir to the hundreds of delightful BlackBerry keyboard shortcuts. I love that you can assign any app to any key. You can hold down the C key to open Chrome, the N key for Netflix, the G key for Gmail, or whatever. Similar shortcuts await in the email app. You can press the T or B keys to jump to the top or bottom of a folder list. N or P moves you to the next or previous section of something. In email, press C to compose, R to reply, F to forward, and so on. A BlackBerry is still the best way to crunch through email on a phone.
(There’s also an on-screen keyboard, for those occasions when you don’t have room to slide open the physical one—when you’re on the subway at rush hour, I guess. The same swipes and shortcut work there, too.)
Should we worry about a moving part on a phone? Something we’ll be slamming open and shut dozens of times a day?
BlackBerry says that in testing, it has opened and closed it over a million times on some of its test phones, and they’re still going strong. If you’re like most people, that should last you at least through the holidays.
Priv for privacy
BlackBerry is famous as the phone of choice for people who can’t afford to be hacked. White House staff members. Bankers. CEOs. Hollywood actresses.
And sure enough, signs of fortification are all over the Priv. For example, you can set up Android’s widgets (always-updated info bubbles right on the Home screen) so that they’re not always sitting there, open and visible to people sitting next to you; you can swipe upward to open one.
And there’s an app called DTEK, which steadily monitors the security of your settings and what your apps are doing. It grades the security of your password and other settings.
We all know that when you install an Android app, you get this big screen that warns you about which components of your phone the app will want to access. And we all blow right past it. In DTEK, you see a list of your apps, and a list of which phone elements each one has accessed recently. Good stuff.
And what about the elephant in the room—Android’s not-so-hot record for security? BlackBerry says that it went to extraordinary lengths to harden up Android to make it BlackBerry secure. Each Priv has its own “cryptographic key at the hardware level,” which can verify that the phone’s software hasn’t been tampered with. The company also says that it had to patch Android’s Linux underpinnings in various ways to “harden” it.
More good stuff
BlackBerry is really, really good at nice day-to-day touches, the little things that will really make an impact on your life with a phone. For example, it’s got:
- Snooze for notifications. You can apply “Do Not Disturb” to individual accounts by time, location, or WiFi hot spot. You might stifle a certain kind of notification only for the duration of a movie, or instruct an email account to sleep until you’re back at your home network.
- Shortcuts for individuals. You can easily create icons on your Home screen that, when tapped, call, text, or email certain individuals. You can create an icon that opens an outgoing message to your spouse, or that creates a new email to your boss, or that insta-dials your kid. Super great.
- BlackBerry Hub. Once a part of BlackBerry’s own operating system, this feature presents a single list of everything that’s incoming: texts, mail, phone calls, Twitter and Facebook messages, and so on. You can customize it to the hilt.
- Wake the phone with two screen taps.
- Flip to mute. If your phone starts ringing at a bad time, just turn it face down to shut it up.
- Stay awake. If you’re holding the phone, it won’t go to sleep. How smart is that?
- A memory-card slot. Most phone companies have given up giving us expandable storage, but not BlackBerry. Pop a microSD card in here when you need more room for videos or whatever.
- A “notifications” light. It blinks at the top right of the phone when any kind of message is waiting for you.
- Grippy, rubberized back so you don’t drop it—and Gorilla Glass 4 if you do.
- Two flashes, white and amber, for better skin tones.
The back camera (18 megapixels, Schneider-Kreuznach lens) ought to be great. But it’s only so-so, and it’s also slow-slow; it snaps a couple of seconds after you tap the button.
On front, the low-resolution camera can take panoramic selfies, for what that’s worth. The speaker is loud and clear, and the phone sound is fine.
BlackBerry rates the battery at 22 hours of use, but realistically, you’ll get a day out of it, just like any other smartphone.
The last BlackBerry?
So yeah, maybe the Priv is BlackBerry’s admission of defeat, or its last gasp. It’s awfully late in the game for BlackBerry to throw a Hail-Mary pass.
But maybe it’s unrealistic to saddle a phone with the fate of its manufacturer. What about assessing just as a phone?
In that case, yes. The Priv is a good-looking Android phone with three unusual perks: Much better security than most Android phones, a glorious legacy of clever shortcuts and efficiencies, and a slide-out physical keyboard.
Unlike most phones, which have become increasingly generic, this one has a mission, a point of view, and a particular audience in mind. It’s not a masterpiece. It may not cause Apple and Google to crumble. But it knows exactly what it wants to be—and that’s something.