BlackBerry’s new Priv smartphone is a big deal. It’s the first time the company is making a real Android phone that runs every Android app (including Google’s). It’s the first Android phone in forever to have an actual, physical keyboard. It’s the phone that will, by BlackBerry’s own admission, be the thing that determines whether BlackBerry continues to make phones at all. There’s one more big thing, the price. It’s $699, which is hefty by Android standards.
So there’s a lot to say about the Priv and normally I’d say it all in a full review. I still will, actually, but unfortunately it seems like the first review phone I received was a bum unit. I’ve got a second one here that seems less buggy, but it wouldn’t be right to put out a review after only a day or so of testing with the new one.
But I’m excited about the Priv, if only because it is one of the few phones out there that’s fulfilling the promise that Android made us all those years ago: a big diversity of hardware choices. It’s also always exciting to see a down-on-its-luck company swing for the fences. So, without further ado, here are nine things I know about the BlackBerry Priv.
BLACKBERRY DID A DECENT JOB CUSTOMIZING ANDROID
For a first foray into Android, BlackBerry did a pretty good job. It’s not running the very latest version, but it also doesn’t have any hellaciously ugly skins or bad ideas about how to use a phone. And if you don’t like the changes BlackBerry did make, you can ignore or turn off most of them.
THE PRIV DOES HAVE SOME BUGS
Unfortunately, “decent” doesn’t necessarily equal “good.” I’ve had some apps freeze up, seen some issues with tap recognition. The phone also gets really hot sometimes. BlackBerry has been furiously updating different pieces of the software over the past few days and tells me that it will have some software updates in the coming weeks that should speed things up.
THE PRIV’S HARDWARE DESIGN IS REALLY GREAT
If you didn’t know there was a keyboard here, I think you’d still be pretty impressed with the hardware. It has a curved 5.4-inch screen that feels nice and big without being unwieldy — even with the slider open. The back is really grippy without being tacky, thanks to a “glass-weave” finish that I really like. It feels solid and the slider opens and closes with a satisfying snick.
THE PRIV’S PHYSICAL KEYBOARD IS GOOD
The keyboard won’t live up to the key clicking glory days you might remember with BlackBerrys of yore, because there’s not that much key travel. But it’s still pretty good. It’s actually almost hard to judge because there’s literally no physical keyboard competition to compare it to anymore (unless you count the Typo). And yes, I know that you’re probably faster with a glass touchscreen keyboard, but that’s kind of not the point. It feels nice to type on a physical keyboard and it means you get to look at the whole screen when you’re punching out a message.
BLACKBERRY’S SOFTWARE IS FULL OF GOOD IDEAS, MIDDLING EXECUTION
BlackBerry’s privacy software, DTEK, is really smart at showing you the details of whether your phone is secure and also what your apps are doing. The little slide-in widget on the side is smarter than what Samsung does on the Galaxy S6 Edge. You can slide up from the home button to get access to three different apps. BlackBerry search is often more useful for on-device stuff than Google’s.
But then there’s the BlackBerry Hub, which is supposed to be an everything-in-one solution for your email, BBM messages, SMS, tweets, and calls. The idea of a super powerful and customizable super messaging app is really smart — but it’s also really hard. And for a variety of reasons, BlackBerry just didn’t pull it off. It’s too confusing and not as good as your other email, twitter, and SMS apps are on their own.
Also, those aforementioned bugs really need to get squashed.
THE PRIV’S CAMERA IS SURPRISINGLY NICE, BUT SLOW
The Priv has an 18-megapixel sensor that gives you shots that aren’t quite as good as what you’ll get from other top-tier phones, but they’re a cut above what cheap Android phones can pull off. Even in low light, the Priv’s camera consistently outclassed my (admittedly fairly low) expectations. This might be the best camera BlackBerry has ever made. Unfortunately, it’s really slow — especially in HDR mode.
THE PRIV’S KEYBOARD TRICKS ARE GENUINELY NEAT
There are lots of neat tricks to be had with the keyboard! You can set up long-press single key shortcuts to all kinds of stuff from the homescreen. You can “just type” to search from the homescreen too. There are shortcuts to scroll to the top or bottom of lists. You can slide your finger over the keyboard to scroll. You can double tap on it to turn on a cursor mode, so you can slide your finger around to position the cursor. You can swipe down when you’re typing to get fast access to a big list of symbols.
All of that works great. What doesn’t work so well is swiping up on the keyboard to auto-complete a suggested word. Maybe one of those promised software updates will help.
THE PRIV IS EXPENSIVE FOR AN ANDROID PHONE
I know that there are other Android phones that cost around this much, and I also know that the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus can cost this much or more when similarly specced (as BlackBerry is quick to note when you bring it up). But even so, the price of Android phones has mostly been driving down, and I’m not sure this is really worth $699.
THE NAME “PRIV” STANDS FOR SOMETHING SMART AND SOMETHING DUMB
BlackBerry says that “Priv” stands for both “privacy” and, well, “privilege.” Putting the word “privilege” anywhere near a phone is really tone-deaf, especially one that’s that’s a) kind of expensive and b) probably meant to appeal to the corporate and finance set. I guess the one-percenters won’t be offended.