Device Review: BlackBerry KEYone

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A familiar face returns with a nostalgic design, average camera and impressive battery

Nobody can question BlackBerry’s commitment to the smartphone game. With market share at an all-time low and more competition than ever before, the company is still trying their absolute best to claw back fans. The KEYone is their newest attempt at enticing users back to the brand, bringing old favourites like a physical keyboard and classic design.

Design & Screen

It’s a BlackBerry and do you know what? It looks exactly like a BlackBerry. While the DTEK tried to embrace modern smartphone design, the KEYone seems to be going for a blend of old meets new. A mix of corporate and class. If you’re in the middle of a meeting and pull out the KEYone, people will immediately know you’re using a BlackBerry.

While the brand may not be as powerful as it once was, this device certainly is. Built like
a tank, it’s a mesh of metals and sturdy
plastic. The footprint of the handset is about the same as a traditional five-inch device, though it feels incredibly chunky despite being under 10cm thick.

The back features a textured rubberised finish which is incredibly easy to hold in the hand, even in the rain. You’ll also find a rather huge camera sensor, with a dual-tone LED flash, plus the company logo proudly printed up top. As a business handset, we thought it would’ve been nice if the back was removable but alas, we couldn’t get the thing off.

The front of the device holds a 4.5-inch screen and that legendary physical keyboard, which feels as great as ever. A fingerprint sensor is now embedded into the physical space bar and we have to admit, it works flawlessly. A bad fingerprint sensor is always annoying but on the KEYone, the implementation couldn’t be better. Blackberry has also made numerous smaller improvements to the keyboard that you perhaps wouldn’t notice at first, though we’ll get to them later. For now, all you need to know is that this is a great physical keyboard that reminds us very much of the later Curve handsets. If you’re after a pure BlackBerry experience, you’ve got one here.

The sides are nicely rounded and help with handset aesthetics. The brushed aluminium trim is a nice touch and gives it a sturdy appearance. Two speakers can be found on the bottom of the handset, with the left acting as a dummy. Sound quality is okay but lacks bass and sounds a little tinny.

An extra button can be found on the KEYone, which BlackBerry has dubbed the ‘Convenience Key’. It’s essentially just another customisable button which most people will use as a camera shortcut. Our only gripe is that it can only be assigned to one task. If you assign it to the camera, it will only launch the app and not take a picture. BlackBerry has also made the decision to limit its use to specific first-party applications, a very odd choice.

Camera

BlackBerry cameras have never been stellar, so we weren’t expecting incredible performance. The inclusion of a Sony IMX378 sensor is a welcome addition as it’s used in some of the best shooters on the market, including the Google Pixel. Hardware is only one half of the game, as clever software processing is needed to get the most from a sensor.

The KEYone doesn’t take incredible pictures but it is nonetheless a step up from the Priv and DTEK handsets. It handled our high contrast scenes well, producing an evenly exposed image. Colours were a bit dull and uninspiring, but we prefer this to exaggerated vibrancy.

Its macro abilities were also decent, pulling out a good amount of detail. Things were a little soft but it’s a minor quibble. The electronic image stabilisation does a reasonable job of keeping things steady, though optical image stabilisation (OIS) would have been better.

Low light performance was average on the KEYone but better than expected. Our dark image showed a presence of noise, though it wasn’t at uncomfortable levels. The drummer was more visible than we expected, though a lack of fine detail let things down.

Most smartphones now ship with an impressive manual application and the KEYone is no exception. There’s a full suite of controls on board to help you snap the perfect picture, including white balance, ISO, shutter speed and more. These are all arranged down the side of the screen in a simple interface.

The eight megapixel front camera is distinctly average, struggling to excel in low-light but producing a reasonable selfie image. The lens angle is wide enough for a small group shot, while also flattering the face enough that you won’t look incredibly disproportionate.

Performance

Things get a little strange for the BlackBerry KEYone when we start looking at the performance, as the high price-tag really can’t justify this level of hardware. Inside is a Snapdragon 625 which, while a solid processor, is only mid-range and not on the level you’d expect. Likewise, 3GB of RAM is starting to look a little frugal for a handset of this calibre.

For those who use the handset in a general setting, they likely won’t notice the performance hit. We breezed through the user interface, checking Facebook and taking notes without a problem. Even gaming wasn’t a huge issue, which we attribute mainly to the lower-than-normal panel resolution, which no doubt takes pressure off the GPU. Candy Crush Saga ran smoothly, with even Asphalt Xtreme doing well on highest settings.

CPU benchmarks for the KEYone were middling, with AnTuTu scoring 63,025. It’s not a great result and is reflective of the lesser performance you’re getting here. Geekbench wouldn’t even post a result, citing connection troubles as a cause. We tried this numerous times on both cellular and WiFi.

Graphics benchmarks were about the same, putting the handset once again firmly in the mid-range. GFXBench placed it around the same as a Snapdragon 808 powered Moto X Style, while 3DMark gave the KEYone a score of 463. It’s an underwhelming score but reflective of the chipset.

Software is one area where BlackBerry has spent plenty of time, with their interpretation of the Android operating system continuing to improve. On the surface, it feels a lot like the stock experience, but the company has introduced small features to help set it apart. The app tray has multiple tabs, including a handy one for widgets. Bringing them to the forefront will encourage use for novice users.

The DTEK security app makes another appearance, acting as a passive snoop to assist with security vulnerabilities. While it never interferes directly, the app will give notifications if anything ever seems awry, so you can quickly patch things up yourself. A universal security meter gives a quick readout to any problems happening on the device so that users can quickly see if there’s a problem.

You’ve also got the Productivity Tab, which has become a staple on BlackBerry devices. Sliding it out from the edge will reveal all your events, messages and emails. It may not have the customisation of Google Now but as a business-focused application, it works very well. I found myself using it regularly for keeping up-to-date on events, more so than I expected. There is a tendency for things to get overloaded if you have lots of accounts associated. At one point, my device was getting a little trigger-happy, with buzzes every few seconds. It may be necessary to customise notifications in order to make this less bothersome.

The BlackBerry KEYone has a 3,505 mAh battery; quite a bit larger than what we’re used to seeing. Combine this with a mid-range chipset and it suddenly makes sense why BlackBerry has chosen the hardware they did. The Snapdragon 625 has a reputation for being both frugal and fairly powerful; this is heavily reflected in the results here. It posted one of the best scores we’ve seen in a handset for a long time, taking 143 minutes to drain 20% from a full charge in our benchmark. AnTuTu gave the battery 15,650, which is easily one of the biggest scores we’ve seen. Taking this into consideration, you should be looking at 11 hours 55 minutes of on-screen time. This is a truly excellent result and means that power users can expect two days of solid use.

In our day-to-day testing, we found the above to be very accurate. For modest use we found that the KEYone was easily capable of extending beyond the two day mark, which is something few phones can achieve. Move it up to moderate use and you should still be good for two days.

Conclusion

BlackBerry has produced a very comfortable business phone with the KEYone that has incredible battery life and enough power for the average user. It feels rugged as hell and has the best camera to date on a BlackBerry device. Unfortunately, the massive £499 price tag means that it will be an incredibly tough sell. Plenty of devices can be had for less with more power. Unless you’re desperate for the DTEK experience and a physical keyboard, there’s better value handsets elsewhere. This is especially true when you consider the Apple iPhone SE, a popular business phone, is around the same price.

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