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Featured Review: Blackberry Priv

November 25, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

“Wait, you got a BlackBerry?”  Those were the words of so many people that I showed off the new BlackBerry Priv to, wondering why in the world an Android user like myself would bother going back in time for such a relic.  Their ears perked up though when I told them it was BlackBerry’s first Android phone, one that would likely usher in a new era for the company while still retaining the DNA that made them so successful in the first place.  This phone is packed with high-end specs, tons of features and that famous BlackBerry keyboard, but does it have what it takes to get past the “old” namesake and teach modern users a thing or two about security?  Let’s take a look!

Specs

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Prominently featured on the front is the 5.4-inch Quad-HD Super AMOLED display with curved sides, covered in Gorilla Glass 4.  Underneath that beauty you’ll find a 1.8/1.44GHz 64-bit Snapdragon 808 hexa-core processor (MSM8992), 600MHz Adreno 418 GPU and 3GB of RAM.  There’s 32GB of internal storage to work with and a microSD card slot in case that’s not enough.  Since this is a BlackBerry there’s a full QWERTY physical keyboard underneath that slide-out screen, and the experience is powered by Android 5.1.1 Lollipop.  A 3,410mAh battery keeps the action going, and you’ll find an 18-megapixel camera with OIS and Schneider-Kreuznach optics on the back, as well as a 2-megapixel front-facing camera.  The whole package is sized at 147mm high by 77.2mm wide by 9.4mm deep, with a weight of a heavy 192 grams.

In The Box

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There’s a fair amount of value included in the rather large box the Priv comes in.  Aside from the phone you’ll be getting a SIM/microSD tray eject tool, some manuals and promotional material, microUSB cable and a wall charger.  For whatever reason the wall charger is only 5V 1.3 amp, meaning this one is going to take quite a while to charge from empty to full with the stock charger.  No idea why a higher wattage charger isn’t included here, especially since the phone is powered by a Snapdragon 808 with QuickCharge ability.  There’s also a pair of earbud headphones for your listening enjoyment in case you don’t have one or need an extra pair.

Display

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The display is the one thing you’re almost always going to notice first on a modern smartphone, and in the BlackBerry Priv’s case that’s a very good thing.  The display sits somewhere inbetween “regular” and phablet sized at 5.4-inches, but is significantly enhanced by the curved edges the slope over the left and right sides.  If you’ve ever used any of the Galaxy Edge devices from Samsung you’ll know what to expect here; the glass curves almost a full 90 degrees over a few millimeters of length, curving the actual display itself over the same edge.  While there’s only so much functional purpose this serves it certainly will make you say wow.

Because of this edge the rest of the display sits a bit higher than the body, making it feel almost three dimensional, and significantly enhances the picture quality too.  The edge also makes pulling those left-hand menus and other elements out from the edge of the screen easier since your finger naturally slides easier instead of getting stuck on a bezel lip.  It’s really something that needs to be seen to be believed and lends a much more premium look to the device than it would have otherwise.

We’ll cover edge gestures in the software section below, so let’s take a look at the actual quality of the panel.  This is a quad-HD, 2560 x 1440 resolution display sitting at about 540 pixels per inch, meaning there’s no way you’re going to be seeing pixels anywhere no matter how close you get.  The Super AMOLED panel is incredibly well calibrated out of the box and doesn’t exhibit any of the overly saturated colors of most AMOLED displays on the market; something that’s actually adjustable via the built-in display options.  I found myself cranking the saturation up all the way since I prefer AMOLED displays like this, but color purists will be incredibly happy right out of the box with no adjustments.  Likewise the white balance is perfect but can also be adjusted to be warmer or cooler depending on your tastes.

Viewing angles are amazing, there’s no color shimmer, and of course black levels are infinite and perfect.  Brightness is off the charts and I never once struggled to see the screen outside, especially when adaptive brightness was turned off.  There’s not even any trailing going from black to gray, which shows just how fast this panel refreshes from an off to on state.  The digitizer is equally perfect and exhibits some of the finest multi-touch performance on the market.  There was never any frustration with the panel not being able to keep up with fast typing or any kind of multi-touch motions, showing BlackBerry placed priorities on the touch experience itself here.

Hardware And Build

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Let’s get this out of the way first: this phone feels cheap.  Super cheap.  So cheap in fact that if you didn’t see the curved screen you might mistake this for a $200 Chinese phablet instead of the $700+ phone that it is.  I have no idea why BlackBerry chose this cheap, sticky, flimsy plastic in an age where almost all OEMs are moving toward significantly more premium materials, but they did.  The biggest offender is the back of the phone, which features a somewhat sticky rubberized plastic that feels more like a worn handle of an old tool than anything else.  Besides just feeling gross the plastic back has noticeable give to it, a sign that there’s hollow regions behind this back to cover the sliding mechanism for the screen.  Anything would have been better than this back and it ends up nearly ruining the feel of the phone entirely.

On top of this the sides and buttons are all plastic and they feel like it.  Everything is creaky, somewhat loose and just feels bad.  It’s really unfortunate given just how gorgeous the curved screen makes this one look too, but it’s an unfortunate reality.  On the design side of things you’ve got the power button on the left side of the phone, while there are a few volume buttons on the right side.  Volume up and down are separate buttons with a strange single button in-between the two that simply brings up the volume panel.  Since the two volume buttons already do this it’s definitely an odd existence for this third button.  On the top of the phone you’ll find a SIM card slot as well as a separate microSD card tray too, both which need to be ejected from the body with the tool included in the box (or a paperclip).  On the bottom sits a micro USB slot as well as a 3.5mm headset jack, a great configuration if you’re needing to charge while listening to music.

On the front just below the screen you’ll find a sound bar just below the lip of the screen, and it’s this lip that allows users to easily slide the screen up and down as needed with a single hand.  The sliding of the screen is done vertically instead of horizontally, so the phone becomes very tall when the physical keyboard underneath is exposed.  The sliding mechanism itself feels incredibly good and springy, and clicks into place when it reaches one end or the other.  The physical keyboard underneath is likely going to be the talk of the town when you show this phone off, but it’s something that you might find looks cooler than it actually functions.

Keyboard

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First off the keyboard is a tad too small for a physical one.  Software keyboards can get away with this because they require almost no physical exertion from the user, however since the keys have to physically be pushed down the space between them needs to be a little further apart.  I don’t have fat fingers by any means, but I found myself having to type slowly to make sure I’m pressing all the right keys, something that could be alleviated by a keyboard on the horizontal side of the phone (like the original Droid line for example) rather than a vertical configuration.  If the size doesn’t bother you this will likely be a phenomenal keyboard to type with.  The keys themselves have a nice click to them and are made well, neither too squishy or rigid.

The whole keyboard itself is also a capacitive touchpad much like the screen above it, and many gestures can be made with it.  While in any scrollable window, such as a long web page or social network, sliding up and down on the keyboard with your finger (without pressing down on the keys) will scroll the screen as if you’ve touched the glass.  Horizontal scrolling can be done like this too, and double tapping and scrolling horizontally will act like a cursor when editing text.  Shortcuts can also be made to launch apps and perform actions on the phone and can be assigned to any key.  All this adds up to an incredibly useful accessory even if you don’t use it like a keyboard all the time.

Performance And Memory

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It’s no secret that Qualcomm has had a difficult year when it comes to the processors that they specialize in.  Their flagship for 2015, the Snapdragon 810, often overheats and causes lots of performance issues in plenty of phones it powers, but the Snapdragon 808 has sort of been the fallback for companies not wanting to deal with the negatives of the 810.  The 808 brings a 1.8GHz dual-core Cortex-A57 processor to the table, paired with a 1.44GHz Cortex-A53 quad-core processor in the same package.  Since this is two cores less than the Snapdragon 810 heat is not usually an issue, although the performance difference is sometimes more noticeable than others.  Unlike other 808-powered devices though the BlackBerry Priv almost always feels sluggish, and often times hangs while waiting for tasks to happen.  This is bizarre given the performance of other 808-powered devices, and it makes me wonder what BlackBerry is doing here to have this happen.

On top of these weird performance issues all over the place, this phone gets hot.  I mean really hot too, capping out at about 50c/120f.  That’s hot to any touch and while it’s not going to burn anyone, it’s certainly not going to feel good when holding for a long time.  I found this only happened while gaming, but it makes me wonder why BlackBerry didn’t cap the heat output the way other OEMs have at around 40-45C.  Putting this together with the fact that the device chugs the way it does makes things even more strange, as a higher temperature often times means higher sustained clock speeds, and therefore, should mean a faster, smoother experience.  Gaming was at least excellent and performed quite well, as I expected from a modern phone, and I have no complaints there outside of the heat.

Multi-tasking was a mixed bag as well, with the same performance issues plaguing the multi-tasking experience that are found in the everyday app usage experience.  While apps didn’t have to reload thanks to that 3GB of RAM waiting to be used, they took forever to switch between at times, resulting in a black screen while waiting for the app to wake back up.  On the bright side, BlackBerry offers three different options for the Overview window in Android, which is called up by the dedicated square software button at the bottom.  By default this is displayed in what’s called “masonry” layout, which shows different sized squares with thumbnails of each app open on the screen.  It’s a brilliant execution that allows more information to be put on the screen and keeps multi-tasking easy to do with one hand.  You can also choose from a straight grid of squares, showing 10 apps on the screen at once to switch between, or the standard Android 3D carousel.

Benchmarks

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Since there are some serious heat issues here we let the device cool down for at least 10 minutes in-between each benchmark in order to get a more accurate score.  Even so it scored less than other Snapdragon 808-powered phones, and significantly so at times, as much as 65% less so in some situations.  For instance on the 3DMark Slingshot test, the Snapdragon 808-powered Nexus 5x scored a 1484, while the BlackBerry Priv, powered by the same Snapdragon 808 SoC, only scored a 508.  This showed up in many of the benchmarks too, and the performance difference varied wildly.  Regardless of the size of the chasm, the divide was pretty big between this phone’s performance and what it should be.  Something is up and hopefully it’ll be fixed in a software update.

Phone Calls And Network

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We received our unit from AT&T, and while the BlackBerry Priv is exclusive to AT&T in the US for now it won’t be for long.  Verizon and T-Mobile will definitely be carrying it, and even still this version should support all the same bands that an unlocked unit straight from BlackBerry would.  There’s support here for WiFi calling as well as all US LTE bands, plus a few more.  Signal strength and call quality were both phenomenal on this phone and I found no issues with either.  Even the loudspeaker out of that single front-facing speaker sounded great and clear.  Check out all the available bands below for the US and international models:

US Model:

2G Bands: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G HSPA Bands: 850/900/1900/2100MHz

4G LTE Bands: 1/2/3/4/5/7/12/17/20/29/30

 

International Model:

2G Bands: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G HSPA Bands: 850/900/1900/2100MHz

4G LTE Bands: 1/2/3/4/7/8/13/17/20/28

Battery Life

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Battery life on average was quite good and sits above average in general. This makes sense given that the 3,410mAh battery inside is slightly larger than other phones of this size, and in general I found it extremely difficult to kill the phone in a single day no matter what I did.  Heavy usage via internet browsing and chatting gave me 6 and a half hours of screen on time, but on another day where I played lots of games, ran benchmarks and watched plenty of YouTube videos on it I only got 3 and a half hours of screen on time.  This shows just how wide the difference can be depending on what you’re doing each day, so if you’re mostly a background music listener and web browser you can expect great battery life, while those who are heavily into gaming and other more process-intensive tasks will only get average battery life.  BlackBerry has designed a battery edge display that shows the battery percentage in a bar while charging, something that’s not necessarily handy in every situation but looks cool nonetheless.

Sound

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Sound output via Bluetooth or the 3.5mm headset jack was pretty average on the whole, however, it was quite loud through the 3.5mm headset jack.  This is great for anyone that normally struggles to hear their music through certain sound systems, although the quality itself wasn’t anything super special.  There’s the standard Android software equalizer built in here but it works just as poorly as that software does, and even turning it on lowers the sound volume by at least 20%, and the more you adjust it the quieter the sound gets.  It’s really just not worth using at all, so if the default sound output doesn’t do much for you there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

Sound out of the front-facing speaker was weak at best, and poor at worst.  Volume levels out of this speaker leave a lot to be desired, and it was difficult to hear regardless of the volume or situation.  In a quiet room it’s fine of course, and the front-facing nature automatically makes it better than almost any rear or bottom-facing speaker, but in this day of amazing front-facing speakers on top-tier phones it’s difficult to be happy with such a speaker.

Volume control has been slightly modified for the better from stock Android Lollipop, and pressing any of the volume buttons on the side will bring up the volume panel pop-up window from the top of the screen.  BlackBerry has separated this into tabs up top consisting of Notifications, Media, and Alarms, all of which can be accessed at any time.  There’s the usual volume slider below that followed by the priority modes from Lollipop, all in an easy to find section of the OS, accessible by a single button click.

Software

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Aside from the poor performance which is likely to be fixed, BlackBerry has really done it right when it comes to Android.  Leaving the experience mostly looking and feeling stock Lollipop, BlackBerry’s take on Android is one where features are modified or added, not completely changed or made-over.  In fact there are so many features here it’s difficult to figure out where to start, so let’s take the lockscreen as a starter.  BlackBerry is remaking a name for itself as the notification wizard and it does this in part by categorizing all notifications by app.  Right on the lockscreen you can click the icon of any app that’s displaying a notification and filter notifications by that app, clicking the same icon again to turn filtering off.  This is nice when you have tons of notifications and just want to see emails, for instance.

This sort of pop-up brilliance is extended to the home screen, which looks and feels much like a standard Android launcher complete with app drawer and widget-filled homescreen, however, the specialty here is pop-up widgets.  This isn’t new to Android, but it’s nice to see this sort of functionality out of the box.  Apps on the homescreen with 3 dots under their icon can be swiped up on, popping up a widget relevant to that app.  Chat apps like Hangouts or GroupMe will bring up the whole conversation via the standard widget, while calendar and other apps with widgets will do the same.  It’s a great way to put more information at your screen without having to separate them on individual homescreens (desktops), and it also keeps you from having to navigate away from other apps too.

Gestures

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Gestures are a big part of most modern smartphones, and the Priv is filled with them.  Double-tap-to-wake is here in all its glory, and picking up the phone by default without tapping the screen will show the ambient display; a black-and-white screen that quickly shows any notifications present as well as the time without wasting battery.  Swiping up on the software home button will take you to Google Now as expected, but swiping slightly to the right or left to one of the pop-up icons will allow you to launch any custom app of your choosing, something that hails from the custom ROM scene and is incredibly welcome on any phone.

In addition to this there’s a new BlackBerry center that’s found on the right side of the screen and is accessible by sliding from the edge.  You can change this to the left or right side of the screen, adjust its transparency, etc., but in here you’re going to find dedicated calendar, email, task and contacts  that are accessible from any app or screen that you’re on.  This prioritizes what BlackBerry does best, communication, and shows some serious care when finding unique features that really matter to customers.  Within each of these sections you can easily create a new task, contact, email or calendar entry via the floating + material button on the bottom, a design that takes the steps and thought away from an otherwise multi-step process.

There’s also some motion gesture functionality here that’s pretty nice too.  By default, flipping the phone on its face on a flat surface puts it to sleep, but you can also toggle this to mute the ringer too.  There’s even a toggle to sense when the phone is being held, which will keep the screen on for longer than the standard time-out period, leading to less annoyance when your screen normally shuts off while not constantly using it.

Security, Data and Privacy

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BlackBerry built their reputation on security and privacy, so wouldn’t it make sense for that to be a focus on their first Android-powered phone too?  Besides being encrypted out of the box, a step that keeps your personal data safe so long as a PIN code or swipe code is keeping the device locked, BlackBerry has included a security suite it calls DTEK.  Inside of this suite, BlackBerry is aiming to make your phone more secure by having you go through a list of important things, as well as giving you a security rating in the form of a graphical meter.  In here you’ll find important notes like keeping a lock on your device to make encryption work right, not rooting your device, keeping the bootloader locked, etc.

In addition to this you can see which apps are accessing your information and get notifications when they do.  It’s this section that’s incredibly well designed and brilliantly executed.  It works so well that it actually keeps track of where and when each permission was accessed, giving you the time and location of when your location or other permissions were accessed.  This is wonderful for security and keeps you on top of what your apps are doing.  The notifications aren’t enabled by default though so you’ll need to turn them on if you want them, and there seems to be no way to actually disable the permissions for each app, just uninstall them.  Likely Android 6.0 Marshmallow’s built-in app permissions will enhance this even further once that update goes out.

Camera

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The camera has never really been much of a focus for BlackBerry, and while the Schneider-Kreuznach lens on the camera might make you think it was this time, you might want to think otherwise.  That’s not to say the camera on the Priv is bad per say, it’s just that it needs some work.  The software itself looks a little more “professional” than some other camera software out there, but it’s design and performance are what hurt.  There’s only a single shutter button here, and you’ll need to switch modes to take video or panoramic shots.  Auto HDR is available and works well enough, but it’s the speed at which it takes any picture that’s a problem.  This is coming from someone who almost never complains about speed of a smartphone, in which the differences between devices are often fractions of a second.

At times, I found taking pictures could take seconds with the Priv, not milliseconds, and this wasn’t just in darker situations either.  During a bright sunny say when taking a picture of the horizon the Priv took nearly 3 full seconds just to focus and get the shot after pressing the shutter button, only to activate HDR mode, take 3 shots and make the sounds for each, and then have me wait to see the picture it was processing.  Any one of these things by themselves would probably just be an annoyance, but combined they make for a mostly useless camera in any situation.  There’s also the weird bug of the camera not keeping my preferences at least half the time I use it, so auto HDR and auto flash reset themselves on a random basis when I open it.  Flash is something I always turn off on smartphones, as it creates overly harsh and ugly shots, and having it constantly turn on was incredibly irritating.

Picture quality is completely inconsistent but at least hovers mostly in the good territory.  When the camera nails it there is tons of detail, great white balance and a nice balance between some noise reduction and retention of details.  Sometimes in low light the pictures will look at bit soft, often the result of denoise filters gone into overdrive.  Once the light drops below a certain level the denoise filters seems to be significantly reduced, letting in more noise but preserving more detail.  It’s this weird spot that often takes place indoors in the evening where the camera struggles with detail the most, and any movement usually ends up blurry.  I also found that pictures in the evening, particularly closer to dusk, were darker than other cameras at this price point.

Daytime shots and anything in good light mostly exhibit what you would expect from an 18-megapixel camera.  Lots of detail everywhere and the ability to zoom in quite a bit without quality degradation.  What happens maybe a quarter of the time though is that the auto white balance tends to lean towards cool, leaving the scene a bit more blue than it is in real life.  In addition to this the HDR mode is only effective in very specific circumstances, although auto-HDR did a great job of determining what the right situation was.  Still the length of time needed to take an HDR shot makes it difficult to use.

Video quality is very good though, and that is both because it not only records 1080p and 4K video, but also because there’s optical image stabilization built in.  This keeps the image much smoother when hand jitter or other shaking is involved, and results in much cleaner video.  There’s an option here for 1080p 60fps video but nothing higher than that, so slow motion video fans are going to be left in the dust here.  Overall, dynamic range is pretty good, although a larger sensor or HDR video would help improve this, but the color accuracy and white balance are pretty fantastic.  The biggest issue is video when it’s dark, and since the pixels are pretty small on this sensor it has a hard time picking up detail in darker environments.

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The Good

Curved, accurate AMOLED display

Physical keyboard

Keyboard gestures

Enhanced one-hand use via system gestures

Lots of nice additions to Android like the BlackBerry Productivity Tab

Tons of extra security

Mostly great battery life

The Bad

Cheap build quality

So-so camera that’s often way too slow (seconds, not milliseconds)

Physical keyboard is too small

Performance is abysmal

Phone gets too hot during heavy use

Final Thoughts

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The BlackBerry Priv is a phone filled with excellent ideas but marred by some pretty big stumbles too.  BlackBerry’s take on Android is one of no visual or functional modifications from what Google sets, rather additions to the already excellent base Android makes.  These additions are all phenomenal and work incredibly well, and the curved screen BlackBerry went with on this device is nothing short of incredible.  The poor build quality and abysmal performance in most tasks really hamper the enjoyment of the device, which is unfortunate given the price tag.  A case will help fix the build issues at least, and it’s highly likely that software updates will fix the performance issues, but right now it’s difficult to recommend spending so much money on a device with these sorts of issues.  Once BlackBerry gets the performance issues ironed out we’re looking at an amazing restart for the company, and one that could hold an incredibly bright future with Android.