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BlackBerry PRIV review: steeped in potential, lacking in polish

You might be wondering why on earth there’s a BlackBerry review on Gearburn in 2016, but rest assured, the clock hasn’t wound back ten years, nor is the company dead. In fact, it’s experiencing something of a mantra change.

Last decade, the Canadian company was the one challenging Apple for the world smartphone hierarchy. It was selling more phones than Samsung, and it was doing a damn fine job in the process. But since then, the company has fallen from grace, so much so that in 2016, it has done the unthinkable: it has turned to Android.

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Now, I was pretty sad to hear that BlackBerry OS would be no more. It was fast, efficient and extremely user-friendly, but lacked the app support the world desperately needs. But if you think the company has changed completely, think again.

This is the BlackBerry PRIV, the company’s latest attempt at launching a phone that you’ll actually consider buying, and at first glance it looks like every other Android. But it has a secret. It slides and features a keyboard. Yes, it’s fundamentally different to any smartphone available on the market right now, even though it’s running something as familiar as Android and packing heat akin to any other flagship. And that’s BlackBerry’s gameplan.

Looking at the phone more closely, it’s a markedly contemporary design for its archaic form factor, featuring a curved screen, a metal frame and extensive use of a TensileKnit glass fibre, which is woven to give a grippy, contrasting texture compared to the rest of the phone. The slide mechanism also boasts an onomatopoeic thunk when closed, which left me absentmindedly sliding the phone on its hinge when I wasn’t using it.

Getting into the deeper technical specs though, BlackBerry thankfully left the ancient design philosophy to the exterior.

The company employs a 5.4-inch 2560×1440 edge-to-edge screen which just smells of premium. It’s probably the best screen on a mobile phone bar the Samsung Galaxy S7, and parades deep blacks, clean whites and rich hues. It’s a glorious part of the user experience.

Behind it, BlackBerry is using lower echelon hardware when noting this phone’s price. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 features — the same chip as fitted to the LG G4 — with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. There’s a microSD card slot too for up to 2TB of expanded legroom, so don’t worry too much about that figure. And of course, all the wireless bells and whistles are included, like Bluetooth 4.0 LE, WiFi 802.11 AC, and LTE. There’s a 3410mAh battery, which makes this thing heavy. Really heavy. Around 192g in fact.

Key numbers:

Dimensions: 147mm x 77.2mm x 9.4mm
Weight: 192g
SIM Type: Nano SIM
Display: 5.4-inch, 2560×1440, 540ppi
Chipset: Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 octa-core | dual-core ARM Cortex-A57 1.8GHz & quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 1.4GHz | Adreno 418 GPU | 3GB RAM
Storage: 32GB (Around 24GB usable), microSD card expansion up to 2TB
Imaging: Rear: 18MP with f/2.2 Schneider-Kreuznach lens, OIS, phase-detection autofocus, LED flash | Front: 2MP
Video: 4K at 30fps
Battery: 3410mAh fixed
OS: Android 5.1.1 Lollipop

The most important feature though isn’t a feature at all on other phones — Android. BlackBerry’s using Lollipop instead of Marshmallow here, probably because it was focusing on optimisation rather than the latest features. And it shows.

BlackBerry took all the great aspects of Blackberry OS, and bolted them onto Android, plastering Google‘s OS where it was weakest. This includes the BlackBerry Hub message centre — a lobby for all your social media texts, messages and notifications. It allows users to reply in-line without opening the respective apps. And it works as impressively on Android as it did on BlackBerry OS.

BlackBerry took all the great aspects of Blackberry OS, and bolted them onto Android

There’s an innovative side notification panel too, that makes full use of the phone’s edge. Sliding this towards the screen’s centre opens a “today” panel, which holds calendar notifications, current conversations and other much needed quick access information.

And something that isn’t spoken about much on Android: privacy. There’s a distinct feel to BlackBerry’s Android that other phones just don’t have. Although it’s running Lollipop, BlackBerry’s DTEK app gives it Marshmallow like features, notifying users if an app is accessing personal information, and boasts the ability to stop said app in its tracks. It’s a solid piece of work and I hope that it arrives for Android in general in the coming years.

Benchmark results:

AnTuTu 6.0.1: 63 249
Geekbench 3 Performance: (Single core) 1193 (Multi core) 3279
Geekbench 3 Battery: (Total time) 5h27:50 (Score) 3278
GFXBench OpenGL 3.1: (Manhattan 3.1) 347.4 frames, 5.6 per second; (T-Rex) 1360 frames, 24 per second

BlackBerry PRIV sample images
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Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 1

The PRIV is capable of taking some remarkable snaps, but the f/2.2 aperture doesn't allow as much light in as the LG G4 or Samsung Galaxy S7.

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 2

Focusing is something the camera doesn't do well at all. There's no manual mode to adjust this either. When the phone does eventually understand what you're interested in snapping, results can be brilliant.

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 3

This was the best snap of a resting butterfly from about six. Like I said, it's a great camera, you'll just need to practice some patience with it.

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 4

Colour reproduction can be a bit iffy. This snap is rather washed out, even though these wild garlic blossoms were intensely lilac.

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 5

The focusing issue up close and personal. This time around, these berries suffer from over saturated hues and an annoying lack of focus.

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 6

I had tons of fun snapping hibuscus blossoms in the sunlight. The PRIV's camera's real performance comes to the fore in these.

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 7

Another one. The PRIV absolutely shines.

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 8

A little chafer enjoying the flowers a little more than me. The small aperture means that this snap -- just before dusk -- wasn't as bright as it could've been.

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 9

The flower pictures continue, this time after a mild Cape Town rainstorm. The colours really shine through in this snap, but again, I would've loved some manual exposure controls.

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 10

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 11

When in Cape Town, you just have to grab a snap of Table Mountain. The colour reproduction here is impressive, but I do feel that the sharpness just isn't there.

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 12

A good demonstration of the camera's depth of field abilities.

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 13

Another great depth of field demonstration. A shard of glass and the flakes of asphalt on the ground all in sharp focus. One of the best snaps I took with the BlackBerry PRIV.

Blackberry Priv Review Sample Image 14 (open Camera)

This image was taken using Open Camera, and not the phone's camera app (which is pretty dire).

Blackberry Priv Review Ui

Another solid addition to BlackBerry’s arsenal is the camera. Finally, the company’s understanding that mobile photography is key, and they’ve stuck a darn good sensor on the PRIV for just that. It’s an 18MP OIS sensor, which provides amazing images of landscapes and colourful subjects in the daylight. Indoors, though, it suffers from a full f/2.2 aperture, which doesn’t allow as much light into the camera as the Samsung Galaxy S7, for instance.

The camera software feels like the last thing the company designed

There’s also no manual mode, and the camera software feels like the last thing the company designed. It’s atrocious for such a great camera sensor. Adjusting focus, composure or light balance is almost impossible, but, at least, users can download additional camera apps (thank the phone gods for Android).

Nevertheless, it records in 4K fairly well, but only at 30 frames per second. The front camera is a bit dated at 2MP, which will disappoint many a selfie fanatic.

And that keyboard? Well, it has a few tricks of its own. Capacitive touch allows users to use it as a scroll pad in every direction, which further opens up screen real estate. Additionally, all keys can be programmed as hotkeys. So, if you call Bob often, you can set the “B” key on the keyboard to call the chap. Or message him. Or send him a cat picture. It’s extremely smart.

The keyboard is too small for human fingers

But usability issues creep in almost immediately after you slide that screen up. The keyboard is too small for human fingers. It’s just fine for squirrels, but the keys aren’t pronounced enough to ensure accurate typing. I often misspelt words just to end up using the Android keyboard. Also, I really, really don’t like the predictive text function. It’s novel, sure — allowing users to flick up on a given letter to type an entire suggested word in a flash — but it feels unnatural, and totally uncommon to what most Android users enjoy.

And problems don’t just lie with the keyboard either. The phone gets markedly hot when performing anything mildly taxing. Web browsing and scrolling through the page vigorously will heat it up, while streaming YouTube will turn it into a space heater. That’s probably thanks to the woven material at the rear, but it’s not a comforting feeling. That woven back also has a fair degree of play and flex, as does the phone.

These design issues I don’t expect from such a markedly expensive phone

In fact, I’m not sure if a squirrel factory in an oak tree put the BlackBerry PRIV together, because its general workmanship is shoddy. The screen screens and flexes when the keyboard is out; the rear panel is like a sheet strewn between two chairs; the slider often got stuck at its highest point for no reason. These design issues I don’t expect from such a markedly expensive phone.

And finally, let’s talk about that price.

The phone debuted at R14 000, which is the same price as the Samsung Galaxy S7, just R1000 less than the Edge variant and more expensive than the iPhone 6S. BlackBerry definitely improves the Android software experience, but I feel that that’s simply not enough.

Choosing between those three phones, I’d have the S7, not because it’s the latest device, but because (and I can’t believe that I’m saying this about a Samsung phone) it offers the best value for money.

The BlackBerry PRIV is a bold experiment. It shows that BlackBerry isn’t afraid to innovate in a time of cookie-cutter smartphones. It’s novel but remains endearing to BlackBerry fans. But it’s not the phone that’ll challenge the likes of Apple and Samsung.


  • It’s stylishly different
  • BlackBerry made Android great again
  • The camera is astounding for a BlackBerry


  • The large battery is rubbish
  • Build quality is extremely poor
  • The keyboard is a pointless inclusion

Verdict: Three things can be said about the PRIV: it’s overpriced, over-engineered and over-reaching. Granted, it does a hell of a lot of things right — from the screen to the total reworking of Android — but it falls short in terms of practicality and value for money. It’s a brave leap from a company not afraid to stay true to its roots, but it falls short in execution. If you’re looking to drop R14 000 on an Android flagship, look elsewhere.

Score: 6.5/10

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