image

Smartphones

First Android smartphone puts BlackBerry back in the game

The Priv ticks all the boxes but its hefty price makes it hard to compete with cheaper devices or more popular brands

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 7:00pm

It was never going to be as popular as the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, or Apple iPhone 6s and 6s Plus or the LG V10, but BlackBerry’s latest release, Priv, is turning a few heads not least because it is the Canadian mobile phone maker’s first Android smartphone.

It’s probably the best decision the Waterloo-based company could have made after some seriously bad ones in recent years. First it did away with its physical keyboard (with the Z10), a feature that had won BlackBerry legions of business users; and when it decided to bring that back (with the Q10), it left out the popular trackpad. Its operating system, OS 10 (which replaced the OS 7), is notoriously counter-intuitive and leaves a lot to be desired.

With the Priv, the company has finally come up with something that people might actually want: a smartphone that has both a physical keyboard running on a popular OS with a proper app store (you can finally install Instagram on this BlackBerry via Google Play).

Hong Kong is the first market in Asia to get the Priv after it was released in North America earlier this month. Will this marriage between BlackBerry and Android reverse the fortunes of the ailing company? Many in the industry believe this is its last ditch attempt to come up with something that works.

Hardware

Measuring 147 x 77.2 x 9.4 mm and weighing 192 grams, the Priv feels solid but not bulky in the hand. The 5.4-inch dual-curve OLED screen with a 2560x1440 pixel resolution is sharp, although the more angular build of the phone makes it less flashy (and sexy) than the curvy Samsung Galaxy S6 edge/ edge+.

The compact QWERTY keyboard slides out from the bottom smoothly but the keys are a little cramped so users with big thumbs beware. But simple typos can be corrected with a quick swipe of the thumb. The keyboard also acts as a trackpad, which leans towards being too sensitive.

One glaring design flaw is positioning “0” and voice command/recognition right next to one another, practically on the same key button. Getting the “speak now” prompt can be extremely irritating.

The phone is easy to hold when typing on the physical keyboard and the weight is evenly distributed so there is no tilting towards the top of the screen.

Features

The Priv comes with Android 5.1.1 and will receive upgrades just like other phones running on this OS. But since BlackBerry’s primary market is still business users – and in light of last year’s so-called “Sony-gate” when Sony Pictures executives reportedly went back to their old BlackBerry models after the company’s archived emails and documents were hacked and leaked – much emphasis is being placed on its security and privacy features.

But the question is whether Android will be able to deliver the same level of security as BlackBerry’s own OS. The jury is still out on this but the company has already developed an app called DTEK, which monitors application access and alerts users on any potential security breach, among other security features.

The BlackBerry Hub (from OS 10), which consolidates all incoming emails into one inbox, returns with greater flexibility to organise and prioritise.

Camera

BlackBerry handsets are not known for taking great photos (when compared with Sony and the iPhone) but having a “Schneider-Kreuznach-certified” 18-megapixel camera, just like its “natural sound” system, is a bonus.

Battery life

This is one area the Priv performs particularly well. Packing in a whopping 3410mAh battery, this really is a workhorse and can easily see users through a day with heavy usage.

Gaming

With a 5.4-inch screen, it’s a waste not to use the handset as a hand-held game console. We downloaded Marvel Future Fight for testing and the colours are vibrant, and the game runs smoothly without any lag.

Conclusion

This is the handset BlackBerry should have released two years ago. Instead, it released the Classic a year ago, which, to me, is a downgrade from the BlackBerry Bold 9900. Even making a simple call is a hassle. So the new Priv is a welcome upgrade.

Loyal BlackBerry users who have also been using a second Android phone (for their apps) can finally consolidate everything onto just one handset. They can transfer data from the old to new phone via an app called content transfer.

Priv’s retail price is HK$6,488, putting it on par with other flagship smartphones on the market. While the Priv may win back some former BlackBerry users, the hefty price tag makes it harder to compete with other Android phones that are either cheaper or made by more popular brands.