Review: TCL’s BlackBerry KeyOne - ‘workhorse’ battery life makes up for its small screen and keyboard

With long battery life and up to 2TB of memory, the KeyOne is a good choice for those needing to work long hours on their phone, but stay away if you’re after a water-resistant, dual-SIM device with premium multimedia features

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 June, 2017, 7:46am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 June, 2017, 7:46am

Chinese smartphone maker TCL released the BlackBerry KeyOne in Hong Kong this month without much fanfare. There was no official announcement and barely any publicity.

The Android phone – which comes with a physical QWERTY keyboard — is also not widely available in Hong Kong. This is surprising, given that the KeyOne created so much buzz abroad after its debut at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. I got my unit from the United Kingdom, where it was first launched in May, and this review is based on the BBB100-2 version (as opposed to the BBB100-1 for this region).

Design and hardware

Compared with the BlackBerry Priv, which has a slide-out QWERTY keyboard and more rubbery body, the KeyOne feels far more solid, with its round aluminium edges and smooth glass front. Despite being 9.4mm thick, the same as the Priv, it is 12 grams lighter, thus giving the impression that it’s a less bulky handset.

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By today’s standards, the KeyOne 4.5-inch LCD screen is considered small, but I find reading e-mails, surfing the internet and watching videos on it acceptable. Colours are sharp and clear, and stay so under direct sunlight. The physical keyboard is smaller than that on the Priv, and my first impressions of it were not great. Anyone with big thumbs or long nails will have trouble typing. But I like how it doubles up as a track pad.

The volume rockers are on the right, along with a SIM card/memory card slot and customisable shortcuts key. On the left is the power button. The 3.5mm headphone jack and front camera (8 megapixels) are on the top of the handset, while the fingerprint sensor is where the space bar is on the bottom of the keyboard.

With a width of 72.5mm, the phone sits comfortably in the palm of your hand. It has one USB Type-C port.

There have been reports that its screen has not been glued on properly, meaning it is prone to falling off, and that its letter keys feel fragile, but I have had neither of these issues with my unit.

Software and features

The KeyOne runs on Android Nougat 7.1.1 and the mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor. Like all BlackBerry-branded phones released over the past year, this model comes with the DTEK app, which monitors and controls the level of security on the phone. Except for one glitch I experienced on the Priv last year (when my device’s security status suddenly dropped to “poor” for no reason), the app has been reliable and does what it promises to do.

Tech geeks are quick to point out that the rear camera uses the same 12-megapixel Sony IMX378 sensor as the Google Pixel. Images taken by the KeyOne are better than those taken with other BlackBerry models I’ve used – colours are shaper, though they also tend to be a bit dark, and images clearer. A bonus perhaps, as most BlackBerry users will not be buying this phone for its camera capabilities.

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Those who buy the KeyOne are after one feature: its keyboard. Despite first impressions – gone are the sculpted keys, which make the buttons feel more cramped – the keyboard is robust. Thanks to predictive text, typing errors are rare. Since it also acts as a track pad, the glossy surface makes sliding and swiping easier. There is also an option to call up a virtual keyboard.

For those who write Chinese (traditional or simplified), the European version comes with Hong Kong stroke input; however, a Google app is needed for handwriting input. This is one of the major drawbacks of KeyOne. In order to switch from keyboard to handwriting input, you’ll need to go to settings, look for “Language & input”, change your current keyboard to handwriting input, then activate the virtual keyboard tab. It’s just not intuitive at all. I opt to use the voice input, which is faster and surprisingly accurate.

Security updates occur on a monthly basis, giving the BlackBerry brand an edge on the competition.

Performance and battery life

Despite it not having top specs, the Snapdragon 625 processor works just fine; there have been no noticeable lags in the KeyOne’s operations, even when I have several apps running simultaneously. More importantly, unlike the Priv (which is on the more powerful Snapdragon 808), it doesn’t heat up easily.

Packed with a 3,505 mAh battery, one charge comfortably lasts me two days. Yes, I’d trade the sculpted keys (which I will miss) for longer battery life.

Connectivity and call quality are good, though be warned that not all local SIM cards work on non-Asian versions.

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Since giving up on the BlackBerry Bold 9900, I have had my ups (Priv) and downs (Classic) with this brand.

I had my initial doubts about the KeyOne because of its mid-range specs and smaller keyboard, but having used it for a month, I’m happy to trade in the Priv. I need a workhorse of a phone that performs for long hours without running out of power and the KeyOne is just that.

Those who need a phone that has dual SIMs, is water-resistant and has premium multimedia features will do well to look elsewhere, though.

Price: HK$4 ,988

Key specifications:

Dimensions: 149.3 x 72.5 x 9.4mm

Weight: 180g

Display: 4.5-inch, 1620 x 1080 IPS LCD

Battery: 3,505 mAh (non-removable)

OS version: Android Nougat 7.1.1 (reviewed unit)

Processor: Snapdragon 625

Cameras: Rear: 12MP auto-focus; front: 8MP fixed-focus, f2.2

Memory: 3GB RAM, 32 GB ROM with expandable memory up to 2TB

Colours: Black with silver frame