Blackberry KEYone phone: Full, in-depth review

So Blackberry just made one of the best Android smartphones ever

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BlackBerry KEYone phone
  • BlackBerry KEYone phone
  • BlackBerry KEYone phone
  • BlackBerry KEYone phone
  • Expert Rating

    5.00 / 5

Pros

  • Accurate keyboard
  • Good battery
  • Solidly built
  • Great cameras
  • Fast
  • Good value

Cons

  • Small screen

Bottom Line

Blackberry just made one of the best all-round Android phones we've ever seen. Who knew? If your smartphone usage leans more towards text than multimedia, you should check this out.

Would you buy this?

In the world of flagship Android smartphones, there are some great choices including the Samsung Galaxy S8, HTC U11 and Huawei P10 Plus. But the differences between them are very small and the innovations that make each one great are subtle and don’t affect usability too much. Still, we had our doubts when a new device rolled up which, at a glance, looked like a regular Android phone with a Blackberry keyboard bolted on to the bottom. We were cynical. Was this a last dying gasp from a company whose platform and hardware had become irrelevant? 

Absolutely not.

Key specs

4.5in, 1080 x 1620 (422ppi) LCD screen, 32GB/3GB, 2GHz Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 CPU, Adreno 506 GPU, 12MP rear and 8MP front cameras, full QWERTY ‘multitouch’ keyboard, microSD, USB-C, Android 7.1, 3505mAh battery, 154 x 76 x 8mm, 180g. Full specs here.

Design and handling

The KEYone looks smart and businesslike with its brushed-aluminium chassis and soft, textured, rear grip. It’s been designed and built to last and it looks and feels like those efforts have paid off – this is the brick to its shiny-glass window-like competitors. At 180g it’s not light but it feels more solid than heavy. The screen is Gorilla Glass 4 and we’re assured that it will survive drops and rough usage but we couldn’t verify this. It’s certainly the most robust phone we’ve tested since the Moto X Force, though.

It's not formally ruggedised but it's certainly one of the most robust phones we've tested in a long while.
It's not formally ruggedised but it's certainly one of the most robust phones we've tested in a long while.
The 'soft grip' rubberised back contrasts with the brushed aluminium case. It's both strong and looks good.
The 'soft grip' rubberised back contrasts with the brushed aluminium case. It's both strong and looks good.

The main feature is, of course, the full QWERTY keyboard. While these have never been ideal for everyone, the tiny, angular keys built up an army of users, who loved writing more-than-text-messages on them, for good reason. We disabled the on-screen virtual keyboard quickly and, frankly, never looked back. For whatever reason, we’ve found our on-screen typing has been getting more and more inaccurate in recent months – whether it’s a change by Android or we’ve got more slack. Either way, switching to the physical keyboard made our typing MUCH more accurate.

USB-C at the bottom and a headphone jack (with noise cancelling mic) at the top.
USB-C at the bottom and a headphone jack (with noise cancelling mic) at the top.
The keyboard will afford MUCH more accurate typing for some people. It also acts as a trackpad and the space bar is a (very good) fingerprint reader.
The keyboard will afford MUCH more accurate typing for some people. It also acts as a trackpad and the space bar is a (very good) fingerprint reader.

There are neat shortcuts too. As each key is touch sensitive, the otherwise-firm keyboard can act as a trackpad mouse for scrolling around pages. If you leave the virtual keyboard turned on, suggested autocomplete words can appear that you can ‘flick’ to the screen, if you’re so inclined. You can also set up 52 key-combos to launch favourite apps or contacts.

The screen is only 4.5-inches which (in tandem with the keyboard) is more suited to productivity tasks than multimedia. It's still bright and vibrant, though.
The screen is only 4.5-inches which (in tandem with the keyboard) is more suited to productivity tasks than multimedia. It's still bright and vibrant, though.

The space bar doubles as a very fast-and-responsive fingerprint reader too.  It's convenient and a great use of space.

The screen itself is only 4.5-inches diagonal. Not having an onscreen keyboard negates much of the lost space when interacting, but for multimedia tasks such as watching videos and editing photos, it’s naturally a bit small. Still, it gets bright and colours are vibrant.

The power button is on the left at the top while the volume rocker is on the right. Below this is a customiseable ‘Convenience Key’ which can be used as a shortcut for a common task or app.

Software

One of the stalwart Blackberry features is Blackberry Hub which gathers all messages including SMS, emails, social media into one place. It’s not essential but we found ourselves using it a great deal.

However, the main attraction of Blackberry software is security. While it’s harder for users to understand the benefits of tying proprietary security keys into the phone’s processor, this does make the phone dramatically more secure than other Android devices – especially if it gets lost. This could well turn the heads of corporates wanting to dish out secure company phones again. Having the Blackberry Workspaces ‘shared files’ ability will be attractive for this reason too, although it must be mentioned that rival platforms have been offering competitor software to these services for some time now.

There’s also Blackberry’s DTEK monitoring app which constantly checks for security issues on the phone, whether its having the latest updates or identifying illicit applications accessing messages, camera or microphone – something those who are familiar with Edward Snowden’s  CIA revelations may take interest in.

Blackberry DTEK constantly monitors the device for any security leaks.
Blackberry DTEK constantly monitors the device for any security leaks.

Blackberry Messenger (BBM) is back which may sell the phone on its own thanks to being one of the most secure and widely-used messaging services around. Add Blackberry Password Manager to the mix and the potential to fend off (top-level) hackers is enhanced considerably compared to other smartphones. It's overkill for most consumers who can use multiple third-party apps, but they're not as secure as this.

Beyond the proprietary Blackberry features, everything runs on a native-looking Android 7.1 (latest version) operating system and this includes the excellent Google Assistant.

Performance

The KEYone doesn’t use the latest and greatest processor and GPU but it does use the latest mid-range chips. Nonetheless, under general use, everything opens and operates as instantly as we’d hope from a top-end phone. We also found that playing games like Pokemon Go, Angry Birds and Asphalt 8 ran perfectly smoothly. We had no gripes with performance at any stage.

Audio features

As with many phones, the main (multimedia) speaker is a solitary unit at the base of the device. It doesn’t get overly loud but it’s not quiet. For music it delivers a surprising amount of punch (for a phone) and while bass is (expectedly) absent it doesn’t sound tinny. For conference calls, the same applies – things are clear enough but volume might be an issue for some in large/noisy environments.

The device also offers a noise cancelling feature through having a microphone linked to the audio jack. It’s not as effective as dedicated noise cancelling headphones but offers a potential improvement to all other dumb headphones in return.

Blackberry KEYone camera

Despite the work focus of the KEYone the fact is that the main camera is seriously impressive. It handles brilliantly – focusing instantly and accurately almost all of the time. You can up the focusing accuracy in the settings by forcing it to check before shooting but we didn't need this in any lighting. Another boon is how quick accessing the camera is when double-tapping the power button. It opens up very quickly and we caught many low-notice shots because of this.

A quick landscape shot illustrated accurate exposure, good colours, sharp detail and a good dynamic range with details being retained in light and dark areas.
A quick landscape shot illustrated accurate exposure, good colours, sharp detail and a good dynamic range with details being retained in light and dark areas.
We loved that we could grab the phone, double click the power button and take a rapid snapshot and that it would come out sharp and vibrant almost every time.
We loved that we could grab the phone, double click the power button and take a rapid snapshot and that it would come out sharp and vibrant almost every time.
Kids in motion were usually captured in sharp focus.
Kids in motion were usually captured in sharp focus.

Colours were natural-yet-vibrant and even food shots looked good without a filter.

A foody shot illustrated vibrant yet natural colours without any filter or special Food Mode.
A foody shot illustrated vibrant yet natural colours without any filter or special Food Mode.

It performed impressively in low light and the dark – noticeable grain would appear in some instances but the photos were still very usable. The KEYone rivals the best in the business here: the Samsung Galaxy S8, LG G6 and Pixel XL.

Sure there's some grain here, but this shot was captured in the dark.
Sure there's some grain here, but this shot was captured in the dark.
A quick snapshot with no flash, in the dark with a heavily back-lit scene, still managed to capture detail in the foreground and keep things relatively sharp. Very impressive.
A quick snapshot with no flash, in the dark with a heavily back-lit scene, still managed to capture detail in the foreground and keep things relatively sharp. Very impressive.
In low light with kids moving round we still managed to get usable shots more often than not.
In low light with kids moving round we still managed to get usable shots more often than not.

In tricky lighting conditions it performed well and even managed complex fill-in flash shots with aplomb.

Even in very bright light the KEYone maintained correct exposure with rapid focus and didn't lose significant detail in highlights.
Even in very bright light the KEYone maintained correct exposure with rapid focus and didn't lose significant detail in highlights.

The only weak point was with panoramas where Google’s ‘join the spots’ system was used and we kept seeing wonky horizons. But this is a very minor point.

The only camera failing was Panorama Mode which sucked at stitching.
The only camera failing was Panorama Mode which sucked at stitching.

The eight-megapixel selfie camera captured sharp and well-exposed shots even in modest light – which is something some phones have been struggling with lately.

Selfies were sharp and well exposed most of the time - even in middling light.
Selfies were sharp and well exposed most of the time - even in middling light.

There are many video settings including 4K (30fps and 24fps) plus 1080p (60fps and 30fps). At 1080p 30fps additional electronic image stabilisation can be used however, the smooth quality of 1080p 60fps was much better. The 4K video quality was also very good – this can be jerky and juddery on many phones but was sharp and detailed on the KEYone. Audio was recorded naturally too.

The 4K video quality was impressively sharp and usable.
The 4K video quality was impressively sharp and usable.

All in all, this is one of the best all-round camera phones we’ve used. We weren’t expecting that.

Next: Battery Life and Conclusion

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