Written in accordance with our Reddit-inspired review policy.
Well, this has been a long time coming, hasn’t it? Tech commentators have been urging beleaguered old BlackBerry to move to the Android platform for years and years, but they’ve doggedly stuck by their own operating system – until now.
When we first glimpsed the Priv last February (yep, over a year ago), it was indeed running BlackBerry 10. But BB have finally made the jump, and released the phone late last year running Android Lollipop. It’s a modified version, obviously (and yes, BBM is in there), but the security ethos and design language is pure BlackBerry. We’ve been using the Priv day-in, day-out for over a month now, and we’re ready to call it. Is the £550 Blandroid worth the money? Should you switch from a more experienced Android manufacturer? Why does the box say both Privilege and Privacy? Read on for all the answers in our in-depth BlackBerry Priv review.*
*Actually we have no idea why they didn’t just go for ‘privacy’. If they were going to pick ‘privilege’, they could at least have done an ad saying “Check your Priv.”
1. The handset
- 147mm x 77.2mm x 9.4mm
- Black. Just black. BlackBerry Black if you like.
This is a very classy-looking phone. It feels well-built, it has a pleasantly rubbery non-slip finish to the back, a pattern that reminds us of carbon fibre and the overall put-together, businessy feel of a BlackBerry.
It’s surprisingly thin given the battery size, and even more impressively, the classic BB physical keyboard tucked away inside. The screen slides up to reveal the QWERTY keys in a movement that feels smooth and satisfying, and while that does make the whole phone really tall in your hand, it’s still a feat of engineering to fit that keyboard and release mechanism in a phone this svelte.
The silver accents and BlackBerry branding make for overall a great-looking phone that aligns well with the design history of the company. I’ve seen it get admiring/curious glances in public, and I have to say I’m surprised by how much brand equity BlackBerry still has. No one thinks they’re influenced by branding, but pulling out a BlackBerry in a business meeting genuinely does seem to engender respect in a way that other phone brands don’t. Clearly, BB have a lot of heritage and are still well-considered, so if they can keep making good Androids, their future looks bright. They pretty much own the “business phone” niche – even now – and that’s a huge market.
As with all BlackBerry phones, the Priv has a real emphasis on security (there’s that PRIVacy thing again), but that mostly comes out in the software, with additions like security screening app DTEK. Strangely, despite this phone costing £550ish and claiming to be security-conscious, it has no fingerprint sensor. When you consider that Honor managed to include one on the 5X for £190, that’s pretty poor and its absence is sorely felt when you’re used to having one.
As a very poor substitute, BB have added their own unlock mechanism to Android in addition to the pattern and PIN options. It involves choosing a number and a particular part of a picture, and dragging that number to that place to unlock. It’s buggy as hell, and not remotely secure – the first time someone saw me do it, he said “you moved the 7 to the basket.” Pattern and PIN aren’t foolproof but I’ve never had that happen before. Sadly, humans are fallible and usually aren’t being as sneaky as they think they are – just ask Ashley Madison users.
By far the best thing about the Priv handset is the capacitive trackpad on the keyboard. Check this out:
Every phone needs a show-off-in-the-pub feature, and this is the Priv’s. It’s genuinely useful (I use it constantly for Twitter) and makes up for the fact that I just can’t use the keyboard. I tried, I really did. I have smaller than average fingers and I still can’t type on this. I don’t know if it’s because my muscle memory’s moved on from T9 typing days, or that it just breaks my brain trying to use a touchscreen and physical keys at the same time (I find myself lightly tapping the keys as if they were touch-enabled, or thwacking the software buttons), but I can’t make it work. Still, I’m sure people used to BlackBerry phones will love it.
2. The speakers
The Priv’s speaker grille runs along the bottom edge of the phone, below the keyboard. Front-facing speakers are always my placement of choice, since you don’t muffle them when you hold the phone or put it face-up on a surface.
These put out loud, decent-quality sound – perfectly good for listening to some 90s cheese on a Friday afternoon. Avoid anything bassy, though: artists like Muse and Royal Blood sound noisy and thin on this speaker, especially at higher volumes.
The headphone jack’s on the bottom right. I prefer them on the top edge so I don’t have to put my phone in my pocket upside down (and also can use selfie lights or LED flashes for photography), but not everyone feels the same way. The bottom edge also houses the USB port, which is the old style type B, not C.
The Priv has a nice extra feature in that in between the volume buttons on the right is a hardware mute key. I’ve found this surprisingly useful – one of those things you didn’t know you wanted until it’s there. It’s very useful for stopping your music when someone speaks to you, but annoyingly pressing it when you’re not listening to anything doesn’t put the phone on silent. It really should.
As for the other buttons, the top volume key lines up nicely with the power button on the left edge, and you’ll find the sim and microSD trays on the top.
3. The screen
- Quad HD (2560 x 1440, 540 pixels per inch)
- Dual-curved AMOLED
- Gorilla Glass 4
Bit of a curveball, this. BlackBerry have taken a page out of Samsung’s playbook and put a beautiful, quad-HD double-curved display on the Priv. It’s big, bright, and very beautiful – but in my opinion, doesn’t quite match up to the ones Samsung is using on the S6 and S7 Edge. It’s also not as curved, with the screen itself extending considerably less far towards the curved edge than the glass does. The screen itself is a polymer (plastic) dealie like we saw on the LG G Flex 2, but Gorilla Glass 4 over the top should ensure you don’t end up with a crackberry.
The brightest setting could stand to be a little brighter for sunny days (I assume – we haven’t had one for months), but unlike the Honor 5X, the darkest setting does indeed go really dark for night-time reading and stealth browsing.
In terms of viewing angles, there’s no screen dimming from any angle and the picture appears pin-sharp. It even has some of the 3D cushioning effect we saw on the S6 Edge Plus, though not to quite the same degree.
Again in contrast to the Samsung, we did notice some loss of responsiveness on the curved edges of the screen. Tapping a button that happens to have landed on the rounded bit (most websites and apps aren’t designed for curved screens, after all) often results in nothing. It’s a minor frustration, but noticeable.
Still, BlackBerry have actually come up with a cool use for their curved edge, which Samsung still haven’t nailed. In addition to all the app shortcuts and suchlike, BB’s phone edge lights up in a really cool way when you put it on charge. It uses AMOLED’s ability to light up only the pixels you want to give you this real time charging indicator:
It’s red when battery is low, yellow in the middle, then green. But the really cool thing about this – and what really impressed me when I first saw it – is that it’s tied to the light sensor, so when you have the phone on charge on your bedside table and you turn the light out, the indicator instantly disappears. Bravo, BlackBerry. Even the always-on display on the Galaxy S7 doesn’t have this functionality.
4. The hardware
- Snapdragon 808 hexa-core processor (2 x 1.8 and 4 x 1.44 GHz)
- Adreno 408 GPU (600 MHz)
- 3GB RAM
Given those specs above, hardware performance on this phone is not at all what I expected. I’ve got very, very frustrated with it at times. Intensive activity results in significant heating to the back panel of the phone, and multi-tasking can cause frustrating hangs. For instance, while listening to a Spotify track via Bluetooth, trying to open Citymapper cut the music for a good three seconds. Yes, the Spotify Android app is a beast, but I don’t get that kind of interruption on other flagships.
I’ve also spent far too long looking at black or white screens while the phone tries to load or switch to another app, and I’ve had several freezes in a month or so of use. None so bad that I had to do a hard reset, but enough to make the phone unusable for a few seconds, and we all know how annoying that is.
That said, for the majority of everyday use the phone performs as you’d expect from a flagship – but I’ve come to realise I can’t push it too hard without problems.
5. The software
- Android 5.1.1 Lollipop
It’s no surprise that this phone doesn’t run the latest version of Android. For a start, the Priv’s been in the works since at least this time last year (it was first shown in the flesh at Mobile World Congress 2015, when the Samsung Galaxy S6 was launched – which is aeons in tech time), and it’s got such a significant BlackBerry overlay that the version doesn’t matter nearly as much as it would with near-stock.
The phone’s unsurprisingly rammed with BlackBerry software tweaks and extras – a compromise for not running BlackBerry 10, and completely fair enough. After all, if you don’t want BlackBerry stuff on your Android, don’t buy literally the only BlackBerry Android.
Software additions include the inevitable BBM, BlackBerry Hub (a central communication platform), the actually-very-useful Content Transfer app for getting your stuff off your old phone, Device Search, Password Keeper, BB’s DTEK data security app and Yahoo! Finance, because BlackBerry love aligning themselves with also-ran tech brands, like when they added the doomed Amazon Fire Phone’s app store to the Passport last year.
Some of the tweaks BlackBerry have made to Android are a bit vexing: there’s no clock on the lock screen (literally everyone uses this to check the time) and there’s no play/pause widget when you’re listening to music, either. Despite the AMOLED screen, there’s also no always-on display option like on the newer S7 or LG G5, though there is ambient display (which wakes the screen to show notifications in black and white, like on the Nexus 6P). Still, there’s extra functionality: the ability to launch apps from particular keys on the physical keyboard from the home screen (eg. click S to launch Snapchat – like anyone with a BlackBerry uses Snapchat), motion and swipe gestures, and all the security functions.
As with the handset design, the software experience feels like an Android phone made by BlackBerry, which is exactly as it should be.
I have run into one vexing software issue on the Priv though: it constantly disconnects from – or refuses to connect to – WiFi. I can’t find a reason for this, and I’ve tried all the usual Android fixes. A quick Google reveals I’m far from alone, and if I didn’t have such a generous data plan (thanks Three All You Can Eat), I would be raging about this. It’s not good enough in 2016.
6. The storage
- 32GB storage
- MicroSD slot
It’s always good to see expandable storage on a phone, and the Priv’s slot will take a card up to 200GB. It’s a useful way of future-proofing your new phone, so we’re glad they’ve included it. In fairness, even Samsung’s seen the error of their ways on that score – it’s just Apple we’re waiting for, really.
7. The selfie camera
- 2MP (fixed focus)
- HD video recording (720p)
- Panoramic selfie
Well, this is disappointing. 2MP? Fixed focus? Is it 2012? Is this a £100 phone? No? Then what the hell, BlackBerry?
OK, we can appreciate that their target audience for this phone probably doesn’t intersect much with the selfie-addicted millennial, but 2MP is pitiful, and this is a pricey handset.
Unsurprisingly, selfies often come out looking more like impressionist paintings than high-tech self-portraits. That’ll be strike two for using it with Snapchat, then.
BlackBerry Priv selfie camera samples:
As you can see, the camera is easily overwhelmed by light:
But in darker conditions it’s better. We don’t say that often.
The selfie cam can at least film videos in HD (720p). But watch out for that fixed focus.
8. The main camera
- 18 MP
- f/2.2, OIS, dual-tone LED flash
- 4K video recording (60fps)
Much better than the selfie cam. This is where the budget’s been spent, clearly. That said, there’s nothing spectacular about the performance of this camera: it’s what I’d expect from a £250ish Android. It handles detail, colour and light variations OK, but there’s nothing to write home about, and it also doesn’t come with a double-tap camera launch key like many phones – which is odd given that it has so many hardware buttons.
There are very few extras in the native camera app (which always makes me wonder why they built their own instead of using Google Camera) – just some filters – and annoyingly switching between photo and video is more than one tap, which can lead to lost capture opportunities. Overall, this gets a “meh.”
BlackBerry Priv camera samples:
9. Battery life
- No wireless charging
- Fast charging (Quick Charge 2.0, although the cable’s not included)
More bad news. Despite having a humongonormous battery capacity, as with the S6 Edge Plus the screen just drains the life out of it. This phone never lasts me anywhere near a full day. I use my phone a lot, so you might get more mileage, but I’ve had to be extra-vigilant about topping up my portable power pack since I started using this handset. It’s constantly on life support, like – again – the S6 Edge Plus, but at least that had wireless charging.
I’ve checked the settings to make sure there’s not some rogue app or error killing the battery, but the screen’s right there at the top of the drain list where it should be. Again, many Priv users say the same thing, so I don’t think it’s a fault with my handset. This is probably the biggest downside to this phone for me – it has the phone equivalent of narcolepsy. You pick it up expecting at least half a charge and it’s closing its eyes. Dammit, Priv, how are super-important Business Persons like me supposed to get through our meetings?
An hour’s screen-on time at max brightness will cost you 15% of your charge. For comparison, the Nexus 6P only lost 12%, but the OnePlus Two and S6 Edge Plus lost 20% in the same test, so it’s not the worst out there for screen drain.
That said, if you’re buying this phone, buy a high-capacity power pack at the same time.
10. UK price and availability
The BlackBerry Priv is available now, either directly from the BlackBerry Store for £559, or from vendors including Carphone Warehouse, EE and Vodafone. Contracts start at £49 a month, which makes this a pricey proposition – but it seems squarely aimed at corporations rather than individuals, and they have budgets for miles. Especially when it comes to the trustworthy BlackBerry name and its business-focused security software.
This in many ways is BB’s version of the S6 Edge Plus. It’s a larger handset with a stunning double-curved screen, high-end specs and a slightly painful price. However, while BlackBerry match Samsung for (lack of) battery stamina, they can’t compete on camera quality. Don’t buy this phone if you intend to ever take a selfie.
Still, while the Edge line is aimed at consumers, BlackBerry are as ever looking at the business end of the market (er, so to speak) and this fits beautifully there. It’s a classy, premium, security-focused device with the legendary BB QWERTY and some genuinely useful additions (that battery indicator is fantastic and should be on every phone ever made).
It falls down on performance and we’re surprised to see no fingerprint sensor at this price, but overall this is a great first Android from BlackBerry. We just wish they’d made it three years ago.