BlackBerry’s First Android Smartphone Is a Mixed Bag
The day has arrived, BlackBerry’s often rumored—and leaked—Android device, the BlackBerry Priv, is now available. It’s the company’s first smartphone to run an operating system outside of its proprietary software. Android is designed and developed by Google.
Saying there’s a lot riding on this success of this device is an understatement. BlackBerry has long struggled with its hardware division, failing to gain traction with BlackBerry 10, an OS with just 0.3% market share according to the latest IDC estimates.
Adding to the pressure, BlackBerry (BBRY) CEO John Chen has stated if the company’s hardware division isn’t profitable in 2016, he just might shut it down.
I’ve had access to the BlackBerry Priv for just over a week. My experience has consisted of moments of brilliance and moments of frustration. Does that combination lend itself to putting BlackBerry’s hardware division back on track? Let’s take a look.
The $699 Priv is equipped with a 5.4 inch “dual-curved” display. The screen slides up, revealing BlackBerry’s patented physical keyboard that doubles as a trackpad for scrolling and editing text, though it takes practice to master.
Powering the device is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 processor, 3 gigabytes of memory, and 32 gigabytes of storage space (expandable up to 2 terabytes via microSD card). BlackBerry put a respectable 3,410 milliamp-hour battery inside the Priv, which is enough to get through a day’s worth of use. The rear camera boasts 18 megapixels, featuring optical image stabilization, and 4K video capture. The front-facing camera is 2 megapixels.
Inside the box you’ll find the device itself, a microUSB cable, a wall charger, and a pair of BlackBerry ear buds.
The first thing I noticed after unboxing the Priv was how easy it is to hold in one hand. The curved screen, combined with the TensileKnit material used on the back of the device make it easier for your fingers to wrap around and grip the device. I found the curved display on Samsung’s Galaxy S6 Edge+ to offer the same benefit, despite its metal frame.
Crafting the BlackBerry experience
The Priv arrives at a time when Android manufacturers are cutting back on the amount of software customizations, with most vendors touting a “vanilla” or “pure” Android experience on their latest devices. Moving away from a heavily customized version of Android helps eliminate performance issues, and shortens the amount of time it takes to implement software updates released by Google.
BlackBerry didn’t take the same approach with the Priv, instead opting to tailor the Android experience to mimic the overall feature set found in BlackBerry 10. As a result, the Priv is often slowed down when it’s tasked with performing tasks specific to BlackBerry’s customizations, along with running the core Android OS.
One of the more notable features found on the Priv is BlackBerry’s message management tool, BlackBerry Hub. The Hub acts as a single location for users to manage messages from email accounts, BlackBerry Messenger, social networks, call logs, and text messages.
When I first began using the Hub in BlackBerry 10’s infancy, I found it to be an overwhelming experience. Opening an app and having to face every single message awaiting my attention, regardless of where it came from was just too much. But the longer I used it, the more I appreciated the ability to create, edit, and reply to messages ranging from my work email to my personal Facebook account without having to jump between respective apps.
Unfortunately, BlackBerry’s attempt to bring this experience to Android needs more work. The same overall look and feel of your one-stop inbox is present, but it suffers from slow performance. For example, when scrolling, my message list randomly stutters, stopping for a brief moment before it jumps further down the list. Opening a notification, say from Facebook, has a pronounced delay before I can fully view its contents. I asked BlackBerry about this specific issue and was told an upcoming software update should address it.
The Hub application has received several updates over the past week, improving overall performance, but there’s still some work to be done.
The camera app also suffers from a pronounced delay between when the shutter button is pressed and when the photo is actually captured. This delay makes it extremely difficult to take photos of anything that’s not absolutely still, such as kids or pets.
Another note about the camera: Photos captured with the Priv have a tendency to be slightly overexposed and lacking in detail when compared to images captured with an iPhone 6S.
The keyboard conundrum
When using the Priv, you can slide the screen up to reveal a physical keyboard. Before using the Priv, I fully expected the result of sliding the screen up, thus altering its center of gravity, would lead to an unbalanced, awkward experience. However, that hasn’t been the case. I’ve found myself switching between the physical and software keyboard at will, without having to adjust my grip at all.
But I did have to adjust my overall approach to typing. A software keyboard is forgiving, whereas a physical keyboard requires a level of precision. And the physical keyboard’s ability to act as a trackpad further complicates the mixture. Lightly touching the keyboard with a finger or thumb allows you to scroll through a long email, or your Twitter feed with a simple gesture. It’s something I had to become mindful of, as I would find myself resting my fingers on the keyboard while reading a message, inadvertently causing the screen’s content to move.
An Android device at its core
Because the Priv is an Android device, BlackBerry no longer needs to entice developers to support its platform. Google’s own services and apps come preinstalled on the device, meaning users can navigate with Google Maps, use Gmail instead of the Hub, and download any game or application available in the Play Store.
Furthermore, BlackBerry can update the device’s core applications at any time using Google’s Play Store, instead of relying on OS updates as is the case with BlackBerry 10. As I just mentioned, during my time with the Priv I received multiple updates to the Hub, along with other apps such the BlackBerry Keyboard, BlackBerry Camera, and the BlackBerry Calendar. Having the ability to directly update core apps on a user’s device is invaluable for a new platform such as this, and one I’ve already seen the impact of.
Security is another factor BlackBerry has to take into consideration with its first Android device. The company promised it wouldn’t release an Android device unless it could secure the platform. BlackBerry states it secured Android using a combination of methods, each one checking and rechecking the device each time you turn it on, as well as constantly monitoring for security threats. I’ll leave it to security experts to determine just how successful the company was in its efforts.
Earlier this week the company announced it would issue monthly security updates to devices purchased directly from BlackBerry. For devices purchased through a carrier, BlackBerry is prepared to bypass carrier approval to issue critical security updates in the instance an exploit is actively being targeted. Carriers typically require software updates to go through a review process, often leading to delayed updates and extending the amount of time it takes for software updates to be released. In other words, if you want to ensure you receive monthly security updates on your Priv, you shouldn’t buy it from a carrier.
Is Android BlackBerry’s future?
The Priv makes a strong case for BlackBerry to continue making smartphones. The handset provides an experience that will be familiar to BlackBerry loyalists, yet also includes the flexibility and app catalog BlackBerry detractors have pointed out as flaws in the company’s previous smartphone approach.
Though it’s off to a promising start, the company has work left to do when it comes to the device’s overall performance. Starting with the BlackBerry Hub, a critical piece of the BlackBerry experience on Android.
But even after those issues are smoothed out, to someone looking for an Android device, I would still find it hard to recommend the device over either of Google’s Nexus devices. The Priv is priced far too high to remain competitive in today’s Android market, though BlackBerry assured me the Priv is worth $699 and that preorders had surpassed all expectations.
Still, I have to give credit to BlackBerry. For years, the market has begged the company to do something different. With the Priv, it’s done just that. The company stepped outside of its comfort zone and adapted. It’s an undeniably bold move (pardon the pun). But is it enough to save BlackBerry’s hardware division? Only time will tell.
Is Android a secure platform for Blackberry? Learn more about one of the security challenges it faces in this Fortune video: