BlackBerry Priv Review

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Artsy phone
Faryaab Sheikh

BlackBerry Priv is a clear indication of a change in strategy for the Canadian company, hence the shift from its own BlackBerry OS to Google’s, massively popular, Android OS. It really wants the Priv to be a success in the mobile industry, both, in terms of sales figures and as a smartphone on its own as well. But how is the company exactly planning to do so, considering there are countless Android-based smartphones from a variety of different manufacturers out there in the market right now?

Well, it’s betting on features like enhanced security, BlackBerry suite of applications and services, and a physical keyboard which should convince users into buying its latest flagship smartphone. But do these characteristics justify the Priv’s steep price of $700? Let’s find out, shall we?

Oh, and if you were wondering, Priv stands for Privacy and Privilege — just wanted to make you guys aware of that.

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Design and build quality

You’ll definitely find the BlackBerry Priv’s design a bit unique, as it’s a portrait slider, rather than the usual slab. But some of you, who are more into technology than others, will find it slightly familiar looking, and that’s because Dell’s Venue Pro featured a very similar design language. Nevertheless, that device was launched way back in 2010, ran Windows Phone 7, and wasn’t a big seller.

Nowadays, physical keyboards on smartphones are like unicorns, and there’s slim to no chance of you stumbling across a person who has a smartphone with such an exclusive design. At first glance, there’s no way one can tell that the Priv houses a full QWERTY keyboard underneath the Gorilla Glass 4 covered, dual-edge, curved display. It looks and feels just like any other smartphone on the market, but once you slide open the keyboard, that’s when heads turn.

I found the device to be a bit too big and heavy (192g) for my liking. And, thanks to its woven glass fiber back, it was always a mission to insert it into my jeans pocket and taking it back out again. It’s probably the grippiest material I have ever touched on a smartphone, and it was most certainly required for this type of design. In a closed state, the weight of the smartphone is well-balanced, however, once you open the keyboard, it somewhat becomes top-heavy. So, this is where the woven glass fiber back comes in handy, or else it would have been really difficult to operate the smartphone single-handedly. On the other side, the material does attract a lot of lint.

The biggest issue for me was with the build quality of the Priv. Whenever even the smallest amount of pressure was applied, it produced a squeaking sound, which was very annoying and screamed cheap build quality. Furthermore, there’s a small air gap between the actual battery and the back cover, which causes the back to flex a little (a lot like the Nexus 10’s back). I initially thought that the sliding mechanism would wobble slightly, but I was wrong; it’s actually quite sturdy, thanks to it being made out of aluminium.

Also, I’m not a big fan of BlackBerry’s power and volume buttons. They are made out of plastic with a chrome coating done on top of them, which gets scratched over time. Plus, they are almost completely flush with the sides, so there’s no way you’ll be able to press them without locating them first. As far as their location is concerned, the power button is located on the left side, while the mute and volume buttons are located on the right side of the device. They aren’t that tactile, nor provide sufficient feedback.

Oh, and that mute button can only be used to silent the device when there’s a call incoming or media is playing in the background, you can’t actually change the state of the ringtone sound to silent with it. I rarely used it, if at all. Nonetheless, it’s here, if you're used to it from previous BlackBerry devices.

On the front of the device, we have our earpiece, front-facing camera, ambient light and proximity sensors, and a multicolour notification LED. The chin of the device houses a large speaker grille, yet packs a tiny mono speaker underneath; quality isn’t that great, but it’s loud. The MicroUSB 2.0 port and headphone jack are located on the bottom, while the SIM and MicroSD card trays can be found on the top. On the back, there’s a circular camera module, which protrudes a little, with dual tone, dual-LED flash, and the BlackBerry Logo in a chrome finish.

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The BlackBerry Priv is equipped with a 5.4-inch Quad HD (2560x1440) OLED display, which is curved on both sides, and possess a pixel density of 540ppi. The actual panel is very similar to the one found on the Samsung Galaxy S6 edge, however, the curves are less significant on the Priv.

Just like Samsung, the Canadian firm too has taken advantage of the dual-edge display and enhanced it by adding additional software features. Having said that, BlackBerry’s offering is nowhere near as feature-rich as the Korean giants’. The company actually calls its edge panel the Productivity Tab, where users can glance at their latest appointment, BlackBerry Hub messages, Tasks, and favourite contacts. It's targets more towards productivity. I wish I had an option to add app shortcuts; work on it BlackBerry! Additionally, there’s this Battery edge feature, which shows the percentage of the battery on the curved edge, while the smartphone is charging. I actually quite like the feature, especially at night, I hope the company adds a tiny clock alongside the battery percentage and it would be perfect.

The display panel itself is actually pretty good, with inky blacks, bright whites, and impressive viewing angles. Despite that, it does lack the punchy colours we are used to seeing from Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays. BlackBerry does, however, allow the user to tweak the white balance and saturation of the panel.

I wasn’t too impressed with the auto-brightness system, it failed, numerous times, to optimise the brightness of the display, according to the surrounding lighting conditions. Therefore, I disabled adaptive brightness altogether and controlled the brightness manually. And outdoor performance isn't great either, you can barely see the content on your screen under direct sunlight.

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BlackBerry devices have never been really known for their camera sensors, neither will be the Priv. It packs in an 18-megapixel sensor with an aperture of f/2.2, optical-image-stabilisation, and Schneider-Kreuznach lens. It can shoot HD 720p video at 30FPS, Full HD 1080p video at both, 30 and 60FPS, and 4K 2160p video at 30FPS.

Quality-wise, it performs well in adequate lighting with a good amount of sharpness and detail, but colours come out a bit bland and the dynamic range is pretty weak too. Also, don’t expect to shoot any macro shots with the camera, it won’t be able to focus. On top of that, as soon as you decide to take a shot under low-light conditions, reverse that thought immediately — you’ll only be getting a ton of noise and artifacts in your picture; live the moment instead.

BlackBerry’s stock camera app is quite barebones, it doesn’t feature a lot of extra bells and whistles; it does have an easy-to-use interface, though. The app is also extremely slow, it takes more than a second to shoot an image (more if shooting with HDR enabled), and most of the time you’ll miss the actual moment. The lag is real.

It also comes with a number of built-in filters, HDR support, Panorama mode, and only allows you to manually adjust exposure. What’s more, the company hasn’t implemented Lollipop’s Camera2 API, which means you won’t be able to use 3rd party camera apps with manual settings. Hence, I’m afraid, you won’t be having much control over your pictures.

In addition, you won’t be taking any selfies with the Priv, as the front-facing camera is a measly 2-megapixel sensor. The quality is amazingly terrible, it would have been much better if there wasn’t a front-facing camera in the first place.

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BlackBerry’s latest flagship device runs on Android, rather than its own BlackBerry OS — reason: lack of applications. I’m, as a matter of fact, really glad that the company made the switch, Nokia didn't and it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Even though the Priv comes with Android onboard, it doesn’t ship with the latest version of the operating system — Android 6.0 Marshmallow, instead runs on Android 5.1.1 Lollipop. The company has assured me that it’s already working on the Marshmallow upgrade, and it should be rolled out in the coming months.

The actual software is very buggy, I must say. However, as this is BlackBerry’s first Android device, I’ll cut them some slack. Since the day I got my review unit, many of the issues have been fixed through software updates, so I expect rest of the bugs to be squashed in future updates as well. But do keep in mind that you’re bound to encounter a few problems here and there; as a result, don’t freak out, it’s not just your unit.

In terms of skinning Android, I like what the company has done with its version of the operating system. It has kept the look and feel of stock Android and at the same time enhanced it with extra functionality (mainly with its own services and apps).

There’s full integration of BlackBerry Hub, which I stopped using after 2 days because it taps into each and every kind of communication on your Priv, and it just becomes overwhelming with multiple notifications and messages. However, if you’re an avid BB user, you probably are used to it already and will love using it. BlackBerry Messenger also comes pre-loaded on the device. And after a day or two, the OS forces you to sign up for an account or log in to yours, or else, the notification doesn't disappear from the notification centre.

As far as customisation goes, BlackBerry’s stock launcher allows you to use 3rd party icon packs from the Play Store, access app widgets by swiping up or down on the respective app icon, assign keyboard shortcuts, and begins searching the entire device once you start typing on the home screen. Moreover, you can choose from three different layouts for the recents screen: Rolodex, Tiles, and Masonry. It also comes with double tap to wake, but what I don’t like is that you can’t turn the display back off with a double tap — which sucks.

All in all, BlackBerry is doing very well with the enhancements it's doing to Android, but they require a lot of polishing and aren’t really ready for prime time, just yet.

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First, let’s talk about the software keyboard, because it’s freaking amazing. The keys are big and well-spaced, and BlackBerry’s predictive text engine is out of this world too. The only thing I missed was the ability to swipe on the keys to create a word.

For the first two weeks, I forced myself to only use the physical keyboard. At first, it used to take me a while to write a full sentence, because I wasn’t used to physical keys on a smartphone. I found the keys to be a bit small for my thumbs and I wasn’t getting much haptic feedback from them. But the more I used it, the better I got at it. However, I still find the software keyboard to be much more comfortable to type on.

And if you were wondering, no, the keyboard isn’t like other BlackBerry smartphones; it’s different. Alongside the Priv, I also tried the Passport and the keyboard on that thing is just phenomenal, the difference really is day and night.

Furthermore, the physical keyboard is touch sensitive, which allows the user to scroll through content left or right and up or down. This was my favourite thing about the keyboard, as it allowed me to keep my fingers off the display, yet go through my twitter feed and web articles. It really did enhance my reading experience significantly.

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Performance and battery life


The Priv boasts Qualcomm’s hexa-core Snapdragon 808 SoC with an Adreno 418 GPU and 3GB of RAM. It comes with 32GB of internal storage, which is expandable via a MicroSD card to up to 232GB. The company decided not to go with the S810 chipset due to its heating issues, however, I found the S808 to run quite hot as well, which throttled the CPU and significantly affected the performance.

It can handle day-to-day tasks with ease, but as soon as you load a graphics extensive game or even a content heavy webpage, the device starts breaking a sweat. With that being said, it can keep apps in memory for a long period of time without clearing them out. I also found the app loading times to be a bit higher, compared to the G4 with the same processor.

Battery life

Powering everything is a huge 3,410mAh battery, yet it barely got me through an entire day. The maximum screen-on time I was able to achieve was of 3 hours, which shows that the company needs to work on optimising its software a lot more than it currently has. Your battery performance will vary, depending on your usage.

On a positive note, the device does support Qualcomm QuickCharge 2.0 and ships with a QuickCharge supported charger, which means you can charge the device's battery to 60% in 30 minutes. Some variants of the Priv also support Qi/PMA wireless charging standards, my review unit doesn’t, but North American market should have this feature enabled.

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The BlackBerry Priv is the best smartphone the company has ever made. Despite that, it’s not the best Android smartphone out there. Priv is definitely a step in the right direction for the Canadian company. It has some great and unique ideas, it just needs to work on its execution now.

I wouldn’t really recommend you to shell out $700 and buy a BlackBerry Priv, as there are many better alternatives out there in the market (for example: Samsung's Galaxy S7). However, if you really, really want that physical keyboard, then by all means go ahead, because you don’t have much of a choice left.


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