BARCELONA—Don’t call it the Mercury. The new keyboarded, Android-powered BlackBerry is the KeyOne, and it’s launching in April for $549.
Made by TCL, the parent of Alcatel, the KeyOne has a 4.5-inch screen and the full BlackBerry keyboard you remember; it will be compatible with all major US and Canadian carriers.
We had an early hands on with the KeyOne last month at CES, but Mobile World Congress is its official coming out party, and we got to spend more time with the hardware and software.
First, we have full specs now. The KeyOne measures 5.87 by 2.85 by 0.37 inches, and has a 4.5-inch, 1,620-by-1,080 LCD screen in a 3:2 aspect ratio. The main camera is 12 megapixels and the front camera is 8 megapixels. There’s 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, plus a MicroSD card slot. There’s a huge 3505mAh battery, and it all runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor.
Wait, the 625? That doesn’t sound like a flagship phone. But the reason for the 625 is battery life, said TCL Communication North America president Steve Cistulli. The 625 is a very power-efficient processor, and the combination of the processor and battery will let the phone last more than a full day of use, he said.
“We believe it’s properly designed with the right engine and the right gas tank,” Cistulli said.
In Canada and the US, there will be two models: one that supports CDMA for Sprint and Verizon as well as AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks, and one that’s AT&T and T-Mobile-only. Cistulli said the unlocked model of the phone will work on all four US carriers. For Canada, it looks like this is a Big Three phone, as it lacks Freedom Mobile’s new Band 66.
The phone will launch first on the unlocked market in the US during the second quarter of this year, with Canadian carriers following and US carriers after that, Cistulli said.
Hands On With the BlackBerry KeyOne
I got to spend some more time here with the KeyOne and its more CrackBerry-like features than I did at CES. The biggest, most exciting one? Keyboard shortcuts.
First of all, the keyboard is capacitive, which is a lot of fun. You can swipe on it to move between home screens, and use the space bar as a fingerprint sensor. But you can also assign any key as an arbitrary keyboard shortcut: G for Gmail, for instance, or M for music.
I also really like the Hub, BlackBerry’s unified messaging app, which now includes Slack and WhatsApp. It really helps you triage all your messages in one place. And the keyboard feels comfortable and familiar. The real question there is whether the long years since there was last a successful phone with a full keyboard means people have simply grown out of them. I used to hate typing on touch screens, but I’ve become inured.
The phone isn’t too wide, although I’d prefer it be even narrower. I can type on the keyboard one-handed, although I have to shift it around in my hand a bit. The capacitive keyboard really helps with one-handed use, though. I didn’t test call quality, but the bottom-ported speakers were loud enough for an office conference call.
I took some photos, and I’m not sold on BlackBerry’s low-light performance. With the main camera, the white balance tended towards yellow. Low-light selfies looked dim or blown out, and low-light main camera photos were a bit soft. That said, BlackBerry told me its camera hadn’t been fully optimized yet.
What Does BlackBerry Mean Now?
Okay, so now things get confusing.
BlackBerry is now a hardware brand of TCL, as well as two other partners that don’t sell phones in the US. But it’s also an independent company, BlackBerry, which makes software and participates in the design of TCL’s BlackBerry handsets.
“[Partners] will be responsible for bringing out BlackBerry-branded handsets going forward,” explained Alex Thurber, BlackBerry’s senior vice president of global device sales. “We are responsible for developing, maintaining, and supporting the OS with security patches, so at the end of the day the customer gets exactly the experience they expect when holding a BlackBerry.”
The hardware partners get access to BlackBerry’s industrial design team to help create a unified BlackBerry design, but Thurber was coy when I asked if they get access to BlackBerry’s patented hardware technologies, like its special Paratek antennas.
“We license our IP technology to many different companies, and you could assume those companies could be part of that licensing structure,” he said.
BlackBerry’s Android skin is evolving to provide the kind of control over security and privacy that users expected, but didn’t get from the company’s earlier Priv phone. BlackBerry’s first Android phone in the US, the Priv had an app called DTEK, which monitored a phone’s permissions, but it initially didn’t even offer the level of privacy control that was in Android Marshmallow by default.
“It’s now much more than that. It lets you tweak permissions after the fact, and it lets you set triggers on various elements of a device that might be of concern. I can lock my phone down and ensure that nothing is being shared, or just a few little elements are available for sharing,” Thurber said.
The company’s under-the-hood security work will also go through full US government certification processes to be usable by the Department of Defense, he said.
And while Android is BlackBerry’s plan going forward for now, I got a surprising response when I asked Thurber about BlackBerry 10, the company’s last proprietary OS, which is not available on any current devices in the US. “We are certainly not announcing the end of BlackBerry 10 devices … I’ve learned in the tech world never to say never,” he said.