Fantastic physical keyboard. Well-balanced feel. Long battery life. Good speakerphone.
Cameras aren't terrific. Can be a little slow.
- Bottom Line
With its excellent hardware keyboard, BlackBerry's Android-powered KeyOne phone is a messaging marvel for a niche audience.
By Sascha Segan
There's nothing else like the unlocked BlackBerry KeyOne ($549). It's the first practical, well-functioning keyboarded smartphone we've seen since the BlackBerry Classic. It meets the most important milestone: The KeyOne works the way you expect and want it to, without weird software or hardware compromises. It's a reliable messaging companion. For some people, it'll be like coming home.
//Compare Similar Products
What you think about the KeyOne rides entirely on something that can't be measured through tests or benchmarks: It's whether you've moved on from hardware keyboards. Long ago, I wrote about why I hate touch screens, and those arguments still make sense: we're still physical creatures with five senses, and touch screens blind one of them. But, well, life goes on. As screens have gotten bigger and interfaces faster, I find that I'm better on the Samsung Galaxy S7's touch-screen keyboard than on the KeyOne's hardware keyboard. We move on. I have. The KeyOne is for people who haven't or don't want to—and it will make them very happy.
Physical Form and Keyboard
So yeah, let's talk about touch. TCL, which makes this phone for BlackBerry, gets the build and feel right in a way that BlackBerry didn't with the Priv, which was the size of a small boat and felt dangerously overbalanced when you slid down the keyboard.
Priorities here are very, very different from those of a status symbol phone like the Samsung Galaxy S8. The KeyOne has a solid heft to it and a textured, grippy back. It'll stay in your hand, and it's well-balanced so when you shift your hand to focus on the keyboard, it doesn't feel like it's going to tip over. It's big at 5.8 by 2.8 by 0.4 inches (HWD) and a hefty 6.3 ounces, but if you have big hands, you'll have no problem texting with just one of them on the QWERTY keyboard.
As far as design goes, it's just such a…BlackBerry look. The four-row keyboard is black and shiny, with metal frets that harken back to the BlackBerry Bold. On top of that, there's a 4.5-inch, portrait-style 1,620-by-1,080 LCD that's sharp (433ppi), but not intensely bright. The layout didn't create trouble for third-party apps, although games meant to run in landscape mode will feel awkward because of the physical design of the phone.
Next to the volume buttons on the side, there's an action key that defaults to opening the Messaging Hub, because with a BlackBerry, you should never be more than one key press away from messaging.
The physical keyboard is full of cool tricks. The fingerprint scanner is in the spacebar. It's fast and accurate, and it's very easy to unlock the phone using it. The keyboard is also touch-sensitive, so you can use it as a cursor pad by swiping back and forth on it, and you can put shortcuts on every single key. Unfortunately, they only work on the home screen, but set it up properly, and you'll never have to use the Android app drawer again. After two days, I had all of my top 10 apps on keyboard shortcuts.
The primary camera on the back has a bit of a protruding metal ring around it, but that doesn't destabilize the phone on a table. The KeyOne also has both a standard headphone jack (on top) and a USB-C port (on the bottom.)
Networks and Call Quality
The KeyOne is initially being sold for $549 as an unlocked phone, although Sprint has said it'll sell it in the future. There are two versions: one that works better on AT&T and Canadian carriers, and one that works on all four US carriers, but is best on Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. The KeyOne's Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor uses the category 7, X9 modem, with peak LTE speeds of 300Mbps—that may sound fast, but it gets slower network performance than higher-end devices.
In my experience using the KeyOne on T-Mobile for four days, its connectivity isn't quite on par with the Galaxy S7. For instance, as I zipped in and out of dead zones in the New York City subway, the KeyOne would take longer to recover from the dead zones than an S7 on T-Mobile does. But that's to be expected: the S7 and S8 both have 4×4 MIMO, an antenna technology that really squeezes the best out of weaker signals. If you're coming from an iPhone, on the other hand, you won't notice a difference.
BlackBerry has always made good voice phones, with a focus on clarity rather than sheer volume. That's my experience with the KeyOne as well: a sharp, clear earpiece and a very good speakerphone. The speaker port is on the bottom, so it will work well on a conference table. Speakerphone volume is ideal for indoor use. Outdoors, it doesn't quite kick up to construction-worksite levels.
Dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, GPS, NFC for Android Pay, and an FM radio are all on board as well. I have no performance complaints with any of those.
The phone also has Bluetooth 4.2, which was the most current version until Samsung included Bluetooth 5.0 on the Galaxy S8. I used the KeyOne with a Plantronics Voyager Focus UC headset and got consistent, clear connections.
Android and Performance
The KeyOne runs Android 7.1.1 Nougat on a 2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor with 3GB of RAM. Android here has been heavily overlaid with a new launcher and custom apps, most notably BlackBerry's Messaging Hub and DTEK security monitoring software. BlackBerry has made a pledge to push out Android's monthly security updates quickly, although there's no similar pledge for feature updates, such as the upcoming Android O.
BlackBerry's Hub is the company's signature app, a unified messaging solution that draws in email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and Slack (but not Google Hangouts). If the BlackBerry Classic was built for the Hub and then had Android apps bolted on, the KeyOne is built for Android apps and has the Hub bolted on.
You want to use the Hub. Not only does it unite all of your notifications in a really convenient way (although it hands off to individual apps to write new messages, in some cases), it has a drawer that pops out from the right side of the screen to let you manage your latest emails and calendar appointments. I'm a heavy Gmail user, and the only downside I can find is that it doesn't do the auto-sorting that the real Gmail app does, shunting mailing lists over onto a "promotions" tab so you don't have to triage them.
But it's obvious the Hub is a bolt-on: When you're using it, you have to go through and mute notifications for Messages, Messenger, and other default apps so you don't get duplicate sets of notifications. It's a minor inelegance.
The Snapdragon 625 gets benchmark scores similar to a quality lower-end phone like the Moto G5 Plus, or about half the score you see on a current flagship phone. Graphics benchmark scores are especially brutal, at a mere 11 frames per second in the GFXBench Manhattan test, which is half or a third of the frame rate you get on other high-end devices. I also experienced lag when zipping through the UI. This is clearly not a gaming phone; it's a messaging phone.
TCL says it chose the 625 for battery life, and combined with a 3,505mAh (non-removable) cell, battery life is just terrific. I easily got a day and a half of regular use before sticking the phone on a charger. It's better than the iPhone or the latest Galaxies, that's for sure.
Storage, Cameras, Multimedia
The 32GB KeyOne has 22.1GB of storage available, plus a slot that fits microSD cards up to 256GB.
The phone has an 8-megapixel front camera and a 12-megapixel main camera. The front camera is capable of 1080p video at 30 frames per second, and the main camera is capable of either 4K video at 30 frames per second, or 1080p at 60 frames per second.
BlackBerry's camera app gets points for putting exposure compensation on the screen by default, and enabling a flexible manual mode. But the cameras themselves are just middling. The main sensor works very well in good light, taking subdued but very clear photos and 4K video at 30fps. You want to keep the video resolution at 1080p, though, because those 4K videos can be shaky; knocking down the resolution allows for stabilization.
Low-light performance isn't the greatest. The camera does a good job collecting images if held very still, but it pushes the virtual shutter speed low enough to create blur and indistinctness. You'll want to use the powerful flash in dim light.
The front-facing camera is all-around disappointing. It got blurry even in cloudy outdoor conditions, and low light kept pushing the video mode to lower and lower frame rates—it got as low as 8fps in a mostly darkened room. This camera isn't for Snapchatting at the club, that's for sure.
The phone also isn't designed ideally for video playback—no portrait-style, keyboarded phone is. Videos end up with big black bars above and below, and if you turn the phone into landscape mode, it's slightly unbalanced because of the keyboard on the side. That's a price you pay for the messaging focus.
BlackBerry Gets the Message
TCL keeps the faith with the BlackBerry KeyOne, and the faithful shall be rewarded. Using this phone for five days, I kept thinking, "I could stick with this." Words are my thing, after all, and this phone really prioritizes them. But then I realized I've moved on, and I personally prefer the Galaxy S8's superior camera and always-on display.
But it's okay if you haven't moved on. The KeyOne doesn't force you to make the painful compromises the Classic and Priv did: It's a mainstream Android phone running all of the latest apps, and it doesn't feel like it weighs a pound and a half. TCL and BlackBerry thought a lot about people who want to have their fingers on the keyboard of life, and you can benefit from that thoughtfulness. Tap away happily.
PCMag.com's lead mobile analyst, Sascha Segan, has reviewed hundreds of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets in more than 9 years with PCMag. He's the head of our Fastest Mobile Networks project, one of the hosts of the daily PCMag Live Web show and speaks frequently in mass media on cell-phone-related issues. His commentary has appeared on ABC, the BBC, the CBC, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, and in newspapers from San Antonio, Texas to Edmonton, Alberta. Segan is also a multiple award-winning travel writer, having contributed… More »
More Stories by Sascha
- Up in the Air With Gogo's Speedier In-Flight Wi-Fi
Gogo's new 2Ku satellite service and modems will make in-flight internet even faster this summer. More »
- Qualcomm Boosts Midrange Processor Power
Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 660 and 630 platforms bring last year's high-end capabilities to new midra… More »
- The Best Kids' Tablets of 2017
Can't get your hands on your own iPad? Check out our top tablet picks to keep your kids educated and… More »