BlackBerry Priv Review: A Weird, Wonderful Swiss Army Knife of a Smartphone

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

BlackBerry and I are kindred spirits. Right now, anyway. It’s more than a little odd, as I feel I’ve only been writing terrible headlines about the company over recent weeks/months/years. It’s almost like realising you have loads in common with the kid you used to take the piss out of at school. Only in this case, that kid you used to take the piss out of was once, as André 3000 would say, ice cold.

The former mobile heavyweight has spent a little time out of the firing line, licking its wounds, taking in criticism, and presumably baulking at what current smartphone manufacturers are getting away with. Let’s face it, the mobile landscape is so dry. Apple and Samsung have been coasting for the last few years, knowing full well that even minor tweaks and updates (think Android skins, slimmer frames and -- my, oh my! -- more colours) will generate sales.

BlackBerry sees itself as a cat amongst pigeons, and it's determined to ruffle a few feathers.

The Priv looks unlike any of its rivals. Seriously. You won’t be confusing this with the iPhone 6S. Or is it the HTC One A9? Hmm. This is clearly a BlackBerry, despite the lack of a joystick. It’s a dark mass of ridges, curves and edges, and I’m a fan. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely not the prettiest handset out there, but it’s ruggedly handsome, sort of like Sean Bean.

It’s very much a blend of classic and new. After all, the Priv is a slider, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the mainstream market in years. The ability to drag the screen up and down is comforting and oh so satisfying. Slide upwards and you expose the physical keyboard (more on that later), back down and it vanishes again. Snap. Snap. Snap. I could do this all day. The action is smooth and familiar. On the other hand, the dual-edge screen is a relatively fresh creation, and the unusual tensile knit rear is subtle, yet striking.

Another area BlackBerry certainly hasn’t been shy in is size. The Priv is big. A touch too big for my, admittedly small, hands. It measures in at 147 x 77.2 x 9.4mm and 192g, making it thicker and heavier than most of its rivals. For context, the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 is 1.8mm slimmer and 21g lighter. However, who actually gives a shit? Any smartphone under 1cm thick is trim enough for me, and the Priv is hardly the weight of a dumbbell. It'll be more than manageable for anyone who wants a large smartphone, especially as its sides are curved in a very finger-friendly manner.

However, there are issues. The biggest design criticism I have concerns the placement of the power button. Unusually, it sits on the left edge, making it tricky for right-handers to press (you have to seek it out with your middle finger, which, let's face it, should only serve one purpose). What’s more, the power key lies directly opposite the volume up button, making it all too easy to press one when you really want to hit the other. So unnecessarily frustrating.

Though BlackBerry says the Priv is primarily a touch device, it’s gone through a hell of a lot of trouble to include its iconic physical keyboard. This version is the fanciest yet, as it’s both clicky and touch-sensitive. I barely need to explain the first bit of that, but I will. The hard keys work exactly as they should, making that lovely crunchy sound as you type, as well as maximising screen space. You can also hold down on a button to quickly access programs. F for Facebook, for example.

The touch functionality? By swiping across the physical buttons, you can turn the keypad into a trackpad, using it to scroll up and down webpages. Undeniably cool. It’s all very nifty, but my only issue is that, once you’ve wapped the keyboard out, the Priv becomes truly massive. Believe me, it’s great to have the means to quickly type up an email or document, but it’s not always very practical. However, this is sort of like marking down a Swiss Army knife for featuring some tools you might not need on a regular basis.

After all, if you don’t want to use the physical keyboard, you don’t have to. The on-screen keyboard is more than adequate, and comes with another cheeky twist. Rather than surfacing predicted words on a bar above the keys, suggestions appear above the next letter the software thinks you’ll tap. If, for example, I’ve already fingered out ‘Toe’, ‘Toerag’ will appear above the letter ‘R’, with ‘Toenail’ floating over ‘N’.

Similarly, BlackBerry’s pulled no punches in the screen department, installing a 5.4-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 display coated in Gorilla Glass 4. With a pixel density of 540ppi, it’s as sharp as you’d like, and the fact that it uses AMOLED technology means pictures look terrific. I'm talking vibrant colours and seriously deep, inky blacks. This is built for watching movies and TV shows on.

I know what you’re thinking. What’s with the curved edges? Sadly, they’re just for show. Sexy bezels, if you like. While I don’t think Samsung’s cracked the curves on the Galaxy S6 Edge in terms of functionality, it's disappointing not to see BlackBerry at least try to do something interesting with the Priv’s own.

BB10's been rejected, as there's basically no point trying to snare users away from Android and iOS. As BlackBerry wanted to get its new baby to market before Christmas, the Priv runs 5.1.1 Lollipop, rather than Marshmallow (which should arrive in 2016). I’m okay with that. After all, the most noteworthy features of the latest version of Android are its security credentials -- not that they’ll matter too much when the Investigatory Powers bill is passed -- and BlackBerry’s squeezed in a load of its own alternatives. Priv, by the way, is short for privacy (or ‘the privilege of privacy’, a truly horrible tagline).

The most notable addition is DTEK, a homebase for all things security. It tells you just how well-protected the Priv is and encourages you to bolster your defences, either by changing your screen lock, controlling the amount of personal data your apps have access to or enabling Android Device Manager, which allows you to locate, lock or wipe your phone if you ever misplace it. It’s an impressive, comprehensive app, and successfully gets you to think about your privacy, without ever ramming the message down your gullet.

BlackBerry Hub also comes preloaded, acting as a one-stop-shop for communications. All the details of your text messages, emails and calls go straight to the app. The best bit about it is the option to snooze emails by location or connection. If you receive a message about taking the bins out while you’re in the office, for instance, you can get Hub to resurface it when you get back home. Similarly, you can instruct it to push up a voucher code when you connect to your local café's Wi-Fi network.

The final big talking point, software-wise, is the productivity tab. It’s a thin, white panel that hangs on the edge of your home screen, which you can swipe to quickly see what you've got on today. It displays your schedule, tasks, contacts and emails, and is very much a throwback to BlackBerry's enterprise roots.

You can most certainly use the Priv for getting work done, but the company says it's past pigeon-holing people and products. The Priv is a solid performer, using the same Snapdragon 808 processor you'll find inside the LG G4. This, paired with 3GB of RAM, is more than powerful enough for blitzing through everyday tasks and demanding games, such as Real Racing 3 and Asphalt 8. I've experienced no issues with lag, but the rear gets rather toasty when you work the Priv hard. It's never overheated or burned a hole in my pocket, but you can really feel the temperature rise.

One app that triggers this effect is the camera. The Priv uses an 18-megapixel rear shooter, which I've been impressed with. It's equipped with optical image stabilisation, a dual-tone flash and HDR mode, making it especially good in low light. However, what I really like is its speed and reliability. You can fire up the camera app, focus and snap a picture in a second. Ideal for those now you see it, now you don't moments.

Detail is good in the main, though it's sometimes tough to get the perfect close-up shot. It was surprisingly difficult to lock down on the berries in the picture below, for instance. BlackBerry's also included the ability to capture 4K video, as well as a basic 2-megapixel selfie camera. The latter is nothing more than adequate.

That assessment also applies to the Priv's battery, and unexpectedly so. BlackBerry's been really talking up the Priv's stamina, packing a hefty 3,410mAh power pack under the hood. Sadly, it's not quite as long-lasting as I feel it should be. It'll get you through the day, but not comfortably so. By 7pm, after taking it off the charger at 7am, the Priv usually has between 30 and 40 per cent left. It's decent, but certainly doesn't match up with the 22.5 hours BlackBerry claims it'll deliver. I personally would have liked to see a pared down screen, if it translated to improved battery life.

Like

Unique design, excellent screen, physical keyboard, solid camera, great apps

No Like

Average battery life, stupid placement of power button

Should You Buy It?

For £559.99, certainly, though only if you're into big phones. The Priv's a genuinely impressive all-rounder, but it'll be too much mobile for some to handle. However, I fear the biggest barrier between most consumers and the Priv will be that fact that it's made by BlackBerry, which has become a byword for failure. The company's latest handset doesn't make up for years of disappointment, but it's a big step in the right direction. More importantly, it's dramatically different to anything on the market right now, in a good way.

BlackBerry Priv Specs

OS: Android 5.1.1
CPU: Snapdragon 808
Screen: 5.4-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 AMOLED
RAM: 3GB
Storage: 32GB (expandable to 2TB)
Camera: 18-megapixel rear camera / 2-megapixel front camera
Battery: 3,410mAh
Price: £559.99 SIM-free