Over the past three or four years, BlackBerry has tried multiple different strategies in the wild hope that something will work. We've seen candybars and sliders; touchscreens and keyboards; budget and ultra-premium; traditional and experimental; BlackBerry OS and Android. Every time the company seemed to be moving in one direction, it would reverse course. You can read about each of these missteps in great detail in our analysis of the BlackBerry Z3 (Review), Passport (Review), Classic (Review), Leap (Review), Priv (Review), and DTEK50 (Review). In tracing that journey, you can see how the company tried desperately to attract new users, then settled for clinging to its dwindling fanbase and then finally gave up all hope.
Unboxing BlackBerry KEYone:
In the box, you get a relatively compact charger, a USB Type-C cable, a wired headset, two additional pairs of rubber ear tips in different sizes, a SIM eject tool, and some pamphlets.
BlackBerry now licenses its name and its software to other companies. TCL - which holds the rights for most of the world excluding India, Indonesia, and a few other Asian markets where the brand is still popular - launched its first BlackBerry product, the KEYone, earlier this year. In India, the rights have been acquired by Optiemus Infracom, a name that might not immediately be familiar. However, this company has a lot of history in the Indian phone space. According to Optiemus, it sold India's first mobile phone back in 1995, and it now operates the Univercell retail chain and Zen brand of phones.
Optiemus is now selling the same KEYone in India, with a few modifications. The first few batches are made by TCL and imported, but the company is planning to ramp up its own design and manufacturing operations in India soon, in a joint venture with Taiwan's Wistron. We have the Indian version of the KEYone with us today, in a limited edition black finish. Here's our full review.
BlackBerry KEYone Design:
The main attraction of this phone is its physical keyboard. BlackBerry (or should we say TCL) is one of the only major Android manufacturers to even experiment with keyboards, which is a shame because there could be a real market for phones that break the standard touchscreen mould.
The keyboard looks a bit squashed right at the bottom of the phone, and it is definitely compressed when compared to the ones on classic BlackBerrys.
In a clever move, BlackBerry has integrated a fingerprint sensor into the spacebar. It's the natural position for a Home button, and we found ourselves pressing it by accident all the time.
The Android navigation buttons are all capacitive and are placed between the screen and keyboard.
KEYone's QWERTY Keyboard:
This isn't the only interesting thing about the KEYone's design. It's rounded on the bottom and flat on top, for a rather unusual overall look.
The glass in front is subtly bevelled on the sides, but not curved like most phones today. The entire rear is made of a rubberised plastic which offers excellent grip.
The main camera and its flash are designed prominently into the upper left corner of the rear.
The keyboard uses BlackBerry's classic layout which will seem peculiar to anyone who hasn't used one before.
The Shift keys are on either side of the spacebar, numbers are arranged like a traditional phone keypad rather than a row, and punctuation is all over the place.
BlackBerry obviously had to decide whether to cater to its legacy user base or a new generation of users, and it chose the conservative option.
Although the KEYone is quite tall, the screen loses a bit of height in order to fit the keyboard in. It is also relatively thick at 9.4mm and heavy at 180g.
While the rounded body visually masks how much space there is on either side of the screen, you feel this phone's bulk when you start using it.
When typing, you'll naturally have to hold this phone close to the bottom so that your thumbs are over the keyboard, which makes it a bit top-heavy and awkward.
It is possible, though not very comfortable, to balance this phone in one hand and type with one thumb.
BlackBerry KEYone Software:
On the software side, we have BlackBerry's heavily customised Android skin, now on top of Android 7.1.
It's much the same as what we saw on the Priv and DTEK50, except for the absence of the swipe gesture to launch the BlackBerry Hub.
There are some very neat touches such as the ability to swipe on home screen icons to show widgets associated with their apps, and a huge number of direct shortcuts - any action that can be assigned to the keyboard keys can also be triggered with a custom home screen icon.
BlackBerry KEYOne Specifications and Software:
The processor is an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625, which is now a little dated.
The version of this phone sold in other countries has less RAM and storage, but 4GB of RAM and 64GB respectively here.
Another key difference the Indian version of this phone is it can work with two SIMs here.
Unfortunately, it's a hybrid dual-SIM arrangement, so while you can expand storage using a microSD card of up to 2TB, that comes at the cost of the second SIM slot. 4G and VoLTE are supported.
The screen has an unusual 1080x1620 resolution and 3:2 aspect ratio because of the keyboard.
It's still quite crisp at 434ppi and you won't notice much of a difference when doing things that don't involve gaming and video playback.
BlackBerry says you actually get more usable screen space in productivity apps because there's no soft keyboard.
There's a 3505mAh battery, and Qualcomm's Quick Charge 3.0 feature is supported.
The rear camera has a 12-megapixel sensor while the one in front comes in at 8 megapixels.
You also get Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.2, NFC, and even FM radio.
The 12-megapixel rear camera takes generally decent photos in the daytime.
Autofocus locks quickly and details are generally quite good. We even got some nice depth of field effects in close-up shots.
Colours didn't really pop even in shots taken in bright sunlight, but in all other regards, our sample shots were quite good.
On the other hand, photos taken at night tended to be blurry thanks to much longer shutter times, and ISO values also varied wildly between shots taken in immediate succession, leading to inconsistent results.
Only very few of our sample shots came out just right.
There was also a lot of noise and grain in low-light shots. A Manual mode toggle can be found in the settings, but even in the default Auto mode, you get an exposure compensation slider on screen.
The BlackBerry KEYone camera app offers a slow-mo video mode and several combinations of resolutions and framerates. Recording can go up to 4K/ 30fps but only for five minutes at a time.
Software stabilisation only works at up to 1080p/ 30fps. Videos taken at 1080p and 4K looked crisp, and motion was smooth.
BlackBerry boasts about the KEYone's battery life, and in our experience, it was one of the device's stronger points. We were consistently able to get through a full day with a bit of power left over. However, our usage was skewed towards Web browsing, messaging and casual apps, with less gaming and video streaming than usual because this phone really doesn't lend itself to those activities.
At this price, you could get the LG G6 (Review) or Samsung Galaxy S7 (Review), and of course there are plenty of well-regarded phones such as the OnePlus 5 (Review) and Honor 8 Pro (Review) that are priced quite a bit lower. You would really have to value the keyboard above having a large screen and slim body, not to mention the general performance and camera quality of a high-end phone.