BlackBerry Priv: A second opinion

I used to be a huge fan of BlackBerry. I know I'm not alone, and that many who frequent Android Central – both writer and reader alike – have been in the same position in a bygone smartphone era. I used them in my past life at my old full time job, but I also used them as my personal phones. Once you mastered the physical keyboard there was no going back.

It's probably also why my first Android phone was the Motorola Milestone (or the Droid, as you may be more familiar.) I wanted, nay, needed the keyboard. I had a BlackBerry in my life up until the Z10, and that's where things ended. App gap aside, there was no inherent reason I disliked the operating system. I actually liked (and still do) a lot about it.

But the Z10 was a full touch BlackBerry. It lost something that I'd always been such a fan of. Suddenly BlackBerry was just another black slab in a sea of black slabs. And so I put it down a couple of years ago and didn't feel compelled to pick up another BlackBerry again. Until now.

Enter the Priv. Probably my favorite phone of 2015.

We're fortunate at Android Central that leading up to our full review we'd had a few of us able to spend some quality time with the phone. Not just briefing quality time, but actual in our hands, used as daily drivers quality time. The tl;dr is that it isn't perfect, but it's something I, personally, would buy over just about any other Android phone right about now. And it rekindled a love with a brand that always held a special place in my heart.

The Priv is probably my favorite phone of 2015.

My own impressions of the Priv became pretty apparent after my initial briefing on the phone. The first time I saw an actual real, working unit with my own eyes. What I loved about BlackBerry, without the compromises. In this case, the compromise free approach comes from running Android and having access to the power of the Google Play ecosystem.

I've made no secret in recent times of my excitement for a BlackBerry powered by Android. I also made little secret about my thoughts on the price. Whichever way you look at it, it's expensive. It's certainly not for everyone. When you command iPhone money for an Android phone you better have something to show for it (and yes, for what it's worth, I think the iPhone is too expensive.)

And BlackBerry does. When you pick up the Priv it's much easier to appreciate the price point, though I would have still preferred to see it closer to £500 than £600 in my money. It's generally solid, the double curved screen is delightful to look at, the sliding mechanism is excellent, and of course, the keyboard. It's not perfect, though, and my review unit suffers from the squishy back issue that others around the web have experienced. I actually found that squishing it hard enough popped the back cover off slightly at the side, and then all was well. Perhaps an issue on phones without the wireless charging stuff inside, but it's almost as if the back of the phone is slightly too big.

BlackBerry Priv

If I had bought this phone with my own money I would be returning it and trying again. But I think that's a reasonable thing to do if you've spent in excess of £500 on anything. That aside I'm very happy with the hardware. I've never seen the attraction to the curved edge displays, but on the Priv it's more of an aesthetic choice, rolling the display seamlessly into the frame of the slider. It could easily have been a regular, flat display. But it wouldn't look as good. Certainly wouldn't feel as good.

I appreciate the approach that BlackBerry has taken to the hardware on the Priv. Aside from a fingerprint scanner there's not a lot missing. High-end CPU – and for some, relief that the Snapdragon 808 was used and not the 810 – a QHD display, 18MP camera with OIS, 32GB of internal storage with a microSD card slot and 3GB of RAM. The Priv isn't the highest of the high-end, but it ticks the boxes I'd expect a flagship to tick.

I can live without a fingerprint scanner. I do love the convenience I've had – mainly from Huawei phones – the past 12 months from having one one the back of the phone. But it's also not yet a necessity for me. Until the UK gets Android Pay support I can happily take it or leave it. And Picture Password on the Priv is a damn good way of locking your phone. You've got a grid of numbers laid over a picture and you move the grid until a specific number hits a specific spot. You could unlock the phone in full eyesight of someone and they'd not have a clue what you were actually doing.

BlackBerry knows people like microSD cards so it was included on the Priv

BlackBerry told me during my briefing that the approach taken with the Priv was to deliver what people buying a high-end Android phone want. To beef up the spec sheet in areas that you can't ignore. They know people still appreciate having microSD card expansion, so it was included. 32GB of internal should be the absolute minimum any high-end phone has these days, and it has it.

But actually using the phone, putting that hardware to work has been a mostly pleasurable experience. The squishy back nonsense has caused more irritation than I'd have liked, but for the most part the experience is just like using a BlackBerry. Exactly what it should be. I've had to adjust my grip a little to get comfortable with the unusual form factor, but the soft touch finish on the back helps with that. It's so grippy you can just rest it on your hand and it won't slide off. One thing I would change is the position of the volume buttons. They're right where I grip the phone when the slider is closed. Fed up of pressing them by accident.

It's all about the keyboard for me, though. It's why I was so interested in the Priv to begin with. It's BlackBerry's bread and butter. And since the last time I used a BlackBerry with a keyboard all kinds of things have changed. We now get touch sensitivity built in meaning that beyond typing, the keyboard becomes a trackpad of sorts. Because the phone is so balanced when you slide out the keyboard this is a one-handed operation. Proper typing still needs two, of course, but I'm enjoying scrolling using the keyboard while reading content. Being able to perform a quick Google search by just typing on the keyboard is proving very handy, too.

I wouldn't say it's the best keyboard experience I've ever had. That still belongs to the likes of the Bold 9000 from years past. But, it's very much the experience I've looked for on Android since I first picked up that Milestone back in 2010. Using the phone in portrait, not landscape, is part of it. There are still times when typing on glass is going to be quicker, and the Priv has an excellent software keyboard for that. But for longer typing, typing while you're on a train or in the back of a car, even just while on the couch watching TV, there's a lot to be said for the physical keyboard.

You can train yourself to use it without having to look at it. I've spent a lot of time trying to perfect that on a computer so I can keep looking at the screen while typing out the thousands of words a week that are common place here. It's pretty important to me and it's taking some practice to get back into full BlackBerry flow. But the dot on the 'D' key, while slight, is a great way to help you train your fingers to feel their way around. It's a reference point, and while I'm not nearly back to the word rate I could hammer out on the Bold devices of old, I'm getting there.

BlackBerry Priv

The physical keyboard is without a doubt the defining hardware feature of the Priv. It's what makes it stand out in a sea of slabs. But without using it you've still got a really nice Android phone. BlackBerry has put some thought into the software, for example. Deciding against skinning the daylights out of it (looking at you LG, Samsung et al), and instead adding thoughtful features and a handful of its own apps and services. But what Jerry said on a recent podcast is absolutely true. You can turn off all of the BlackBerry and just have a nice, no-frills Android experience. Taking Android and adding to it thoughtfully is great. Completely reworking it and making a hash of it, less so.

I've tried to use the BlackBerry apps as part of getting to know the Priv and for the most part can take or leave them. The Notes and Tasks apps are OK, basic, but do the job as well as any other manufacturers pre-loaded apps. One nice thing about using the Tasks app is that you can swipe in and see them in the Productivity Tab. But I'm already using something else for my tasks, so I'd actually prefer to be able to plug other apps in to the Productivity Tab. I like Pop-up Widgets too. Yes, BlackBerry isn't the first to do this in software and I'm pretty sure no-one from the company ever claimed they were. But it's built in to stock software, which I appreciate.

The BlackBerry Hub will certainly divide opinions, especially among the BlackBerry faithful. It's not yet as comprehensive as its BlackBerry 10 equivalent and in my experience on the Priv, it's a little slow, a little buggy and not really worth the time to use. I do hope BlackBerry refines it some more, as I did enjoy using it in my brief time with BlackBerry 10. But swiping to delete emails shouldn't produce a laggy reaction like they do right now. And it's really annoying when you select a whole bunch of Email to delete and then suddenly the trash can icon disappears.

But, thankfully, there's the Gmail app. Which right now I'd recommend using over the Hub.

So, as a phone to get things done, as a BlackBerry, it's good. The fact that I can use it like a BlackBerry and not have to worry if I need an app for something is the icing on the cake. For all that you can say is good about BlackBerry 10, the Google Play Store makes the difference. It's finally a BlackBerry with minimal compromise.

What else is there to say? The battery life is pretty stellar. Where some have fallen foul of putting smaller batteries in while chasing a slimmer form factor, BlackBerry has stuffed a big ol' 3410mAh power pack in the back of the Priv. And it's not what you'd call fat, either. While closed it's not much thicker than a Nexus 6P, for reference. What that means in real world use is that I've been able to hack through a day with the Priv, set it down at night, forget to plug it in before bed, and still make it to at least lunchtime the next day before I remember I need to plug it in. My review unit is devoid of Qi wireless charging, but then wireless charging is also something I never got into for whatever reason. So for me, it doesn't matter so much.

It sounds almost like I've been living in the smartphone dark ages

The inclusion of Quick Charge is more important. As I'm writing these words it sounds almost like I've been living in the smartphone dark ages, but the Priv was the first phone I've had on my desk that supported Qualcomm's Quick Charge standard. And I'm 100% sold on it as more than just a gimmick or something that looks good on a spec sheet. BlackBerry phones are about getting stuff done. And when I inevitably forget to plug the phone in at night (it happens more than you'd think) to be able to get a decent charge off just a quick top-up is a comfort.

BlackBerry Priv

Finally, I want to talk a little bit about the camera. BlackBerry 10 phones had a couple of neat camera features, like the Time Shift, but the shooter on the back was never really a selling point. Never something to shout about. It was just, well, there. The Passport it seems took that up a couple of notches, but the Priv takes it even further. It's 18MP, which honestly, doesn't matter much to me, it has OIS and it has Schneider-Kreuznach on the stainless steel lens ring. The latter of those means nothing to me – though the fact the ring protrudes past the lens just enough to keep it off the surface you lay the phone on is nice – but being able to take decent pictures, particularly of my young son, does.

I wouldn't say it's exceptional. It's not challenging the other new phone on my desk right now, the Nexus 6P. Part of that is that it's just too damn slow. The camera itself is capable of taking some really nice images, as our review showed, but the stock BlackBerry Camera app is painfully slow at times. Especially when shooting with HDR. You expect some kind of delay there, but the Priv just feels horribly sluggish compared to other current phones. Hopefully this is something BlackBerry can fix with an update to the app somewhere down the line. But when you're taking pictures of a moving child and you're held back by the app on your phone, it's something of an annoyance.

To sum up, then. It's not the highest spec'd phone of the year, and it's not the absolute best on a hardware or software level. But that hasn't stopped it becoming the favorite of everything that came across my desk this year. Maybe it's the BlackBerry fan deep within me, maybe it's the fact that someone is doing something that stands out from the norm. Maybe it's both.

The combination of all the parts make this phone one that I'm likely to go out and spend my own money on. I've never made any secret of wanting the Priv to be good. Of wanting BlackBerry to do a first rate job. Thankfully, it did, and I'm sure I'm going to enjoy my own Priv long after this one has been boxed up and sent back to BlackBerry.

Buy the BlackBerry Priv at ShopBlackBerry

Richard Devine