BlackBerry Keyone Review | WIRED
For the better part of a decade, there was nothing more impressive than owning a BlackBerry. Walking down the street, both hands on the soft-touch sides of the handset, thumbs flying around the keyboard as you plowed through emails, BBMs, and texts. You could wear ripped jeans and a paint-stained shirt, but your BlackBerry still told the world you were a Very Important Person. Maybe you weren’t the hippest kid on the block, but you were definitely the most likely to own a yacht and know how to properly pronounce Gstaad.
You know what a BlackBerry says about you now? Specifically the newest BlackBerry model, the BlackBerry Keyone? It says you haven’t bought a phone in a decade, because wait, do they even make Blackberries anymore? It says you probably still have an AOL email address, carefully curate your MySpace Top 8, and the email you’re sending begins with “forward this to seven people or your crush will die.” It says, above all else, that you bought the wrong phone.
BlackBerry’s software makes work super efficient. Great security features. Nice build quality.
Hardware keyboards are an old, outdated idea, and you don’t want one. The keyboard-focused design ruins everything else about the phone.
Before we go too far, let’s do a little corporate landscaping. BlackBerry is no longer the only company that makes BlackBerry phones. The Keyone was made by the Chinese company TCL, which makes excellent televisions and washing machines. TCL licensed the BlackBerry name, but also uses BlackBerry software. Except BlackBerry uses Android, not its own software. It just adds a few apps, tweaks some settings, and oversees the security of the device. So, to recap: The Keyone is a BlackBerry that was built by TCL, runs Google software, and has BBM and stuff. Got it? Cool.
The thing that really makes the Keyone a BlackBerry is the hardware keyboard. Four rows of keys, below the 4.5-inch screen, with all the clicking you think you miss from the year 2006. These 35 slightly convex keys are supposed to make you feel productive, keep your inbox clear and your day-trades rolling. It’s a very good keyboard, generally speaking. The only problem is that physical keyboards are a bad idea. They’re not more efficient, no matter what your nostalgic brain tells you. Touchscreen keyboards are faster, more versatile, more usable. They can do swipe-typing, change size and shape to your liking, and switch languages at will. They go away when you don’t need them. That feeling of Doing Work you get while using a BlackBerry? It’s a lie.
Strange as it sounds, your phone’s keyboard isn’t as important as it used to be. A 2009 study, for instance, found that four of the seven social things teens did every day involved typing: IM, texts, emails, and messaging on social networks. (The other three were cell phone and landline calls, and hanging out in person.) But by 2015, phones were for much more than just typing: Young people were using their devices to do their banking, apply for jobs, learn new skills, get directions, and follow the news. Even the way people communicate became less about text and more about links, photos, videos, GIFs, memes, and snaps.
The Keyone’s keyboard is worse than dead weight, because it dictates everything else about the phone’s design. (For no good reason, because keyboards are bad.) Its 4.5-inch screen is square and small, to keep the phone from being super-duper tall; the phone’s also quite wide to accommodate the keyboard. The Keyone stands almost exactly as tall as the Samsung Galaxy S8, but has 1.3 inches less screen. The S8 can use all that space for a keyboard, but it’s also more room for movies, games, tweets, books, and photos. What makes for a comfortable typing experience also makes for a big, heavy phone that puts big black bars around your videos and only shows two tweets at a time.
Even if I wanted a physical keyboard, the Keyone’s implementation wouldn’t feel quite finished. My review unit came with the on-screen keyboard enabled, so every time I tapped a text box I had two keyboards at once. I love that the space bar is also the fingerprint reader and camera shutter button, but it should also be the home button. You can map each key to a shortcut—open an app, call a friend, create a new event—but I miss being able to just start typing and launch straight into search. You can swipe up and down to scroll through webpages or apps, using it sort of like a trackpad. But you can also do that, you know, on a screen.
What’s in a BlackBerry?
BlackBerry made a mistake by becoming “the keyboard phone.” What it should have been is “the work phone.” BlackBerry built robust email, calendar, and to-do list apps for the Keyone, and bundled them all into a “productivity hub” you access with a swipe in from the edge of the screen. It did the same with a huge of number of messaging apps, feeding everything into a single inbox. I even love the way BlackBerry incorporated widgets: If you install an app that has a widget, swiping up on the icon will open it right over top of your home screen. It gives you a clean-looking phone and displays a lot of information quickly.
Meanwhile, BlackBerry cares deeply about security, and its DTEK software is helpful and powerful. The phone comes with a built-in password manager that will keep you logged in seamlessly. Most of the phone’s security work happens in the background, only alerting you if something goes wrong.
Really, everything about the Keyone other than the keyboard is good enough—and sometimes even great. The dimpled, soft back feels nice in my hand, and the sturdy metal-and-rubber aesthetic is a welcome departure from the precious, glassy fragility of so many other phones. The screen’s bright and sharp, though at 1620×1080, it’s far from the eye-popping clarity of other high-end phones. The 12-megapixel camera takes decent photos, but it’s not as good as the iPhone 7 or Galaxy S8. The Snapdragon 625 processor’s fast, but won’t hold up as well as newer chips in other phones. The battery life might be the phone’s best feature: I’m getting a day and a half out of one charge even when using it near-constantly.
My point here is not that the Keyone is a bad phone. If you want a phone with a hardware keyboard, this is the best model anyone’s made in years (low bar, but still). My point is that you do not want a phone with a hardware keyboard.
Going forward, phones are virtual- and augmented-reality tools. They’re for taking and sharing photos, video chatting, playing games, and so much more. Even within text boxes, we’re using emoji and stickers and voice-typing and GIFs and a thousand other things you can’t do with three rows of hardware QWERTY keys. Most of all, the hardware keyboard was never better. It doesn’t help you type faster, doesn’t make you more productive, doesn’t make you look cool or seem more professional. BlackBerry nostalgia is like missing MS-DOS or switching back to cassette tapes. We had good times in the 90s, didn’t we? But times have changed. It’s time to move on.
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