BlackBerry Priv Review: Crossing the Rubicon

BlackBerry has taken a monumental step that will change its destiny forever with its latest device – does it measure up? Read our BlackBerry Priv review to find out!

The moment is finally at hand; we’ve been hard at work putting BlackBerry’s newest challenger on the block, and our verdict is in our BlackBerry Priv review.
But before we get to any of that, first, a word on Julius Caesar and Ancient Rome.
Classically, Julius Caesar campaigned in Gaul before returning to Rome to establish his empire. Caesar, during battles against the Gallic tribes, formed an autocratic and dictatorial system of command that formed the direct opposite to the corrupt Roman senate. Upon his return, and through conquering Rome, Caesar established the historical Roman empire; thesis and antithesis had come together to find a synthesis.
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Now that history is out of the way, the reason I bring this up is that its a fascinating parallel to BlackBerry’s current predicament. The company has stagnated under continued attempts to get BB10 off the ground, and has finally resorted to using Android on its newest device. Thesis and antithesis have come together to give us the BlackBerry Priv.
Just like Caesar, BlackBerry have had to cross the Rubicon; the real-life river that committed Caesar to conquering Rome. BlackBerry, similarly, has campaigned long and hard with BB10, and the company’s crucible moment is upon it. Will the Priv manage to establish another glorious reign at the top for the company, or commit to obsolescence forever?
It’s time to get down to it.
Read: Hands-on preview: BlackBerry Priv ““ a child of two worlds
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The BlackBerry Priv strides through two very different world; working to bring the best of BB10 to Android. Nowhere is this more evident that the device’s use of two keyboards; one virtual, and one physical. It’s an reminder that this is a transitional device for BlackBerry; a new flagship phone for a new era.


The Priv arrives sporting a powerful set of specifications; including an AMOLED display at 5.4″, with a pixel density of 540ppi. Powered by a dual core 1.8GHz Cortex A57 and quad-core 1.44GHz Cortex A53, and complemented by 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage, the Priv has little reason to stutter.
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Whatever my thoughts on the device as a performing unit (which we’ll get to shortly) I’ll say this up front; I grew to love the Priv’s design.
The Priv is, unapologetically, one of the most photogenic devices I’ve ever worked with. Subtle curves (in the style of the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge) adorn the front screen, while the device cuts a rounded and wonderfully symmetrical profile in hand. Slid up or down, whenever I used the Priv in company, it attracted not only attention but a certain amount of admiration from passers-by.
In Episode 30 of Bandwidth Blog On Air, Theunis van Rensburg and I discussed our first reactions upon receiving our review unit following the Priv’s launch – one of the key decisions both of us where puzzled by was BlackBerry’s decision to mount the power button on the left hand instead of the right.
After two weeks, this began to make a great deal more sense; in the hand, one is encourage to hold the Priv like a traditional BlackBerry (both hands on the keypad) and placing the power unit on the left wasn’t just an attempt to be different, as I thought it might have been; it’s one of the most acute pieces of evidence that BlackBerry have thought this device through.
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Unfortunately, the Priv’s design, love it as I might, is let down by a lack of workmanship. The slide up keyboard creaks, and like the BlackBerry Torch of old, the unit doesn’t inspire enough confidence in me to assuredly use it in the long-term. Further, some of the device’s biggest additions – such as the curved front screen – are left un-capitalized upon aside from a pull-to-view agenda.  It’s utterly unfortunate that such a device – blossoming with so much potential – could have its petals ripped.

User interface

As this is BlackBerry’s first stab at Android, the company has largely decided to stay out of the operating system’s way; largely, the Priv is reminiscent of a core Android experience with more productivity tweaks than aesthetic ones.
Thankfully, the Priv’s take on Android is one of the best I’ve come across yet; merging the iconic default look of Android with useful shortcuts, keyboard integration and meaningful additions ported from BB10. The feeling the Priv gives in use, as best I could express, is that it stays out of Android’s way, yet helps it get there faster.
While the overall software design is pleasing, some of BlackBerry’s core BB10 feature set feels out of place on Android; the Hub, for example, while a useful tool for the BlackBerry faithful, feels utterly irrelevant when one could simply swipe down to access notifications. Sure, there are meaningful features here – such as the ability to snooze messages until arriving at a certain location – but this leaves users with either a butter knife or chainsaw to take to notifications or correspondence, instead of a lean steel sword that could sit comfortably between the two. Were BlackBerry to axe Android’s notification center in favor of a pull-down Hub, I wouldn’t complain.
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Beyond these frustrations, if you’ve previously used a BB10 device or an Android smartphone, this is a relatively well-crafted merger of worlds; BlackBerry’s pre-installed apps retain the company’s aesthetic, while obstructing the material design direction Google has employed on Android.
The addition of native shortcuts is an immensely useful one, and further the pull-to-view agenda, DTEK security app and BlackBerry defaults such as Notes and Tasks all feel like well-considered additions rather than a smattering of BlackBerry wallpaper over Android’s house. Further, the ability to quickly open Android widgets by swiping up is an intuitive addition that reminds me of Apple’s use of 3D touch. I would argue that this is one of the most graceful takes on Android yet, and one at that which not only introduces new features, but takes them to a new level. If anything, the up-front impression the Priv gives is that this is a device that works in the front, and parties at the back.
More tasteful than a mullet, I’d say.
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During my BlackBerry Priv review, I found the unit gives less sense of a well-oiled machine than it does a well disciplined army. Each segment of BlackBerry’s take on Android performs without fault, and mercilessly marches forward. Media truly shines not only on the device’s stunning display, but conquers one’s ears through the bottom front-firing speaker.
This is enough to give the Galaxy Note 5 a run for its money, toting sufficient power to swipe effortlessly through correspondence like a board-room ninja. Games and apps perform without fault, and across the board this is a buttery offering which is let down only by the device’s propensity to overheat at the mildest of tasks.
To clarify, overheating didn’t once interrupt my time with the Priv, but its a worrying situation when the device begins to either heat up in one’s palm or one’s pocket – something that troubled me throughout my BlackBerry Priv review.
The Priv’s major selling point, its hardware keyboard, is a mixed bag. BlackBerry disciples will likely adopt it with little issue; though, reviewing from the perspective of someone who has largely made use of software keyboards for the past several years, I found the Priv’s physical keyboard a needless amount of fan service.
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The largest issue I have with the device’s hardware keyboard is simply that it is simultaneously far too inset, far too hard, and far too thin to grip and type on comfortably. Whereas older BlackBerry models such as the Curve or Bold offered a refreshing amount of chunk in one’s hand with raised keyboards, this is an anorexic affair that feels uncomfortable to type on.
Conversely, I loved BlackBerry’s software keyboard. Fast, efficient, and with swipe-up predictions, it’s frankly one of the best I’ve used, and were BlackBerry to make it available as a third party download, I’d install it immediately on my own daily driver.
I truly tried to get to grips with the device’s hardware keyboard, but time and time again found myself returning to its software keyboard instead. Were BlackBerry to offer one or the other, I’d probably be far more content. BlackBerry fans – or die-hard physical keyboard users – will love it because its there – the rest of us will, I imagine, resort to using the software keyboard.
There is a silver-lining to this situation, as the Priv’s physical keyboard makes for an excellent touchpad, which, I found, is best made use of in landscape view. It’s a great feature that largely kept me from abandoning the hardware keyboard entirely.
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Put plainly, the Priv is no competition to either the Galaxy Note 5 nor the Sony Xperia Z5. Standby time is lackluster, and the device’s propensity to overheat lead to a far greater decrease in daily battery life than I would like to imagine could be the norm. During my BlackBerry Priv review, I managed to eke out approximately 20 hands-on hours with the Priv, while left on standby the device lasted for just under two days. Good, but not great.
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It’s been many years since I’ve used a BlackBerry camera, and my first impressions with the Priv’s 18 megapixel shooter were largely disappointing. While the Priv’s camera offers a certain level of control, this is a unit one is largely one that will be used in auto mode.
My main criticism of the Priv’s camera lies in its colour reproduction; as far in as I can remember, this is typical BlackBerry under-saturation, that leaves both highlights and shadows undefined and lackluster. Conversely, the camera’s quick draw and rapid focusing redeemed the unit in my eyes, leaving this a mixed bag at best.
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Conversely, the Priv’s 2 megapixel front-facing camera delivers warmer results that its companion, but is let down by its less-than-substantial size.
As one of our readers pointed out in my BlackBerry Priv preview, the Priv’s camera does indeed score the same as the iPhone 6s on aggregator DXOMark. However, were I offered a choice between the two, I’d still much prefer the latter for not only its pedigree, but its accurate colour reproduction and capture of fine detail. The iPhone fares far better in low-light, whereas the Priv struggles to capture a striking image.
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Put frankly, this isn’t a bad camera, but merely an average one at best that falls short of being remarkable. Arguably, BlackBerry’s pedigree has always been in productivity rather than media consumption and creation – and while this isn’t a bad first time effort, it certainly isn’t one that leaves a lasting impression.
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To return to our analogy of Caesar, the Priv – whether it be remembered as good or bad – has set a bold new trajectory for BlackBerry. The company’s decision to commit to Android for the foreseeable future has left us with a more refined device than ever; at the expense of one solid direction.
The Priv will forever have one foot before the Rubicon and one after it; one appealing to BlackBerry die-hards and the other to a new generation of Android phones the Canadian company now has to work to entice. This is a phone that, will making a massive stride forward, still can’t decide where to place its feet.
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Let’s wrap up. To surmise my BlackBerry Priv review, this is a capable smartphone that can stand comfortably amidst a legion of high-performing Android devices, and it’s one at that which has given not only new lease on life for Android, but for BlackBerry as a company.
However, the Priv is let down simply by its nature as a first step into the Android world; suffering because of its commitment to two keyboards, its purpose to deliver on a new design language, and a camera that should be great, but isn’t. Further, a rough retail price of R16,000 ZAR will ultimately dissuade many of the people who’d want to give the Priv a try in any case.
The long march back to Rome has begun, but we’re still a few years off seeing it. Perhaps with the eventual release of the budget Vienna smartphone, BlackBerry will fare better.
Score: 7/10
What are your thoughts on our BlackBerry Priv review? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!
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