I'm at the airport in Dallas, after a four-hour flight without usable Wi-Fi. That means I have about four hours of email to catch up on. But it's not just any email: it's Monday morning, pre-trade show, I-never-told-anyone-I'd-be-traveling email. It's a lot of email.
Yet here I am, just deplaned, and it's handled. All of it, including plenty of well-considered and lengthy replies, and nothing put off until I could get to a computer. I handled it while I waited for rows 1 through 19 to get their luggage out of the overhead bins, and I did most of it one-handed while crammed betwixt holiday travelers.
This is what the BlackBerry Classic was made for: jamming on email with one hand, pounding out replies like a boss, confidently walking off the plane and to the airport bar to pay exorbitant prices for watered-down drinks that make the pain of modern air travel slightly more bearable.
If only it were made for anything else.
If you make your purchasing decisions based off nostalgia, there's much to commend the Classic to you. Anybody over 30 has the BlackBerry deeply seated in their lizard brain as the de facto image of what a smartphone is, and so simply looking at the Classic evokes a kind of primal sympathy. If I were stricken with aphasia after a horrific brain injury and somebody asked me to draw a smartphone, I would draw the BlackBerry Classic.
More recently, we've gotten used to phones with elegant chamfered edges and expansive black panes of shatterproof glass, but the Classic isn't about smooth lines or spartan aesthetics. It's about having a real, proper, don't-mess-with-me keyboard. The keyboard means the screen has to be smaller, but the screen is less important than the buttons. It's a 720 x 720 3.5-inch LCD that feels cramped when compared to virtually any other smartphone. Really, though, the only problem with the square screen isn't that you can't see more content on it, it's that you can't fit a big enough line of coke on it before you start trading stocks.
You see, this phone is about work, damn you, and that craggy keyboard and those extra buttons serve you in the same way they served your father and his father before him. It's the Tommy Lee Jones of smartphones: old-fashioned, not afraid to yell, and handsome in its aging, rugged way. You always know what you're going to get with good old Tommy Lee Jones — and you'll never get anything else. Same thing with the BlackBerry Classic.
The keyboard is the entire reason for this phone to exist, so let's talk about it. It's great, like really great. It's possible — probable even — that I am just as fast with a good software keyboard as I am with the Classic's keyboard. But the BlackBerry feels better to type on. The keys click just so, with the carefully designed ridges that register the right letter no matter how you fat-finger it. There simply isn’t a more satisfying typing experience to be had with two thumbs.
And having a keyboard always there makes all sorts of everyday tasks faster. Instead of thinking about which app you need for a given task, you just start typing a name or a web search or whatever from the home screen. Then, the BlackBerry Assistant app kicks into gear and filters down to what you need. What's more, you can set most of the keys as long-press shortcuts, giving you somewhere around 25 system-wide ways to jump to your favorite thing.
It's not just the keyboard that's retro: there are four actual, real physical buttons and an optical trackpad sitting between the keyboard and the screen. The "toolbelt," as it’s called, is an easy target for ridicule. There are literally Send and End buttons, as though the primary thing we did with our phones was call people. (Call quality, if you must know, is very good.)
But I'll defend the toolbelt, because the buttons on it are surprisingly useful. The gestures that BlackBerry 10 uses for back, menu, and home are finicky at best — so the toolbelt solves that problem. You can hit the end button to power the phone on and to go home, you can use the back button to close apps from the home screen, and if you're a pro user, you'll know that the BlackBerry button is a magic gateway to yet another layer of keyboard shortcuts.
Even the trackpad, that hilarious vestigial button from an age before touchscreens, manages to be useful. You can scroll wicked fast with it, and combined with the shift key you can multi-select messages and blast them into your trash bin. Or, if you really must, you can bring up a mouse pointer in the browser to make clicking on tiny links easier.
This is a review, so I should tell you about the weight, battery life, camera, and performance. I will, but please understand: When I tell you these things, I’m not doing it to help you decide whether it is suitable for your needs. I am not doing it to help you make a purchasing decision. Here is your purchasing decision: you shouldn't buy this phone.
The BlackBerry Classic is a noble failure, and noble failures teach us more than banal successes. It’s a rocket that fizzled on the launchpad, not a Cessna making a shaky landing.
And so, to review: the battery life is pretty good! It’s above average for late 2014, which equates to around a day and a half of moderate use. It's heavy. It has a plasticky back that's grippy but cheap-feeling. It has a tremendously slow 8-megapixel camera on the back. Here are two pictures I tried to take of my cat. This is a chill cat, the kind of cat who is willing to stick around and wait for a long shutter time. But she is a cat. She has limits.
From a performance perspective, the Classic is a massively infuriating mix of crazy fast and insanely slow. You can pound through gobs of email with an impressive array of keyboard shortcuts and quickly scrolling lists. But when you launch an Android app, you’ll usually find yourself waiting a shockingly long time. Take a popular game, Crossy Road. A fresh load on a 2014 Moto X takes about 10 seconds. On the BlackBerry Classic? Thirty.
A big part of the problem is that the Classic has a last-generation processor that can't keep up with modern web pages and modern apps. It definitely can't keep up with modern Android apps running on top of BlackBerry 10; it's just too many layers of software translation. BlackBerry had to make a hard decision to include Android apps on its platform, since nobody was making native BlackBerry apps. It’s a kludge, and it’s not likely to get better anytime soon. And with many Android apps, you’ll have to deal with the fact that they’re not designed for a square screen.
Maybe you still want to believe in this phone, just a little bit. If I’m honest, I have to say that I want to believe. Maybe, like me, you can’t deny that you have an affinity for a time when your smartphone made you feel more productive and more connected to your friends and family. Maybe you feel like smartphones have become little more than beautiful distraction machines designed to make you obsessed with the constant and never-ending ephemera of the internet. You used to send meaningful words to real friends with BBM, now you play meaningless rounds of Words With Friends against people you don’t care about. Maybe, you think, you can give up those apps and make the BlackBerry Classic the device that will put you in control of your digital life again.
But no, it was not made for you. It was made for the people who are still clinging desperately to their OG 2011 BlackBerry Bolds, stockpiling them like Kim Kardashian. BlackBerry itself chose that three-year-old phone for a spec-for-spec comparison on its own website. What’s worse: it’s not just the hardware that’s slavishly trying to bring back the old magic. The software is, too. The BlackBerry operating system is becoming an arcane and confusing jumble that makes sense only to acolytes of the BlackBerry way.
I think the BlackBerry Hub, the core of the email experience, is a mess. It was a great idea, but it’s getting more complicated and harder to understand as BlackBerry 10 progresses. Instead of spending time clarifying and refining the really good ideas it started with, BlackBerry chose to pile on the five-year-old features its dwindling fanbase demanded. There are enough options and filters and hidden features inside the Hub to make your head spin. Unless you're a BlackBerry pro, it's not for you.
Nostalgia is great for furniture, but not for getting work done
When I was right out of high school, I inherited a pretty nice typewriter. I thought it would help me focus. I loved the mechanics of literally pounding out every keystroke, watching ink get slammed onto the page with definitive force. It made me feel like a writer. Literary. Serious. I loved it for the month I used it.
But then I wanted to actually succeed in college, so I bought a computer and got to work. The typewriter became a handsome conversation piece in my living room, not a thing I actually wrote with. Because nostalgia is great for furniture, but not for getting work done. The BlackBerry Classic is worthy of your sympathy, but not your dollars.
Photography by Sean O’Kane