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BlackBerry Priv review

Can an Android phone save BlackBerry?

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This is the phone that's supposed to save BlackBerry.

That seems like a dire thing to say about the new Android-powered BlackBerry Priv, which in any other context would just be yet-another Android phone in what has become a veritable sea of yet-another Android phones. As an Android phone, it's stolidly middle of the road. It's unique in having a hardware keyboard, and it has some nice BlackBerry software features, but it does Android things.

But there's way more riding on the $699 Priv than whether or not it's a decent Android phone. BlackBerry's CEO says the company needs to sell 5 million a year to stay in the consumer handset business — a number that's either eminently achievable or wildly optimistic depending on your perspective. It's the last chance for a once-dominant global brand to stay relevant, and if it fails, BlackBerry will have little choice but to accept a future as a niche company that provides software services to business and government.

And BlackBerry has risen to the occasion, creating a device that's bursting with good ideas on both the hardware and software side. Good ideas, however, aren't enough. BlackBerry needs to execute on them flawlessly.

No pressure.

BlackBerry Priv

Let's start with the physical keyboard, because it's the most BlackBerry thing about the Priv. The screen slides up with a satisfying snik to reveal the four plastic rows. It's a fine keyboard, and it registers my keypresses without fail, even when I type quickly. It's laid out in classic BlackBerry fashion, the better to appeal to people whose thumb muscles still remember their Bolds.

BlackBerry did more than just slap a keyboard under the screen. The whole phone is thoughtfully designed to make the keyboard usable. It's balanced so that it doesn't feel too top-heavy when it's slid open, and it's thin enough that if you didn't even know there was a keyboard under the screen, you wouldn't call it thick. And the back is made of a grippy "glass weave" material that makes it easy to hold without collecting lint and dust.

The software is also optimized for the keyboard — no mean feat, given how few Android phones have bothered with them anymore. From the home screen, you can long-press keys to quick-launch shortcuts, and you can also just start typing to trigger a search (though sometimes the search app misses a keypress here and there).

The keyboard is also touch-sensitive, so you can scroll with it and swipe down on it to bring up an optional symbols keyboard. Swiping up is supposed to enter the next word that BlackBerry predicts, but it's really finicky and basically only worked about half of the time for me.

Lots of people have been asking me about the keyboard, usually with a nostalgic pang in their voice. Even more have expressed incredulity that a physical keyboard is even something you'd want. My answer to both kinds of people is basically the same: you are probably not going to be any faster or more accurate on this than you are on a touchscreen keyboard, but it isn't about what's definitively "better." Because after you reach a certain level of quality and functionality, it's perfectly fine just to have personal preference. Live and let live.

BlackBerry Priv

Beyond the keyboard, the Priv's hardware is quite good. It has a 5.4-inch curved AMOLED display, a size that's Goldilocks-just-right for a phone with a slide-out keyboard: big enough to feel expansive, but not so big it's ridiculous. The display itself is plenty high resolution at 2560 x 1440 and looks great.

BlackBerry opted to put the speaker in the front, at the bottom, and also included a "Mute" button in between the volume buttons. It never did anything more than toggle the volume pop-up controls for me, but those controls are really smart — they combine all three volume types and Do Not Disturb in a single, coherent interface.

Therein lies the beginning of the true story about the Priv. This thing is chock-full of really good ideas, badly executed.

The battery is pretty big, at 3,410 mAh. The processor is a Snapdragon 808 paired with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. You could quibble that you'd want the Qualcomm 810, but I won't, and I am also glad to see that the base memory is 32GB and you can expand it yourself with an SD card. All good stuff!

But I've had issues with both heat and performance. Both are not what they ought to be on a phone at this level. In fact, the very reason this review didn't come out alongside all of the other Priv reviews is that my first unit froze itself into oblivion no fewer than four times. My second unit hasn't had any of those game-stopping bugs, but it still seems to have teeth-grindingly bad misses on the touchscreen and inexplicable slow downs in some apps. And as for battery life, those processor issues seem to be keeping it from hitting the "22.5 hours of mixed use" that BlackBerry claims. I get through a solid day, but it gets dicey if I push this phone with games and video.

The camera is another perfect example of BlackBerry's excellent work undone by a failure to cross the software fit-and-finish line. It's an 18-megapixel sensor with Optical Image Stabilization and a dual-LED flash. It's easily the best camera ever put in a BlackBerry — though the preceding is the very definition of faint praise. I can, however, praise the results, which are sharp and good-looking even in relatively low light.

Unfortunately, the camera is slow. Even in the best of cases, you're looking at about a second between the moment your finger hits the shutter button (or space bar) and when the image is shot and saved in your gallery. With HDR mode on, I've seen it take upwards of 4 or 5 seconds to finish taking an photo.

BlackBerry Priv

There are good ideas that don't fall down, though. BlackBerry built a home screen that lets you swipe up on any icon to show a relevant widget, and you can also swipe up from the home button to get to one of three customizable shortcuts instead of just one. The notification pane has a little bar that lets you filter by app. BlackBerry even resurfaced all of Android's neat little shortcuts that let you have one-tap access to composing messages or getting directions home. It created a little slide-in pane on the right you can access from any app to see your calendar, messages, contacts, and to-do list. The Priv's virtual keyboard lets you auto-complete words right from the key you're pressing rather than a bar up at the top.

BlackBerry also has done really solid work adding a layer of security to the Priv — "Priv" stands for "privacy," after all. The user-facing aspect of it is a piece of software called DTEK security, which monitors your phone for nefarious acts and also gives you a handy security audit that lets you know what's going on inside each one. The Priv isn't running the most recent version of Android, but it has the same ability to let you examine each app's access to your privacy settings and turn them off if you don't like them.

But it's another great BlackBerry software idea that ends up being the one that's the most painful to talk about: the BlackBerry Hub. It's designed to be a kind of super messaging app that can handle all of your email, SMS messages, tweets, calls, and ultimately any other incoming signal that's giving you heartburn. You can filter all of it in a million different ways to get super productive views of what you need to get done really quickly.

In a perfect world, I'd want something that could corral the 10 different messaging apps I seem to have to use into something coherent and unified. But the Hub just doesn't understand Gmail, for a start, because it doesn't let you archive email, only delete. But the bigger problem is that it's patient zero in the creeping slowness that pervades much of the Priv's software. And even if BlackBerry could fix that, I know that it's never going to support all the apps I'd want to plug into it.

BlackBerry Priv

If you want, you can turn off most of BlackBerry's software customizations and just be left with a very capable, very good-looking Android phone that just happens to have a physical keyboard. I was sorely tempted to do just that several times, and if I weren't reviewing the Priv, I surely would have. But then I still would have had those performance issues to contend with.

BlackBerry says that it has a software fix coming rather soon that will address a lot of what I experienced — and indeed, in the run up to the review it's been pushing software updates through Google Play at a heady clip. Yes, those updates came through Google's store, and I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that you can install anything you'd like from Android on this — it's a full and complete Android device.

Performance issues mar an otherwise great experience

When I was reviewing this phone, I took the Acela train from New York to DC. It's a train filled to the brim with lawyers and lobbyists — and several of them saw the BlackBerry logo atop this beautiful phone and asked me about it. One of them gestured with disdain at his iPhone, practically begging me to give him permission to cast it aside and go back to the BlackBerry. (Obviously the $699 asking price wasn't going to be a problem.)

In truth, I wanted to tell him to do it. But I couldn't. There are enough software bugs and slowdowns that I had to tell him to hold off and see if BlackBerry could finish the job it started here. Take those good ideas and buff off their rough edges, make the software just a little more stable. Because as a first effort at an Android phone, the Priv is remarkable, and I couldn't wait to see what a second push would do for it (assuming, of course, that BlackBerry gets the chance).

But by the time I was done with my spiel, the lawyer had already turned back to his iPhone, muttering at his client. He had work to do, you see, and didn't have time to wait.

Photography by Sean O'Kane