Last year BlackBerry launched the Priv, its first-ever Android smartphone. The Priv represented another attempt by BlackBerry to reinvent itself for the modern mobile era and build something worthy of competing with Apple, Samsung, and other smartphone makers. But the Priv’s positives (a great physical keyboard and beautiful curved screen) were derailed by buggy software and a comically high asking price. It failed badly. Even so, the marriage between BlackBerry — the self-proclaimed “most trusted name in mobile privacy and security” — and Android seems like a relationship that could really work.
This month, BlackBerry began shipping its second Android phone: the DTEK50. At $300 unlocked (and supported by AT&T and T-Mobile in the US), it solves the Priv’s problem of being overpriced and contains all the same stepped up security features and reliable software updates. But in pursuing that lower cost, BlackBerry has ended up with a boring, underwhelming phone that’s unlikely to sway consumers away from similarly priced competition. It might find a sweet spot in the enterprise and with companies that put security above all else, but only if they haven’t already settled on Apple’s locked-down iOS or Samsung’s Galaxy devices, which offer their own sophisticated security measures.
Which is really disappointing, because BlackBerry has identified a market need and theoretically could do a great job filling it. Android has faced repeated security woes through the years, with headlines regularly citing “millions of vulnerable devices.” And occasionally, the threats are legitimate. But consumers can usually disregard the hysteria and stay relatively safe by following some simple best practices. Here are a couple: don’t install apps except from the Play Store, don’t click weird links. Still those who require a higher level of security needed a company that could consistently promise to provide it. So when BlackBerry made the jump to Android, it did so with an enthusiastic “we’ve got your back” pledge to customers. BlackBerry publicly committed to delivering monthly security updates consistently and on time, a promise that the company has so far kept. That’s more than many other Android manufacturers can say.
So how exactly does the DTEK50 differ from last year’s Priv aside from the much lower price? Hardware-wise, it’s mostly a downgrade on all fronts. This is a BlackBerry that doesn’t feel very BlackBerry, for starters — probably because it’s not manufactured by BlackBerry at all. Instead, the DTEK50 is made by TCL and its design is nearly identical to that of the Alcatel Idol 4. Gone is the physical keyboard, perhaps the one defining trait that really calls out to BlackBerry’s customers. Instead, this is your everyday slab of a touchscreen smartphone. The only real change BlackBerry made to the aesthetics was swapping out the Idol 4’s glass back for a rubberized, textured finish. It was the right call, making the phone easy to confidently grip and avoiding any ugly fingerprints whatsoever. Less flashy, but it fits in with this phone’s boring-but-sturdy look.
Hardware that's nice enough on the outside, but underwhelming inside
Everywhere else, it’s a straight clone of the Alcatel. Some good. Some bad. There’s a 5.2-inch 1080p display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor, 3GB of RAM, and 13-megapixel camera. You’ve got a paltry 16GB of built-in storage, but thankfully that’s expandable with a microSD card. I think my favorite thing about this hardware is the speaker setup; like the Idol 4, this BlackBerry has stereo, front-facing speakers on both the front and back of the device, so you’ll hear the DTEK50 just fine whether it’s right-side up or face down on a table. (The audio isn’t particularly rich or full, though.) The screen is also rather nice for a $300 phone; it’s not the most vivid display around, but colors are accurate and viewing angles are perfectly adequate.
After that, the hardware gets pretty meh; the notification LED is nice to have, but it only flashes white, so customization options are rather limited. That’s a small detail BlackBerry’s old customers might miss. The "convenience key" button midway down the right side of the DTEK50 can be set up as a shortcut for any app or actions like composing a text / email, but it won’t work (or even wake the phone) when the screen is off. And the camera is about what you’d expect from a phone at this price point. It’ll capture decent photos under ideal conditions, but quality can unravel at night and indoors. Throw enough Instagram filters on the resulting photos and maybe they’ll turn into something you can live with, but this camera just isn’t very good.
On the software side, things remain as they were on the Priv, only less buggy and a little more refined. You get an experience very close to stock Android (in this case Marshmallow) with some light customizations here and there, plus BlackBerry’s own suite of apps and software tweaks. Pop-up widgets are an example of a neat BlackBerry thing. They let you flick up on a home screen icon to see that app’s widget at a glance instead of permanently wasting crucial space on your home screen and leaving them there for the world to see.
Then there’s BlackBerry Hub, which consolidates everything from your communication apps — email, text, Facebook, Twitter, Slack, etc. — into one place. It can be useful if you take the time to set it up and then disable other app notifications to prevent duplicates. That’s a bit of work, so I stuck with the individual app approach for the most part. (Plus, BlackBerry Hub was just released for all Android phones, so it’s no longer something that sets the DTEK50 apart.) BBM is there too, of course, but it's also not exclusive to BlackBerry devices anymore.
BlackBerry’s software is fine, but this phone’s performance isn’t. Maybe I could live with the DTEK50’s drab design if it handled itself better at smartphone things, but it never really felt completely smooth or fluid in my time using it, and got bogged down more times than I’d like. Battery life also veers into mediocre territory, as getting through a day of moderate use can be a serious challenge for the DTEK50. It supports Quick Charge 2.0 when it comes time to reup the 2,610mAh battery, but I wish BlackBerry had optimized for better longevity without that crutch.
So truthfully, security is really the only worthwhile selling point here. This is claimed to be the "most secure smartphone in the world," after all. BlackBerry says the DTEK50 contains the same under-the-hood improvements as the Priv, like a "hardware root of trust" that prevents anyone from tampering with the device’s insides and full disk encryption enabled by default. But Android Marshmallow already put a big focus on the latter, and Google has bolstered security further with file-level encryption and other additions to Android 7.0 Nougat. One thing the DTEK50 lacks altogether is a fingerprint sensor. That’s a strange omission for a phone that bets everything on security, but the reason is clear: cost cutting. The Idol 4 doesn't have a fingerprint sensor; neither does the DTEK50. Instead, you’re stuck with Android’s old PIN, password, or pattern options.
There’s also a software side to BlackBerry’s security push, led by the namesake DTEK app. Open DTEK and it’ll instantly analyze your system to find any potential security holes. Often times, it returns common sense advice, like urging you to use a PIN to protect your data and warning against installing apps and games from sources other than the Google Play Store. (That’s one of the most important best practices mentioned earlier.) But the DTEK app also closely monitors permissions around the system and can, for example, tell you exactly how many times Facebook has accessed your contacts, location, or microphone. It’s a cool trick, but again, Android Marshmallow already allows you to deny individual permissions to any app you’ve got installed. It’s not like BlackBerry is really tightening the screws much further here.
The shining light, then, is those constant software updates. BlackBerry has done a remarkable job at delivering Android’s monthly security updates reliably and quickly — sometimes even before Nexus phones receive them. It’s a streak that has put many other companies to shame and is easily the biggest plus that comes with owning this phone. BlackBerry is handling most of the work around keeping your phone safe all on its own.
But is being saddled with a boring phone worth those frequent security patches? Only if you’re very worried about falling victim to whatever treacherous Android malware threat will make headlines next. And even then, you can probably shop around and find the better, faster Priv for $300 and retain the physical keyboard that is BlackBerry’s heart and soul. The DTEK50 is secure, sure, but it’s underwhelming in most every other regard. If BlackBerry could only marry that security with better hardware, then it’d have a far more compelling package. Until then, it fails to stand out in a competitive field of midrange smartphones.
Photography by Chris Welch.