The first big phone announcement of Mobile World Congress goes to TCL and BlackBerry, with the two companies unveiling the BlackBerry KeyOne tonight here in Barcelona. The KeyOne is the final version of the device codenamed “Mercury” that we saw at CES last month, and it’s by far the most interesting and enticing BlackBerry phone since TCL started licensing the name.
That is admittedly a low bar. But let’s look at what TCL has achieved here. The KeyOne is an attractive phone with solid fit and finish, hewn from aluminum and covered in Gorilla Glass 4 on the front. The 4.5-inch LCD has a 3:2 aspect ratio and resolution of 1620 x 1080, meaning it’s as sharp as it needs to be. The camera is 12 megapixels and uses a Sony sensor with 1.55-micron pixels.
But the real story is clearly the physical keyboard that sits below the screen. Like the one seen on BlackBerry’s last hurrah as an independent hardware manufacturer, 2015’s expensive and temperamental Priv, it’s touch-sensitive and does a ton of neat tricks. You can use it to scroll without touching the screen; you can assign each key a shortcut, like “I for Instagram” app speed-dial; you can just start typing to start searching Google. There’s also a fingerprint sensor on the space bar.
Combined with the fairly narrow screen, the keyboard makes the KeyOne feel really good to use one-handed. I personally doubt I would ever be anywhere near as fast typing on this keyboard as I am with a touchscreen, but I can’t deny that it feels a thousand times better. It’s also surprisingly useful when multitasking — you can run two apps on the screen at once and enter information without having to obscure one of them with a software keyboard.
This focus on productivity extends to the KeyOne’s internal components. TCL has chosen Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 625 processor, which isn’t by any means the fastest around but is proven to be power-efficient — you can’t get much work done if your phone’s dead by 3PM, after all. Given the pairing with a large 3505mAh battery, then, we’d expect the KeyOne to last longer than most Android phones out there. (For comparison, Lenovo’s Moto Z Play had impressive endurance with the same processor, a bigger screen, and a very slightly larger 3510mAh battery.)
BlackBerry is also concentrating on security with the KeyOne, launching the phone with Android 7.1 and committing to issuing Google’s monthly security patches. Among BlackBerry mainstays like BBM and the BlackBerry Hub, the KeyOne comes with the same BlackBerry DTEK software pre-loaded on TCL’s earlier BlackBerry devices; it monitors the phone’s status, analyzes how secure it is, and gives you granular control over how services are able to use its functions.
Who needs a physical smartphone keyboard in 2017? No-one, really. But if you want a physical smartphone keyboard, I fully understand, and the BlackBerry KeyOne is here for you. At $549 when it ships in April, it’s cheaper than the Priv, but will probably still be a hard sell to most. If you yearn for that tactile feedback, though, it’s kind of your only option. We look forward to finding out just how good an option it is.