BlackBerry returns on a smartphone, but does the keyboard hold the magic anymore?

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Roll back a few years, and carrying a BlackBerry phone was something impressive. You would be busy holding a BlackBerry Bold or Classic, typing away furiously (the advantage of opposing thumbs, one would suppose) on a physical QWERTY keyboard. Mails, messages, BlackBerry Messenger chats— Everything that you did on a BlackBerry phone seemed important to the rest of the world. Then, Apple arrived on the scene with the iPhone and Google launched an assault on the smartphone world with the Android operating system—the stylish concept of all-touch phones was introduced to the world, and the physical keyboard was suddenly looked down upon. BlackBerry, at that time, took a while to come to terms with the unexpected change in landscape. Arguably, it was perhaps too late when it did.

Nevertheless, fast forward to today, and you’ll realize that this isn’t a BlackBerry phone that is made by BlackBerry. It is called the KeyOne, and is in fact made by Optiemus Infracom, under a licence agreement with BlackBerry. Optiemus have the rights to design, manufacture and sell BlackBerry branded phones in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. The KeyOne comes to India with a price tag of Rs39,990 and would be rolling out from 8 August.

Moving on from the nostalgia and the business side of things, a quick look at what the KeyOne brings to the table is critical. The KeyOne is marking the return of the physical QWERTY keyboard, and this is what makes it immediately stand out as a BlackBerry phone, in a sea of similar looking Android phones. This keyboard isn’t just a cluster of 35 keys, but is also touch sensitive. For instance, if you are browsing a web page, you can simply swipe up and down over the keyboard to scroll the web page. The spacebar key can be used as the camera shutter button too. It can however be argued that most users have adapted to touchscreen phones long ago, and only the last surviving BlackBerry aficionado (usually seen sporting a Classic or a Passport) would perhaps be holding out with some hope. The KeyOne, then, is appealing to a very small demographic of users, essentially. Touch typing, additionally with the swipe-to-type feature that most Android keyboards, means that it is now considerably faster to type while tapping on a glass pane than it is on a physical keyboard.

What can make the KeyOne appeal to more potential buyers then, would be if it packs in really powerful specifications. But does it? The 4.5-inch display has a square aspect ratio, to keep the KeyOne from becoming a super tall phone with the keyboard attached. The resolution of 1,620 x 1,080 pixels should be adequate for the screen that the KeyOne has, considering this is a phone that will mostly be used for productivity tasks such as mails and document edits, and not for watching movies. App scaling to this resolution will not be a problem, something that the wider 18.5:9 aspect ratio phones such as the LG G6 and the Samsung Galaxy S8 tend to face.

As far as the dimensions go, at 149.1mm height, this is almost as tall as the Samsung Galaxy S8 (148.9), with the keyboard and display combo making this the tallest BlackBerry phone ever. Even the Priv, with the larger 5.4-inch screen, was 2.1mm shorter.

In terms of the power package, it is a bit of a hit and a miss. While the global variants of the KeyOne come with 3GB RAM, the version that we get in India has 4GB RAM. Good move that, but what rankles a bit is that this runs the Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor. Though this chip is no slouch, it is decidedly mid-range. The Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 (Rs15,899) and the Moto G5 Plus (Rs15,999) are some popular examples of phones that run this processor. Easy then to argue that the KeyOne is more of a work and productivity phone and not something that we will play the latest game titles on, but that would just be a very limited perspective. A premium phone perhaps deserves something more powerful and capable of heavy and regular multi-tasking, taking a cue from the likes of the OnePlus 5 (Rs32,999 onwards; Qualcomm Snapdragon 835), for example.

The KeyOne has a big 3,505mAh battery nevertheless, also taking advantage of the optimizations in Android 7.1.1, and should do well to last your productive workday with relative ease. There is a 12-megapixel camera at the back for capturing memories, and an 8-megapixel front camera for your selfies and video calls—we will know the performance of these two only after we run them through a series of varied photo shooting environments.

Apart from the keyboard, the KeyOne reasserts its “BlackBerry” roots with a greater focus on security than what other Android phones manage. The DTEK app comes preloaded, and keeps an eye on app permissions, data encryption, how the hardware is communicating with the software and the overall integrity of Android, among other things.

There is no denying what the BlackBerry KeyOne is trying to do, and in terms of bringing back the old-world charm, it certainly succeeds. However, we will put it through the paces to see if our thumbs really are so receptive of a physical QWERTY keyboard after tapping on glass panes for so long. And that will make or break the decision to buy the KeyOne, for every single potential buyer.

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