Hands on: BlackBerry KeyOne review

A phone that's likely to excite BlackBerry fans, but no one else

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

The BlackBerry KeyOne has an odd name, odd design and is all round just a bit odd. The full physical keyboard will interest hardcore fans, but there are better Android phones on the market for the general public.

For

  • Tactile keyboard feels good
  • Android 7.0 Nougat is here
  • Strong enterprise software

Against

  • Very top heavy when using keyboard
  • Awkward design with navigation above board

The BlackBerry KeyOne has been unveiled at MWC 2017, and along with that slightly awkward name you'll find a handset which could struggle to fit in to today's mobile market.

Originally unveiled at CES 2017 back in January, this phone remained unnamed - dubbed only by the web as the ‘BlackBerry Mercury’ - until the end of February when TCL took to the stage in Barcelona to confirm the name, price, specs and release date of the KeyOne.

It's safe to say we're not fans of the name, but those still yearning for a decent physical keyboard on their smartphone could well be in luck.

BlackBerry KeyOne price and release date

The BlackBerry KeyOne price has been confirmed as £499 (around $620, AU$810), putting it up against the flagship Android handset from 2016.

You'll only have to wait a couple of months to get your hands on it too, with the BlackBerry KeyOne release date set for April.

BlackBerry KeyOne keyboard

The BlackBerry KeyOne is a blast from the past thanks to its physical keyboard. It combines what we liked about the BlackBerry Classic hardware with the BlackBerry DTEK50 software.

The familiar QWERTY keys are here with the quality feedback that you just can't get with a touchscreen, but you can also use it to scroll through pages by lightly gliding your fingers over the keys - a feature first seen in phones like the BlackBerry Passport

It’s like a giant trackpad, but it's not as smooth as we'd like. During our hands on time with the KeyOne scrolling web pages and contacts lists wasn't as smooth as using our finger on the touchscreen, 

New to the BlackBerry KeyOne is a fingerprint sensor, and it’s neatly tucked into the keyboard’s space bar. It feels almost as if it isn’t there.

Non-Blackberry Android users may mistake the space bar/fingerprint sensor combo for the home button (since it's way at the bottom), but the real home button is above the physical keyboard along with capacitive soft keys.

BlackBerry KeyOne interface and performance

The keyboard design might feel retro, but the software on the BlackBerry KeyOne is futuristic thanks to the fact that it's running Android 7.0 Nougat

Instead of bloatware or menu changes, this new BlackBerry simply sticks to stock Android, and TCL and BlackBerry were pretty adamant about keeping it that way. 

The real selling point here ( besides the familiarity of the Google Play Store and its ridiculously massive two million apps) is the highly secure encryption that’s good enough for world-leading governments.

While newer enterprise platforms like Samsung Knox and iOS 10 have been courting the same customers, this is one area in which BlackBerry can make a comeback. It's a meaningful audience that buys phones in bulk. 

We found general performance - provided by a Snapdragon 625 chip and 3GB of RAM - to be acceptable, but it's far from the slickest implementation of Android we've enjoyed.

Another slight quirk is the face the app draw is still an icon press away, even though the KeyOne is running Android 7 Nougat which switches a swipe up gesture to view your apps.

We reckon BlackBerry has reverted to the icon tap because swiping up on the screen isn't so easy when there's a full physical keyboard you need to get over first.

There's 32GB of storage housed inside the KeyOne, and that can be expanded by up to another 256GB via the microSD slot on the phone.

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BlackBerry KeyOne design and display

Combining a 4.5-inch touchscreen and sizable physical QWERTY keyboard was never going to be easy, and it means the BlackBerry KeyOne sits rather awkwardly in the hand.

Type on the keyboard and you'll immediately need to grip the phone with both hands as it becomes very top heavy. That may not be an issue a lot of the time, but it rules out one-handed typing.

Another annoyance is the location of the Android navigation keys - which are on the screen, above the keyboard. This results in a rather awkward motion to hit -the home, back or multi-tasking icons, which detracts from the usability of the handset.


Something else we found a little confusing was the location of the power/lock button - which sits on the left of the phone. That's not usually an issue, but on the right a near identical key sits below the volume rocker.

This 'convenience key' can be programmed to launch your favorite app or action, but can easily be mistaken for the power switch. Once you've used the KeyOne for a few days you'll no doubt get used to the layout, but it's one obvious initial frustration.

The KeyOne is also quite thick, and its overall body is dominating in the palm. Thankfully the soft-touch rear provides plenty of grip, which you'll be pleased about as a lot of shuffling is required as you shift from the keyboard to the screen.

The soft-touch rear and metal round the edge don't ooze premium appeal though, which is a little bit of a shame considering the price tag, but the weight and construction gives the KeyOne a well-built vibe.

Early verdict

The BlackBerry brand is making a comeback thanks to TCL, but if it continues to produce phones like the KeyOne it'll likely remain on the sidelines of the mobile industry.

The BlackBerry KeyOne is a smartphone for the fans - offering those demanding a return of the physical keyboard to their mobile a solid, dependable option. The only problem is, those people are decreasing in numbers all the time.

For the money there's a wide range of better Android handsets on the market, but if you're desperate to feel those 52 tiny keys beneath your fingers once again you may just fall in love with the KeyOne. 

We just wish it had a better name.

MWC (Mobile World Congress) is the world's largest exhibition for the mobile industry, stuffed full of the newest phones, tablets, wearables and more. TechRadar is reporting live from Barcelona all week to bring you the very latest from the show floor. Head to our dedicated MWC 2017 hub to see all the new releases, along with TechRadar's world-class analysis and buying advice about your next phone.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Phones, Tablets and Wearables UK Editor

John (Twitter, Google+) got his first phone aged 12 and since then he's been fixated on all things mobile, churning his way through a multitude of handsets, tablets and wearables. Signalling his arrival at TechRadar by becoming a Guinness World Record holder in his first week, John hasn't looked back since.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.