NEW YORK—Can Android revive BlackBerry?
That’s the pertinent question surrounding the brand-new BlackBerry Priv smartphone that goes on sale Friday. This slider-style phone—the design conceals a physical keyboard—is the first BlackBerry to run Google’s predominant mobile operating system. It almost certainly becomes the fallen smartphone king’s last-ditch chance to get its hardware business off life support, much less to regain any kind of powerhouse status.
BlackBerry chose Android for the Priv over its own BlackBerry 10 software, but the Canadian company insists it isn’t abandoning BlackBerry 10, which runs on other BlackBerrys still in circulation, notably the throwback BlackBerry Classic and the passport-shaped BlackBerry Passport.
Priv, which is pronounced “priv” as in privilege, represents the Google-ization of BlackBerry. You can bark out “OK, Google” to activate a voice search. You can take advantage of Google Now for predictive searches Google thinks you’ll be interested in. And in opening up Android to the BlackBerry loyalist — you’re still out there — devotees get access to the complete catalog of apps in the Google Play Store. On other recent BlackBerrys you could get apps from the BlackBerry World (which you cannot get to from this phone) or the Amazon App Store.
For now, Priv runs the Lollipop flavor of Android, not yet Marshmallow.
I happen to like the new phone a lot, but I’m not ready to predict monumental sales, especially since it isn’t cheap.. You can get it “unlocked” for $699, so that it works with your wireless carrier of choice, so long as that choice is a GSM network like AT&T or T-Mobile. Or you can buy it under a plan from AT&T (no money down, $24.67 a month).
Here’s a closer look:
* Security and battery. BlackBerry’s traditional emphasis on strong battery life and privacy and security are both in evidence here. A pre-loaded app called DTEK by BlackBerry assigns an overall security rating to the device, based on how it’s configured and the overall settings. For example, though I set a screen lock using a pattern I draw on the screen with my finger, the app suggested switching to a screen lock that relies on a more secure PIN or password.
Meanwhile, BlackBerry claims you can get up to 22.5 hours of battery life in mixed use. If you’re out of juice you can charge it up in a hurry, though you’ll have to add a third-party fast-charger for this feat, since the one supplied in the box does not support fast charging.
When the charger is plugged in, you’ll see an illuminated green line along the right edge of the phone’s high-resolution (2560 x 1440), 5.4-inch display that clues you in on the battery status, even when the device is asleep. It’s a small but nice element.
As with other BlackBerrys, you can summon BlackBerry Hub, the helpful single repository for emails, texts, social media messages, call logs and other communications.
* Dual keyboards. The biggest selling point, aside from Android, is the presence of a back-lit physical keyboard that lives up to BlackBerry’s reputation for making really good keyboards. You won’t see the keyboard at first — the designers have done an excellent job of hiding the keyboard under this relatively slim, near 6-inch tall slab. In fact, Priv is a little bit shorter than the iPhone 6s Plus, only slightly thicker and at 6.77-ounces weighs the same.
Of course, since this is also a touchscreen phone, you can use the onscreen BlackBerry-designed virtual keyboard, too.
I found myself using both both keyboards at times. For one thing the keys on the physical keyboard are touch-sensitive so that you can effectively turn that keyboard into a track-pad of sorts, for scrolling or positioning the cursor on the screen.
Moreover, the physical keyboard doesn’t have a dedicated row of keys for numbers, punctuation and other special symbols. Instead, such keys turn up as virtual keys that appear just above the top row on the physical keyboard, in the context of what you’re doing. For example, if you’re banging out a text with the physical keyboard and press the physical “sym” key, a whole set of virtual punctuation and other symbol keys appear an easy tap away on the display above the physical keyboard.
If you are just using the virtual keyboard, the BlackBerry makes use of a clever predictive keyboard feature found on its previous BlackBerry 10 models. As you type on the virtual keyboard, various words that BlackBerry thinks you’re likely to want to type next appear in tiny letters directly over the key you’d strike first for that word. For example, when I typed the word “last” in a text message, the keyboard correctly guessed that one of the next words I wanted to type was “time,” which appeared just above the “t.” To add the word “time” to the message, all I had to was literally flick it up toward the screen and it landed in place. Pretty cool stuff.
Funny, but I’ve always thought about BlackBerrys as phones for the serious-minded business person. But with Android there’s plenty of games to play. The screen here was inviting for movies. The internal speakers aren’t half bad. I didn’t take a ton of pictures, but the ones I shot were pretty impressive using the Priv’s 18-megapixel rear camera. You can bolster the 32 gigabytes of included storage through an optional microSD card (up to 2 terabytes).
Among the drawbacks is the lack of a fingerprint sensor such as the one found on the iPhone, Samsung Galaxy and other new Android devices.
I don’t know if the Priv or Android can save BlackBerry. But it is a strong phone that may get more of you to give the fallen company another chance.
The bottom line
$699 unlocked, www.blackberry.com
Pro. Runs Android. Excellent screen, strong battery, slide-out physical keyboard complements virtual keyboard.
Con. Fast battery-charger not included. No fingerprint scanner. Does not work with Verizon or Sprint. Pricey.
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