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BlackBerry KEYone Review

BlackBerry KEYone

Posted: , by Stephen S. Stephen S.

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Interface and Functionality

BlackBerry may be betting on its software, but this interface is an absolute hardware showcase

BlackBerry KEYone Review

When BlackBerry went the way of Android, it was imperative that the company find ways to make its offerings stand out from the rest of the Android crop. As we've seen from so many other manufacturers, that meant popping the hood on Google's operating system and implementing some tweaks of the company's own. A lot of that focuses on security, like the DTEK app, and while it's easy to see how a lot of that is designed to lure in business customers, it's also quite novice-friendly, breaking down phone security settings into an easy-to-understand rating.

Other aspects of BlackBerry's value-add include bundling in its BBM messaging service. Again, that's going to appeal to a certain subset of users more than others, but it wouldn't be a BlackBerry phone without its presence. The BlackBerry Hub is a little more appealing to users as a whole, but the more time we spend with the KEYone, the less we care about its software features, and more about the ways TCL is using the phone's hardware to change our expectations for an Android interface.

One of the KEYone's more unique features is the ability for users to interact with the phone's screen without actually touching it, thanks to capacitive sensors embedded into the phone's hardware keyboard, effectively letting it double as a touchpad. BlackBerry's pulled this trick before, and we're happy to see it back now.

There's something surprisingly freeing about being able to read a website, scrolling through its pages, without a finger obscuring your view or worse: smudging up the screen. The feature largely works well, but we did notice a few issues with sensitivity, like the speed of scrolling didn't always feel consistent, and sometimes just lifting our finger straight off the keyboard unintentionally scrolled the screen.

Another cool trick is the ability to set up keyboard shortcuts, where pressing a letter on the physical keyboard can quick-launch an app or perform a phone action. With so many letters to choose from, and the ability to launch different apps depending on whether you short-press or long-press the key, there's no shortage of possibilities here. Actually remembering which key triggers which effect is another problem, but we'll leave you to figure that out for yourself.

Speaking of shortcuts, we've got this Convenience Key living below the phone's volume rocker. Just like a keyboard shortcut, pressing it can either perform a phone action or pull up the app of your choice. In using it, we found its presence a little confusing at times – even while fully aware of what the key is and what it does, it was still very easy to mistakenly hit it when we meant to press power. Presumably we'd get more used to it in time, but that adjustment period may vary depending on your previous history with phone-button layout.

That hiccup aside, configurable hardware buttons are always fun, and there's an extra bit of enjoyment in taking an ostensibly professional, business-focused phone like the KEYone and giving it a dedicated Snapchat button.

Finally, we've got to talk about the fingerprint scanner, and TCL has pulled the neat trick of integrating the KEYone's scanner into the phone's space bar. That's a really clever move, and ends up being a very convenient spot to place the component. In operation, it tends to work reasonably well – not the fastest, most accurate scanner we've ever tested, but far from the worst, either. Our one gripe is that occasionally it would just refuse to recognize our prints at all; but we suppose that's what PIN backup is for.

Processor and Memory

Some extra RAM would be great, but these other mid-range specs work really well

BlackBerry KEYone Review

It's easy to criticize TCL for building a BlackBerry without what we consider flagship-level specs: there's only 3GB of RAM, and the phone's powered by the mid-range Snapdragon 625 processor. Now the RAM – that's unfortunate, as it wouldn't have cost much more to move to 4GB, and we definitely noticed some issues with apps reloading while multitasking.

But the choice of processor is one we're going to have to defend, as while it doesn't make the KEYone a great handset for really high-end games or use with a virtual reality headset, those are absolutely not the intended use cases for this smartphone in the first place. Honestly, the 625 is fast enough for what your average BlackBerry user is going to want to do, but its trump card isn't even performance nor pricing: it's power efficiency.

We're going to circle back around to battery life in just a few moments, but the choice to have the KEYone powered by a Snapdragon 625 (combined with a couple other important hardware decisions) gives this handset the ability to casually sip away at its power reserves long after higher-profile flagship phones would have run out of juice.


The KEYone ships with 32GB internal storage, as well as the option for expansion via microSD. Nothing's particularly surprising about either of those developments, and while we always love seeing 64GB phones, 32GB feels sufficient for a handset like this one.

Connectivity

No matter who you get your cellular service from, the KEYone is happy to accommodate

BlackBerry KEYone Review
The KEYone isn't trying to impress anyone with next-gen cellular tech. There's no big emphasis on high-throughput cellular data, advanced MIMO systems, or anything of the sort. But what we do get instead is possibly even more valuable, with broad support for existing cellular networks.

BlackBerry's going to be selling both GSM and CDMA-equipped unlocked KEYone handsets, practically ensuring that you'll be able to pick up a model that's ready to go with the carrier of your choice. And even if that whole “unlocked” sales business has you feeling wary, worry not, because TCL has affirmed that major carriers are going to be selling the phone, too. We don't have an exhaustive list just yet, but can say that Sprint will be among them.

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PhoneArena rating:
8.5Excellent
Display4.5 inches, 1080 x 1620 pixels (433 ppi) IPS LCD
Camera12 megapixels
Hardware
Qualcomm Snapdragon 625, Octa-core, 2000 MHz, ARM Cortex-A53 processor
3 GB RAM
Size5.87 x 2.85 x 0.37 inches
(149.1 x 72.4 x 9.4 mm)
6.35 oz  (180 g)

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