Why tap away on a touch screen when you could hammer out emails on a physical keyboard instead? In true BlackBerry fashion, the BlackBerry Priv packs a physical keyboard that slides out from behind the smartphone’s display, letting you type away with tactile feedback. You also get great security software, a spacious 5.5-inch display and the versatility of the Android operating system – a first for the BlackBerry brand. But are the Priv’s unique qualities enough to make it stand out from top business phones like the Galaxy Note 5?
The BlackBerry Priv is a really big smartphone; its footprint is just about as big as the Galaxy Note 5, despite that phone’s larger 5.7-inch display. Weighing 6.77 ounces and measuring 0.37 inches thick, the Priv is also significantly thicker and heavier than competing devices like the Note 5 (5.39 ounces and 0.27 inches), the Nexus 6P (6.2 ounces and 0.28 inches) and the iPhone 6s Plus (6 ounces and 0.29 inches).
In other words, this is a smartphone that’s best used with two hands.
At least the Priv is easy to hang onto. The back of the phone has a soft-touch coating that feels luxurious and makes me feel like I have a sure grip on the device, especially compared with super-slippery competitors like the glass-backed Note 5. I also like the metal trim around the display, which adds a bit of premium appeal and makes it easier to push the screen up to reveal the keyboard.
The Priv’s big 5.5-inch display is great for work, since it gives you a lot of room for screen-intensive tasks like viewing spreadsheets and editing documents on the go. Basic tasks like managing your email inbox and browsing the Web also feel really comfortable. But while Samsung phones like the Note 5 let you take advantage of all that screen space with split-screen multitasking, the Priv only lets you view one app on-screen at a time.
Size aside, the Priv’s display is pretty nice to look at. It has a quad-HD resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 pixels, so it delivers sharp images and crisp text. Unfortunately, it’s a bit on the dim side, topping out at 328 nits of brightness. That’s dimmer than the smartphone average of 430 nits, as well as the Note 5 (490 nits). A brighter screen would be easier to view outdoors or in direct sunlight.
Instead of opting for a classic BlackBerry design, with the keyboard positioned beneath a small upper display, the Priv offers a larger screen with slide-out keyboard underneath. That helps explain why these keys don’t feel quite as good as the ones on devices such as the BlackBerry Passport: BlackBerry had to go with relatively shallow keys to fit them behind the Priv’s display.
They do still have the BlackBerry’s trademark sculpted shape, so it’s relatively easy to feel your way around the keyboard by touch alone. Still, key presses don’t feel as snappy as they did on older BlackBerry phones, which can lead to extra typos.
The keyboard has a few other tricks up its sleeve. Most notably, you can slide your finger over the top of the keys to scroll up or down inside apps, or left and right to move between your various home screen pages. It’s neat, but not really that useful.
I do have two major complaints. First, the top of the keyboard is too close to the top of bottom edge of the display, so it takes some precise thumb maneuvers to hit the keys in the top row. Second, the Alt and Shift keys have swapped positions from where you would normally expect to find them, which is a baffling design decision that had me producing symbols when I meant to capitalize letters. BlackBerry veterans should be used to that quirk, though, since it’s standard on BlackBerry phones.
I also wonder whether anyone really needs a physical keyboard anymore. Personally, I can type much faster, and with equal or greater accuracy, on a touch-screen keyboard. The Priv does have one of those — just slide the physical keyboard shut to make it appear. It’s still not as good as the on-screen keyboard on Samsung phones like the Galaxy S6 and the Note 5, which has a full number row at the top of the layout.
Your mileage may vary, but I suspect that many Priv owners will ultimately adopt the touch screen as their primary input tool, leaving the physical keyboard to gather dust.
But the keyboard isn’t the most notable thing about the BlackBerry Priv – after all, BlackBerry phones have offered similar hardware for years. It’s the software that really sets the Priv apart from its predecessors.
Specifically, the Priv is the first BlackBerry smartphone to run on Android instead of BlackBerry’s own operating system. The Priv ships with a relatively clean installation of Android 5.0 Lollipop, which has plenty of nice productivity features that BlackBerry’s software was missing, like native wireless printing and an easy way to set quiet times for your phone during daily meetings.
More important, the fact that the Priv runs on Android means that you have access to a much, much larger library of apps that you would have had otherwise. That includes full-featured mobiles versions of Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint software, among many other noteworthy apps.
While Android veterans will be largely familiar with the Priv’s software, BlackBerry did add some interesting extra features. My favorite is the Productivity Tab, which appears when you swipe in from the right edge of the phone’s screen. This reveals an overlay, providing quick access to your latest messages, calendar events, pending tasks and address book contacts. The Productivity Tab is accessible from any screen, making it a genuinely useful timesaver in a variety of situations.
The other noteworthy addition is the BlackBerry Hub app, which comes pre-loaded on the Priv’s home screen. BlackBerry Hub lets you add a variety of accounts, including email, text messaging and social media accounts. From there, you can view and respond to all your messages in a single location. It’s a nice way to stay on top of incoming alerts without jumping from app to app.
While just about every competing smartphone – including the Note 5, the Nexus 6P and the iPhone 6s Plus ─ has a built-in fingerprint scanner, the Priv offers no such functionality. That’s a bummer, since fingerprint scanners let you keep your work phone locked down without fussy password screens. Instead, the Priv offers the usual range of lock-screen options, including PIN and pattern-based options.
But the Priv – which BlackBerry says is short for Privacy – does offer some additional security features you won’t find on the average Android phone. First there’s the DTEK app, which lets you see which apps are accessing your phone’s hardware, including the camera and GPS sensor. DTEK tells you which personal information was accessed, and when, then lets you block or restrict access as desired.
The phone’s hardware has built-in encryption technology, so your files and messages are automatically protected. BlackBerry has also committed to rolling out security updates to address Android vulnerabilities as soon as they’re discovered.
Powered by a hexa-core Snapdragon 808 processor, the Priv is a speedy smartphone. Apps open and close very quickly, and the phone blazed along during moderate multitasking sessions.
The Priv scored 3,208 on the Geekbench 3 test, which measures overall performance, which beats the smartphone average of 2,979. Competing phones outpaced it, though, including the Nexus 6P (4,389) and the iPhone 6s Plus (4,405). The Samsung Galaxy Note 5 beat all challengers handily, scoring a seriously impressive 5,200. Still, for typical use, the Priv is more than speedy enough to satisfy even picky workers.
The Priv is a pretty good option if you need a smartphone that can last through a long business flight, or just through the end of the workday. It ran for a solid 8 hours and 36 minutes in our battery test, which simulates continuous Web browsing over 4G. That beats the average smartphone by about a half hour, and it also lasts longer than the iPhone 6s Plus (8:16) and the Note 5 (7:58). The Nexus 6P is the battery life champ, though, running for an incredible 12 hours and 24 minutes on the same test.
The Priv does support quick charging, which can give you a couple of extra hours of usage with a brief 15-minute charge. That’s handy for topping off your battery during a short layover between flights. But while Samsung includes a quick charging cable with the Note 5, you’ll have to buy a separate adapter to get quick charging for the Priv.
If you’re tired of typing on a touch screen, then the Priv is a pretty good pick. It’s BlackBerry’s best offering in years, offering a big screen, premium build quality and solid security features. The software is pretty slick, too; I really like the Productivity Tab, and BlackBerry Hub is as useful as ever. Most important, the fact that the Priv runs on Android means you have access to a huge library of business and productivity apps in the Google Play store.
Still, BlackBerry’s new phone faces some stiff competition from the likes of the Galaxy Note 5, which offers an even bigger display and a slimmer design, as well as a built-in stylus for taking notes right on the screen. The iPhone 6s Plus is also a good option for Apple fans. But BlackBerry devotees who can’t live without a physical keyboard will love the Priv – even if its keyboard isn’t quite as good as BlackBerry’s best.