The new BlackBerry Classic couples solid productivity features with plenty of nostalgic appeal — at least for business users who long for the days of physical QWERTY keyboards on their smartphones. BlackBerry is hoping to recapture some of that enthusiasm with the Classic, a throwback phone with updated software, great security features and a physical keyboard that still provides the most accurate way to type on a smartphone.
Of course, BlackBerry's weaknesses are as obvious as ever. For starters, the platform still doesn't have as many apps as iOS or Android, and its interface is less polished overall. But after taking the BlackBerry Passport for a spin earlier this year, I realize that there's still a lot here for serious business users to like. You can buy BlackBerry Classic starting this week for $449 off contract or wait until January to pick it up for a subsidized price through Verizon or AT&T. We'll have a full review of the phone up soon, but for now, here are five features that make the BlackBerry Classic worth a look in the age of the iPhone.
My time spent reviewing the Passport confirmed for me that BlackBerry's physical keyboard is still the most accurate tool for typing a message on a smartphone. I practically never made a typo when using that device. Like the Passport, the Classic's keys are sculpted at the edge, making it easier to feel where one key ends and the next begins. It's a lot more accurate than typing on a touch screen.
The trade-off, at least for me, is speed. Typing on a BlackBerry smartphone requires deliberate button presses. I picked up steam with practice, but I still put more effort into typing each character than I would have on a touch screen keyboard. One-handed typing is a lot tougher, too, especially since you can't use the gesture-based "swipe" typing that's possible on other platforms, which lets you drag your finger from letter to letter to type a word instead of tapping each key individually.
On the plus side, the Classic retains the same touch gestures that I loved using on the Passport. They work because the phone has a touch-sensitive capacitive layer beneath the keys, which lets you scroll up and down Web pages and documents by gliding your thumb over the keyboard. In effect, it turns the keyboard into an extension of the main touch screen. The Classic also predicts which word you're typing and provides suggestions at the bottom of the display; just place your thumb under the desired word and flick upward to select it.
BlackBerry's excellent suite of security features is still worth mentioning. One of the platform's best features is built-in encryption for email and messaging, ensuring that your private business communications stay private. It works because messages are encrypted before they leave your phone, then pass through a firewall before hitting BlackBerry's servers. A message can only be decrypted by a unique key on the intended receiver's device. As a bonus, you can encrypt files and other data stored on your device or on the microSD Card.
Then there's BlackBerry Protect, a handy Web portal that helps you find or wipe your device if you lose it. It can force your device to emit a loud tone so you can find it if it's nearby, or use your phone's built-in GPS tracker to locate it. You can also remotely lock or wipe your phone. Sure, similar services exist on other mobile platforms, but it's nice to know that you won't have to give up those useful features if you make the switch to BlackBerry.
Finally, there's BlackBerry Balance, which separates your work data from your personal apps by relegating work files and apps to a separate, private profile. That helps ensure that other applications, as well as people who borrow your phone, can't access sensitive client data. Switching between profiles is as easy as wiping down from the top of your screen with two fingers to access the Quick Settings menu, then tapping your other profile.
Apps — or the lack thereof — have long been the BlackBerry platform's biggest weak point. But now there's a pretty good solution: You can install and run Android apps on the BlackBerry Classic as well as on other phones running the BlackBerry 10 software. There are a few downsides, though. First, you can't access Google Play, the main Android app store, on a BlackBerry phone. Instead, all Android apps must be downloaded through Amazon's Appstore, which offers fewer apps, and doesn't have Google apps like Maps, Gmail or Drive. The other downside is that the process of installing Android apps is a bit convoluted, requiring you to navigate through too many menus before your app is finally installed. Still, it makes hundreds of additional apps available on BlackBerry phones, so I won't complain too much.
No, BlackBerry 10 isn't as beautiful as the latest version of iOS or Android. But if you haven't touched a BlackBerry phone in years, it's worth knowing that the platform has changed for the better in the past few years. The revamped BlackBerry Hub, for example, is genuinely useful, letting you view and respond to all your emails and messages in one spot. The updated BlackBerry Calendar app is also pretty good, since it syncs with your PC or Mac via the BlackBerry Blend software.
Meanwhile, BlackBerry Assistant is the platform's answer to Siri on iOS and Google Now on Android, letting you perform all sorts of actions totally hands free. I'm a voice-command junkie; I really think that touchless controls can make anyone more productive. I love being able to set a reminder in just a few seconds with a command such as, "Remind me to call Tom tomorrow at 3 p.m." BlackBerry Assistant also lets you get specific with certain commands, such as "Read me the last email from Susan," which instructs your device to find and read that message aloud.
To make the BlackBerry Classic more enticing to enterprise users, the company is issuing a couple of bundles that provide extra software benefits to businesses. Here's a quick breakdown of the perks.
The Secure Productivity Bundle ($6/user per month) includes:
- BlackBerry VPN Authentication: adds two-factor authentication for company networks, letting you quickly connect by confirming your identity on your smartphone.
- BBM Protected: adds an extra layer of encryption to text messages sent via BlackBerry Messenger.
- BlackBerry Blend for Enterprise: makes it easier for employees to access company data on personal devices without connecting to a VPN, and makes it easier for your IT department to control how data is accessed and shared.
The Enterprise Communicator bundle ($12/user per month) includes:
- BBM Protected: described above.
- BBM Meetings: enterprise-grade videoconferencing application that lets you turn any BBM chat into a video chat session with up to 25 participants.