The BlackBerry Classic was built for productivity, but it's far from a no-brainer for business users. The new device is a throwback to BlackBerry's heyday, when a physical QWERTY keyboard was the brand's defining characteristic. But that feature isn't enough to make the Classic a must-have smartphone, even for the business set.
The Classic does have a lot going for it. In addition to the responsive keyboard, you get long battery life and a wealth of excellent security options. But there are big trade-offs, including a tiny display and an operating system that feels outdated and clunky compared with the latest versions of iOS or Android. The Classic's strengths should be enough to please longtime fans, but unless your IT manager insists you stick with BlackBerry, most business users would be better off with a different smartphone.
The BlackBerry Classic really feels like a phone that can take a beating, thanks in no small part to the thick stainless steel frame that wraps around all four edges and protrudes ever so slightly above the sides of the display. The textured, plastic back isn't sleek, but it feels equally durable, and makes the phone easy to grip. Overall, the Classic feels utterly dependable — just what you want in a business phone.
It might be nostalgia talking, but the Classic's old-school design still has plenty of appeal. From the gently curved corners to the slick metal trim between each row of the keyboard, everything here looks carefully designed. I also like the look of the "tool belt," which sits above the keyboard and adds several function keys, as well as an optical trackpad for more precise navigation.
Weighing in at 6.24 ounces, the Classic is pretty hefty for a phone of its size. In comparison, the 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 4 has a bigger footprint and weighs just 5.26 ounces, and the all-metal HTC One M8 weighs 5.6 ounces, with a 5-inch display. Meanwhile, the iPhone 6 weighs just 4.6 ounces. Weight is something to consider if you plan to hold the phone up to your ear for lengthy business calls.
Display: Too small for work?
With most flagship smartphones now sporting screens measuring 5 inches or more, the Classic's tiny 3.5-inch screen feels more than a little claustrophobic. The culprit is that physical keyboard, which takes up a third of the phone's front side. The screen isn't very sharp, either, with a resolution of 720 x 720 pixels. Compare that with the BlackBerry Passport, whose square 4.5-inch display packs twice as many pixels.
The small screen could be a real liability if you plan to use your smartphone for screen-intensive tasks like editing a spreadsheet or document on the go. Even composing an email feels a bit cramped. Web browsing is especially painful, particularly when you run into a website that lacks a mobile layout. Other phones let you turn your device sideways for a wider view, but the Classic's square screen offers no such relief.
In the age of virtual touch-screen keyboards, the Classic's physical-keyboard buttons are the star attraction here. But while those buttons may have provided a faster and more accurate typing experience than, say, the original iPhone, today's touch screens are precise and responsive enough to make the Classic's keyboard feel unnecessary at best and cumbersome at worst.
There are some positives, however. Longtime BlackBerry users won't be surprised that the keys themselves look and feel great. Each key has a sculpted face that makes it easy to tell where one ends and the next begins, so I could almost type by touch alone. Key presses feel buttery smooth, and keys bounce back with a satisfying springiness. Plus, typing is pretty quiet; there are no annoying button clicks here.
The downside is that typing with physical keys is slow. On my personal Android smartphone, I tap out messages at a rapid pace, my thumbs just grazing each virtual key before moving onto the next, and automatic correction software does a pretty good job of sorting out typos. In comparison, typing on the Classic's physical keyboard feels deliberate. That's because each key stroke requires a purposeful, relatively forceful thumb press to register. It slows me down, and the marginal gains in accuracy didn't feel like a fair trade-off.
Plus, the keyboard feels cramped. When I'm typing out lengthy messages on my Android phone's virtual keyboard, I prefer to hold the device in landscape mode to get wider keys that are easier to tap. But the Classic's physical keys can't be rotated. They're stuck, crowded permanently into the narrow space between the phone's left and right sides. The sculpted design of each key helps, but my fingers yearned for more breathing room while typing. I just couldn't get comfortable — and I don't even have large hands.
Typing with one hand is feasible; slower than it would be on a virtual keyboard, but also more accurate. I missed the ability to type with swipe gestures, though. That feature, which is available on every other smartphone platform, makes one-handed typing much less of a strain.
Your mileage may vary, but my experience with the Classic's keyboard was a mixed bag. Legacy BlackBerry users and diehard fans are sure to cheer the return of the physical keyboard, but most people — even business users — are better off trading it in for more screen space.
The Classic runs on BlackBerry 10, the latest version of BlackBerry's mobile operating system. If you've used an iPhone or Android phone, the interface should be relatively familiar. There are five home screens: three for storing apps, one that shows currently running apps and one for the BlackBerry Hub, which combines email and messages from various apps into a single, unified inbox.
Navigation is achieved through a variety of swipe gestures. Swipe sideways and you can flip between home screens; swiping up from the bottom of the screen will unlock your phone or take you back to the home screen when you're in an app.
The problem is that swiping on the BlackBerry Classic is not as easy or reliable as it is on other platforms. Short or diagonal swipes often go unrecognized, which is sure to lead to frustration if you're used to iOS or Android, which are both super-responsive. Thankfully, the physical buttons on the tool belt can often be used for navigation in lieu of gestures.
Messaging and alerts
The BlackBerry Classic does a pretty good job of helping you stay on top of things with an intuitive alert system. All notifications show up as icons on the lock screen. You can tap once to view more details, and tap again to open the corresponding application. If you're using the phone when an alert arrives, it will appear in a small pop-up window at the top of the screen. You can act on it or dismiss it with a tap.
Then there's BlackBerry Hub, a messaging inbox that resides just to the left of the Classic's main home screen. All messages, including email, texts and social media messages are sent to the Hub, so you can see them all at a glance. You can also tweak criteria to filter important items into a high-priority inbox. Meanwhile, a small messaging icon at the bottom left corner of the home screen lets you jump to the Hub at any time. It's a useful spot to help you stay on top of things.
Then there's BlackBerry Blend, a desktop application that connects your PC or Mac to the Classic. Blend lets you view and respond to email, text messages and more from your computer, with a full-size keyboard. It also lets you view your BlackBerry calendar and receive appointment alerts from your desktop.
For a smartphone maker that prides itself on top-notch security, it's surprising that BlackBerry hasn't yet added a fingerprint scanner to any of its smartphones. Still, true to the BlackBerry brand, the Classic offers a slew of excellent security features. The big one is that the device encrypts emails and messages out of the box, to keep private business communications private. You can also encrypt data stored on your device or microSD Card with 256-bit AES encryption.
Then there's BlackBerry Protect, a Web portal that can help you find and secure your phone if it's lost or stolen. The feature lets you force your phone to emit a loud tone to see if it's nearby, remotely lock your device or remotely wipe your data. These are all features that you'll find on other mobile platforms, but it's nice to know that BlackBerry's version is robust and reliable.
The selection of apps in the BlackBerry World store can't hold a candle to the app libraries of Android or iOS. Fortunately, you can now install Android apps on BlackBerry 10 devices, which greatly expands your options. On the other hand, you can't access Google Play — the main app store for Android devices — on a BlackBerry phone. Instead, you get access to Amazon's Appstore, which has fewer apps overall and lacks official Google apps, such as Gmail, Docs or Google Maps. Still, I found that Android apps ran well on the Classic, though not all of them were designed to fit onto the phone's square screen.
That's not to say that BlackBerry is devoid of useful native apps. The Classic comes preloaded with some good picks for business users, including LinkedIn, Evernote and Documents to Go.
The Classic's long battery life makes it an even more dependable business phone. While most modern smartphones are out of juice by bedtime, the Classic easily made it through a day and a half before I had to start worrying — even after I spent hours responding to email messages, surfing the Web and browsing Facebook and Twitter.
BlackBerry also included the Battery Saving Profile, which kicks in automatically when the Classic hits a certain battery threshold. The feature lowers the brightness, sets the screen timeout to 30 seconds, keeps the display off when alerts arrive and can also be set to turn off GPS services. The Battery Saving Profile is customizable, and works well to extend the Classic's battery life.
The BlackBerry Classic is actually a pretty good business phone. The trouble is that there are quite a few excellent business phones on the market that don't bear the BlackBerry name.
There are plenty of positives to mention. The BlackBerry operating system has improved by leaps and bounds over the last couple of years, and for fans of physical keyboards it's practically the only game in town. But BlackBerry has produced keyboard-equipped smartphones for years, and that didn't stop most customers — including the business crowd — from moving on to more feature-rich devices.
To be fair, the Classic is the best BlackBerry smartphone yet. It combines an excellent keyboard with long battery life, a durable design and great security. But most people shouldn't buy the BlackBerry Classic. Other smartphones like the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy Note 4 offer bigger displays, more polished interfaces and native app ecosystems — features that leave BlackBerry 10 in the dust, as well as security options that will more than suffice for most business users. Still, the Classic is a real treat for the BlackBerry faithful.