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Hands On with the BlackBerry KEYone

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Feb 25, 2017, 2:00 PM   by Eric M. Zeman

The BlackBerry KEYone is here, a big smartphone that includes a large display, physical keyboard, and BlackBerry's hardened version of Android. The phone is big and has middling specs, but are importantly, it pulls at the heartstrings of those raised on BlackBerry's old corporate mini-machines. Here are our initial impressions of the KEYone.

IT'S FINALLY HERE! A real BlackBerry smartphone for QWERTY aficionados. Though TCL Communications gave us a real good look at the "Mercury" back during CES, this week the company fully revealed the BlackBerry KEYone, the first full hardware collaboration between TCL and BlackBerry. The KEYone has a lot of heritage to live up to. We spent some time with the phone in January, but wanted to give you our updated thoughts now that the hardware, software, and — more importantly, the name — have all been finalized.

The KEYone is (still) gigantic. It's thick, heavy, and really long in order to accommodate both the keyboard and a large touch display. Unlike the DTEK50 and DTEK60, which were rehashed versions of existing Alcatel phones, the new BlackBerry fully adopts BlackBerry's known design language. That means it has a physical QWERTY keyboard with scalloped keys that are separated by chrome-colored frets. The phone has an aluminum frame and a dimpled, soft-touch plastic rear panel. The silver and black coloring is fairly typical for a business phone. TCL says the metal chassis is very rigid and gives the phone plenty of strength. There's no doubt that it feels substantial.

KEYone Body  

The top is perfectly flat. It has a huge hatch, nearly the entire wide of the phone, protecting the SIM card and memory card trays. The side and bottom edges are rounded gently to make the phone more comfortable in your hand. It's a bit oblong and the thickness is somewhat off-putting to me. BlackBerry said it chose a large screen on purpose, despite the addition of the keyboard. BlackBerry knows the phone has a somewhat odd shape, but counts that as a bonus thanks to the one-handed shortcuts available on the keyboard. The phone isn't the heaviest I've ever held, but it's not light either. I imagine this phone will be uncomfortable in pants pockets.

The screen is nice and big and has good resolution. The display measures 4.5 inches across the diagonal and includes full HD resolution. It's an LCD panel protected by Gorilla Glass 4. A huge bezel above the screen holds the large front-facing camera module, a big sensor module, and drilled holes for the earpiece speaker. It's all rather blunt looking. TCL sandwiched three capacitive buttons (back, home, app-switcher) in between the screen and the keyboard. This is puzzling to me. With the full keyboard right there it makes no sense to waste space on these buttons. That said, the keys work as they should and I had no problem using them.

The keyboard is very good, but it is somewhat tight. They keys are pushed very far down the face of the phone, and, since the phone is so long, you have to work extra hard to balance the phone while typing. I imagine hand fatigue setting in at some point. The keys have a nice, angled shape to help make them easier to tell apart. It's a four-row keyboard complete with delete, return, and shift buttons, as well as dedicated keys for voice-dictation and emoji.


Like the BlackBerry Priv, the keyboard of the KEYone is touch sensitive and can be used to move through the menu and push the cursor around. Just swipe your thumb across the keys and pages will fly by. The spacebar doubles as a fingerprint reader. BlackBerry says the key can read fingerprints without depressing the actual button.

A single button adorns the left edge of the phone. It is small and perched near the top. This button is user-programmable. The action and feedback is good. BlackBerry says you can program it to open apps, or perform specific functions. The screen lock button and volume toggle are on the right edge. They have good profiles and excellent travel and feedback.

I'm glad to see USB-C on this new BlackBerry. The port is positioned on the bottom edge where it is flanked by two sets of slits for the speaker.

I like the soft-touch rear panel because it helps the phone stick to your hand. The dimpled pattern feels good under your thumb. The main camera module is absolutely enormous. It's a large, raised circle that has a chrome rim. A two-tone flash is next to it. The back is sealed up, so you won't be swapping batteries. Speaking of the battery, this thing has a whopping 3,505mAh power cell inside. BlackBerry claims it is good for nearly two days of battery life. Moreover, it supports Quick Charge 3.0 and can power up 50% in just over half an hour.

On the software front, the device ships with Android 7.1 Nougat and BlackBerry's secure launcher. It looks similar to the UI we saw on the DTEK50 and DTEK60. This means the BlackBerry Hub is on board with its combined inbox for email, text, BBM, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and myriad other messaging platforms.


I'm a little bummed about some of the internals, which is clearly where TCL cost come costs. The phone ships with a Snapdragon 625 processor with eight cores, 3 GB of RAM, and 32 GB of storage. It supports cards up to 2 TB. The phone has a 12-megapixel camera and uses the same sensor found in the Google Pixel. Let's how TCL's software is as good as Googles.

A few words about compatibility in the U.S. TCL has two versions of the phone on deck for North America. The Canadian and V1 U.S. model supports LTE Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 19, 20, 28, 29, 30 and TDD-LTE:38, 39, 40, 41. The V2 U.S. model supports LTE Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 13, 20, 25, 26, 28, 29, 30; TDD-LTE 41; and CDMA 0, 1, and 10. Both versions will work on AT&T and T-Mobile, while the latter will be better suited to Sprint and Verizon Wireless.

Some good news: The BlackBerry KEYone will cost only $549. That's a decent price. It will reach the open market in Canada first, followed by the unlocked market in the U.S. TCL expects to sell the KEYone via carriers later in the year.

About the author, Eric M. Zeman:

Eric has been covering the mobile telecommunications industry for 17 years at various print and online publications. He studied at Rutgers Newark and University of Kentucky, and has a degree in writing. He likes playing guitar, attending concerts, listening to music, and driving sports cars.


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Feb 27, 2017, 1:56 PM

Finally a real BlackBerry smartphone?

"IT'S FINALLY HERE! A real BlackBerry smartphone for QWERTY aficionados."

PhoneScoop must have missed out on the fact the Classic and then the Priv existed the last few years. Two /REAL/ BlackBerry smartphones for QWERTY aficionados. Priv is current to the Android February 5, 2017 security patch too. This phone is just over a year old. Classic received an update late November 2016 too.

They push out a QWERTY phone just often enough to satiate QWERTY fans. Go BlackBerry!

Feb 25, 2017, 2:54 PM

AT&T LTE bands

The second version, the one for Verizon and sprint doesn't have LTE band 17. Isn't band 17 ATT's main 700 MHz LTE band? If so will this version work well on ATT?
Band 12 includes band 17. For AT&T customers on the AT&T network, they're the same, but band 12 improves roaming compatibility. That's why AT&T is phasing out band 17 in favor of band 12.
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