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BlackBerry KeyOne review: A solid Android phone with a throwback keyboard

  • The BlackBerry KeyOne is the first phone built by TCL after a December licensing agreement.
  • The KeyOne features Android and a full QWERTY keyboard.
  • Fans of BlackBerry may like the return to a hardware keyboard, but we recommend other devices instead.
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Todd Haselton | CNBC

If you're among the dedicated few still attached to your BlackBerry, then listen up: We've been testing the BlackBerry KeyOne Android smartphone for the last few days, and we think you're going to like it.

One thing you should know: BlackBerry Limited doesn't build its own smartphones anymore. Instead, it licenses its name and hardware patents (including the beloved keyboard) to TCL Communications and provides the software — Android with a BlackBerry skin — while TCL Communications manufactures and handles sales and marketing of BlackBerry Mobile devices.

This is the first device launched by TCL Communications since it agreed to license the BlackBerry brand in December. The deal gave TCL a more primary role in working with the brand and BlackBerry hardware.

The KeyOne was introduced earlier this year and launched recently in Canada and will release in the U.S. next month for $549, completely unlocked, and on Sprint this summer.

Rock solid design and all the basics

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Todd Haselton | CNBC

The BlackBerry KeyOne feels like it was built by BlackBerry, which means TCL did a good job keeping things familiar. The highlight of the device is its hardware backlit keyboard, which some people apparently still want in a smartphone. More on that later. The KeyOne also offers a 4.5-inch touchscreen display and a rock-solid aluminum body that gives it a premium feel and look.

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Todd Haselton | CNBC

I also like the dedicated convenience key, pictured above, which can be programmed to open almost any application. I set it to open my Google Now page, so I can view the weather, my package delivery statuses and other information provided by Google to Android users. Oddly, this button is placed below the volume keys, and I frequently mistook it for the power button.

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Todd Haselton | CNBC

That aside, there are other niceties, like a new USB-C port that most manufacturers have moved to. It's reversible, so it's easier to plug in if you can't see the port, and supports faster charging to juice up the phone quickly.

CNBC: BlackBerry KeyOne
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Speaking of the battery, I could get through a full work day easily and didn't have to charge until I hit the bed at night. I wasn't really spending my time watching movies or playing games though, and instead focused on emails, checking Twitter and surfing the web.

A few tricks exclusive to BlackBerry

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Todd Haselton | CNBC

The KeyOne has a few features you won't find on smartphones from competitors.

The spacebar doubles as a fingerprint reader, for example, and you can use the keyboard as a touchpad to scroll through websites. BlackBerry Hub provides an all-in-one home for your text messages, social alerts, emails, calendar events and more, which will be particularly useful to the busy executive or parent.

A fast and good camera

Todd Haselton | CNBC | Mabel

The camera snapped great pictures during my tests, which was a bit surprising since I don't typically expect much from BlackBerry cameras. It's the same module in the Google Pixel, but I still think that device takes clearer and more accurate pictures, likely thanks to Google's software tuning. The camera is quick though, which is an improvement over the BlackBerry Priv, the last Android smartphone BlackBerry launched with a full keyboard.

Security

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Todd Haselton | CNBC

BlackBerry has always been known for its emphasis on secure communication — there's a reason it's still used by a lot of government customers — and the company's new plan is to sell you on the security of its software while turning the actual hardware over to TCL.

On the new phone, an app called DTEK monitors your smartphone security at all times and gives you a score on how secured it thinks your phone is. There are a lot of factors, like whether you let your phone automatically install apps from the app store, that can affect this rating. In general, it's easy to make sure you're in the green zone of security approval.

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Todd Haselton | CNBC

It won't really matter to most consumers, though. Google already protects apps in the Android Play Store to help prevent malware from spreading before you even download them. Competitors are locking down their devices more than ever before, too. Samsung provides similar enterprise-grade security options in its Knox software, some Android phones get monthly security updates and more.

Then there are the downsides

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Todd Haselton | CNBC

The display is bright, though not as high quality as what you'd find on similarly priced smartphones (the colors don't pop as much, and it isn't as sharp). The processor is also mid-range for what you're paying. The phone seems snappy enough, but it doesn't support next-generation Gigabit LTE networks that will begin rolling out this year and are going to enable faster speeds for when you need to download a big file from the office or stream a video.

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Todd Haselton | CNBC

The BlackBerry KeyOne isn't water resistant like the latest phones from Apple and Samsung, either. That means you're more prone to damage if you accidentally spill water on it or get caught in a downpour waiting for a cab.

Also, if you're like me, you're probably used to typing on a touchscreen phone by this point. It's actually hard to move back to typing on a QWERTY keyboard. And unlike the BlackBerry Priv, which offered a software keyboard option, you have to stick to the hardware here. There just isn't enough screen space to type on a software keyboard (and the form factor doesn't make sense for one.)

Final thoughts: Fine for keyboard die-hards

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Todd Haselton | CNBC

The good news is there isn't anything inherently wrong with the phone. Keys weren't popping off, for example, and I was able to place phone calls, download apps and go about my business just fine.

It's just that I always found myself turning to another device, like the new Galaxy S8, instead of the BlackBerry KeyOne.

Once upon a time, it would have been unfair to compare a BlackBerry to an Android phone or the iPhone, but now that BlackBerry has switched to Android, and as Samsung and Apple have continued to court the enterprise, the comparison is fair enough.

If you're among the dying breed of folks who long for the days of returning to poke-typing on a full smartphone keyboard, then by all means check out the KeyOne. If you don't look fondly upon that, as I no longer do, then consider a Galaxy S8 or iPhone 7.