Technophile

Misguided attempt at reviving the past

Visvaksen P | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on February 25, 2016

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Despite putting together a good hardware package, BlackBerry’s attempt at recapturing its fan base with the Priv could be hurt by bad positioning

Back in the day, BlackBerry had a distinct identity. The Canadian brand’s devices had little in the way of style, multimedia features were an afterthought and the cameras they used left a lot to be desired. But with its combination of unbeatable physical keyboards, custom connectivity plans, productivity services and rock-solid build quality, BlackBerry became the go-to brand for people who simply needed to get things done. And then Android happened.

As the phone evolved into the smartphone, Android devices gained more and more features that had previously made BlackBerry unique. And by the time the rectangular bar we know so well today became the standard for communication devices, BlackBerry had become irrelevant.

Why would anyone bother with a BlackBerry when their Android could do push email and productivity just as well, while also offering the ability to play games, surf the web on a large screen and capture hi-res pictures and video?

Unable to answer such existential questions while haemorrhaging from its bottom line, Research In Motion has opted to dilute the BlackBerry brand by dumping their own OS and releasing a device that combines their hardware expertise with the wide-ranging appeal of the Android ecosystem. The result is the BlackBerry Priv – a classic Android rectangle with a BlackBerry twist.

Hardware

At first glance, the Priv is indistinguishable from most of the other Android devices available today. It features a gorgeous 5.4-inch Quad HD AMOLED screen with a pixel density of 540 ppi – that’s more pixels per inch than the iPhone 6S Plus and the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+. A great display is the easiest way to make a phone feel premium and BlackBerry has certainly knocked it out of the park in this area. The curved screen delivers excellent colour and contrast while being energy efficient as well.

The display is mounted on a sliding mechanism which moves up to display a full qwerty keyboard in the classic BlackBerry style. The keys feel nice to use and have great travel, but the layout feels rather cramped. Unless you have incredibly thin thumbs, typing on it is going to involve a lot of accidental presses and corrections. And since the most of the device’s weight is focused around the top-end when outstretched, it becomes a bit of a chore to balance and type at the same time. The keyboard is also touch sensitive and can be used as a trackpad, which is a nifty, if unnecessary, feature.

The protruding camera and prominent BlackBerry logo are the only elements on the sparse rear cover of the Priv, which is made of a thin sheet of “glass weave”. Although the material looks great and offers decent grip, its long-term durability is a cause for concern due to the visible (and audible) flex that it exhibits when pressured at certain points.

Performance

The Priv is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 chipset featuring two Cortex A57 and four Cortex A53 processor cores paired with Adreno 418 graphics and 3 GB of RAM. It has 32 GB of onboard storage space which can be augmented with a microSD card. This combination of internals is one step below the current Android holy grail of Snapdragon 810 with 4 GB RAM, but it ensures fluid performance that is entirely devoid of lag. The device handles graphics-intensive games and heavy multitasking with relative ease. However, extended usage of the camera caused the Priv to get extremely hot – which will almost certainly impact the longevity of the internal components.

The battery unit has a capacity of 3410 mAh, which is slightly larger than competing flagships. With 4G always on, texts and emails constantly flying in and out, couple hours worth of web browsing and an hour each of music playback and gaming, the device had enough juice to survive a full day easily. Less strenuous usage should see it last well into the second day.

Camera

In an attempt to shake its reputation for lacklustre shooters and cement the Priv’s premium position, BlackBerry has gone all out in the camera department. The device features a fully tricked out 18 MP Schneider-Kreuznach camera unit with optical image stabilisation, phase detection autofocus and dual-tone flash. We took the camera to a track day at a nearby motor sport circuit, and it was the only phone capable of consistently delivering quality images of the action due to its incredibly fast shutter response. The Priv’s camera also scores high on colour reproduction and detailing and the drop-off in quality in low light is within the acceptable limits. The camera is also capable of 4K video recording. The front shooter is a forgettable afterthought that is only good for heavily-filtered selfies.

Software

BlackBerry has made a number of modifications to stock Android on the Priv, but most of the major security and privacy-focused changes are under the hood. RIM’s boffins have modified the Linux kernel for increased security, added hardware level cryptographic security and boot verification process that ensures none of the hardware or software has been tampered with. They’ve also turned full disk encryption on by default, which adds an extra level of security to user data.

The most visible addition to the stock Android experience is the BlackBerry hub, which collates all your email, Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp and BBM accounts into a single consolidated feed. The app, which in our opinion fills a hole that doesn’t really exist, can handle your email natively, while interacting with other notifications will bounce you to the respective app. The other notable app from the BlackBerry stable is the Dtek security app, which monitors all the aforementioned security and adds a few more such as per-app privacy settings.

Conspicuously, not a lot has been done to take advantage of the curved screen. An activity tracker that presents your email, tasks, calendar and favourite contacts at a glance is the only useful feature it supports. Besides these minor changes, the Priv’s Android implementation is stock Lollipop in every other way, with an upgrade to Marshmallow on the horizon.

Bottomline

The Priv is a sharp deviation from BlackBerry’s established trajectory. Its performance, while solid, is not as good as the flagships it is competing against and apart from the keyboard there is little that makes it unique.

A mid-range Android with physical keys might have found a sizable market of nostalgic keyboard warriors, but the Priv’s pricing takes it out of the reach of most average end users and indeed even mid-sized IT departments. By pitching privilege and privacy as the cornerstones of their new device, BlackBerry has targeted a niche within a niche. This is one for the BlackBerry aficionados, if there are any of those still left.

Price: ₹62,999

Love: Camera, display

Hate: Cramped keyboard, heating issues

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Published on February 25, 2016
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