BlackBerry KeyOne keyboard phone kicks off a new BlackBerry era (hands-on)

February 26, 2017

The KeyOne is the BlackBerry brand’s big comeback phone, the one we’ve been hearing about for the last few months. Based on Android and running BlackBerry software on top, it adds some unique characteristics that you can’t find on any other Android phone for 2017, like a physical keyboard that can launch up to 52 shortcuts.

For longtime BlackBerry fans, the KeyOne is shaping up to fulfill hopes of the brand’s renewed glory. And while we’re impressed with the KeyOne’s feature set so far, we’ll simply need to spend more time testing the phone before we know how well it’s done.

In addition, the KeyOne — which is postioned on the high-end — will face tough competition from more established players, like Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S8, LG’s G6 and Google’s new Pixel phones. We’re eager to see how this all plays out.

Keyboard and tricks

That physical keyboard is a BlackBerry trademark. On the KeyOne, typing felt a little cramped even for my smaller-size fingers. Then again, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt the real pushback of a QWERTY keyboard; this may be a skill to relearn. Still, the short keyboard height is a trade-off that helps maximize the touchscreen’s size. A taller keyboard might mean you don’t get that 4.5-inch screen.

In addition to tapping out text, the KeyOne keyboard’s capacitive sensors mean you can swipe left and right over the top of the buttons to, say, flip among home screens. (It feels a little weird under your fingers.) You can also map a long or short press of any key to launch an app or shortcut — up to 52 of them in total (good luck remembering them all). The phone will even suggest apps to pair, like “I” for “Instagram” and “Y” for “Yelp”.

The fingerprint reader is built right into the home button and worked pretty well in my tests.

Convenience key

We like a good convenience key for launching any app we pair with it. On the KeyOne, the button on the phone’s right edge can open Google Voice Search, the camera or any other app you use a lot.

You can keep typing while in split-screen mode.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

On-screen tab

Taking a cue from Samsung’s Edge phones, the KeyOne has a little tab you can pull over on any screen. This opens a module that shows you upcoming appointments and tasks, and lets you view some recent messages. There’s also a Settings menu you can access to customize the tab’s size, placement and transparency.

Shortcuts screen

Ever focused on productivity, the phone groups shortcut icons on one of its home screens to help you launch the one you want, like a new note or calendar appointment.

BlackBerry software

BlackBerry fans will be glad to see BlackBerry Hub, which is a universal message inbox and BBM (BlackBerry Messenger), as well as the Dtek app for peering into your phone’s security protocols. The KeyOne will work with the BES server. In addition to everyday buyers, the folks behind the BlackBerry brand are also reaching out to businesses and government agencies to support the phone.

Pricing and sale date

The phone will go on sale in April for $549 and £499 (that converts to about AU$715).

It’ll work on all four major US carriers, but will initially sell from and other online retailers. In Canada, it’ll roll out through carriers first.

Hardware specs

  • 4.5-inch; 1,620×1,080-pixel resolution
  • Android 7.1
  • 12-megapixel rear camera
  • 8-megapixel front-facing camera
  • 2GHz octacore Qualcomm Snapdragon 625
  • 32GB internal storage
  • 3GB RAM
  • Up to 2TB expandable storage (microSD card)
  • 3,505mAh battery (nonremovable)
  • USB-C

Read next: Comeback kids: Once-great BlackBerry and Nokia brands make their return – All News First!

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