Blackberry KEYone Review
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May 24, 2017     
Dear Lens Subscribers,

On May 31, the new BlackBerry KEYone becomes available in the United States. The key question: Does a physical keyboard have a place on an otherwise modern smartphone, and is there room in the market for a productivity- and security- centric device? Our full review is below.

Second, Uber has had its share of poor PR of late. Here's an idea for a win-win: Help the millions in 'food deserts'. See my recent column, published in Recode.

Finally, here's an interesting question. If data consumption continues to grow like a weed, why are the equipment makers struggling? I'm more bullish long-term. Full column...

Guest Authors: Frank Lowenstein and Jeff Lowenstein
Note : This is an end-user's view of the new BlackBerry KEYone, reflecting the experience of a 50-ish business professional focused on the device as a productivity tool, and that of a millennial, who also tested some of the phone's entertainment and gaming capabilities.
On May 31, the new BlackBerry KEYOne becomes available in the United States. The key question: Does a physical keyboard has a place on an otherwise modern smartphone, and is there room in the market for a productivity and security centric device?
Beginning in 2003, the BlackBerry became the ultimate phone for the mobile professional. The signature keyboard facilitated writing and communication to an unprecedented degree; one of us even wrote a 15 page paper during college entirely on a Bold 9000. In its day, the BlackBerry's excellent software and hardware, including superb security for the day, made it the dominant choice of serious professionals.
BlackBerry's market share decline is well chronicled. Recent attempts at a comeback, at least on devices, have been middling. The BlackBerry Passport combined an old school keyboard with modern smartphone specs, running a new version of the BlackBerry OS that gave access to some Android apps. The oddly named BlackBerry Priv switched to Android as the OS and tried the keyboard as a slider from under a full sized screen, producing an oddly elongate and unbalanced phone. The DTEK 50 and 60 tried Android without a keyboard, aiming to gain market share perhaps based on BlackBerry's legendary security (and seemingly named after BlackBerry's proprietary security app). None really succeeded in the market.
Like the Priv and the two DTEKs, the KEYone runs Android -- not as an add-on to the BlackBerry operating system, but as its native operating system. Although the KEYone is BlackBerry's fourth Android smartphone, and the second with a physical keyboard, it is by far the company's most sophisticated merging of the two technologies-keyboard and Android. And in this context the KEYone's physical keyboard becomes a visible indication of BlackBerry's single-minded focus in designing the phone: on the smartphone as a communication tool. It provides a fantastic mobile work experience, but at a cost.  
Great As a Productivity Tool
So, what makes the KEYone such a powerful mobile warrior?
1. Keyboard - If you still crave a physical keyboard, or hate typing on glass, look no further! This keyboard is comfortable (if a bit more cramped than Blackberries of yore). The keys have good travel. Typing is fast and accurate, and additional features of the keyboard are welcome, namely, the ability to use the entire keyboard as a trackpad in many apps, the potential to customize each key as a quick launch for your favorite apps, and the lightning-fast and hyper-accurate fingerprint reader integrated into the spacebar. For readers comfortable with swipe-style Android keyboards, the keyboard likely will not offer any speed increase; in our testing it improves accuracy and allows users who don't like on-screen keyboards an alternative of roughly equal speed. The keyboard works best for two-thumbed typing. It is very slow one-handed, which may be a significant disadvantage for some users.

2. Battery Life - Phenomenal. Some phones run out of battery by midday, making them useless for the afternoon no matter how good their other features may be. But the KEYone has the best battery life of any phone we've ever used. Due to its frugal Snapdragon 625 processor, not overly large 1080p screen, substantial 3505 mAh battery, and advanced Android battery management features, this phone easily lasts through a heavy workday, and beyond. In more than a week of usage in a wide variety of circumstances-full workdays; a 10 mile hike with lots of photos taken and continuous GPS usage; a sightseeing trip to a distant museum; and an out of state work trip with map use, notetaking, and web queries, followed by an evening of travel planning with a friend-the battery ran below 50% on only a few occasions, and never dropped below 30%.

3. Ergonomics - This phone is exceptionally comfortable to hold for extended usage, with smooth curves, excellent grip, and nice balance.

4. Screen - The KEYone screen is smaller than most Android phones at 4.5 inches, but utilizes an unusual and delightful 3:2 aspect ratio, which is ideal for reading. This makes email, texting, web browsing, news consumption, etc. pleasurable and easy, despite the small size. The screen is sharp and vivid, with excellent contrast and viewing angles. It also has great visibility in direct sunlight. The device makes excellent use of its available space, particularly in portrait mode. Below is a comparison of the same Facebook profile picture on the KEYone and the LG G5-an Android flagship from 2016 with a 5.3" screen. Although the KEYone has less screen space, the size of the photo and the ability to see other parts of the Facebook app are nearly identical.

The screen is large enough to be easily readable, even by middle-aged eyes, and in any writing task, for example composing an email, it actually offers more real estate than a traditional Android device or iPhone, as the keyboard doesn't hog up half the screen. See for example this photo of the KEYone, again in comparison to the LG G5; one can see the flow of one to two paragraphs on the KEYone, versus perhaps two sentences on the G5.

Photo of actress Kristen Wolfe by Derrick Holmes displayed on the LG G5 and the BlackBerry KEYone_ both at maximum screen brightness. Shown with permission

5. Software - The KEYone runs near-stock Android 7.1.1, with several useful additions from BlackBerry. The BlackBerry Hub, for example, integrates all of your communications into a single inbox, where they can be viewed, responded to, and otherwise organized, without having to jump between many different apps. With one app you can see missed calls, what's happened on Twitter or Facebook, your texts, snippets of email from multiple accounts, and your Slack team messages all easily and nicely arranged. You can tap to see full details or return a call and quickly and easily delete unwanted junk. The Hub was developed for BlackBerry's final native OS (BlackBerry 10) and then converted to Android. Like other BlackBerry software additions, the Hub is carefully integrated in places that make sense, and the phone's software on the whole feels cohesive and highly functional. The screenshot of the Hub here shows a text at top, followed by a Facebook message, and a few emails, one of which is flagged for later action.

Integration with the Google Play Store is as good as on any other Android phone, or perhaps better. As of the time of this review we've installed 101 apps, and all have worked as expected, or in some cases better than expected. For example, Gaia GPS-a high end mapping tool for inveterate hikers and bikers-- runs faster on the KEYone than on another Android phone available to us that features a higher end processor and more RAM. In general, the phone's operation is smooth and bug-free (something which is not the case on all Android devices), and it's a pleasure to use. Integration of Enterprise features is well-done; setup of core Enterprise apps such as Exchange and Duo Mobile security was easy, and all functioned flawlessly. Exchange was easier to set up for use with the Hub than it is for use with the Outlook app on other phones, which often involves a need for an IT consult. We used Gmail and the hub for email with the Hub the clear favorite. It combines the composition ease and simplicity of use of Gmail with the better tracking of sent and received emails of Outlook. In other words, email on a BlackBerry is still the gold standard.

General first-boot setup was well-guided, but not quite as simple as some other Android phones, or iPhones. However, the KEYone retains a Micro SD card slot, which makes data transfer a snap and greatly reduces risk of losing data when the phone decides its life is over.
6. Security - Beyond Android 7.1.1's built-in features, such as default full device encryption, the KEYone will receive monthly security updates-an important and highly unusual service. It also claims to have a hardened operating system and a hardware root of trust as features to help improve security. Then there are additional security features through the DTEK app. This app, which is unique to BlackBerry smartphones, provides notices about security flaws, allows you to view and control permissions for all apps, monitors operating system integrity, and allows for remote management features. You can actually find out what your apps are doing at all times, which may raise as many questions as it answers. For example, why is Google Maps accessing my location at 11:30 at night when I'm sitting in my living room

7. Call Quality -
Call quality is smooth and consistently excellent, on both ends. Speakerphone performance is quite good, and audio pickup in both speakerphone and handset mode is exceptional. You can cradle this phone under your neck as you open the door to your car and people on the other end won't know it.

Overall, the KEYone is a very pleasant phone for communication and other mobile work tasks. If we can borrow an iPhone moniker - for work, it just works.
Some Issues as An Entertainment and Gaming Device
The intensive focus on mobile productivity comes with drawbacks for some more consumer-y capabilities. Modern smartphones are not only work tools, but also entertainment devices, and the KEYone has several weaknesses in this area. While call and speakerphone quality on the KEYone is stellar, sound quality for music and videos is poor through the speaker, and downright abysmal through the headphone jack. If you know and care what a DAC is, this is not the phone for you. Also, while the 3:2 screen is ideal for reading and communications, it makes the KEYone a suboptimal choice for watching videos or movies, playing most games (particularly any with complex on-screen controls), or generally any landscape use, as 16:9 content is letterboxed in some apps and when projected via Chromecast or similar devices, as shown below. Depending on your personal preferences, you may find the ever-present physical keyboard exacerbates the awkwardness, or you may argue that gives a nice handle with which to hold onto the phone.


One pleasant oasis in this entertainment desert is camera performance, which is phenomenal for a mid-range smartphone. Pictures are sharp, well lit, vivid, and generally excellent. The camera doesn't quite reach the quality level of flagship Android phones like the Galaxy S8 or Google Pixel, but it comes quite close, and that's an exceptional achievement for a phone priced in the mid-range. Selfie camera performance is also good. In addition, the BlackBerry camera app is well-designed and makes good use of the physical keyboard to control exposure and trigger the shutter. Aftermarket high-end camera apps seem to improve exposure and focus quality compared to the built in app, although they lose those extra control features. Excellent camera performance coupled with the Hub could even make this phone a good choice for heavy social media users.

Sample picture taken with KEYone camera. Trout lilies on Mount Greylock. Photo by Frank Lowenstein
Conclusion
So, should you buy the KEYone? BlackBerry has accomplished its goal of building today's ultimate mobile productivity tool using the familiar Android platform. The learning curve for existing Android users will be negligible, and the unique BlackBerry apps are all easy to use and intuitively designed. If you are a road warrior-busy and detail oriented-- then you may like the KEYone. And your IT department will love you for buying it. But because of the physical keyboard, the market is limited. It won't be the phone for everyone at a large company. And although the phone is elegant, it has a rather business-like look --not particularly cool-seeming to some other millennials who played around with the device.
Beyond communications and productivity, the phone compromises on some other functions that modern users expect from their phones. If your top priority in a smartphone is its performance as a phone - a communication device - the KEYone should be at the top of your list. And it's the best phone out there for people who love physical keyboards or struggle with the on-screen ones. If, however, you expect your smartphone to be more of a jack-of-all-trades and particularly if you want to use it to watch videos, play games or listen to music, then the KEYone's compromises, coupled with its $550 price tag, should lead you to look elsewhere. The big question is, whether there's sufficient market for a productivity-centric device.
BlackBerry KEYone Key Specifications:
Screen:
4.5", 1080x1620 (3:2 Aspect Ratio)
Processor:
Snapdragon 625
Memory:
32 GB + Micro SD Card Slot
RAM:
3 GB
Battery:
3505 mAh Non-Removable
Rear Camera:
12 Megapixels, f 2.0, 1/2.3" sensor, 1.55 ┬Ám pixels
Software:
Android 7.1 Nougat

Data consumption continues to skyrocket, growing at about 50% per year in developed country markets. You would think these would be boom times for the major suppliers of network equipment to the operators. This is a market where three players - Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei - split about $125 billion in annual global mobile network capex. But in reality, Ericsson and Nokia have been struggling of late. 

They are undergoing an important transition, and I think the future picture is brighter.  Read the full analysis in this column.

The urban affluent can get donuts and sushi delivered to their doorstep. But tens of millions live in 'food deserts', where there's a lack of good grocery stores or decent transportation to access them. Here's an idea for Uber, which has had its share of poor PR of late, could get a win. Read the column, published in Recode


The urban affluent can get donuts and sushi delivered to their doorstep. But tens of millions live in 'food deserts', where there's a lack of good grocery stores or decent transportation to access them. Here's an idea for Uber, which has had its share of poor PR of late, could get a win. Read the column, published in Recode

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Lowenstein's columns are featured in his own Lens on Wireless newsletter, and in Fierce Wireless, Tech.Pinions, and Re/Code.

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