BlackBerry PRIV first impressions: the flexibility of Android with the premise of added security

“The PRIV may very well be BlackBerry’s last chance to make a space for itself in the smartphone market”

On June 18, 1815, Napolean Bonaparte fought a battle in Waterloo against the British and Prussians, and faced defeat. 200 years later, someone else is fighting an uphill battle in Waterloo – BlackBerry, the company which made emailing on the go hip and cool, is now on the brink of extinction in the smartphone era led by Android and iOS. There are quite a few other similarities between Napolean and BlackBerry as both rose through the ranks (the former in terms of his empire in Europe, while the latter in terms of popularity). However, as they say, history doesn’t repeat itself, and the brand might have another chance to revive its fortunes.

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A few months ago, the flailing Canadian company took a bet – perhaps its biggest and boldest yet – by taking the veils off a smartphone christened PRIV that ran Google’s Android operating system. Today, the brand has brought the device to the Indian shores and we were among the first ones to get our hands on it. It goes without saying that we were quite interested to see how this marriage between BlackBerry’s hardware and Google’s software has turned out, and in a nutshell, it’s quite impressive. Let’s delve into the details of why we think so, based on our brief usage of the BlackBerry PRIV.

Almost a decade ago, sliders were in vogue – as they offered large screens at the users’ disposal along with featuring keypads that slid out. The BlackBerry PRIV is a throwback to that era as it also has a slider form factor. Up front, you get a large 5.4-inch touchscreen display, with a physical QWERTY keyboard underneath that slides out.

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Due to this form factor, the BlackBerry PRIV tips the scales on the higher side at 192g. It’s not in the race for the title of the slimmest smartphone either, as it has a waist size of 9.4mm. Similar to the Passport (review), the device seems to have unusual dimensions too, since it’s larger and wider than most offerings of its size.

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The tapered edges of the phablet help in ergonomic handling, although it’s not ideal for one-hand usage. The phone has a dedicated mute button, which can be found on the right, and is flanked between volume keys. Towards the left spine, you’ll find the power switch. While the top sports a microphone, an ejectable tray for a nano-SIM and another one for a microSD card, both the 3.5mm audio socket as well as the micro-USB port are placed at the bottom.

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At the back, you’ll find the brand’s signature textured pattern with BlackBerry’s logo towards the middle. A primary camera along with dual-tone LED flash also sits here.

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The 5.4-inch AMOLED display offers a dense resolution of 2,560 x 1,440 pixels, resulting in rich pixel density of 540ppi. The display is among the best out there with crisp visuals and stunning colours. The brightness levels are impressive and viewing angles also seem to be wide enough. For protection against scratches, the screen gets a layer of Corning Gorilla Glass 4.

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Similar to the Samsung Galaxy S6 edge (review | FAQs), the screen on the PRIV curves on both sides. The edge on the screen offers a bar that can let you quickly call your favourite contacts as well as letting you open the phonebook.

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The hardware keyboard features a four-row layout, with the first three offering alphabets along with backspace and return keys and the last one having frequently-accessed functions like the spacebar, caps lock, etc. Interesting, the keys are of capacitive type for accepting touch input, similar to the ones on the BlackBerry Passport. The slider also comes with a speaker grille.

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Being a flagship offering, the BlackBerry PRIV comes with top-of-the-line hardware, with the onus of performance lying on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 808 SoC. The chipset offers a combination of four cores humming at 1.4GHz, while two cores run at 1.8GHz. Taking care of the multitasking aspect is 3 gigs of RAM, which along with the processor ensures that the device delivers a smooth experience. We didn’t find any lags during our time spent with it, though of course, we will put it through our real-life usage before passing any judgment.

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Storage is being taken care of by 32GB of memory on board. Unlike many other flagships, it can be topped up with the use of a microSD card – up to 2TB cards are supported.

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In the imaging department, the PRIV offers an unusual sensor – an 18-megapixel camera with f/2.2 aperture. The snapper also comes with optical image stabilisation capabilities along with phase detection autofocus. To illuminate low-light environments, it gets a dual-tone LED flash. For videos, the mobile can record 4K videos as well as slow-mo videos at full HD resolution.

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Selfie enthusiasts would slightly be disappointed though as the BlackBerry PRIV comes with just a 2MP camera at the front. While the images should be decent, it’s not a match to the experience offered by many other handsets these days, even priced below Rs 10,000.

The bragging rights of the BlackBerry PRIV is the fact that it runs Android 5.1 Lollipop. This means that all your worries about the apps available in BlackBerry’s app store has vanished, as you can simply head to Google’s Play Store to explore the vast number of titles. The manufacturer has also added its security chops in the OS with features like DTEK, data encryption, etc. along with some nifty things such as pop-up widgets. You also get the brand’s one-stop communication platform dubbed BlackBerry Hub, bringing all the messages from messaging apps / email services at one place.

The DTEK app helps you in monitoring the security status of the smartphone. It also has a permission manager which lets you see what permissions an individual app has. However, unlike the implementation by Chinese manufacturers, it goes a step further by telling how many times a permission was accessed by a particular app.

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We also liked the idea of pop-up widgets as the brand is expanding upon this useful concept. Instead of having them always there on a home screen (and thus consuming extra space), you can simply flick upon an app and it’ll offer a pop-up view. BlackBerry has opened its API to app developers for building this functionality and quite a few popular apps like WhatsApp offer this capability.

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As far as connectivity is concerned, the device supports 4G as well as the usual roster of options including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and NFC. Powering the show on the BlackBerry PRIV is an embedded 3,410mAh Li-ion battery. The smartphone also comes with Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 letting it charge quickly. The phablet is even compatible with wireless chargers, although they need to be purchased separately.

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BlackBerry has failed to make a noticeable dent in the recent past possibly because it has been unable to change with times, especially when it comes to pricing. All its smartphones charge a premium, and the PRIV seems to have gone even a step further. It’s priced around Rs 62,990, which in our frank opinion, seems way too expensive even when we consider the overall package and BlackBerry’s promise of security. Additionally, at this price point, it’ll be up against the formidable Apple iPhone 6s / 6s Plus (review) as well as the Samsung Galaxy Note5 (review).

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The PRIV may very well be BlackBerry’s last chance to make a space for itself in the smartphone market, and we’ll surely be keeping an eye out to see if it’s capable of doing that when we run it through our review gauntlet.

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