Saturday, 26 March 2016 16:13

BlackBerry PRIV – a wolf in Android clothing (review) Featured

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BlackBerry on Android – with a slide out keyboard, 5.4” OLED screen, 18MP camera, and it runs all apps – this is the stuff electronic dreams could be made of.

Let’s start by saying this is a corporate/enterprise device predicated on the need for security. At A$1249 it is probably not going to appeal to the average fashionista who wants a high-end Android or iOS phone. More so it is about the hopefully watertight security and importantly it marks BlackBerry’s comeback from its near-death as a mobile security company.

In fact, have a read of iTWire’s first looks article on the PRIV because it gives a good overview of the company and where it is heading with security.

But this is a review of the ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ so let’s leave the BlackBerry security alone for the while and concentrate on the device. I repeat my advice – you don’t buy BlackBerry primarily for its specs – you buy for the security ecosystem.

Australian price and availability

BlackBerry only sell in Australia via Optus – that is not to say that other companies may parallel import and sell cheaper but official support only comes from Optus.

You can get it on a range of plans from $67 to $120 per month or you can buy it outright and use it on any network.

Read on for the review.

Out of the box –  Australian Model STV100-3

It is almost as if BlackBerry waved a magic wand and wished for the best possible specifications including the ‘sexy’ curved edges of the Samsung Edge; a slide-out keyboard; a camera that should be one of best; and let’s put it in an impressive, uniquely BlackBerry styled case that no one can emulate.

The result is a big, imposing, masculine, phone – you need to consider that if pocketability is an issue. The 5.43” screen is housed in a 147 x 77.2 x 9.4mm x 192g curved glass black slab. With the keyboard extended it is 184m. For comparison, the new 5.5” S7 Edge is 150.9 x 72.6 x 7.7mm and 157g.

The box includes a set of black buds/mic, an 850mA ‘standard’ charger, and a micro-USB cable.

It has a nano-sim slot and a separate microSD slot at the top.

Build quality is good – it is assembled in Mexico - but the keyboard slider mechanism could be prone to wear and the onscreen keyboard (not the physical keyboard) had a little ‘rattle’ when used. In all, it could be regarded as a little too ‘plastic’ for what we have come to expect from a premium phone.

The rounded screen edge is similar to the Samsung Edge – replete with a pull over a productivity tab. But its not as elegant as the bezels are quite wide and framed by matt chrome highlights that, when its placed face down, lift the screen a little off the surface to reduce scratching.

The on/off key is on the left side and the right has volume up and down and a smaller key in between that seems only to pull down the notification screen – it is also mutes the microphone.

Setup

Initial set-up is just like any other Android 5.1.1 – there is no hint that BlackBerry has modified it. But the reality is that Android has been substantially changed. BlackBerry’s President of devices, Ron Louks has confirmed that the PRIV will be updated to Marshmallow In 2016.

Under the bonnet

The specifications are pretty good but since its release some other makers have surpassed itc'est la vie.

  • Processor: Qualcomm MSM8992 Snapdragon 808 - Dual-core 1.8 GHz Cortex-A57 & Quad-core 1.44 GHz Cortex-A53, Adreno 418 GPU;
  • Memory: 3GB of DDR3 RAM; 32GB eMMC storage, microSD up to 2TB - it supports Host USB hard disk devices
  • Screen: 5.4", 540ppi, 2560 x 1440 pixels AMOLED, capacitive, curved edge touchscreen, Gorilla Glass 4, 71.6% screen to body ratio
  • Rear Camera: 18MP, 4896 x 3672 pixels, f/2.2, phase detection autofocus with OIS, dual-tone LED flash, Schneider-Kreuznach optics, 2160p video recording
  • 2MP front-facing camera, 720p video recording, selfie panorama mode
  • LTE: Cat. 9 LTE (up to 450Mbps)
  • Wi-Fi AC dual band 2 x 2 MIMO, Wi-Di, Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, GPS, video out (via USB) and the usual sensors
  • Battery: Non-removable 3410mAh battery supporting Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 (quick charger not supplied)

It does not have wireless charging despite a US model having it.

The physical keyboard

The essential BlackBerry has a keyboard and to this day, it is a prime reason that people buy one.

The backlit keys require a firm press and while accurate are much slower than the onscreen keyboard that allows swipe like gestures. Some overseas reviews have claimed the physical keyboard supports swipe like gestures as well – its capacitive so you can swipe over it and the home screen moves left or right – mouse-like.

Keys are small – to the extent that meaty fingers would prefer to use the larger onscreen keyboard.

There are some keyboard shortcuts that can be activated by a long press.

Then camera bulge on the back is large enough to provide a stable base when typing – it did rock side to side when using the onscreen keyboard.

The Screen

It has a Samsung Edge-like design and AMOLED screen. However, on closer look the screen is not up to the absolute blacks of the S7 nor does it have anywhere near the contrast at 377 nits (the S7 is 855). It’s a good screen – don’t get me wrong – but more like two generations behind the S7.

You can slide the screen up to reveal the keyboard, or double tap, to turn it on from sleep mode.

Battery

It is hard to make a definitive claim on this as it depends on use. GSMArena gives it a 62-hour endurance rating which is really about a day of typical use. On average, I got from 6.00am to 10 pm – 16 hours before needing a charge.

But on one day I used it for about 2 hours of microphone recording and 30 minutes of GPS – I was surprised that it only gave six hours use.

Charging time is very slow with the supplied 850mA charger – on average five hours. I did not have a Qualcomm fast charge 2.0 but I am told it will go from 0 to 60% in 30 minutes and a full charge in an hour. For what you are spending a quick charger in the box should be mandatory – as should Qi wireless.

The back unit becomes very hot when charging – fortunately, it won’t burn a hole in your pocket.

Performance

It has the Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 system on a chip (SoC) – the same as the LG G4, Moto X Style, and Nexus 5X. It is not the latest technology but it is a six core – two fast and four slower. It was adequate for normal use but did lag with lots of open apps and when using the camera.

GeekBench 3 rates it about 15% below other 808 competitors and about half the speed of the new S7 (using an 820 or Exynos SoC). Basically, there is a lot going on under the bonnet to provide security.

Having said that apart from some lag with multiple apps it does what it should and that is all you can ask.

Phone

The Australian model STV100-3 supported LTE bands are:

1 (2100), 2(1900), 3(1800), 4(1700), 5(850), 7(2600), 8(900), 12 and 13 (700), 17(700), 20(800), 28(700), 30 (2300), 38 (2600), 40, (2300) and 41 (2500).

I cannot guarantee these bands are entirely correct as it is advertised as a 12 band modem. At a minimum for total Australian Carrier present and future coverage you need:

  • Optus: 1, 3, 7, 28 and 40
  • Telstra: 1, 3, 28
  • Virgin: 1, 3, 7, 238, 40
  • Vodafone: 3, 5

You will need to check if you are buying for use overseas. There are at least two other models – STV100-1 and 4.

The speakerphone was good – the noise cancelling microphone is excellent as is in-call volume. You can flip the phone to reject calls.

Movies and Audio

Installed multimedia software is scant and you will need to download a decent video and audio player. There is no photo gallery – its accessed via the camera. There is no file explorer but there is a Device Search.

The front mounted speaker was a little low in volume and fidelity when playing a movie which is surprising given its performance as a speakerphone. Still earbuds made up for that.

It should support all major still, video, audio, and streaming protocols and codecs

Camera

It has an 18MP, f/2.2, phase detection auto-focus, with Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS), dual-tone LED flash, 6 lens, Schneider-Kreuznach optics – sounds good but it is far from outstanding.

I found the camera app ‘unstable’ sometimes working brilliantly, sometimes hunting for autofocus making it slow to shoot, and often locking up – press the shutter icon and wait.

In tests against comparable smartphones (Samsung Galaxy S6 and S7, Lumia 950XL and iPhone 6s Plus) it was a very distant fifth.

Outside daylight: colours are slightly muted/muddy and whites tend to off-white. Shot formats are either 4:3 or 1:1 – no 16:9 option

Inside no flash: poor low light probably due to the f/2.2 lens. Auto HDR lengthened shot time and produced better results. It is not a rapid snapper.

Inside flash: too much flash resulting in noise, glare, and washed out images.

Outside video: quality was good getting 4K video at up to 30fps – if you killed all other background apps. OIS worked well. 1080p at 30fps produced the best all-round results.

Inside video: unless there is good light the results are poor. Note video resolution is 3840 x 2160 or about 8MP.

Many international reviews have experienced similar camera issues. To be charitable, I am going to put this down to early software – there were two updates in the two weeks I tested the phone.

Listen well BlackBerry – yes, people buy this for the security, but camera quality has become a major driver and at present it is the Achilles heel.

The front camera is 2MP, f/2.8, 720p and worked well for Skype and very average selfies. Despite it having larger 1.75um pixels it was inadequate for low light use and did not have a fill flash.

BlackBerry security

To be clear security is about keeping your information private via encryption, VPN, handset security, and other methods like enterprise mobile device management. You can read more here.

But a warning – no matter how hardened BlackBerry makes Android it would it is well served by running a paid Antivirus/malware suite to protect it from Android Malware.

For a secure phone, I was surprised that it is missing fingerprint or other biometric authentication – a significant oversight as passwords can be reasonably easily broken by brute force attacks.

DTEK is a privacy diagnostic tool – it will tell you where security is weak and has per-app, per-permission control. Why would weather for example, need to access the microphone?

BlackBerry will roll out security updates to the Android kernel but it is still via the Telco. At an enterprise level, BlackBerry Enterprise Service will handle roll-outs.

BlackBerry and Google apps

BlackBerry Hub is a centralised place to keep all emails, SMS, Twitter, BBM, and other notifications. It was very well regarded in the BlackBerry community. However, BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) functionality has long been surpassed by other social media.

In addition to security it also has its own versions of Meetings, Calendar, Contacts, Tasks, Notes, Password Keeper, Camera, Content Transfer, Device Search, and Yahoo! Finance. All of these are suitable for the task.

The usual Google apps/services are provided and you can download any app from Google Play.

Conclusion

PRIV is a single purpose device – security. If that is what you want, then it is for you and you will overlook any shortcomings in its hardware, software, and OS implementation - these can only improve.

It is the start of BlackBerry’s return to prominence in a niche market but I can’t help feel it was too long in the making, evidenced by the older processor and second-generation OLED screen, etc. Technology wise it is, at least, two generations behind the Samsung S7.

During the review I found myself ‘apologising’ to BlackBerry – I wanted to give this a stellar review if only to root for the underdog. At best I have been diplomatic in some of my comments – some things are early software issues and others may never be fixed in this model. None are real deal breakers but many could have been so much better (camera, battery, fingerprint reader, and speed).

So the question is would you buy it? The answer is that I am not an enterprise user so I am going to leave that to the CTO or CSIO to determine because it will ultimately come down to corporate use of the BlackBerry Hub, encryption and BlackBerry Enterprise server etc.

Note that the slider mechanism does not lend itself to clip on accessory cases. BlackBerry has a range of slide in pockets/holsters, but you can find a leather back, hard shell, flip cover for around A$100.


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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