BlackBerry Classic review: The keyboard is the key to this phone

The BlackBerry Classic has probably the best keyboard of any smartphone - but is that enough to raise it from nostalgia excercise to genuine contender?

While some handsets seek to stand out by having an unusual screen or a fancy camera, the BlackBerry Classic is unashamedly all about the keyboard. It's no accident that BlackBerry's own spec sheet highlights the physical Qwerty keyboard, which takes up one-third of the real estate on the phone, more than its diminutive screen.

And make no mistake, it's a great keyboard. The chamfered ridge on each key means that every thumb press is made with the certain knowledge that it will hit the right target. That's only to be expected considering BlackBerry's heritage.

The new, old BlackBerry Classic. Image: BlackBerry

There's a satisfying level of travel in each key press without it being too hard work, and it's certainly superior to, for example, the BlackBerry Passport keyboard, which is too flat, stiff, straight, and wide.

That pretty much makes it the best keyboard in a not-exactly-crowded field: a bit like being the best gramaphone player on the market. And, for me, a hard keyboard is never going to match the joyous writing experience that you can get from a touchscreen and something like SwiftKey. For most people, a keyboard is keyboring.

BlackBerry has made much of the old-school navigation keys on the Classic - a phonecall key, menu key, trackpad, back button, and 'end call' key that sits between the Qwerty keyboard and the screen - also known as 'the tookit'.

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As most of us are now used to virtual buttons conjured up on a smartphone screen, such a surfeit of real physical buttons that move when you press them, made of actual plastic, does seem mildly ridiculous and over-engineered.

Still, once mastered, there is something rather satisfying about using a physical button to make or (in particular) to end a call. I never did find much use for the trackpad though, and would have preferred the capacitive frets of the Passport.

But for me the big issue is not what you gain, but what you lose. All those physical buttons take up room, which means the screen on the Classic is a mere 3.5 inches across. It's big enough for scanning email, but I found it too small for much else, largely because of the tiresome (and tiring) amount of scrolling you have to do to view even a simple website.

The rear eight-megapixel camera is unremarkable but absolutely adequate, as is the two-megapixel front camera (although I can't see the average Classic user as the selfie type). The 2515 mAh battery was more than enough for a full day's usage and more, but that might be because I found the screen too small for much more than checking email, so I wasn't giving the battery the workout I would with a smartphone on which I frequently surf the web and use apps.

But for all that, the Classic's a well-crafted handset: the stainless steel band around the frame and the keyboard frets underneath the Gorilla Glass give it a solidly industrial feel. The no-nonsense black backplate - plain apart from the BlackBerry logo - has a reliable non-slip texture which feels good in the hand. And, at 178g, it feels weighty without being too heavy.

The software

I'm quite a fan of the BlackBerry 10 operating system. It has some really lovely details throughout - for some reason I really like the transitions when you scroll through the default apps. Performance was adequate (not as snappy to respond as the Passport, for example) thanks to the Qualcomm MSM 8960 1.5GHz chip.

BlackBerry Hub is still the best inbox around, helping you to gut and dispatch a pile of email with brutal efficiency. All the other productivity elements such as BlackBerry Blend and Docs to Go are present, but you'll find a limited selection of third-party apps.

That's mostly because BlackBerry's tiny market share is little incentive for software makers to port their apps across and, while the Amazon Appstore adds a decent range of software, it still isn't going to compete with Google Play or the Apple app store.

That small square screen is always going to be limiting factor too, especially when it comes to games. Perhaps that's not such a big downside: I get the sense that the average Classic user isn't planning on playing games or downloading many apps.

In summary

The Classic is explicitly one for the fans (particularly of the old BlackBerry Bold 9900) and not for the curious first-timer. That fits with BlackBerry's bigger strategy: hold onto that big business and government user base while looking for growth in software and services.

For the hardcore fan, this is therefore more than an exercise in nostalgia, it's what they think a smartphone should be. For them, its limitations are its selling point. It's not as clumsy or random as a phablet. It's a more elegant smartphone for a more civilized user.

Solid, sober, and business-like is clearly how the BlackBerry Classic wants to be perceived. While that's not a terrible aspiration, it can easily tip over into unadventurous, and even dull. As such, I think mostly it will mostly appeal to people who need a smartphone but don't really want one.

For executives who want to make phone calls and respond to email but not much more, it may well be the perfect companion. Others will find it more limited. That's a shame as there's so much more to smartphones - and the Classic - than just email, but I have a feeling that few users will be tempted to explore further.

Check out this gallery of BlackBerry devices through the ages from the earliest to the most recent.

Alternatives

If you're sure you need a keyboard, the BlackBerry Passport might be a good fit with its bigger screen.

BlackBerry Classic specs

Dimensions: 131mm x 72.4mm x 10.2mm

Weight: 178g

Keyboard: 35 key backlit physical keyboard plus dedicated keys, optical trackpad

Buttons: front: send, end (power), menu, escape. Top: lock/power (on/off). Side: volume up/down, mute

Display: 3.5 inches, 720 x 720 resolution. 1:1 aspect ratio, 294 ppi

Operating system: BlackBerry 10

Processor: Qualcomm MSM 8960 1.5GHz

Memory: 2GB RAM, 16GB Flash, expandable memory up to 128GB with MicroSD card

USB: Micro USB 2.0

Battery: 2515 mAh non-removable. Up to 22 hours mixed battery life, 17.2 hours GSM, 15.2 days GSM standby time, 11.7 hours UMTS talk time, 14.5 days UMTS standby time, 70 hours audio playback, 13.7 hours video playback

Rear camera: eight-megapixel auto-focus camera, 1080p HD video recording at 30 fps

Front camera: two-megapixel fixed-focus camera, 720p HD video recording

Connectivity: 802.11 b/g/n 2.4GHz, 802.11 a/n 5GHz, 4G mobile hotspot, Miracast Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy

Sensors: accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope, proximity, ambient light, hall sensor

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