BlackBerry Leap review: Does this touchscreen really mean business?

If BlackBerry's new touchscreen smartphone lands on your desk should you Leap for joy? Read our review to find out.


The BlackBerry Leap is being marketed as the smartphone for 'young power professionals' -- a previously undiscovered demographic of junior execs onto which BlackBerry has latched (albeit one that sounds like a weird corporate makeover of Prince's old backing group).

The last two BlackBerry handsets, the Classic and the Passport, both had physical Qwerty keyboards because there is still a hardcore who can't bear to use anything other than real actual buttons when typing on a smartphone.

To appeal to hipper young execs, the Leap sports a five-inch touchscreen like most other smartphones (see the gallery above).

The hope is that companies will roll out fleets of Leap devices as a business handset for more junior staff, which is why it comes in at a lower price -- £199 (inc. VAT; £165.83 ex. VAT) in the UK -- than either the Classic (£349 inc. VAT; £290.83 ex. VAT) or the Passport (around £400 inc. VAT; £333.33 ex. VAT).

The hardware

Like all current BlackBerry devices, the Leap is a study in seriousness. With its dark-grey shell, there's no unnecessary decoration to distract you from your duty of sensible productivity, save the BlackBerry name and logo on the bottom bezel, and of course the little red you-have-messages LED to fuel your spiraling FoMO.

And while it might come across as a bit humourless, I rather like the Leap's minimalist style. It reminds me a little of a ruggedized Lumia: business-like, but not entirely bland.

The rubberized non-slip shell reaches around and grips the screen reassuringly on both sides, which should give it a better chance of surviving a drops than, say, Samsung's Galaxy S6 Edge. The Leap is a square-edged and rather chunky handset, but it feels comfortable and reassuringly industrial in the hand.

SIM and SD card slots are found of the left-hand side, while the volume and mute controls are on the right. One gripe: the power/lock button is too small and too flush with the top of the phone which meant I spent quite a lot of time hunting around for it.

The 5-inch screen has a resolution of 720 by 1,280 pixels (294 pixels per inch, or ppi) and performs surprisingly well: sure, it lacks a little of the crispness that you'll find in a flagship handset, but it provides a decent video-watching experience with good viewing angles. Having that much screen on a BlackBerry is a welcome change, and I certainly wouldn't want to sacrifice a big chunk of screen for a physical Qwerty keyboard.

The on-screen keyboard works well enough, and there's fun to be had flicking the screen to add keyboard-suggested words into your message -- something that can become mildly addictive.

But, perhaps deliberately, apart from that innovation I found pecking away on the virtual keyboard was a lot like pecking away on the physical keyboard -- perhaps proving that you can take the Qwerty out of BlackBerry, but you can't take the BlackBerry out of Qwerty (or is it the other way around?).

The Leap has 8-megapixel rear camera and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. Face detection is available on both, while the rear camera also has a handy auto suggest feature that recommends the best settings.

You can see some sample shots below, but for an 8MP sensor I thought the main camera did a pretty good job -- even though it did sometimes take too long to focus.

leapflowersjpg.jpg
Close up with the BlackBerry Leap's 8MP rear camera. Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet

nortonhdr.jpg
A London street view using the Leap camera's HDR setting. Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet

According to BlackBerry, the (non-removable) battery will give you 25 hours of mixed usage, which is probably about right: in fact, with a limited set of apps (see below) to drain your battery you may do better than that.

It's easy to spot the areas where BlackBerry has tried to keep the hardware costs down: the Leap uses the same 1.5GHz Qualcomm MSM 8960 processor as the two-year-old Z10 and the Classic; it also lacks NFC (although few users will ever miss it), has two microphones instead of three and has fewer sensors. Of these trade-offs, the ageing processor is the biggest issue.

The software

The Leap runs BlackBerry 10 and thanks to BB10's excellent Hub feature, BlackBerry handsets remain the best smartphones for dealing with email. The Hub makes it very easy to find the right message, and quick and surprisingly satisfying to delete stuff you don't want. For many business users, dealing with email is a smartphone's most important job, and BlackBerry continues to excel here.

However, if you want more from your smartphone than rapidly filleting email, then you may be disappointed.

This is most obvious when it comes to apps. Thanks to its tiny market share, there are fewer native apps available for BlackBerry handsets than there are for Android or iOS devices. So to boost your choice you can also download Android apps (mostly entertainment and games) from the Amazon App store.

However, I found this a frustrating process: Amazon offers a limited set of apps to start with, and it seemed rather hit-and-miss as to whether they would work once downloaded. I did get Temple Run 2 up and running for some light relief, but I found it somewhat stuttery and laggy to play.

This may irritate some Leap users, but corporate IT departments will probably be quite happy for employees to be discourages from filling up the memory with games, and wasting time when they ought to be working.

In contrast, downloading productivity apps from the BlackBerry World app store, such as WebEx or BBM Meetings, is much more straightforward. And most of the other general business apps you'll need -- LinkedIn, Maps, Docs to Go, for example -- are all onboard already. I like the bundled browser too: the Reader mode is particularly useful for stripping out unnecessary elements on web pages and making reading easier.

Performance from the ageing processor is acceptable when switching between menus and opening preinstalled native apps, although downloaded Android apps took longer to get up and running.

Conclusions

If you end up with a BlackBerry Leap it will be almost certainly because you've been given one by your employer. That's most likely if you work in government or finance or another sector where security is a top priority, where BlackBerry handsets backed up with the BES management software are still common. As such it may prove an interesting option for companies wanting to stick with BlackBerry but who recognise that most staff will prefer a touchscreen handset without a Qwerty keyboard.

At £199 (inc. VAT) it's a relatively affordable mid-range device, but the compromises required to reach that price point (particularly the older processor) make it hard to get too enthusiastic about this handset.

Still, the Leap is likely to provide what you need from a business smartphone, particularly when it comes to handling email. But the real test of a smartphone these days is whether you would want to use it for work and play. Thanks to the lack of native apps, this smartphone is unlikely to make that Leap.

Not the BlackBerry for you? Check out this gallery of BlackBerry handsets through the ages:

gallery

Specifications

Dimensions 144mm x 72.8mm x 9.5mm
Weight 170g
Dedicated keys Volume up/down, mute, lock (for power on/off)
Display five-inch screen, 16:9 aspect ratio,1280 x 720 resolution at 294 ppi
Operating system BlackBerry 10 OS
Processor Qualcomm MSM 8960 1.5GHz
Memory 2GB RAM, 16GB Flash, expandable memory via hot swappable microSD memory card up to 128GB
Battery 2800mAh (minimum) non-removable Lithium Ion battery (Up to 25 hours mixed use/12 hours GSM talk time/15 days GSM standby time/17 hours UMTS talk time/16.5 days UMTS standby time/80 hours audio playback/9.5 hours video playback)
Cameras eight-megapixel rear camera, two-megapixel fixed-focus front camera
Connectivity Wi-fi 802.11 b/g/n 2.4GHz, 4G Mobile Hotspot, Video out via wi-fi display / Miracast, Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy (LE) and EDR
Sensors Accelerometer, proximity, ambient light

Newsletters

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All