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BlackBerry Priv review: A passable Android phone, poor on privacy

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Written by Zack Whittaker on
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5.7/10

BlackBerry Priv

OK
$350 at Amazon
Pros
  • This is probably the best Android phone with a hardware keyboard on the market
  • The battery life is better than most comparable phones.
  • The Priv has a hardened kernel and some strong security features.
Cons
  • Despite its branding, this phone does not actively mitigate privacy incursions.
  • Performance can suffer at times, sometimes insufferably.
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

NEW YORK -- BlackBerry is back, this time with a blast from the past with a modern twist.

If you think of beleaguered phone maker BlackBerry, physical keyboards probably come to mind. They were sent the way of the fairies in the wake of the iPhone's debut back in 2007 and have scarcely been seen on the mobile marketplace radar since -- but a lot's changed in nearly a decade.

While the iPhone may be the dominant smartphone, it's Android who takes the software crown.

Mix the two together, and you get the long-awaited (and highly anticipated, at least in the phone community) "Franken-phone" mashup of Android and BlackBerry.

Say hello to the "Priv."

Yes, the name stinks, but BlackBerry wasn't fazed: the company says it stands for "privilege" and "privacy." There's a sneaking suspicion that privilege comes first because this is not a privacy phone and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. (We have more on that in this story.)

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CNET Review: BlackBerry Priv review: Slick Android slider with niche appeal

We've had the phone in our hands for the past week. All in all, it's a good smartphone which runs Android 5.1.1 "Lollipop" -- and for those pining after the days of the hardware keyboard, you're probably going to love it.

Here's the bottom line. This isn't the true BlackBerry experience, nor is it a strictly an Android-only affair. For those who've been longing for an Android phone with a keyboard, this is for you. But if you're after something more powerful and capable, you're better off with something by Samsung.

If you're either paranoid or privacy conscious, there are far better phones out there.

Make no mistake: this phone has some strong points and many weak elements. But with a little Android and a heavy dose of some traditional BlackBerry veneer, this might be an all-around people-pleaser for the reminiscent and keyboard lingerers.

The Priv costs $699 from BlackBerry, and $249.99 on AT&T for a two-year contract in the US. The company said there are more US carriers to come,.

Design and features

Excuse the pun: let's talk about the elephant in the room. The Priv is big, and it's noticeable. The phone has some serious heft to it, like a state fair pumpkin or the average American portion size.

It's thin at just over 9 millimeters and weighs in at 192 grams, or slightly heavier than an iPhone 6 -- which, size for size, is proportionally about the same, considering the Priv is wider, taller, and thicker.

Hands-on with the BlackBerry Priv: in pictures

The phone has a massive 5.4-inch display and curves on each edge, boasting a stunning 2,560x1,440 resolution at 540 pixels-per-inch (sharper than an iPhone Retina display).The OLED screen is dazzlingly sharp and rich with color, but it comes with a drawback: the display is reflective, so using the Priv in bright sunshine can be a literal eyesore.

The phone slides open, gracefully revealing a physical keyboard -- a relic of the pre-turn-of-the-decade BlackBerry days -- which feels sturdy but is thin enough to feel as though it could easily snap off. (We tried, and it didn't.)

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(Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive)

The Priv is powered by a 64-bit hexa-core Snapdragon 808 processor with 3GB of low-power memory, and also is packed with 32GB of internal storage for files, photos, and documents. That's expandable up to 2TB of data if you can find a microSD card large enough.

It also comes with the usual refinements: an 18-megapixel rear camera (which was adequate but not noticeably different than an iPhone 6 or a Samsung Galaxy S5 in real-world testing), and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera.

A privacy phone? A far stretch

BlackBerry calls this a "privacy" phone. It's not by a long stretch, but it has the potential to be.

Privacy and security are not the same thing but are often intertwined and used interchangeably. You can't have privacy without security. To its credit, BlackBerry does -- at very least, it did security relatively well. Without getting too deep in the weeds, BlackBerry no longer takes complete control of that stack -- from email, apps, and the network itself.

First off, there are notable omissions from the phone's hardware: no fingerprint sensor.

Android alone throws a wrench in the security works. BlackBerry's global head of design Scott Wenger said that the Priv phone is designed for the privacy-minded, rather than a business, enterprise or government user. But the way the platform works is an "ask first, take later" approach. Simply put: you install an app, you grant it permission to whatever it wants, and from that point on it can take what it wants. It's a privacy catastrophe, and one that Google has tried to mitigate in recent versions of the mobile software, including the most recent version, Android 6.0 "Marshmallow."

BlackBerry said it aims to update the Priv to Marshmallow in the "coming months."

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(Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive)

The problem with that is that the Priv doesn't do much to actively mitigate data incursions like other phones, notably the Blackphone 2, which we reviewed earlier this year.

Here's the rub. A fellow Android phone, the Blackphone 2, actively prevents a user's data from being slurped up by the Android machine -- a known privacy-buster. It has dedicated walled spaces, scrambled data uploads, and permission blocking.

Where the Blackphone 2 mitigates how much data is accessed in the first place, the Priv does not.

Security aside, the phone's flagship privacy feature is an app called DTEC. BlackBerry's chief security officer David Kleidermacher said on the phone it was a play on "detect."

The app acts as a centralized health barometer of your phone. It tells you in an easy-to-read display what your phone has done to protect your data and what needs fixing, such as device encryption (which comes as standard -- unlike most other Android phones) and inbuilt settings, such as lock-screen security.

The app tells you when an app has accessed a feature on your phone, like your location, your camera, or even your microphone. It was enlightening to find out Skype, after a week of using the phone, had accessed my contacts list more than 1,500 times -- and Facebook had logged my location almost 195 times. But at no point did the app prevent it from happening, unlike the Blackphone 2, which mitigates against a user's data floating off in the first place.

Think of it this way: the police turning up at your door saying you got burgled isn't effective law enforcement. It's stating a fact, and hoping you feel reassured by it.

DTEC isn't much more than an information app in that it tells you when things are happening, unlike a privacy app which actively mitigates against data-slurping incursions.

Kleidermacher said the app would be "constantly" improved, and to expect more features to land down the line.

The Priv has some bright spots from a purely security standpoint. The phone comes with kernel hardening that -- if proven by a thorough third-party security audit -- would make the phone one of the most tamper-proof Android phones on the market. As for software patching, the company said it aims to match Google's own update cycle by issuing security patches every month -- and if need be, emergency hotfixes that can be applied without requiring carrier approval.

The blinker is back, the keyboard returns

The most annoying (and useful) feature of the mid-2000s returns. The blinker is back.

A BlackBerry isn't a BlackBerry unless it's flashing its red notification light every few seconds, much to the chagrin of the user. The blinker, used to notify the user of a new message or missed call, is useful enough to alert the phone owner without having to periodically check the screen for notifications, but also annoying enough to push the phone owner into active productivity.

You can flip over a BlackBerry, but you can't escape that daunting dot.

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(Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive)

You're probably wondering about the keyboard. The backlit slide-out keyboard is wide and rubberized, making it comfortable to use. After years of using a touch-screen keyboard, the Priv's responsive and capacitive keys are refreshing to return to.

And buried beneath its keys is a touch-sensitive sensor that lets you scroll up and down the screen without having to stretch your thumbs. It's a useful, and probably highly underrated feature, à la the trackpad.

It's everything a BlackBerry user wants and craves for.

Anyone with an old sliding BlackBerry Torch will know this pain: it was too heavy to type with. The Torch was weighty and top-heavy. When you slid out the keyboard, the weight of the screen would pull down the screen, making it almost impossible to type. BlackBerry learned this the hard way: nobody bought the phone. The weight distribution on the Priv is significantly better, and roughly equally weighted.

Battery and performance

For an Android phone, it's not the best performer on the market. They say slow and steady wins the race, but often it takes more than a second to perform basic tasks, like opening apps.

BlackBerry says you can squeeze over 22 hours out of the 3,410mAh battery. In the week we spent with the phone, it was fully charged twice and charged intermittently, on and off, for an hour at a time, three or four times. The battery is spectacular at times, but can dip wildly -- especially when the phone gets warm, which can be often.

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(Image: ZDNet/CBS Interactive)

One of the cooler features of the phone is when it charges. Like a battery status symbol, the battery meter creeps up the curved edge of the display. It's a subtle and easily missed feature.

After moderate to heavy use, such as downloading an app or sending a few emails, the Priv gets warm, particularly around its battery hotspots in the back center-left area of the phone. It's worrying, and at times borderline uncomfortable to use.

But for a phone with a high-end price point, you'd expect a little more performance. The lag on the phone is so steep that at times my entire lock-screen passcode is visible for a brief half-second, in part because the phone can't keep up.

Conclusion: A tough sell for the privacy-minded

For its first foray into the Android market, BlackBerry didn't do half bad. Had the company made the same move two years prior, we might have a more refined, well-placed, and better thought-out phone today.

There's hope that if BlackBerry turns this phone into an investment -- at least on the software side -- it can be a significantly better, stronger phone down the line, in both privacy and security. As it stands now, it's a good effort and with the best of intentions. But with so much room for improvement, it's a tough sell for its high price point.

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