blackberry keyone

Here’s what I think is going to happen to smartphones.

Today, most name-brand smartphones look and feel about the same. The trend with the latest top-end phones is to shrink the borders around the display, but that’s well on its way to being commoditized as well.

But for most phone makers, the “follow the leader” strategy isn’t working. Apple and Samsung are, for the most part, the only ones who consistently sell to a mass market. 

Eventually, these other companies will have to stand out or go away. If they do the former, I think we’ll see a new wave of hardware that plays to specific niches. There’d be a phone for gamers, a phone for camera fiends, maybe even a modular phone. Would all of these be good? No. It’s also worth noting that many companies have tried and failed on this route before. But with better tech to work with, augmented reality coming, and a much larger pool of people to sell to, it may be time to try again.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying the BlackBerry KeyOne is a quality phone, but only for a very particular group of people. More specifically, the new $549 device — which is technically built by Chinese brand TCL but uses BlackBerry’s branding and software — should align well with anyone who misses the feel of a physical keyboard. What’s more, it’s the only good phone for that group.

For everyone else, though, it’s probably overpriced.

I’ve been using a pre-production unit of the BlackBerry KeyOne for the past two weeks — here’s what it’s like:

The KeyOne does well to replicate the classic BlackBerry feel. It’s a busy, grown-up device — all black and silver, with a grippy, rubbery back accented by rounded aluminum sides. It’s thicker (0.37 inches) and heavier (6.35 ounces) than an iPhone 7 or Galaxy S8, but not to the point of annoyance. There’s a heft and solidness to it that keeps it from feeling cheap.

That said, it’s not much of a looker. Between the contrasting materials, the weirdly prominent proximity sensor on the front, the big cutout at the top, the slight camera bulge, and that plastic keyboard, there’s just a ton going on here. It’s got the “professional” vibe that BlackBerry is known for, but there are too many lines for it to ever be stylish.

It also lacks any official waterproofing, which is a disappointment given how much it costs.

At the center of the KeyOne is a 4.5-inch IPS display. It has a resolution of 1620×1080, which is more than sharp enough. It’s not the brightest I’ve used, and colors aren’t nearly as vivid as they are with the best OLED displays, such as the one on the Galaxy S8. But phone screens have become so good in recent years that even a middle-of-the-road option like this should be perfectly fine for most.

It’s also small. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but because the phone itself is fairly big, the small screen mostly serves to make watching videos and playing games less enjoyable.

If there was any doubt over how this phone is meant for working more than entertainment, that should squash it.

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