Saturday, November 7, 2015

BlackBerry's first Android smartphone, the Priv arrives

Review of reviews

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Two years ago, Canadian smartphone maker previously known as Research in Motion (now called BlackBerry) was on the chopping block (alongside Nokia) as the company was on it's last move with the release of Bla ckBerry 10 OS which was a brand new take of the age old BlackBerry OS which was more than a decade old. When former CEO Thorsten Heins took the stage to unveil this brand new touch optimized version of BlackBerry in early 2013, netizens took the time to condemn that BlackBerry will be a forgotten brand within the next year or so.
BlackBerry 10, what does it mean? My thoughts on the new platform — I was also impressed with BBM which can now do video call to other BBM users and also for the first time natively on a mobile device you could share your screen. This feature may not be a big impact for us consumers but for enterprise users it sure will help. Continue reading.
While none of BlackBerry's new line of smartphones running BB10 managed to get any widespread love from critics and users, the company's most recent offering, the Passport managed to gain some traction by being a unique device that actually does what the company is boasting it to do. The response for the device was excellent with many reviewers praising BlackBerry on the form factor which was pretty optimal for doing work related tasks like reading emails and viewing powerpoint slides on the go.

But despite all the praise about the powerful hardware paired with the unique form factor and the excellent keyboard, the device was still held back by BlackBerry 10. I still remember towards the end of 2012, there were lots of rumors flying around that BlackBerry was planning to build an Android phone and there was even reports saying that BlackBerry planned to dive into Windows Phone for the line of smartphones. All of that clearly never happened and both BlackBerry and Nokia (now Microsoft Mobile) are still making smartphones.

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So, with the short refresh on BlackBerry's timeline between 2012 to 2015, let's get on to talking about BlackBerry's future with a secure version of Android. It all started a long time ago with the reports that BlackBerry was planning to onboard Google's Android operating system since the company opened up support to install select android apps on BB10 devices. However, things started to get real when Evan Blass (@evleaks on Twitter) started tweeting about this Android powered BlackBerry early this year.
Thankfully the BlackBerry Priv is nothing like the Nokia X
This felt like that moment when Nokia's plan to build an Android phone was leaked onto the internet. But unlike's Stephen Elop's line of Nokia X devices which ran on a forked version of Android and was primarily powered by Microsoft services, BlackBerry's first android device is actually more like every other android phone out there with the stock Google launcher paired with some BlackBerry specific applications. 



For months, this unicorn device was known as the BlackBerry Venice and besides featuring a dual curved display like on the Galaxy S6 edge, this android smartphone also comes with BlackBerry's signature qwerty keyboard that hides under the display. The Venice was actually leaked very extensively through a multitude of sites to the point that it was all but confirmed without BlackBerry actually acknowledging the existence of the device.

The Italian codenamed Venice might not be the actual name of BlackBerry's first venture into the Android world but it's real name is uniquely different and serves as an identity for the device. Officially called the Priv, BlackBerry says that the Priv name is derived from the company's mission (Privilege and Privacy) to provide a secure smartphone experience but besides Windows, Android is probably has the biggest set to security issues which poses a problem to BlackBerry.

Some part of the internet deemed that BlackBerry intended to leak their plans beforehand to get some excitement to the crowd but whether that is true or not, the company did manage to take advantage of all the speculative reactions to the reports on BlackBerry's first Android phone.
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The Priv arrives

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After close to a year of speculations, the BlackBerry Priv is finally heading out to the likes of users in the US and Canada first for about $699 if you opt to get buy it outright without a contract. The device will be available in more regions in the coming months and if all goes well, there might be more devices like this running Android in the pipeline for a release next year. Maybe a BlackBerry Passport form factor device running Android?

With the Priv, BlackBerry has literally gone all out by building in everything you would expect to see on a 2015 flagship Android smartphone into the Priv. From the QHD edge to edge display to the 18MP Optically Stabilized camera to the large 3,410mAh battery that supports Qualcomm's Quick Charge 2.0, BlackBerry has thought it out.

BlackBerry Priv specifications

  • 5.4" AMOLED QHD display (540 ppi)
  • Snapdragon 808 CPU w/ Adreno 418 GPU
  • 3GB RAM with 32GB of expandable memory
  • 18MP rear camera with Optical Image Stabilization
  • 2MP front camera
  • Android 5.1.1 Lollipop
  • 147 x 77.2 x 9.4mm (192g)
  • 3,410mAh battery
This could possibly be the company's last chance at building a smartphone as CEO John Chen says he plans to stop making smartphones if the Priv ends up being unsuccessful. On paper, the specs and hardware of the Priv looks like a solid deal when you consider that there is also a slide-out qwerty keyboard that is poised to impress. However, it has been proven time after time that flagship grade software paired with an solid design doesn't equal an instant success in the Android world.

Both Sony and HTC have been churning out premium smartphones which are comparable to the likest of what Samsung is releasing but the sales numbers are not stacking up despite the hardware being identical across the board. Only time will tell if BlackBerry's venture into the Android world will be successful but one thing's for sure is that die hard BlackBerry fans will finally get to experience a better smartphone with the inclusion of all the new Android application through the Google Play Store.
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BlackBerry might have decked out the Priv with all the flagship grade hardware but that is not the main selling point. Besides being the first Android device BlackBerry is creating, the Priv is designed to secure Google's Android operating system like BlackBerry OS. Just like the rivaling Blackphone 2 by Silent Circle, BlackBerry is also trying to build a secure version of Android with their Priv smartphone.

At the moment, the BlackBerry Priv is still running on last year's Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, BlackBerry has come out to say that they are working on an Android 6.0 Marshmallow update for the Priv which will only arrive in 2016. Marshmallow is probably going to be an important update for the Priv as Google has spent some time fine tuning the security with Marshmallow by improving on the security options and implementing more of Samsung's Knox security platform.

As for their long term plan to maintain the topmost security on the Priv, BlackBerry says they will have three initiatives to send out security patches to Priv users. Since Android is always being a target of hackers and that vulnerabilities are always being discovered by Google and third-party firms, BlackBerry aims to have all Priv devices on their monthly update program that provides security patches to users every month just before Google reveals the vulnerability.

Another initiative to manage security on the Priv is a Hotfix update that will be pushed out to users depending on the severity of the problem at hand (it could be like the stagefright exploit). and finally, BlackBerry will allow enterprise customers to manage the software updates being pushed out to their line of devices to prevent any incompatibility issues with corporate applications. You can read more of this on BlackBerry's official blog post.

What reviewers say

So, the Priv is now officially available in the US for a premium price of $699 but BlackBerry's first android smartphone comes at an unyielding time when all the flagship smartphones from top players are now out. Alongside the release of the new smartphone, reviews have subsequently cropped up on most of the major news outlets. Since, I do not have access to the Priv, I have read most of the reviews of the device and here is a snippet of what reviewers are saying about the device.

All in all, reviews say that the BlackBerry Priv is a device with some potential to become a better device overall in it's next iteration. The battery life scored high points in most reviews for lasting a typical heavy workload and the extra thickness and weight was a welcome exchange for a better battery life. The signature slide out keyboard in the other hand earned mixed results with reviews with some saying it was a refreshing remix of the past with the tactile keys and useful trackpad feature while others said that the BB onscreen keyboard is still a better choice.
Where is the fingerprint scanner on the Priv?
And for the 18MP rear camera which BlackBerry has included Optical Image Stabilization paired with  Schneider-Kreuznach optics, phase detection autofocus, a dual tone LED flash and support for 4k video recording; the critics all agree that it is not the best one but is a decent camera for day to day usage. Finally, some reviews compare the Priv against the likes of classic BlackBerry devices and also towards competitors like Samsung's Knox and the Blackphone 2. But the consistent comment on privacy/security is that the BlackBerry Priv was missing a bio-metric sensor which is a popular thing for flagship smartphones these days.

But bottom line, the BlackBerry Priv has been praised to be an excellent combination of all the BlackBerry goodness like the BlackBerry Hub, BBM and also the signature rubbery back that gives you that grippy feel. Quite a number of reviewers also said that BlackBerry should release an Android device in the form factor of say the Passport.
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Zack Whittaker said in his review that the Priv is undoubtedly not the pure BlackBerry Experience and that the device is currently not as secure as what BlackBerry markets it as. Full review >>
"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."
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Joanna Stern's review touches on the quicker typing through the Priv's physical keyboard in comparison to typing on the iPhone but is still no match to the keyboard on prior BlackBerry devices. The performance is said to be on par with other Snapdragon 808 devices but parts of the software is still lagging behind in terms of performance. Full review >>
"Security experts I spoke to said that kernel hardening, if done right, would make the Priv more secure than other Android phones, and perhaps even the iPhone. The claims have yet to be tested by independent security firms and BlackBerry says it didn’t conduct its own external security audit. The company, like Samsung and others, also vows to keep in step with Google’s monthly security updates—at least on the unlocked, non-carrier-controlled phones."
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Daniel Cooper says that BlackBerry designed the Priv with care by tapering the edges of the 5.4" curved display to make it a little thinner but that's about it, BlackBerry did not introduce much software enhancements to take advantage of the curved display. He also praised BlackBerry for the Priv's performance which is exceptionally well given it's their first time doing so. Full review >>
"It's important to remember that while BlackBerry produces smartphones, it's never made a pure Android device before. As such, the device's staggeringly quick real-world performance is worthy of comment, given that it's produced it from a standing start. Naturally, this is partly due to the sledgehammer that is the chip-and-RAM combo here, but BlackBerry has clearly done some work behind the scenes as well."
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Russell Holly from Android Central highlights the soft touch build all around the Priv and gives extra points to BlackBerry for correctly placing the physical buttons on the side and the overall hardware is said to be as compact as the 5.2" Nexus 5X. Again, the hardware keyboard gets more praises for it's trackpad feature, extensible character keyboard that pops up on the 5.4" screen and also the ability to use keyboard shortcuts to do specific tasks. Full review >>
"This is one of the biggest reasons BlackBerry still has a physical keyboard, and the difference is clear. A full third of this review was written on a BlackBerry Priv while doing things like waiting to pick kids up from school or standing in the checkout line, which is something that would never happen on Google's fantastic trace keyboard or SwiftKey's amazing suggestion keyboard."
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David Ruddock concludes his review of the BlackBerry Priv by saying the overall hardware is pretty spot on but the frame of the Priv suffers from a slight flex due to the gap in between the display and slide-out keyboard. While the vertically sliding display is cool as a way to turn on the device, the Priv does not feature any advanced security features given that this is a Privacy phone. Full review >>
"What DTEK is, essentially, is a feel-goody list of green, yellow, and red checkmarks remarking on your device's security. Have developer settings enabled? Uh-oh, yellow checkmark for you! Sideloading apps is enabled? Yellow again. Basically, DTEK's purpose is to show average users how they can best secure their device by following simple rules."
gizmodo-logoGizomdo's Mario Aguilar believes that the physical qwerty keyboard is what makes the Priv stand out of the crowd while also mentioning that BlackBerry opted to use a microUSB port instead of the futuristic USB Type C. He also took the time to criticize the Priv's security in comparison with the Blackphone 2 and says that it's no even close in terms of security. Full review >>
"BlackBerry had the good sense not to mess with Android’s stock experience. The UI looks like Android 5.1. Great! BlackBerry does encourage you to use software like BBM, which I know fans used to love. I have no friends or professional contacts who still use the BlackBerry Messenger."
CrackBerry's Bla1Ze compares the look and feel of the Priv to be unmistakably a BlackBerry device and the decked out specifications compliments the near vanilla version of Android 5.1.1. Lollipop on the Priv. The BlackBerry Hub application in particular is not the exact replica of what is available on BlackBerry 10 but the app is being constantly improved with updates pushed through the Play Store. Full review >> 
"If you're a fan of Picture Password on BlackBerry 10, you'll be pleased to know it has made its way to the Priv as well. Not familiar with Picture Password? Well Picture Password allows you to unlock your Priv by placing a finger anywhere on the screen and sliding a pre-selected digit in a moveable number grid over top a pre-selected location within a stationary picture."

Insider talk

I have been itching to write about a BlackBerry article for a long time already and with the launch of the BlackBerry Priv, this is probably the best time to take a look at how all of this formed. Personally, I am not much of a BlackBerry expert (have not used on personally but I do like the form factor of say the Passport) so take my views as an outsider. I will try to get my hands on the device if possible, I would spend some time with the device and get another article up.

This article could've been published earlier but I was caught up with some work and didn't have too much time to read up all the reviews until now. Funny thing is that the reviews are the last thing that I done. For the most part, the bulk of the text is based on the few 'first impressions' articles/videos that I tuned into.