The latest from BlackBerry: my review of the Priv

My philisophy in life is: if it works well, why change it? I’m not normally one to keep up with the latest smartphones or follow upcoming fashion trends; in this fast-paced, changing world I tend to pick and choose what I like and what suits what I need. When it comes to smartphones, security is my number one priority. Which is why in my lifetime of owning a phone, 5 of the 10 were BlackBerry smartphones.

I was happily using my BlackBerry Torch for about 2 years before I was unfortunately tempted by the idea of the Z10, a touch-screen only phone (there are no other buttons except for power and volume controls). There were good and bad points about both phones and the Priv, so far, has proven to have taken those cons into account to bring you a sleeker BlackBerry device.


The last 2 (and current) phones (l-r): BlackBerry Torch 9800, BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry Priv

I can still remember my very first BlackBerry smartphone, the 8700c. I got it on contract in 2006 when still in Hong Kong and I was pleased as anything that I was carrying a device that I could count on to ensure the security and confidentiality of anything I stored on it. When a company like BlackBerry is building smartphones for businesses with sensitive information, you can be sure your information as an individual consumer will be kept just as secure.

Since then, a lot of friends have been raving about the improved security of iPhones, Android or Windows smartphones, but nothing could sway my confidence in BlackBerry’s ability (and running history) of keeping your device secure. I did like my Z10 for the faster and improved OS 10 based on QNX compared to the OS 7 on the Torch. It was also with BlackBerry 10 that we, BlackBerry fanatics, were introduced to the wonders of BlackBerry Hub and gesture controls. The one thing I did miss from the Torch was the slide out QWERTY keyboard and the sleek design that set it uniquely apart from other smartphones available at the time (my brother couldn’t see that the Z10 I had was BlackBerry and pointed out design and feature similarities to the iPhone).

Admittedly, BlackBerry appears to have listened to their consumers’ likes and dislikes and how the devices can be improved. In a world dominated by Windows, Apple and Android, interest in BlackBerry devices (which was once popular with tweens intent in texting/IM-ing their friends) began to visibly wane and they needed to quickly come up with some way of reviving that interest. The launch of the Priv has done just that. Priv (which has been deduced to reference ‘privacy’ and ‘privilege’) is a new integration of accessibility and functionality to suit corporate and private consumers. Below, I’ll be reviewing the technical specs (as much as I can) and features of the device.

The phone

Comparing the Torch (which fit in your palm comfortably) and Z10 (approximately the same size as the iPhone 5 series) to the Priv, the latest device is clearly larger in size. The Priv measures 147mm (184mm with the slide out keyboard open) x 77.2mm x 9.4mm which will be of a similar size to the iPhone 6 and Samsung S6 Edge+. The size does take some getting used to, but it doesn’t feel too heavy in the hand with a weight of 192g, although the size difference is apparent when you put the BlackBerry devices side by side.

The Priv also houses a 5.4 inch quad HD OLED display with a dual curved screen. The only thing I’m not too sure of is the function of the dual-edged screen. At present, it only serves the purpose of showing you the progress of your Priv being charged, but otherwise the display doesn’t reach the curved edges. Somtimes trying to tap or swipe from the edge of the screen has proven difficult, but it may just something to get used to, unless this might be something BlackBerry is working on for the future?

The screen does appear to be crisp and clear, the colours appear brighter although I didn’t have any problems with the display on the Z10. I see a lot of friends and colleagues’ phones with shattered screens but I’ve never experienced any such issues with my BlackBerry devices and believe me, I’m as clumsy as they get. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve dropped my phones! Whether this is a testament to BlackBerry’s design, you can’t deny the added protection of Corning Gorilla Glass 4 (which has been rigorously tested against screen damage from being dropped) is another safety precaution and reassurance for the owner.

With 32GB internal memory and micro SD slot supports up to 2TB of memory, there’s plenty of storage space for those who like their music, ebooks or photos. The SIM and SD slots can be found at the top edge of the phone and will require the key/pin provided with your Priv to pry out. The power button is on the left side with the volume controls on the right.


BlackBerry Priv – quality and durability by design

Battery life

The micro USB charging port is on the base of the phone which is much handier than the Z10 which was on the left side of the device. With the charging port on the base of the Priv, you can still charge your device while still left inside BlackBerry certified accessories like the charging dock and cases. You won’t be struggling to read the screen and can prop your phone upright while it’s being charged.

One of the reported improvements to the Priv is the 3410 mAh battery. It boasts 22.5 hours mixed use. Other reviewers have mentioned a marked improvement in the duration of a charge. As I always do with a new device, I charged it for at least 12 hours for its first charge. On average, with heavy use (ie installing software updates or new apps), the battery easily lasted a day. This was also the case when I had to perform various troubleshooting tips (more on that later), otherwise with normal use (regularly checking e-mails, social media and IM notifications) the charge lasts approximately 1.5 to 2 days before needing charged again.

In comparison, the Torch easily lasted 4 days whereas the Z10 started off lasting 2 days but towards the end needed charging by the end of the day. To put this into perspective, the battery was sitting at 45% at 1am the night before. I used my phone as normal (frequently messaging friends and family on Whatsapp) and I wasn’t prompted about my low battery levels till 2:30pm – at the same battery levels, the Z10 would have been out of charge by the next morning.

Keyboard

One of my favourite features on the Torch was the physical slide out QWERTY keyboard. When I switched to the Z10, the on-screen virtual keyboard took some getting used to. It was also frustrating at times when I started typing a long message, without realising what button I seem to have tapped (I still don’t know how I managed to do it), the phoned started to quickly delete all the words I’ve typed until I tap on the backspace key again to stop it. With a physical keyboard, there’s less chance of that happening. Between the keyboards of my first BlackBerry 8700c, the Torch and the Priv, they’re all laid out the same and are approximately the same size, so I don’t have an issue with the size, although it may prove to be a bit tricky for bigger fingers.

The slide out keyboard is also a useful tool if you’re typing on the screen but don’t want to have to turn the keyboard off to scroll through your messages or e-mails. The physical keyboard has touch sensitive keys and can be used to scroll your current screen up and down by lightly moving (without pressing) your finger over the keys like a touch pad on your laptop or touchscreen device. For those used to using predictive text keyboards, SwiftKey and other keyboard apps are also available and can be used.

Camera

For photography enthusiasts or those who just enjoy taking clear and crisp photos, the camera on the Priv doesn’t disappoint. The 18 megapixel dual-flash camera is certified by German lens manufacturer Schneider-Kreuznach (who produces lenses and filters for still photography, motion picture and video) who can count Nikon, Sony/Minolta and Canon as clients. The 2 megapixel front facing camera seems a bit disappointing in this respect – this is the same resolution size as the front facing camera on the Torch which had a 5MP rear camera (the Z10 had a 10MP camera and 5MP front facing camera). There is the option to use live colour filters, exposure control as well as adust other settings before photo taking your photo.


Test shot using the 18MP Schneider-Kreuznach camera

I haven’t had much chance to use my new camera yet as I’ve only switched SIM sizes and been using my Priv as my main phone properly in the last week. The one difference I noticed is when taking screenshots. On the Z10, you held the Volume Up and Volume Down control keys to take a screen shot, but on the Priv you hold down the Power and Volume Down buttons.

Software and apps


This Android-bot with the BlackBerry shield never fails to make me smile

The Priv runs on Android Lollipop 5.1.1 and the team at BlackBerry are constantly working on improving the OS’ security in the background with frequent updates since it launched at the beginning of November. The home screen is no different to any other Android phone, but I’ve noticed BlackBerry have made some of their own tweaks to the design. For example, BlackBerry Hub is still present which was a favourite feature of mine in BlackBerry 10. Once you’ve logged in to various IM, social media and e-mail accounts in the Hub, you can view all your notifications in one place instead of having to go into each app to see your notifications. The only difference between BlackBerry 10 Hub and Android Hub, is with Android BlackBerry Hub when you open the e-mail or text you wish to view or reply to, you get taken directly to the application itself rather that responding from the Hub itself.

Your phone profiles (ie Do Not Disturb, Normal, Silent etc) doesn’t appear when you swipe down from the top as you would expect from BlackBerry 10 and Android devices, however, and is brought up by pressing on the button between the volume controls. This brings up ‘Normal’ and ‘Do Not Disturb’ modes and takes some getting used to.

There is also a new feature called the Productivity tab. On the top right side of the screenshot below, you can see a wee tab. When swiped, it allows you to view any notifications including meetings or events already scheduled on the BlackBerry Calendar app while you’re reading your e-mails so you know whether you’ll be available to attend another engagement.

As the device is running on Android, it comes as no surprise that BlackBerry users can now access apps from the Google Play store. To give you a bit of background information, apps have always been initially devised by app developers for iPhones and Android devices because it’s widely used by various smartphone users and is more easily accessible. For those with Windows and BlackBerry smartphones, this isn’t as accessible and, I believe, with the rigorous security meaures required for BlackBerry devices this meant app developers were put off by the idea and don’t introduce a BlackBerry/Windows-friendly version.

The move towards integrating Android into BlackBerry 10 was the introduction of the Amazon App Store where compatible Android apps could be downloaded and used. This wasn’t an extensive list however and if the app wasn’t available in the Amazon App Store, we had no access to the apps. Not being able to access the Edinburgh bus tracker and Edinburgh Leisure gym apps were the bane of my life…until now.


I couldn’t help my excitement from downloading various apps that weren’t previously available in the BlackBerry World app store!

It doesn’t appear to affect all Priv users, but one of the problems I had was after updating BlackBerry Services, a bug affected my Contacts by BlackBerry app which meant that I couldn’t access my contacts list on my Priv. If I were to compose a text/e-mail or access the list to phone someone, the information is there but it’s not readily available for viewing. This is already a known issue with BlackBerry and the team are working hard on getting this resolved.

On another note, another great feature of the Priv is the introduction of DTEK™ by BlackBerry. This app shows how BlackBerry takes the security of your device very seriously. Security of your device might seem like you need a background in IT to understand, but DTEK™ by BlackBerry is very user friendly. At a glance, you can quickly see how secure your device is with a red, yellow and green metre. You can easily manage and protect your privacy by adjusting certain features (like your screen lock password). You are also notified when an app is attempting to access sensitive information and provides suggestions on how to improve the security features of your device.

Customer service

One thing we expect from retailers these days is good customer service. We go into a shop and purchase an item without much thought to how the staff interact with us unless they were rude, but when we have a problem with our purchase, we expect matters to be taken seriously and our problem resolved as efficiently as possible. You don’t expect stellar customer service skills until you’re met by a diligent and effusive customer service representative. I didn’t realise how important I found this experience until I phoned my service provider (as advised by BlackBerry Help on Twitter) to transfer me to the BlackBerry Techincal Support team. I got nowhere with them and instead phoned the customer support line for Priv customers which I should have done in the first place.

Priv customers can expect to receive dedicated customer support 24/7 for their phone for up to one year after purchase. The customer service representative carefully took down all the details I gave him about the issues I was having with the Contacts icon on the home screen and he patiently explained what I needed to do to temporarily resolve the issue while the bug continued to be investigated by the Analysts. I was informed I would get a call back so I could be passed to an Analyst who may require further information and when I didn’t get the phone call, the Analyst spoke to me directly and assured me they were aware of the issue and was investigating a fix. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was for the customer service rep to then e-mail me and apologise for not calling me back!

Some issues may be more technical and you may need to contact BlackBerry to have the issue resolved, but there is also troubleshooting advice and support on BlackBerry Support Forums from other BlackBerry users and occasionally BlackBerry Customer Support representatives as well as information on the BlackBerry website.

Conclusion

The price tag for the Priv is quite hefty and joining on contract doesn’t seem to be any better (starting at £32.50/month with an upfront cost for the phone at Carphone Warehouse), although I remember the Z10 costing at least £300 more SIM free when it first came out. So far, I’m still getting used to the layout of the phone and how to access certain functions (I had to download File Manager which was a default function on BlackBerry 10, but I can’t seem to move items between folders), but I’m pleased with the integration between the security and privacy afforded by BlackBerry and accessibility of apps with an Android OS.

Given I relied heavily on my service provider previously to resolve any issues I had and I’ve been so accustomed to thier standard responses which felt like they were reading from a manual, it was a nice change to speak to BlackBerry customer support who treated you like a valued customer. When the say ‘your satisfaction will always be our priority’ isn’t just a standard response, their customer service proves they do take your satisfaction seriously.

You can also read CNet’s review on the Priv for other expert and user’s views.

At the moment, I’m using a nappa leather sleeve for my Priv, but I’m hoping once my clear hard case arrives I will be making a customised case for it just like I did with my BlackBerry Z10.

In case you were worried about BlackBerry 10 devices being ignored now that the Priv has moved to Android, fear not BlackBerry fans. CEO John Chen has publicly assured all customers upgrades to the OS are in the works this year.

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