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BlackBerry PRIV: Can an Android smartphone with a physical keyboard save the day?

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A BlackBerry running Android? Several years ago, the idea would be laughable, but today an Android smartphone could actually make or break this once dominate mobile brand. As BlackBerry continues to lose ground in smartphone market, they are pinning their hopes on the BlackBerry PRIV. Their first Android device that comes with a slider keyboard.

The PRIV will be launched in Malaysia next week and we’re lucky enough to get a brief hands-on with this new slider device.

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At 5.4 inches, the PRIV is the largest smartphone BlackBerry has ever produced and the display features a double curve screen that’s very much like the S6 edge. Though the phone is not wrapped in metal, it does look premium enough for the business-centric user. The back has a grippy texture to it which gives it an assuring feel in the hands, but it took a little while to get used to.

When held in the hands, it does have a nice heft to it and despite having a larger screen plus a sliding keyboard mechanism, it is lighter by a couple of grams than the BlackBerry Passport.

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The sliding QWERTY keyboard is the main highlight of the PRIV, and the mechanism and the design are much improved from the old BlackBerry Torch. When sliding out, the PRIV feels slightly top heavy but it didn’t really bother us while typing. Having used a BlackBerry Bold previously, I found the keyboard to be enjoyable to use. Yes, you do type faster with on-screen keyboards with advance prediction technology but it doesn’t give the same tactile satisfaction as the real deal. Another advantage of using a slider keyboard is that you’ll have an unobstructed display to view your stuff since there’s no on-screen keyboard occupying half of the screen.

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Like the BlackBerry Passport, the keyboard has a couple of neat tricks. It also functions as a touchpad for scrolling and it makes text selection quicker and accurate. There’s also a text prediction feature that was introduced on BlackBerry 10 and it lets you flick predicted words upwards without having to move your thumbs away from the keyboard. In terms of single-handed use, the width of the device is just right and you won’t struggle as much as the BlackBerry Passport that’s super wide.

If you’re not using a physical keyboard, the stock BlackBerry keyboard works just fine and you probably could install 3rd party ones like Swype or SwiftKey. I can imagine myself using the virtual keyboard more frequently for quick social updates, replies or while hooked up to a holder while driving.

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In terms of performance, the PRIV that runs on Android 5.1.1 felt quite smooth and I didn’t experience any noticeable lags in the short time using it. The UI is very stock like and they do integrated a couple of native BlackBerry Apps including the unified BlackBerry Hub. If you’re using an Android device currently, you should feel quite at home but BB10 users might take a while to get used to it as demonstrated by their CEO John Chen.

So is the BlackBerry PRIV the device to get? Probably the one and the only reason to consider is its physical keyboard. I love the feel of it, I really do and it is something that I find myself using regularly for writing stories or replying emails. But for other things when you just need to shoot a quick reply, the on-screen keyboard does the job just fine.

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Knowing BlackBerry will definitely price this at a premium, we struggle to justify why anyone should get it over the Galaxy Note5. In terms of hardware, the Quad HD display, Snapdragon 808 processor, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage is pretty much mainstream. You could get that on the LG G4 that’s currently going for about RM2,299.

Of course, specs is just one factor to consider and the PRIV is also focused on privacy, which they are claiming to be the most if not one of the most secure Android smartphones in the market. Admittedly, I didn’t manage to explore other features such as the 18MP OIS-equipped camera and the DTEK security monitoring tool. Hopefully, we get to do so during the official local launch that’s happening on 8th December.

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Unless you’re getting this as a company phone, it is quite hard to justify paying more just the keyboard alone. Is there a genuine need for a physical QWERTY keyboard? Several Android brands have tried with the HTC Desire Z, HTC ChaCha and the Motorola Milestone, but most of them have ceased to exist. The recent attempt is by Samsung with its Keyboard Cover accessory for the Galaxy Note5 and S6 edge+, but with a less ideal implementation.

Could BlackBerry stay relevant in the Android world with the PRIV? Let us know in the comments below.

Alexander Wong