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Review: BlackBerry Classic (Q20)

By Leigh D. Stark | 5:26 pm 12/02/2015

Once a leader in modern smartphones, BlackBerry now trails Android and iOS, fighting for third with Windows Phone. Can the Classic bring back the glory, or is just another nail?

Features

A new BlackBerry for a new time, the Classic is the latest from a company that didn’t quite see the rise of the touchscreen, at least not in the way Apple, Samsung, Sony, and HTC have made possible, with BlackBerry struggling to play catch-up to the other players out there.

This model is different to the competition, and yet it stays true for what BlackBerry has come to represent over the years, with a phone made for writing emails on, complete with a physical keyboard that can let you type quickly once you’ve mastered the buttons.

Above this keyboard are four soft buttons for the phone, settings, back, and a multi-task button, with an optical trackpad sitting dead centre between them all.

Just above this is a 3.5 inch screen running a resolution of 720×720, an unusual resolution that will tell you this is a square screen, and one that displays a pixel clarity of 290 pixels per inch. Corning’s scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass 3 protects the display, and there is, as you’d expect these days, multitouch capabilities.

Beneath all of this is the technology, with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 Plus running as the processor, paired with 2GB RAM and 16GB storage, the latter of which can be upgraded with a microSD card slot. BlackBerry’s operating system runs natively here, with 10.3.1 provided out of the box.

Connections for this phone are fairly standard, with 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 with Low Energy (LE), Near-Field Communication (NFC), GPS, and support for 4G LTE. MicroUSB is also included for data transfers and charging of the phone.

Cameras are also here, with an 8 megapixel rear camera with autofocus and an LED flash, while the front camera is a 2 megapixel camera.

Buttons are fairly large in number on this handset, hardly a surprise given the keyboard on the front of the handset, and you’ll find this, the four soft buttons previously mentioned, and a button under the optical trackpad on the front.

The sides feature buttons, too, with a power button up along the edge, while the right edge features three buttons near the top for volume up, pause/play, and volume down.

There are far less ports than buttons, however, with merely a 3.5mm headset jack up the very top on the left and the microUSB port at the bottom in the middle.

Two SIM-ejectable trays can also be found on the BlackBerry Classic, providing a nanoSIM slot and a microSD slot.

The battery is built into the BlackBerry Classic and is rated for 2515mAh.

Performance

Is the world ready for another BlackBerry, or is BlackBerry ready for the world?

It has been a while since we got to play with a BlackBerry, but the company is back and ready for another stab at the smartphone space, offering a phone that brings with it the style of BlackBerry, the hardware keyboard its fans and previous owners have loved, and a body that looks professional.

Pick up the Classic and you can see a phone that exudes quality, though it is fairly hefty. The edges are metal with the back a textured plastic that is very easy to grip, and the front is classic BlackBerry, with the small keyboard beneath.

Those are real keys here, with more buttons on this one phone than practically all of the currently used smartphones in the office put together, and that’s a BlackBerry thing, plain and simple.

Grip the edge and you’ll find three buttons, with ones made for media on the side, representing volume up, volume down, with pause and play wedged in between and sharing the same little silver button. If you like to listen to music and haven’t grabbed a pair of wireless headphones, these will become very familiar shortly.

Up top, however, is the power button, and given that this is a smallish handset, it’s within reach for most people, even those of us with smaller hands.

Overall, there’s a good solid heft to the unit, though it is much heavier than other phones of its size, clocking in at 177 grams even though it only has a 3.5 inch screen.

Let’s talk about that screen, though, because it’s definitely worth a mention, BlackBerry bringing the unorthodox 3.5 inch display running a resolution of 720×720. It’s the first thing you’ll notice when you switch the phone on, and it will offer decent viewing angles and crisp colour with only a smidgen of wash-out at the extremes.

Touch is also offered through this display, welcome with the physical keyboard beneath, and you’ll even find a unique gesture system offered to get around BlackBerry’s operating system.

Bring the phone back from standby and you’ll see the time, your next event, and several numbers under notifications informing you how many new messages you have, how many Facebook messages you’ve missed, and how many times someone tried to call you.

This screen is clear, concise, and very informative, and you merely have to press each icon to get a preview of what the information is, though sometimes you might accidentally unlock the phone, so just be aware of that.

Otherwise, you can simply swipe your phone to unlock it, which starts off those gestures we mentioned before.

Swiping to unlock is very basic, though, so what else can you do?

In the phone, you’ll find the right most button above the keyboard will bring you back to the main BlackBerry multi-task system, and this really serves as the home button, since you’re jumping between applications.

Swipe from left to right here and you’ll get to your leftmost screen, the BlackBerry Hub.

This is where all the notifications go, and not just short messages, but everything your BlackBerry connects to: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Exchange, Google, Hotmail, whatever.

If your BlackBerry can access it, the information will go here, and while it will stay in the separate application as well, accessible in those places, you’ll find everything in the BlackBerry Hub, searchable and indexed by date and time, though also filtered if you need it by the account.

Easily, this is one of the best things about BlackBerry, and if you live and die by how many notifications, emails, alerts, messages, calls, and random digital buzzes you get, this will be of use.

Swipe right to left to get back to the home screen, and then right to left again to reach the app menu, and this will be pretty much what you’re used to on every phone, with several app shortcuts to anything and everything you’ve installed.

You can also swipe down to get menus and settings inside these menus, which the BlackBerry button will also do on the top row of the keyboard, a sort of settings button, if you will.

Two other buttons are obvious here, too, such as the left most button which will bring up the phone dealer, while the back button is pretty standard (if you guessed that it goes back, you win).

Once you’ve mastered this, you more or less have the BlackBerry Classic down, and you can jump between applications, open up the web browser — which isn’t connected to any other known browser and won’t have your passwords or favourites — do the social networking thing, get your emails done, play the odd game, and even listen to some music here and there.

While the Classic is a return to the days when BlackBerry felt like it was making quality devices, it has a severe problem with apps and a proper ecosystem.

Simply put, the pickings are slim, and while the BlackBerry Classic and its BlackBerry 10 OS can run Android apps, it’s not a great execution that you’ll be seeing on the Classic’s tiny square screen.

From the get go, you’ll find two app stores waiting for you, with one available from BlackBerry and one from Amazon. The first of these will deliver BlackBerry apps — made for the device — while the other, Amazon, will bring you Android apps that can run on the BlackBerry, but it’s important to see the difference, and that is the BlackBerry often work well, while the Android ones aren’t made for the small screen or the optical trackpad, and even show up with some glitches here and there.

Some times, the Android apps you find in APK are the only way to get apps for the phone. Instagram, for example, can only be installed via an Android APK that you need to go find, because it’s not on either platform.

Pandora exists on the Amazon store, but only from the Android point of view, and when you run it, you get three different ways of rendering it on screen thanks to the app being made for Android displays and not this rather unusual square BlackBerry one.

Android app appearance can be... interesting. Here's how Pandora can look in its different view options on the BlackBerry Classic.

There’s also a camera here, with an 8 megapixel shooter that takes half decent photos and can be activated by holding down the camera icon from the standby screen.

In the camera, you can touch to focus, fire a shot, and play with a few settings, such as shooting 1:1 for square images, 4:3 for standard screen, and 16:9 for widescreen, though the square is ready to go by default. High-dynamic range images can also be shot, as can a burst mode, panoramas, and you have a very small amount of scene modes comprising of auto, action, whiteboard, night, and beach or snow.

That’s not a lot, but most of the time, auto is sufficient, though the quality could easily have been notched up a bit.

Eight megapixels isn’t particularly high, and while we can get away with it on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus because of all the extra work Apple has thrown into its camera, this is one module that doesn’t feel like it’s producing amazing results.

They’re certainly acceptable, but we’ve seen better, and given the flagship status, expect a little more from BlackBerry here.

Image sample from the BlackBerry Classic

Front-side you’ll find a 2 megapixel camera, again for acceptable but not amazing results. This isn’t going to be the best shooter ever, so don’t retire that proper camera any time soon.

Connections here include 4G, which is great to have, but our speeds tests weren’t showing download speeds as high as we’re used to, toping out around 55Mbps for download and around 7Mbps for upload. These speeds suggest Category 4 4G LTE might be here, at least for the download, though we’re surprised the upload speeds are as low as they are.

While these will be fast enough for most, they are by no means the best in terms of mobile internet speeds we’ve seen.

The performance is a bit of a let down, as well, with lag easily noticed as you make your way across apps, pressing a button only to have it respond half a second to a full second later. Slowdowns are relatively frequent, and while the multitasking offered here makes it easy to jump between apps, doing it in a speedy fashion isn’t always something you’ll see.

Battery life is also affected, and we saw performance for the Classic really hit only a full day of use.

This was a phone connected to Exchange, Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, and used as a phone, a web surfer, reading and writing emails, social networking, camera, and music player, as you do, with battery life hitting barely over a day, and if we’re honest, that was just for a regular run down.

Use your phone consistently every day and power users will want to charge it before day’s end, a result that isn’t all that stellar when it is competing against smartphones that can nab a full day more in comparison.

Our battery test comes straight from the lock screen. You'll see a full 24 hours here, but just barely.

Also something that needs work is the app eco system. We mentioned it earlier, and sure, it’s great that BlackBerry supports both Android apps and those made for BlackBerry, but it needs more access to the former and more made on the latter.

Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough apps made for BlackBerry, missing staples for other phones that even feature on Windows Phone, which is arguably one of the ecosystems that also needs more work and more larger app releases.

As such, there’s no Instagram, and no official Pandora or Spotify app for the BlackBerry operating system, and we’re sure if you look, you’ll find other apps that you use on a regular basis are missing in action.

Another point we feel we need to touch upon is the keyboard, and frankly, it won’t be for everyone.

We can remember reviewing BlackBerry handsets earlier on and liking the keyboard, and knowing full well that the tactile QWERTY keypad was one of the best ways to get messages out, to respond to emails on the go without having to get the laptop out and draft emails ready to be sent as soon as WiFi could be found.

But not this time, not several years after the on-screen keyboard has been improved dramatically and gesture typing now makes writing as speedy as running your fingers over letters to trace a line.

These days, we’re writing more quickly using a touchscreen, and typing letter by letter on a hardware keyboard just doesn’t cut it anymore. We actually felt slower with the BlackBerry Classic’s keyboard, drafting emails and Twitter responses in a more sluggish time frame than we’d have normally liked, our fingers feeling positively lethargic as we pushed each letter instead of quickly typing words in.

This isn’t helped by how cramped the keyboard is, and knowing that if you want to type quickly, you seriously need to hold the phone with two hands, which isn’t terribly comfortable experience, especially when you’re constantly trying to press the “alt” or shift (arrow) key to add punctuation or capitalise letters.

Give us a touchscreen any day over this thing. We’re converted.

Conclusion

It’s hard to recommend the Classic to anyone but the most diehard BlackBerry fanatics, and in fairness, they’re a bunch of people who already know they’re in love even before they lay eyes on this product.

This is a phone, though, that really should have turned up a couple of years ago when Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 chip was new, in 2012 when it was recent, rather than early 2015 where it feels old and depreciated.

It’s a phone that needs more work paid to its application ecosystem, because while it’s nice to see that it can run Android apps as a sort of “in case of emergency” option, the “made for BlackBerry” ones are the apps you really want, and you need more.

And it’s a phone that really doesn’t give you a good reason to stick with it over the competition, because as good as a hardware keyboard is, and as good as BlackBerry Hub is, and as good as the design is, the competition the BlackBerry Classic plays against some seriously impressive players, and against these, it just doesn’t stack up.

Price (RRP)

$TBA; Available on plans;

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Good looking square screen; One of only a few smartphones with a physical keyboard; Very, very well built; Textured back is easy to grip; Upgradeable with microSD card; BlackBerry Hub is a great way of showing all your messages from every network;

Product Cons

Even less apps than the Windows Phone ecosystem; Slow downs are easily noticed; Mediocre battery life; Heavy;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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