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BlackBerry Classic Review: A Killer Smartphone for Keyboard Lovers

BlackBerry Classic Review: A Killer Smartphone for Keyboard Lovers

The BlackBerry Bold 9900, BlackBerry Q10 and BlackBerry Classic

The BlackBerry Bold 9900, BlackBerry Q10 and BlackBerry Classic

If you're still using a BlackBerry smartphone with a "physical" QWERTY keyboard, or if you've switched platforms but still harbor fantasies about a return to the good old days when you didn't spend as much time cursing your on-screen keypad as you do typing on it, the BlackBerry Classic is the smartphone you've been waiting for.

BlackBerry returned to its roots with the Classic, which was officially launched this morning in New York City. The device looks like a larger, more modern version of the hugely popular BlackBerry 9900, a "classic" BlackBerry that was initially released more than three years ago, in the summer of 2011.

The most notable change in the Classic compared to the current crop of BlackBerry 10 smartphones is the return of the "tool belt," or the horizontal set of four navigation keys and a central trackpad, that humbly sits atop the BlackBerry keyboard.

"When we launched some other previous devices, there was something missing in our lineup," says Sonia Moniz-Bennett, BlackBerry's senior manager of product marketing. "We didn't deliver in terms of keeping the familiarity. Our customers told us, 'We want the belt back.' We realize that we missed giving these folks what they wanted [with first few BlackBerry 10 devices], and that's why we're delivering this."

Moniz-Bennett sums up the BlackBerry Classic in four words: Familiar design, faster results. The Classic's target users are "people using a 9900 that haven't given it up," according to Warren Pamukoff, a BlackBerry analyst relations manager.

So while the tech world often focuses on market share to compare today's major mobile platforms, and tech specs when considering the latest mobile devices, the goal of the BlackBerry Classic isn't to grow the user base or outdo competitors with more storage space or a faster processor. Instead, BlackBerry wants to make sure it doesn't lose any more loyal customers who are still clinging to their plastic QWERTY keyboards.

As a longtime BlackBerry user who loved his Bold 9900 dearly, I'm very much BlackBerry's target Classic user. However, I'm also a loyal iPhone and Android user, and as such, the BlackBerry platform's weaknesses couldn't be clearer. There's a lot to like about the BlackBerry Classic, but it's also hard to ignore its shortcomings.

I've divided this BlackBerry Classic review into three sections: strengths, weakness, and, finally, a conclusion to sum up my thoughts. First up, details on those strengths.

BlackBerry Classic Review: The Good Stuff

It's no surprise that the best thing about the BlackBerry Classic is its keyboard. BlackBerry has always done keyboards right, and the Classic is no exception.

By design, the keyboard is nearly identical to the keypad on the BlackBerry Bold 9900, but its keys are just slightly larger. Those buttons are still "sculpted," as Moniz-Bennett describes it, meaning a section of each key is slightly raised and shaped so that you can slide a finger across the keypad and tell where one button ends and the next begins without looking. The biggest difference between the Bold 9900 keypad and the Classic's keyboard is the straight "frets," or thin bars between each row of keys -- the 9900 keyboard was curved, with curved frets.

The BlackBerry Q10, the first BlackBerry 10 smartphone with a physical QWERTY keypad, also had straight frets, and according to Moniz-Bennett, the company got rid of the curved frets because extensive testing showed a higher typing accuracy rate with the straight frets. I'm not sure if that claim is true or not, but I love the Classic keyboard so I'm not complaining about the change.

As soon as you pick up the BlackBerry Classic for the first time, it's clear that it's a well-built, sturdy device. It feels solid, and the brushed steel bezel that surrounds the device looks good and adds durability. The bezel is just slightly uplifted from the display, which is made from the now industry-standard Corning Gorilla Glass, so it should help reduce damage from drops.

The size of the Classic is just right. Its display is small by today's standards, at 3.5 inches, but it's significantly bigger than the Bold 9900's 2.8-inch screen and the 3.1-inch display on the BlackBerry Q10. The device is weighted so that it doesn't feel top heavy while you type.

A notable design departure from its QWERTY BlackBerry predecessors is the presence of two brushed steel card slots in a side panel of the Classic, one for a micro SD card (with support for memory cards up to 128GB) and another for a nano SIM. Past BlackBerrys had slots located inside their battery doors, but the Classic has a fixed battery and the door is not removable. You pop the small trays out with a safety pin or other similar tool, and they're relatively easy to remove and replace -- though I did have to rejigger one of them a few times to get it seated properly in the bezel. I appreciate the memory card support as well.

The Classic has two large speaker ports on the bottom section of its bezel, for audio and speakerphone calls. The speakers sound tinny when playing music, but that's typical of most smartphones today. The speakers can be turned up quite high, which can be important when making speakerphone calls.

All of the keys built into the bezel seem firmly seated, which is notable because I had some issues with loose volume control keys on my Bold 9900. (The Classic does not have a customizable "convenience key," like the one found on the 9900 and other early BlackBerry models.)

Overall, the look and feel of the BlackBerry Classic is top notch, and it is one of BlackBerry's most handsome devices to date.

Another notable new feature is the optical trackpad, which is located in the center of the navigation tool belt. The Classic is the first BlackBerry 10 device with a trackpad, and it's similar to the trackpad on the Bold 9900 and other older models, but it's roughly 30 percent smaller. The smaller size doesn't make much of a difference, though.

The Classic runs the latest version of BlackBerry 10. More specifically, my Classic is running BlackBerry OS version 10.3.1.1154. I'm familiar with BlackBerry 10, having used it extensively on the BlackBerry Z10, Q10 and Passport, and the basic functionality is the same in the Classic. The most notable differences are navigation features related to the tool belt keys, many of which are designed to mimic functions in the old BlackBerry OS. For example, you can now close recent applications using the "Back" key, which is located directly to the right of the trackpad, instead of having to tap the on-screen "X" app icon. The "Call End" key, to the right of the Back button, minimizes apps and returns you to your home screen.

BlackBerry also introduced a number of new keyboard shortcuts, which have always been one of my favorite things about the BlackBerry OS. I was disappointed to see that BlackBerry hadn't built comparable shortcuts into the software for its Q10, so I am particularly pleased to see new shortcuts in BlackBerry 10.3.1 for the Classic. Many of the shortcuts will be familiar to longtime BlackBerry users, but there are also a few new ones, such as the ability to quickly unlock, or access your lock screen, when your device is "asleep" by tapping the "U" key followed by the "enter" button.

One of the best things about the BlackBerry OS, both old and new, is the system for notifications and alerts. No other mobile platforms handle alerts as efficiently, or give users more granular customization options for notifications. The company built on this legacy in BlackBerry 10.3.1 with new options to customize app alerts with specific LED colors. Apps that change LED colors for alerts have been around for a long time, but now the functionality is built into the OS. The ability to create custom notification profiles also gives you even more control over alerts.

A few of my favorite things in BlackBerry 10 aren't unique to the Classic, but they're still notable. The BlackBerry Assistant voice control features work well, and they're notable because you don't need to use specific audio prompts, as you do with other popular voice assistants. You can press and hold the Classic's mute key, located on its side between the volume keys, to invoke BlackBerry Assistant.

Battery life is another area in which the BlackBerry Classic shines. According to BlackBerry's official numbers, you should get 22 hours of "mixed use" from the Classic's 2,515mAh pack, which is more than enough juice to get through a typical workday. For context, I pitted my Classic against my iPhone 6 in a call-time test. During a three-hour call, the Classic lost 27 percent of its battery, while the iPhone 6 lost 31 percent. Both devices had five bars of 4G connectivity during the test, though the Classic is on T-Mobile and the iPhone 6 is on AT&T.

Overall, I've been pleased with the iPhone 6's battery life, and in my experience, the Classic lasts even longer on a single charge. (I did have one significant issue with the Classic battery, however, and I'll address that in the next section.)

I won't get into too many details about the security features built into the BlackBerry Classic OS, because most are not specific to the device. However, I would be remiss not to at least mention that security- and privacy-conscious users will find many advanced security options, including a variety device lock options, encryption for built-in storage and memory cards, and remote device location and wipe services.

One of my favorite BlackBerry 10 security features is BlackBerry Guardian, which you can use to scan all of the apps on your device for malware, even software from unknown app stores and sources. When combined with the company's BES EMM products, BlackBerry 10 and the Classic are impressive from a security and management standpoint.

While there's a lot to like, the Classic isn't for everyone, and it falls short in a number of notable ways. Next up, details on the BlackBerry Classic's weaknesses.

BlackBerry Classic Review: The Bad Stuff

The first thing I thought when I removed my BlackBerry Classic from its packaging and picked it up was, "Holy @#$*, this thing is heavy." I still think something along those lines when I pick it, and I've been using the device for a week.

For context, the Classic weighs 180 grams. The Bold 9900 weighs 136 grams, or nearly 50 grams less than the Classic. The Q10, which is a bit closer in size to the Classic, weight 136 grams. The much larger BlackBerry Passport weights 195 grams, just 15 grams more than the Classic. And the Galaxy Note 4, another very large phone, weighs 178 grams.

Just to be clear: The BlackBerry Classic is really heavy. You get used to the weight, but the Classic is awkwardly hefty, and that's a turnoff.

This next point feels tired to me, because I've written about it more times than I care to remember. It is, however, a major drawback of the BlackBerry OS -- perhaps the major drawback. The app selection, performance and overall experience on BlackBerry 10 pale in comparison to Android and iOS.

The few apps I use that I got from BlackBerry's own app store, BlackBerry World, run well. The problem is the "few" part; I probably only use half a dozen BlackBerry-specific apps. Moniz-Bennett told me that she thinks the company "closed the app gap" with the Amazon App Store.

It did make major gains when it brought the Amazon store to BlackBerry 10. However, the Android-app-on-BlackBerry experience is quite poor. For example, I read a lot, and I use Amazon's Kindle store to purchase most of my books. I like to read on my phone when I'm on the train. So the Kindle app is important to me. Kindle for iOS works very well, as does the Android version ... at least on an Android device. Kindle for Android is available for the Classic, and other BlackBerry 10 devices, via the Amazon App Store, but every other time I open the app, it shows me a progress symbol and gets stuck. If I close the app and reopen it a few times, it works. It's a poor, and often frustrating, experience.

The fact is that the Android apps in Amazon's store simply weren't built to run on BlackBerrys, especially BlackBerrys with square displays. Some of them run better than others. Many of these apps have only on-screen controls, so they won't work with the Classic's new tool belt navigation keys. Android apps that run on BlackBerry 10 are better than nothing, but the overall experience leaves something to be desired.

While the BlackBerry Classic's battery life is a plus, I had a significant issue charging my battery. It will not charge beyond the 63 percent mark, no matter how long I charge it, which cords I use or what outlets I connect it to. I let my device charge overnight the first two nights I had it, and it charged to 100 percent. However, the following four nights it was at 63 percent charge when I grabbed it in the morning, after more than eight hours of charging.

BlackBerry says it has not heard of any other similar reports from reviewers or early users. This may be a fluke incident that won't affect all Classic users, but it was an issue with this particular unit. I also wish that the Classic had a removable battery, but with 22 hours of mixed use, a replaceable battery isn't as important as it used to be.

As mentioned in the last section, I appreciate the fact that the Classic has expandable memory, but it's unfortunate the device is currently available with only 16GB of fixed storage. The OS takes up a good chunk of that space, so you actually get significantly less storage space. That means you pretty much need a media card, which honestly is not a big deal. I do wish the Classic were available with more storage options, though.

Again, BlackBerry is not trying to wow customers with specs, and that's quite clear when you look at the Classic's display. It's simply not very high resolution, and if you're used to another new-ish, high-end device, the difference is evident. For context, the Classic has a 3.5-inch, 720 x 720 LCD display at 290 ppi. The iPhone 6 has a 4.7-inch 1334 x 750 Retina display at 326 ppi, and the Galaxy Note 4, with one of the best displays I've ever seen on a smartphone, has a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED 2,560 x 1,440 screen at 500 ppi.

If you're not used to a newer phone that's on par with the ones I mentioned, you might not mind the Classic's relatively lo-res display.

BlackBerry has never been known for its cameras. As such, I didn't expect much from the Classic. That said, the BlackBerry Classic camera works better than I thought it would. I captured images in a variety of environments, and though I didn't do extensive camera tests, it seems like the camera works well in bright environments with natural light. It struggles in dim or dark environments, where it almost always uses the flash (if your flash is set to automatic) even when it's not needed. It also doesn't focus well for close-up shots. The Classic camera is probably "good enough" for most people, but I put it in the "weaknesses" section of this review, because it's certainly not one of the device's strengths.

In the past, BlackBerry printed a variety of required regulatory device identification information inside the removable battery doors of its devices. The Classic has a fixed battery door, so the company had to find someplace else to print that information.

When I started using my Classic, I heard a "jingling" noise when I shook it. It sounded like a small piece of metal bouncing around inside the device. I removed the SIM and memory card tray to see if I could find the problem piece, and a thin metal plate with a tiny hole slid out. On closer inspection, I noticed a number of lines of miniature text with the device model number, IMEI, PIN and FCC ID. However, I had to remove that metal plate because it was bouncing around and making noise.

I asked BlackBerry about this, and was told that my device is a pre-release model, and that the metal tab "is not intended to be easily removable by the end user, although it is possible to remove if sufficient force is applied." My tab literally fell out when I removed the memory card tray. If the devices that ship to customers don't have the same problem, this will be a non-issue. If not, Classic users may just have to remove their tabs, which defeats the purpose of including them.

The BlackBerry Classic's keyboard is supposed to light up in dim or dark environments. However, my keys don't light up, and that makes it tough to type in the dark, which obviously isn't ideal. (A ring around the Bold 9900's trackpad also lit up in the dark, but the Classic's does not, which is unfortunate -- that was a useful feature.) BlackBerry says the Classic keys should light up, and apparently this is another issue with my preproduction unit.

I don't have anything bad to say about the BlackBerry 10 OS, except for the fact that you can have only eight apps open at one time. This limitation greatly diminishes the value of BlackBerry 10's multitasking feature. I use more than eight apps at a time on my other devices, and it's frustrating to have to scroll through screens and open folders every time I want to launch a frequently used app.

Finally, I detailed three separate BlackBerry Classic hardware issues in this review. BlackBerry claims they will be resolved by the time the device ships to customers. Finding that many problems with a device that's supposed to ship very soon is uncommon in my experience, and it might not bode well for the first batch of Classics.

BlackBerry Classic Review: Conclusion

The BlackBerry Classic is designed to look, feel and function like one of the most popular BlackBerry devices ever made, and it achieves all three of these goals. The Classic is great-looking and well-built. The keyboard can't be beat. It's a great size for a "candy bar" style phone. It does notifications and alerts like no other mobile device. A new set of keyboard shortcuts adds value and brings back something BlackBerry lost in its first set of BlackBerry 10 devices. The Classic gets great battery life, and the company's sharp focus on security shines thanks to an advanced set of valuable privacy and security features.

Unfortunately, the Classic reminds me of early "bricklike" BlackBerrys because of its weight. The BlackBerry "app gap" may be smaller than it once was, but it still exists, and Android apps just don't run as well as they do on Android phones. The Classic is available only with 16GB of storage, and its battery is fixed so it can't be removed or replaced. The Classic's low-resolution display is weak. Its camera also leaves something to be desired in certain environments.

The BlackBerry Classic is a wonderful device ... for BlackBerry users. BlackBerry says that's what it was going for, and it succeeded admirably on that front. The company says the Classic is for its current users, who've purposefully chosen to forgo other device alternatives and stick with their "CrackBerrys." If you fit that bill, you will love this device.

Would I recommend the BlackBerry Classic to an Android or iPhone user who is looking for a change? Maybe, but I'd also make sure they read the "Bad Stuff" section of this review.

I like the BlackBerry Classic. It's my new "work phone," and it has secured a home in my pocket for the foreseeable future. However, I carry two phones, and if for some reason, I had to pick just one, it would not be the Classic. Thankfully, I don't have to pick one.

The BlackBerry Classic is currently available for pre-order from BlackBerry's ShopBlackBerry.com website for $449. It is expected to ship in mid-December. Unfortunately, the version that BlackBerry is selling is not compatible with Verizon Wireless or Sprint in the United States. Individual wireless carriers are expected to announce their specific release details soon, though, and Verizon or Sprint-compatible versions could become available.

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