BlackBerry's Classic throwback isn't just a gimmick

BlackBerry's "Classic" phone is a curious bit of fan-service, a seemingly conciliatory blend of old and new designed to appeal to Waterloo's die-hards. It might seem a little odd that the company would choose to go all retro on us in 2014, but there's no denying the formula still has some appeal. Read on for our first impressions.

BlackBerry has made much ado about the quality of the Classic hardware, and as far as early impressions go, the company was right on the money. The Classic has the reassuring heft of an honest-to-goodness six-year-old BlackBerry; before the unrelenting plasticity of the Curve, you had real bricks, and the Classic hearkens back to those hefty halcyon days. That's not to say it's ungainly in any way, though. You'll find plenty of trimmer smartphones out there, but the Classic's curved, textured back settled into my palm very comfortably, even if it is dull to look at.

Speaking of things to look at, the Classic's 3.5-inch screen is pretty pleasant, even if it's hardly the most pixel-dense display out there. My terrible eyes still can't pick out individual pixels, and the colors are bright and lively. Viewing angles seem pretty solid too, though expect plenty more detail on all of this when it comes time for our full review. Chen also confirmed that if the bog-standard black model does well, there are blue and bronze variants that might see the light of day soon. I wasn't fast enough on the draw with my camera, but the metallic bronze finish I spotted while hovering within Chen's personal space wasn't particularly attractive.

And then you've got the thing that BlackBerry's really excited about. CEO John Chen admitted that as he's traveled the globe proselytizing in the name of his company, the Classic keyboard has gotten plenty of attention, and rightfully so. Bear in mind, it's been years since I used a BlackBerry as my daily driver (it was a Tour 9630 and I loved it dearly), but it took mere moments for my fingers to readapt to the familiar physical QWERTY layout. The keys, while relatively shallow, offer some satisfying clicks as I fired off test texts to friends who wondered why I had yet another new phone number. In order to get full use out of the keyboard, you'll either have to be a longtime BlackBerry user or be willing to peek through a manual for answers -- shortcuts like tapping the T and B keys to jump to the top and bottom of a particular page aren't terribly obvious. I'll wait to pass judgment on the keyboard until I've used it more extensively, but my thumbs aren't complaining so far.

Alas, the tool belt -- the cutesy colloquialism for the BlackBerry navigation keys -- is a mixed bag. The physical call pickup and hang up buttons are a welcome re-addition to the mix, as is the conceptually simple Back key. If anything, it's the BlackBerry key that seems the most immediately useful, since tapping it on the homescreen (or holding it within an app) causes the settings shade to drop down. That's just a little less work than swiping down from above the screen with my thumb, and -- lazy as it might sound -- I appreciate it. My real beef lies with the optical trackpad, and perhaps not for the reasons you'd think. It works just fine In most cases, it just didn't make sense for me to use the trackpad over that square touchscreen.