Historically, BlackBerry has been uneven when it came to build quality: For every tank the company put out, there was one that was unsatisfyingly light. Even the venerable Curves and Pearls of yore skewed toward the lighter, plasticky end of the spectrum. Not so here. The Classic is dense and solidly constructed, as if to declare -- loudly -- that it's more of a tool than a toy. One thing the Classic doesn't share with its old-school comrades is the ability to pop off the rear cover for a foolproof restart or a handy battery swap. No, its dimpled back plate is affixed to the chassis, so all you'll be able to do with it is finger the chrome BlackBerry logo and gaze at the 8-megapixel camera and LED flash running across the top of the Classic's backside.
Itching to pop in a SIM or a microSD card? Hope you've got a paper clip handy; you'll need one to access the pair of trays along the phone's left side. On the opposite edge, there's a pair of volume buttons separated by a key dedicated to launching the digital assistant (more on that later). And the front? It's just the sort of blast from the past I expected here. It's even got a notification light to pulse at you whenever an email lands in your inbox to complete the historic look. Rounding out the facade is a 2-megapixel fixed-focus camera lodged above the 3.5-inch square 720p screen.
Below all that lies the affectionately named "tool belt," bringing along dedicated Call, End, Menu and Back buttons... and a trackpad. It's been years since I've seen an optical trackpad on a smartphone, let alone used one in lieu of a touchscreen to get stuff done. And you know what? I didn't miss them at all, or so I thought. After a few days, my tune started to change, if only a little. In case it wasn't apparent, the Classic's tiny black nub helps you ably home in on teensy links and subtly nudge the cursor between letters so you can polish off that witty Twitter retort. For such minute operations, the trackpad is just lovely. You can use it for grander gestures too, like scrolling through a story, but in those cases it never feels quite as comfortable swiping a thumb down a glass touchscreen (Gorilla Glass 3, in this case).
If anything, it almost makes more sense as a supplement to a touchscreen than a means of navigation unto itself. The rest of the tool belt is as straightforward as it is functional, with only the Menu button coming off like a relic. BlackBerry has spent more than two years refining the way BB10 works with a touchscreen, adding gestures that feel natural and replace the Menu key almost entirely.
And then there's the keyboard. I've always been fond of retro devices like the BlackBerry Tour 9630, a phone whose tiny QWERTY keys got me through at least one college paper dissecting some long-dead poets and a failed relationship or two. The Classic has a pretty standard four-row affair, with all your letters, numbers and punctuation crammed into the top three rows leaving the space bar and Symbol keys (remember those?) all by themselves. If you've never picked up a BlackBerry before, the size and density of these keys will take some time to get used to; it took three or four days before muscle memory kicked in and I could peck out messages with something approaching the fury I used to have. And after that? I wouldn't quite call it typing nirvana, but there's a comforting amount of travel and a satisfying click to those keys. Welcome home, BlackBerry fans. It would've been nice if the company had transplanted some of that sweet, sweet gesture-tracking tech we saw in the Passport into the Classic, but "newfangled" isn't the name of the game here.
Display and sound
Beyond the obvious Huey Lewis joke, there isn't a lot to be said about the Classic's 3.5-inch square screen; it's bright enough to use in direct sunlight, and colors are plenty vivid, too. BlackBerry was kind enough to let you tweak the screen's white balance right from the settings, something that just about every other smartphone maker out there is loath to do. Is it going to do much good for anyone who isn't seriously finicky? Maybe not, but I couldn't help but dial down the default warmth level a touch anyway. It's certainly not the most pixel-dense screen you'll encounter, which is slightly tragic since the Passport squeezes four times as many active pixels into a screen that's only an inch bigger diagonally. Once again, we've got BlackBerry's business-friendly mantra to thank here; small as the display is, there's still enough space to get you thumbing through emails and tweets without too many complaints.
Speaking of the sort, yes, I've got a few. A square display doesn't sound all that obtuse in theory, but the reality can be rougher than you might think. The lack of vertical screen space means that your thumb will get more of a workout because of the additional scrolling needed to plow through an article. The kicker: Just about every video you watch on your phone will be flanked by some serious letterboxing thanks to the aspect ratio mismatch. You'll usually find way more empty space surrounding a video than there is video itself, but that's fine -- the lackluster speaker lodged on the Classic's bottom helps ensure you won't want to watch for long anyway.
There's a noticeable hollowness -- a lack of depth -- to the sound issuing forth from the driver, which I guess is in keeping with the Classic's predilection for serious business. (Don't be fooled by the other speaker-like grille on the other side of the micro-USB port; that's the microphone.) You'll want to plug in some headphones to get the full experience -- such that it is -- but avoid the ones that come in the box. When I tear into the packaging of a new phone, those pack-ins are usually the first things that get tossed in the junk drawer and these earbuds were destined for the same fate. They're a comfortable pair, even surprisingly so, but they sound pretty lousy. Grab a $10 pair from your local big-box store -- trust me. You'll be a lot happier.
We did a deep dive on BlackBerry 10.3 when we played with the Passport last year, so I won't dwell too much on the nitty-gritty. Suffice to say, the platform has come a long way since those early days. The version loaded on the Classic (10.3.1, to be precise) looks a little flatter and feels more polished than builds we've futzed with in the past. Let's start from the top.
The BlackBerry Hub (a slide-out panel that offers tantalizingly quick access to all of your messages) continues to be the best part of the BB10 experience. No matter where you are, no matter what app you've got running, that unified inbox is just a swipe away. For FOMO-prone types like me, it's a godsend. BB10 also sports what's probably my favorite visual multitasking metaphor since the days of webOS cards, and now you can dismiss each of those apps (up to eight of those active frames are visible at any one time) with a click of the Back button when they're highlighted.
New to this build is the ability to run apps in the background without an active frame, which can be jarring the first few times; I apparently granted Rdio background access and it took me time to figure out how to kill it. Those two features in tandem speak to just how seriously BlackBerry takes its beloved productivity angle, and it doesn't stop there. I won't lie: I bristled at the idea of loading up my full-to-the-brim work computer with yet another mostly pointless smartphone-management app, but BlackBerry Blend is probably the best-executed of the lot. Setup took all of a few moments once I remembered my BlackBerry account details, and marking emails as read and adding calendar entries reflected immediately on the Classic. Good stuff.
Even some of BB10's me-too features impressed, like BlackBerry's virtual assistant (which also doubles as the Search interface whenever you start typing something while on the home screen). Thing is, invoking it by holding a button on the side of the phone was strangely inconsistent; it'd work just fine about 95 percent of the time, but I've spent more time scratching my head wondering about the other 5 percent than I care to. It's a silly little error, and one that needs fixing. Once you've roused it, though, your phone-bound concierge is plenty smart. I needed to dig up a scheduling email from my boss sent weeks ago, and just couldn't be bothered to do all the swiping and typing required. Instead, I asked my assistant if I had "any messages about news from Terrence," and a moment later, it surfaced exactly what I was looking for.
It didn't take long for me to use the BlackBerry Assistant for other things I could've easily done by hand. Turning off Bluetooth and turning on WiFi? Launching apps? Checking in on Foursquare? All easily handled by talking at a phone. After a while, it became less about the utility of the thing and more about seeing how awkward I could get before it stopped recognizing my words. (I gave up when the assistant correctly rendered and interpreted "What type of Pokémon is Charizard?" with Wolfram Alpha's help.) If the assistant dismissed itself and let me pick up where I left off, I'd like it even more.
And now it's time we acknowledge the hulking mammoth in the room: There's still a noticeable dearth of apps for BlackBerry 10. CEO John Chen knows just how dire the problem is. In an open letter meant to tap into a larger conversation about net neutrality, he basically asked developers of big-name apps to bring their wares to BlackBerry 10 because, well, it's only fair right? Sorry, John. It's a shitty, vicious circle, but that's just not how it works and the end result is an app landscape that still feels barren even after two years.
Let's consider some of the big names, shall we? I don't post much on Facebook and Twitter, but I'm a sucker for sharing photos on Instagram. Those first two social networks are well represented by a pair of native apps, but you'll have to turn to third-party offerings to get your filtered-food-photos fix. Productivity and communications tools like HipChat, Yammer, Convo and Slack don't exist in BlackBerry World either, and that's a shame considering the Classic's business-friendly ethos. Those omissions alone mean this thing wouldn't fly as a work tool here at Engadget, nor in any of my other post-college jobs. When it comes to media, there's Pandora, but no Rdio or Spotify apps. That said, you can find versions of the latter two in Amazon's Android app store. If you're looking for something really specific, you'll have to get your hands on the Android .APK and sideload it onto your Classic. Thankfully, that's gotten easier over the past few months; with a little patience and some elbow grease, you can get a mostly working version of the Google Play Store running on BlackBerry 10 devices.
Summing up BlackBerry's classic device philosophy is pretty simple: They're great for business and lousy as cameras. Sad to say, but history really does repeat itself; neither the 8-megapixel rear shooter nor the 2-megapixel selfie camera is worth writing home about. Out of the box, the Classic was set to shoot photos with a 1:1 aspect ratio, which is great for Instagram and the square screen, but less so for viewing images on other displays. A quick pop into the Settings will fix that right up; from there you can choose 4:3, 16:9 or a new panorama mode.
BlackBerry's promo materials insist that the Classic's camera is snappy, and you know what? It is -- when it wants to be. With the sun overhead or bright lights nearby, you can hardly tell you've snapped a photo at all -- it's that fast. (There's also something satisfying about using the space bar to snap a shot, but I digress.) Thing is, the camera does an about-face in dim conditions where you need to use the flash. I've spent too much time after pressing the shutter button wondering if it worked -- only to move my hand inadvertently, and then I realize I've just ruined a picture in progress. Even under otherwise decent conditions, letting the camera autofocus can take a while, and even then it has trouble locking on stuff in the foreground. Unless you drag the focus reticle around yourself, expect your fair share of soft photos.