When we review a device with a keyboard, it's Engadget tradition to write as much of the story as possible on it. I got three or four paragraphs in before giving up. For me, it all boils down to speed. As fast as I used to be on my trusty Tour, I'm orders of magnitude faster punching out text on a touchscreen now. You probably are, too. The only way to access a virtual keyboard on the KEYone is to rotate the phone sideways, and even then, you'll then be reaching over physical keys to type on the screen.
If you put in the time, though, the keyboard is mostly excellent. The keys are small and have just the right amount of travel, and silvery bands separate the rows to keep your fingers from mashing multiple keys at once. Even better, every letter key on this keyboard can be mapped to two shortcuts — you can invoke them by tapping a key or holding it down. This just might be my favorite thing about this keyboard: I can just tap "I" to get my Instagram fix or hold "L" to hail a Lyft.
This isn't any regular keyboard, either. For one, it doubles as a capacitive touchpad, just like the keyboards on the Passport and Priv. That means you can swipe on the keyboard to scroll through lists and web pages, but that doesn't mean you should. The keyboard seems less adept at tracking fingers when held vertically since there's less space for your finger to move, so you're usually better off just using the perfectly good touchscreen.
In my experience, the swipeable keyboard only ever really comes in handy in two situations.The first is when you're holding the phone sideways. In that case, one of your thumbs is naturally resting on the keyboard anyway, and swiping up and down on that sideways keyboard seems more accurate. You could do this on the Priv, too, but holding the KEYone horizontally with one hand is infinitely easier than trying to hang on to an open slider. The second, and less silly-looking, is when you're pecking out messages.
A trio of suggestions automatically appear above the keyboard when you're partially through a word, and a quick swipe up throws the correct suggestion into the text field. When you're learning — or re-learning — how to use this kind of physical keyboard, these smart suggestions are crucial for bashing out messages quickly. Within hours of using the KEYone, the keyboard knew to suggest the word "Engadget" instead of "engage" and offered up correct spellings of names in my contact lists.
Display and sound
It's a little weird to be reviewing this after using the G6 and Galaxy S8 — the KEYone's display feels like the antithesis of those long screens. The KEYone's 4.5-inch LCD has a squarish 3:2 aspect ratio to help accommodate that physical keyboard. BlackBerry argues the addition of the keyboard means more screen real estate while pecking out messages, and that's certainly true. Whether that's a worthwhile trade-off is up to you — I'm not bothered by the smaller screen, but bigger is almost always better as far as I'm concerned.
These observations wouldn't matter if the KEYone's display sucked, but it doesn't. It's adequately bright even outdoors, and colors pop nicely. Viewing angles are solid too, no matter if you're holding the phone upright or horizontally. Is it the best screen you've ever seen on a BlackBerry? No (if that's what you're after look at the DTEK60), but it's more than good enough for checking your photos before throwing them on Instagram.
The KEYone's two speakers (one on the bottom next to the USB-C port and one up top) were similarly just alright. I spent the past few days using the KEYone as my primary music and podcast machine, and to my surprise, the phone pumped out respectable sound. The KEYone is roughly on par with the Galaxy S8 — raucous rock tends to get muddy on both but songs with brighter highs come out relatively clear.
Software and security
This is the fourth time in two years we've seen an Android-powered BlackBerry, and honestly, little is new on the software front. Sure, the requisite updates are in place — the KEYone runs Android 7.1.1 — but just about all of the features and flourishes BlackBerry is so fond of are still here. Being a purist, I'd normally take exception to all the stuff BlackBerry shoehorned into the KEYone's software. Thankfully, it's mostly helpful.
The interface looks stock at first blush, but there's some serious customization going on. Firing up the app launcher, for instance, reveals three tabs that offer access to your installed software (duh), widgets and shortcuts to specific actions like "compose text message" and "add task". There are more than just system-level actions, too; with the right apps installed, you can add shortcuts that create new notes in Evernote or kick the KEYone into driving mode. To make things even more fun, you can map any of those shortcuts to the keyboard's letter buttons. Strangely, you can only map BlackBerry's first-party shortcuts to the convenience key that, well, just isn't very convenient. To our friends in Waterloo: Fix this.
The changes only get more pronounced from there. There's a Productivity Tab lurking on the right side of your home screen; tapping it brings up a handy view of upcoming calendar events, incomplete tasks, unread messages and favorite contacts. It's not quite as useful as Google Now, but I grew to rely on it for triaging work-related deadlines and conversations. The BlackBerry Hub is great for that too, mostly. It's basically just a unified inbox that collects messages and updates from across all your mail and social accounts.
Unfortunately, the Hub can get overloaded pretty quickly when you've got Twitter mentions, Instagram likes, emails, texts, BBM messages, missed calls and more occupying a single space. The ability to quickly sift through all your interactions at once is neat, but there's no simple way to clear these events in one shot. The best you can do is prevent certain apps from adding notifications to the Hub or creating a separate "view" that selectively funnels messages from specific apps to you.
At this point, we're mostly left with little tweaks. Swiping up on certain icons lets you view its associated widget in a pop-up window, which is way more useful than it sounds. You can install and manage different icon packs right out of the gate. The only major omission is a virtual assistant — there's no Google Assistant or Alexa or even a crappy proprietary BlackBerry assistant. Here's hoping that changes, and soon.
The list of little touches goes on and on, affirming BlackBerry's love for power users. For the folks who need that extra level of flexibility, the KEYone has you covered. That goes for security, too. According to the company, each KEYone has a hardware root of trust baked into it during the production process, and the devices are fully encrypted by default. You'd never be able to tell just by looking at the KEYone, though — to wrap your head around the phone's security, you'll have to pop into the DTEK app.
As always, it'll give you a rating that signifies how secure your BlackBerry is. My KEYone mostly hovered in "Excellent" territory and yours will, too... unless you hate PINs and install apps from outside the Play Store. More importantly, DTEK lets the really paranoid see how often apps access things like your contacts, microphone and location. And the results are often not what you'd expect. It's no surprise that Google Maps and Twitter have checked my location more than a thousand times in the past week, but I didn't think the DTEK app itself would have checked my location nearly twice as much. In the event you do find something funky, DTEK makes it dead-simple to manage app permissions. Will the average person ever do this? Probably not, but DTEK is a surprisingly understandable crash-course in mobile security, and it's absolutely worth a look.