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MWC 2017: Hands on with Blackberry's new KEYone smartphone

Sydney Morning Herald logoSydney Morning Herald 27-02-2017 Peter Wells
Nicolas Zibell, chief executive officer of TCL, unveils the KEYone.© Bloomberg Nicolas Zibell, chief executive officer of TCL, unveils the KEYone. The Blackberry KEYone offers a physical keyboard and tight security.© Bloomberg The Blackberry KEYone offers a physical keyboard and tight security.

Mobile World Congress 2017 kicked off with a press event from a familiar old brand, Blackberry. The comeback show was a flashy event, playing all the old crowd favourites — physical keyboard, commitment to security — with a few new ideas as well.

Blackberry's rebirth is an interesting one. The phones are now manufactured by TCL, which has licensed the brand and are getting access to Blackberry security and software technology.

The BlackBerry KEYone is the first phone under this arrangement, and it's equal parts charming and utterly bizarre. BlackBerry fans will love the return of the physical keyboard, while anyone under 40 will be confused by the thing. Why would you give away all that screen real estate for physical keys, and where are the emoji?

Complete coverage of Mobile World Congress 2017

There were some attempts to attract the younger crowd at the conference, with the company focused on the latest Android 7.1 and the new BlackBerry hub, which pulls all your social media messages into one app, but it's hard to tell if anyone will care.

I was never one of the Blackberry faithful, so I can't tell you if keyboard lives up to the memory of the Bold. It feels cramped to me and, in my short time typing away on it, I made countless typos. But I can see the appeal.

I was impressed that the keyboard could act like a touchpad — there's support for gestures across the keys — and you can also use it as a shortcut quickly launch apps. Hit U for Uber, G for Gmail, etc. There's even a fingerprint reader hidden in the space bar.

Above the keys is a 1620x1080 resolution 4.5-inch display with a 3:2 aspect ratio. In the hand, the unit is comparable in size to a larger smartphone, think the plus-sized iPhone, or Samsung's Note series.

I'm not sure if it's the shock of the new — or if that term is even relevant in this instance — but I found the device pretty lopsided during my time with it. Remember the Typo keyboard for the iPhone, the one BlackBerry sued out of existence? The KEYone looks like that, but thinner. The back has a satisfying, slightly squishy leather grip. I know the current fashion is phones that are as slippery as soap, but I like a phone you can grab.

The BlackBerry Hub is actually quite nice, pulling messages from various apps — Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Email — into one easy to digest list. Sure, your phone's notifications panel does this right now, but notifications disappear. This captures those conversations and holds onto them. As someone who can never remember which of the seventeen installed messaging apps I just used, this seems like a great idea to me.

The BlackBerry brand was synonymous with enterprise level security, and the KEYone is leaning on that heritage. TCL claim the the BlackBerry KEYone offers the "most secure Android smartphone experience possible", thanks to a combination of hardware encryption and software that continually monitors the security of the device.

Beyond the physical keyboard and the enhanced security the KEYone has the specs of a mid-range to high-end Android phone, including a Snapdragon 625 CPU, a Sony Camera, and a hefty 3505mAh battery with support for Qualcomm Quick Charge.

As a friend of mine joked on Twitter, Blackberry is trying to make physical keyboards great again. Like that famous slogan, the KEYone seems to harken back to a time that has already passed, and no amount of marketing will bring it back.

The BlackBerry KEYone is expected to be available in Australia around May or June - with a recommended retail priceof $799.

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