BlackBerry PRIV review: A new standard for Android in enterprise?
CIO.com spent a month testing BlackBerry's first Android smartphone with a focus on the businesspeople and IT managers who will use and support it. The PRIV is the most capable BlackBerry ever, but does it deliver on what may be its most important promise?
By Al Sacco
A month ago, BlackBerry released what could prove to be the most important smartphone in the Canadian company’s storied history: the BlackBerry PRIV.
PRIV is the first BlackBerry that doesn’t run a version of the company’s own OS. Instead, it runs Google’s Android OS. It’s a forward departure from what most of the world expects from BlackBerry today. It’s aimed at the enterprise, and its productivity-focused users — but PRIV [ Find it on Amazon – *What’s this?* ]
legitimately measures up to the most popular consumer devices. And BlackBerry put a sharp focus on privacy. (PRIV’s name is a play on the phrase, privilege of privacy.)
PRIV could also be one of the last smartphones, if not the final handset, BlackBerry ever releases, at least based on some ominous comments the company’s CEO made in October.
I’ve been using the PRIV for a month now, and evaluating it from the perspectives of a tech-savvy businessperson and an IT manager.
A lot of people who yearn for the comfortable and familiar clack of those old BlackBerry keys will herald the debut of this smartphone, and the mobile administrators who manage PRIVs will appreciate BlackBerry’s eye toward enterprise in its “flavor” of Android. However, some obvious shortcoming will become clear to the most diehard BlackBerry loyalists. And the IT managers who want to deploy, or have to support, PRIV across their workforces also have reason for concern.
I broke this BlackBerry PRIV review into three sections: The good, the bad and the decision. Hit these individual links to jump to specific sections of interest.
First up, the features and functionality business users and IT managers will appreciate about PRIV.
BlackBerry PRIV Review: The good
Why business users will love BlackBerry PRIV
PRIV runs Android, but it’s still a genuine BlackBerry, thanks to its “physical” full QWERTY keyboard, the “BlackBerry Hub” inbox and a number of additional throwbacks to BlackBerry phones of yore.
PRIV’s QWERTY keyboard is a more compact version of the touch-sensitive BlackBerry Passport keypad (with four rows of keys instead of three), and it features many of the same unique gestures and predictive text functionality, so you can slide a finger up to choose predicted words, or drag a digit around the keyboard to trigger the on-screen cursor. BlackBerry’s system for predictive text is unrivaled, and the more you use it, the better it gets at guessing the words you want. Predictive text works on both the on-screen keyboard and the physical QWERTY pad.
Anyone who’s used a BlackBerry 10 device will recognize the BlackBerry Hub inbox, which lets you see alerts for a variety of accounts, services and apps in one easily sortable inbox. It’s one of the most effective productivity features in the BlackBerry 10 OS, which is surely why BlackBerry brought it over to its version of Android. And PRIV still has many of the traditional keyboard shortcuts that work in the Hub and in lists.
You can color-code many of the accounts you add to your Hub, using colorful tabs that display on the left side of messages in your inbox, and for some accounts you can add matching LED alerts. So, for example, your work messages show red tabs in the Hub, and the PRIV LED blinks red whenever new work mail arrives. Unfortunately, the Hub doesn’t support all app alerts, and the LED changes color based on your most recent notification, instead of blinking different colors in sequence to signify the different alerts.
BlackBerry’s version of Android is clean and simple, unlike the software from other leading Android handset vendors that bulk it up with useless bells and whistles. Most of the customizations BlackBerry made to Android genuinely add value. BlackBerry Pop Up Widgets, for example, let you save valuable screen space by swiping up or down on app icons to view their widgets; a customizable “Recents” button, or app switcher, lets you access and close recently used apps in three different layouts; and “Quick Action” icons let you easily trigger common functions with a tap, including “Compose email,” “Add event” and “Add contact.”
Then there’s the app selection, long BlackBerry’s Achilles heel. The company’s adoption of Android, and by extension, the Google Play store, resolved the issue, which was one of the major factors in BlackBerry fall from grace.
As for hardware, PRIV’s 5.4-inch, OLED display (2560 pixels by 1440 pixels, at 540ppi) is made of Corning Gorilla Glass 4, and it’s one of the brightest, most vivid displays on any smartphone I’ve used. It makes the 5.5-inch “Retina” display on my iPhone 6s Plus (1920 pixels by 1080 pixels, at 401 ppi) look downright archaic in comparison. And its curved edges add a touch of je ne sais quoi — though they don’t really do much else beyond provide access to a “Productivity Tab,” that’s basically a quick glance at your Hub, and a battery charge indicator that moves along the curved edge as the battery fills.
Battery life also shouldn’t be an issue for most PRIV owners, thanks to a large 3,410mAh power pack. In my tests, the PRIV get about 21.5 hours of talk time on a strong T-Mobile signal, which is impressive.
The device is available only with 32GB of built-in storage, but it supports microSD memory cards up to 2TB — good luck finding one, though; the highest capacity card I could find was 200GB. The 18MP camera doesn’t disappoint, though it seems to struggle with light balance in dim environments (like most smarphone cameras), and it records 4K video.
Finally, the PRIV has NFC for payments using Android Pay and other services. And though the review unit I received doesn’t support wireless charging, BlackBerry says the versions sold in the United States via AT&T and on its official ShopBlackBerry.com online store work with both PMA and Qi wireless power.
Mobile admins should appreciate many of the aforementioned PRIV strengths, but the device packs a handful of noteworthy IT-specific features, as well.
Why IT will love BlackBerry PRIV
Security always has been a top concern for CIOs, IT managers, mobile admins and their teams. The same can be said for BlackBerry, which has catered first and foremost to the enterprise — for better and for worse.
BlackBerry took Android security to new level with PRIV.
Its “hardware root of trust” process builds cryptographic keys directly into the PRIV hardware, which then work with its “verified boot and secure bootchain” to authenticate the various hardware and software components and ensure they haven’t been modified. PRIV is set to encrypt all user data stored on the device memory by default, and the encryption process is FIPS 140-2 compliant.
PRIV supports Google’s Android for Work features, which let organizations separate work and personal data, similar to the BlackBerry Balance features in the older BlackBerry 10 OS.
BlackBerry also created a unique new “Android vulnerability patch program” that in essence lets the company circumvent carriers and directly apply critical security updates as quickly as possible. BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES) 12 customers get even more control over which software updates are applied to whose devices, and when. Some of this is par for the course for BlackBerry; however, it’s new territory for Android.
“Today, there are lots of small companies offering ‘hardened’ Android implementations that purport to offer enhanced security and privacy. Unfortunately for buyers, there does not exist today an independent means to evaluate vendor security claims in any scientific way. It comes down to: whom do you trust?”
[Related review: BlackBerry CSO calls security ‘war of good vs. evil’]
If nothing else, CIOs and mobile admins should appreciate the fact that IT concerns don’t take a backseat to fancy new features and slick software interfaces in the PRIV.
Though BlackBerry isn’t the only Android OEM focused on security these days — Samsung’s KNOX deserves a nod for blazing that trail — the other players simply don’t have BlackBerry’s established history of proven enterprise security.
That’s a lot to like, but the PRIV is far from perfect. Here’s what business users and IT managers won’t love about BlackBerry PRIV.
BlackBerry PRIV Review: The bad
Why business users might not love BlackBerry PRIV
For many smartphones users, BlackBerry is synonymous with the word keyboard. For years, BlackBerry made the best physical, full QWERTY keypads in the business — it still does. But the PRIV does not have one of them. The keyboard is supposed to be PRIV’s crown jewel, but it lacks luster.
PRIV’s keyboard slides out from underneath its large, curved display, and when it’s fully extended, the bottom edge of the screen creates a sort of elevated ridge that sits just 5 millimeters above the top row of keys. The result is a less than ideal typing experience, because your thumbs hit the ridge when you tap the top row of keys.
I like to “get on top” of the keys when I type, and even after a month, I’m still not used to the ridge; it’s distracting and leads me to make typing errors. The PRIV Slide-Out Hard Shell case, made by BlackBerry, exacerbates the problem, because it makes the ridge stick out even more.
The keyboard’s buttons have a more pronounced downward slant on top than the BlackBerry Classic, and they don’t stick out as much as the Passport’s keys, which makes the PRIV keypad feel unfamiliar.
When the keypad is open, PRIV is long, and though BlackBerry did a good job weighting and balancing the phone, so it’s not too top-heavy, it’s still awkward. The PRIV is long and thin, and the display ridge gets in the way.
I like BlackBerry’s Android implementation, because it didn’t try to do too much. However, the company missed a big opportunity to grab attention by not shipping it with the newer Android v6.0 “Marshmallow” software. (BlackBerry tells me it will eventually roll out Android v6.0 for PRIV, and it should have some specific information to share in January at CES.)
A new privacy oriented feature, called DTek, aims to give users insight into the apps and services that regularly access potentially sensitive device resources and user information. And though the idea is a novel one, it mostly misses its mark. For example, I created a number of alerts for apps I use frequently, to let me know when they access my camera or location. But the info I received didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Yes, Instagram accesses my camera frequently, and Swarm checks on my location often. So what?
I’m certainly not going to set alerts for every app I download, so my inbox is inundated with DTek notifications. The average user probably won’t even take the time to experiment with DTek, and even if they learn that their favorite apps request access to their camera or microphone regularly, and they don’t know why, they still won’t stop using them. Some apps legitimately need access to sensitive information to function, and it’s not always clear why. So despite all of the alerts and associated information DTek provides, it doesn’t make it easy for users to know when to worry.
BlackBerry built in a number of methods to password-protect PRIV, including a unique image-based system that lets you drag a specific photo into place on your display to unlock the phone, but it lacks a fingerprint reader. I’ve used my fingerprint to unlock iPhones and Galaxy devices for years, and it feels like a real regression to have to use a password. (CIO.com’s IT department enforces a policy that blocks PRIV’s image unlock.)
Though PRIV supports expandable memory, it doesn’t have a removable battery. Despite its impressive battery life, there’s really no replacement for the comfort of knowing you have an extra battery if you can’t get to a power source while traveling, or if your electricity goes out during a winter storm.
BlackBerry smartphones traditionally have high-quality speakerphones, as well, but PRIV’s speaker falls short when it comes to volume and sound quality. It isn’t as loud as the iPhone 6s Plus, for example, and it’s significantly more tinny and raspy-sounding.
These concerns apply to both users and mobile admins, but IT should take particular note of the following shortcomings before embracing PRIV.
Why IT might not love BlackBerry PRIV
If your organization has contracts or commitments with Verizon Wireless or Sprint in the United States, PRIV is not for you. It’s not compatible with either or these two “Big Four” U.S. wireless carriers. U.S. Cellular customers are also out of luck.
The build quality of the device is questionable. It feels plastic-y, and somewhat flimsy. The sliding-hinge mechanism and thin bezel around the display are made of metal, but the rest of the device is composed of hard plastic, and it doesn’t feel durable. The back panel on my PRIV is loose, as well, and if I press on it, I can feel space between the fiber layer and the internal components, which adds to the “cheap” feeling. And though the curved edges on the display look nice, they make the phone somewhat slippery, which could lead to more drops and damaged phones.
BlackBerry purposefully put the focus on privacy with the PRIV — it named the device using the first four letters of the word. However, DTek lacks teeth. For context, BES 12 customers can get some useful IT management features related to DTek, including the capability to receive notifications if a PRIV OS is compromised, then block off work resources or wipe a device, if necessary. But IT needs to use BES 12 for access to these advanced features.
PRIV also does not have any sort of memory-card encryption feature, which is a potential privacy concern. (BlackBerry says microSD card encryption is “on the roadmap.”) IT can enforce various policies to disable external memory, but then you get only 32GB of onboard storage, which isn’t enough for many modern business folks. That limitation could point users toward the cloud for a solution — another potential security and privacy issue.
To sum this all up …
BlackBerry PRIV Review: The decision
PRIV is the best, and most capable, BlackBerry smartphone ever. It features top-of-the-line technical specifications. I love the BlackBerry Hub. The Android experience is similar to Google’s stock Android, because BlackBerry didn’t try to dress it up too much, and that’s a very good thing. Google Play finally (finally) fills BlackBerry’s longstanding “app gap.” Battery life is solid. You can swap out memory cards for nearly limitless storage. And the U.S. version supports both leading wireless charging standards.
BlackBerry has always put the enterprise first, unlike some of the other big guys in mobile. (I’m looking directly at you, Apple.) The company brought its security focus to Android with PRIV, and that should be music to IT’s metaphorical ears.
However, BlackBerry failed to deliver on what might be the most important PRIV feature: The full QWERTY keyboard. It doesn’t feel as comfortable in hand as other BlackBerrys, and the phone’s design impedes fluid typing. It doesn’t yet run Android v6.0. DTek is D-E-A-D on arrival. PRIV lacks a fingerprint reader for authentication. And its speakerphone is weak.
IT shops on Verizon or Sprint are out luck, because PRIV won’t work on those networks. PRIV doesn’t feel like it’s built to last, and that’s a red flag for the smart mobile admin. And despite a sharp focus on privacy, and the default disk encryption setting, PRIV users can’t encrypt their microSD cards.
In summary, PRIV represents a leap in the right direction for BlackBerry, but the move to Android probably should have been made years ago. If it had, BlackBerry may have by now found a better mix of its trademark typing and productivity features, and Android’s app selection and slick UI. As is, the PRIV doesn’t know what it is, and it’s trying too hard to be an Android phone, while compromising on core usability features that make a smartphone a genuine BlackBerry.
PRIV is available unlocked on ShopBlackBerry.com for $699, as well as via a number of wireless carriers across the globe.