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?

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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.

[Related review: Hands On With the New BlackBerry Passport Smartphone ]

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.

blackberry priv charging curved display Brian Sacco

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. 

blackberry priv wireless charging Brian Sacco

BlackBerry CSO David Kleidermacher said this in a recent blog post on why its version of Android is more secure than any other Android implementation:

"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?"

BlackBerry is doing a good job explaining why IT should trust the company, via an ongoing series of blogs posts on the subject. And its recent decision to pull out of Pakistan and lose business at a time when it clearly cannot afford to push customers away, also serves to demonstrate its commitment to security and privacy.

[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.

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