One of the worst mistakes BlackBerry ever made–and it made many–was failing to recognize the inevitability of obsolescence for physical keyboards. When Apple revealed the iPhone in 2007, BlackBerry executives couldn’t comprehend being productive on a device whose only input was a touchscreen, and made disparaging comments instead of adapting.
Nearly 10 years later, I’m having trouble being productive on the BlackBerry KeyOne, the only current high-end Android phone with a physical keyboard on its face. (It goes on sale in the U.S. on May 31, reportedly for $549.) The KeyOne is supposed to be a throwback to BlackBerry’s glory days, but it’s really a reminder of how far smartphone typing has come without real keys.
Full disclosure: I’ve never been a BlackBerry addict–my first smartphone was an iPhone 3GS–so perhaps I just can’t understand the creature comforts that a physical keyboard provides that helped make BlackBerrys so popular in their heyday. But even after a week of using the KeyOne as my everyday phone, typing on a virtual keyboard is easier and objectively faster.
The Last BlackBerry (Sort Of)
We’ll get to the keyboard critique shortly, but first I must admit a certain thrill to showing off the BlackBerry KeyOne for friends and family.
The common refrain–I didn’t realize BlackBerry still made phones–is not entirely misguided. BlackBerry no longer manufactures its own handsets, instead outsourcing the job to other companies such as Chinese manufacturer TCL, which is making the KeyOne, and it long ago abandoned its BlackBerry 10 OS in favor of Android. Although BlackBerry claims responsibility for the KeyOne’s design, the company won’t be designing any new phones from now on. That job will also fall to third parties as BlackBerry focuses on enterprise services.
The KeyOne certainly has the vibe of a swan song, with aluminum trim, gently curved glass, and soft, dimpled plastic on the rear side that seems vaguely like leather. The rounded chin and sharp top edges are clever nods to classic BlackBerry designs, and the keyboard serves as both a functional feature and a design flourish. No one would guess that the KeyOne was anything but a BlackBerry–unless they assumed the company was out of the phone business already.
Learning To Type
The novelty of a new BlackBerry phone wore off quickly as I tried to acclimate with the physical keyboard, using it in place of an iPhone 6 Plus as my everyday handset. Beyond the usual texting, emailing, and tweeting, I also used the KeyOne to draft a chunk of this review.
At first, the keyboard felt clumsy to use. The keys are so cramped that I’d occasionally mash a couple of them together. Even after learning to be more deliberate with thumb placement, I’ve been leaning on auto-correct to fix mistakes, and was never able to type without looking at the keyboard for guidance.
About five days in, I felt like my typing had achieved a solid pace, but along the way I became frustrated by some aspects of the KeyOne’s layout. The phone has no dedicated keys for numbers or punctuation, instead hiding them behind an “alt” function button. Being able to long-press the appropriate key would’ve helped, but BlackBerry has instead mapped the long-press to capitalization, which I seldom needed. (Sentences automatically begin with capital letters anyway, and there are shift keys on either side of the keyboard.)
The physical keyboard also has some inherent downsides: One-handed typing requires more pressure compared to tapping on a virtual keyboard, and therefore feels slower. The physical keyboard also doesn’t support gesture typing, in which software predicts what word to type as you glide a finger over each letter.
Putting Physical Keys To The Test
Because of all these issues, typing on my iPhone 6 Plus with Google’s Gboard keyboard was faster in every imaginable scenario, even after a week of practice.
To test this out, I typed the same memorized 90 words–the quick brown fox pangram, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the first stanza of a Phish song–in various ways. Typing with both thumbs, the iPhone’s virtual keyboard beat the BlackBerry’s physical one, 33.9 words per minute to 30.7 words per minute. With the iPhone cradled in one hand and gesture typing with my other index finger, typing speed rose to 34.5 words per minute.
With one-handed use, the virtual keyboard’s advantage was even more dramatic. Typing with one thumb on the BlackBerry KeyOne yielded a sluggish 20.2 words per minute, versus 24.8 words per minute with touch typing on the iPhone, and 35.1 words per minute with gesture typing.
Granted, speed isn’t everything, and the BlackBerry KeyOne provides some unique benefits. You can map app launch shortcuts to each key, for instance. And there’s the intangible satisfaction that comes with feeling confident about which key is under your thumb.
At the same time, having ever-present keys means less room on the screen for watching videos or playing games, and having to stretch to reach buttons that would normally be further down-screen. Also, I couldn’t get used to the fingerprint sensor’s placement inside the space bar. When I wasn’t typing, I always subconsciously expected it to behave as a home button.
Beyond The Keyboard
In fairness, the physical keyboard isn’t the BlackBerry KeyOne’s sole selling point. On the hardware side, the 3505 mAh battery is monstrous given the KeyOne’s smaller screen, and I had no trouble going a night or two between charges. The shortcut button on the phone’s right side is also a nice touch, letting you quick-launch into an app or activity of your choice.
The phone, which runs Android 7.1 Nougat, comes with some useful software as well. The Hub+ app consolidates email, text messages, calendar alerts, social media, and messages from apps like Slack into one place. There’s also a a built-in password manager, and an app called DTEK that evaluates system security. True BlackBerry enthusiasts can even exchange messages among themselves through BBM. While these same apps are available on any Android device for free with ads, or ad-free for 99¢ per month, the KeyOne makes a point of showcasing them.
Yet all the while, the keyboard physically crowds out those features, taking up screen space and hindering productivity. Most of the phone-using public realized this a long time ago. But even in its final breath as a hardware designer, BlackBerry can’t quite admit that the time for its signature feature has passed.