It’s 2003. Outkast’s “Hey Ya” is playing on your Archos Jukebox as you take the train into work in the near dark. At your hip is strapped a Blackberry 7200, one of the first color smartphones in the world. Your belt buzzes – it’s an email from your boss. You tap out a response without thinking, your fingers sliding along the angled keys like a jackdaw nipping at spilled grain, and go back to nodding along with the music. A new day is dawning and it’s a Blackberry world and we’re just living in it.
“You think you’ve got it/ Oh, you think you’ve got it/ But got it just don’t get it when there’s nothin’ at all.”
Fast forward. It’s a week until 2015. Blackberry is on the ropes. The effort to bring Waterloo’s pride into this decade has largely fallen flat. New devices, slabs of glass with touchscreen keyboards, rule the day. And the Blackberry Classic is launched, a throwback to an era when keyboards had travel and cellphones were bold. If you give the new Blackberry Classic a few days you’ll learn to love it as much as you loved its ancestors, way back when. But is infatuation enough to win the day?
- 750×750 pixel 3.5-inch screen
- 178 grams
- Up to 128GB internal storage, 16GB internal
- 22 hour battery life
- MSRP: $450
- Product info page
- Excellent keyboard
- Streamlined Blackberry OS
- Small screen size
- Limited app store
The Blackberry Classic has the bold lines and large keyboard familiar to every BB user. Looking very much like its predecessor the Bold 9900, the Classic is a dense phone edged in metal and featuring a four-row keyboard, optical track pad, and touchscreen. It has a rubberized, non-removable back and a 22-hour battery that lasts about 20 hours in practice and about 16 hours of heavy use. It’s a Blackberry so everything you expect this phone to be good at – email, texting, and office functions – are there and work extremely well. This isn’t a multimedia giant or a big-screened phablet. It’s a QWERTY phone, just like Dad used to use.
The Classic looks like a touchscreen device – something like a Nexus 5 or iPhone 5 – that sprouted a keyboard. The small buttons take up the bottom portion of the face, leaving little room for the actual touchscreen and it’s trivial to type with one or two hands on this device. In fact, I found my single-thumb typing skills were coming back to me as I worked with the Classic, a feat of dexterity that I have all but lost thanks to devices like the iPhone 6 Plus.
The buttons are a bit odd. A central top button controls the power while two larger buttons on the right side control volume. A central button, between the volume buttons, brings up the voice control system called Blackberry Assistant which lets you send texts and emails and access various BB features. It’s as usable as any other voice control system and allows for as seamless an experience as Siri or the Android voice control system.
Folks who have spent years away from BlackBerry OS will be amazed how well the system has matured and improved. BB10 is offers a number of interesting features including BB Blend, a system that allows you to control your phone from your desktop. It also runs most Android apps and supports the Amazon App Store, a marketplace that features some but not nearly all major popular applications. Anyone conversant in iOS or Android will have little trouble moving through the Classic and fans of precise control will love the little optical touchpad button below the screen for picking out browser items and scrolling through emails.
This thing is a productivity machine. All of the security enhancements and tools that Blackberry put in place to support the enterprise over the years are here and setting up email is a two-step process. Everything important to your day appears in the Blackberry Hub, a combined social media and email listing, and most of the apps work just fine including the maps and clever video editing and photo apps. The front and back cameras are serviceable but not amazing – detail gets washed out in some scenes and the flash is too bright – but you’re not buying this for the camera. In fact, the Classic doesn’t come in a non-camera version, an issue that could curtail its use in secure enterprises installations.
The 1.3GHz Qualcomm 8960 processor runs all of the basic features very well but bogs down in Android apps, something to be expected of this older chip. Two GB of RAM keep things running smoothly although you might feel a little cramped with the 16GB of on-board storage.
There isn’t much overtly unacceptable about this device except for the tiny screen. While most web pages will render just fine, text heavy pages are abysmal. There are ways to zoom in and out and scroll around but you will find yourself squinting and suffering when accessing blog posts like this one. In an age when even the smallest text is readable on Android and iOS devices, small text on the Classic is just awful. It’s frustrating.
The Blackberry World and Amazon App Store are also problematic. While most major apps are available, most notably Facebook and Twitter as well as Vine, you’ll miss some of your favorites. Instagram, for example, isn’t available in the Amazon App store although you can sideload the app as well as other apps by downloading the apk file.
These limitations won’t bother the die-hard Blackberry fan. After all, they’re used to a smaller screen and, if they’re in finance or IT, they usually have a work Blackberry and a separate touchscreen phone. While I would have loved to have my proverbial cake and eat it, too, that just can’t happen with this device.
The Bottom Line
The Blackberry Classic is an important phone. It is one of the few true QWERTY phones on the market – there are a few minor players but nothing with the BB cachet – and it’s a true Blackberry in every sense. It’s usable, fun, and efficient. It has excellent battery life and an acceptable screen. It doesn’t have a high-powered processor because it doesn’t need one. This isn’t a phone for Angry Birds and video editing. It’s a phone for Sudoku and email.
What do I think of the Classic? I really like it. I wouldn’t give up an iPhone or Galaxy device for it, though, and that’s a problem. If you prefer the keyboard, it’s a no brainer: this is the phone for you. At $450 it’s a steal and because it is unlocked I have no doubt it will pick up fans around the world, especially in countries where Windows Phone and Blackberry are still considered de facto solutions for the office. But for the rest of us? For the folks who have moved on, who have traded in their Archos Jukeboxes for iPhones? It’s a hard sell, and I don’t envy Blackberry for having to make it.
The Classic is great for Blackberry fans looking to upgrade or travelers looking for an alternate phone. But, for half the price, you can get a Motorola G and remain in the galaxy of apps that is the full Google Play store. That said, check out the Classic, if only to get a sense of what the mobile market would have looked like if touchscreens hadn’t won over buttons and what the future would look like if Blackberry rode, unhindered and always popular, into the future.