It Has a Fantastic Physical Keyboard, Great Productivity Apps and Even a Trackpad
A traditional keyboard and trackpad make the BlackBerry Classic a throwback to the smartphone’s early days. WSJ’s Joanna Stern reviews the best BlackBerry ever.
By JOANNA STERN
BlackBerry began shipping the Classic last week, a smartphone that the company hopes will send us all the way back to the early 21st century, when keyboards had keys and apps were what you ordered at TGI Fridays.
The Classic is a throwback to everything that made a BlackBerry a BlackBerry. Instead of a big and awkward square-shaped design like the recent BlackBerry Passport, the Classic has the fantastic physical keyboard, the pleasantly nagging red notification light—and even a trackpad. And forget “Tiny Wings,” this baby has “Brick Breaker”!
The Classic—which currently costs $450 unlocked on Amazon, and will arrive at Verizon and AT&T in the new year—harks back to when smartphones were used primarily for email and other work. That’s great if you just want to get more done with a physical keyboard and powerful productivity apps, but frustrating if you want more. For anything beyond basic Web surfing—like Netflix, Google Maps, Uber, even airline apps like JetBlue—you’re better off with a more modern phone.
Time for a Comeback
For former BlackBerry users, the Classic will feel like reuniting with a long-lost friend. As I hopped on the train and quickly pulled the phone out of my pocket to write down a quick thought for an article, I imagined Etta James’s “At Last” playing in the background.
Unlike the BlackBerry Passport, the Classic is perfect for one-hand use. With a stainless steel frame and a soft plastic back, the 6.3-ounce phone feels heavy, but in a good way. And it feels more substantial than those delicate big-screen smartphones, like it won’t shatter after an accidental drop.
I have been searching for just the right words to profess my love to BlackBerry’s perfected physical keyboard for a decade. It’s hard to describe how my thumbs dance on the fantastically sculpted keys without having to look down at them, or how the metal frets give the perfect amount of spacing to the rows.
But I’m not unreasonably nostalgic. No other smartphone makers sell phones with actual plastic keys anymore. Software keyboards with auto correct and predictive text can do nearly everything real keys can, then vanish when they aren’t needed. Still, I remain optimistic that a few outliers like the Classic will survive long enough to see, at least, the next president.
The Classic’s physical keyboard has fantastically sculpted keys.
Between the keyboard and screen, BlackBerry has resurrected the “belt” of navigation buttons—menu, back and call/hang-up, along with the mouselike trackpad.
BlackBerry could have used that space to make the screen bigger. The crisp 3.5-inch, 720 x 720-pixel touch screen is rather cramped. Yet I was surprisingly happy to see the return of the trackpad. It’s great for editing emails with more precision and selecting small links on Web pages.
BlackBerry may have fallen behind its competitors in mobile innovation over the past decade, but it still leads the pack in two mobile essentials: battery life and call quality.
Even on days of heavy use, I had 20% remaining before going to bed. I still do wish the Classic’s battery was removable (for swapping out or attempting the old-school reboot trick) and didn’t take so long to recharge.
And it’s the BlackBerry Classic—not my iPhone 6 or Moto X—that I reached for when I had to make an important phone call. Not only did the calls sound extremely clear, but people on the other end said I sounded like I was calling from a landline.
The Classic trumps the competition in software with its Hub feature, too. A quick gesture takes you to BlackBerry 10’s universal inbox from any screen, putting communications more readily front and center than other mobile operating systems.
Gone is the Web browser that caused misery to Bold and Curve users. It now loads full-size Web pages by default and does it extremely fast. The small screen means you have to do plenty of pinching and zooming, but at least it renders quickly.
There are far more email-formatting options on the Classic.
The rest of this column could have been a list of reasons why the BlackBerry email and calendar still beat iOS and Android’s for me. In the interest of space, though, here are some favorites: There are far more email-formatting options, including font size and bulleted lists. You can view all the attachments in your inbox, and then easily edit them in Documents To Go. With one tap, you can turn an email chain into a calendar appointment.
BlackBerry is also quick to remind us that one of the Classic’s biggest advantages over the competition is enterprise security. The Classic has system-wide 256-bit AES encryption, and BlackBerry Messenger Protected and the BES email system have end-to-end encryption.
BlackBerry has updated its services to show it understands there’s a need among its users for certain popular features, like BBM video messaging (which includes a sticker store!) and a Siri-like personal assistant that can help send emails and look up popular restaurants. But the company also wants you to be able to keep that work and play separate: Balance puts a secure barrier between your work and personal content and apps.
Stuck in the Past
But while I’d love for all those great BlackBerry features to make a comeback, others simply feel out of date.
Calendar and email aside, other preloaded apps are slow and poorly designed. A Rand-McNally map from the gas station is likely more up-to-date—and speedier—than BlackBerry’s own maps app. Not only did it struggle to help me find the closest Starbucks in New York City, but it lacks typical features like transit directions and 3-D map options.
BlackBerry recommends dissatisfied users try third-party apps, like Waze or Navfree. But while BlackBerrys can run Android apps, the industry-leader Google Maps isn’t available for the platform.
That brings me to the terrible and confusing app situation. There are now two app stores preloaded on the Classic: Amazon’s App Store and BlackBerry World, which sounds like an amusement park I would have loved in 2008. While you can download Android apps from Amazon’s App Store, many big ones are missing—not just the Google family of apps, but also Uber and Instagram.
You can ignore BlackBerry’s warnings and load other Android apps manually, but it takes work. Most apps lying around the Web are out of date or available on shady sites. And if you do find the most recent apps (or go through the annoying process of downloading them on another Android phone and then transferring them to the Classic), they may not resize well to fit the Classic’s square screen.
The Classic has an 8-megapixel camera. ENLARGE
The Classic has an 8-megapixel camera. EVAN ENGEL/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
I did find and install a year-old version of Instagram. That meant no new filters. But filters can only help so much anyhow: The Classic’s 8-megapixel camera, while fine for basic outdoor or well-lit shots, can’t rival the newest Android and iPhones when it comes to picture quality and speed.
To top it off, I found many of those apps—and even the overall operating system—to be sluggish at times, taking too long to open an app or message.
Still, I believe the Classic is the best BlackBerry ever made. It lives up to every bit of the BlackBerry’s original purpose. This is the best phone to get if you need a real physical keyboard to plow through emails, manage your calendar, browse the Web…and not much else.
When you use it, you will feel like no time has passed at all. And that is, of course, its biggest shortcoming.