First look: BlackBerry Classic is a killer smartphone -- for keyboard lovers

The BlackBerry Classic is the best smartphone the company has ever released, but it won't lure away many iPhone or Android users

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BlackBerry Classic: The good stuff

It's no surprise that the best thing about the BlackBerry Classic is its keyboard. BlackBerry has always done keyboards right, and the Classic is no exception.

By design, the keyboard is nearly identical to the keypad on the BlackBerry Bold 9900, but its keys are just slightly larger. Those buttons are still "sculpted," as Moniz-Bennett describes it, meaning a section of each key is slightly raised and shaped so that you can slide a finger across the keypad and tell where one button ends and the next begins without looking. The biggest difference between the Bold 9900 keypad and the Classic's keyboard is the straight "frets," or thin bars between each row of keys — the 9900 keyboard was curved, with curved frets.

blackberry classic rear logo Brian Sacco

The BlackBerry Q10, the first BlackBerry 10 smartphone with a physical QWERTY keypad, also had straight frets, and according to Moniz-Bennett, the company got rid of the curved frets because extensive testing showed a higher typing accuracy rate with the straight frets. I'm not sure if that claim is true or not, but I love the Classic keyboard so I'm not complaining about the change.

As soon as you pick up the BlackBerry Classic for the first time, it's clear that it's a well-built, sturdy device. It feels solid, and the brushed steel bezel that surrounds the device looks good and adds durability. The bezel is just slightly uplifted from the display, which is made from the now industry-standard Corning Gorilla Glass, so it should help reduce damage from drops. 

The size of the Classic is just right. Its display is small by today's standards, at 3.5 inches, but it's significantly bigger than the Bold 9900's 2.8-inch screen and the 3.1-inch display on the BlackBerry Q10. The device is weighted so that it doesn't feel top heavy while you type.

A notable design departure from its QWERTY BlackBerry predecessors is the presence of two brushed steel card slots in a side panel of the Classic, one for a micro SD card (with support for memory cards up to 128GB) and another for a nano SIM. Past BlackBerrys had slots located inside their battery doors, but the Classic has a fixed battery and the door is not removable. You pop the small trays out with a safety pin or other similar tool, and they're relatively easy to remove and replace — though I did have to rejigger one of them a few times to get it seated properly in the bezel. I appreciate the memory card support as well.

[Related Review: Hands-on with the BlackBerry Z10 smartphone]

The Classic has two large speaker ports on the bottom section of its bezel, for audio and speakerphone calls. The speakers sound tinny when playing music, but that’s typical of most smartphones today. The speakers can be turned up quite high, which can be important when making speakerphone calls.

All of the keys built into the bezel seem firmly seated, which is notable because I had some issues with loose volume control keys on my Bold 9900. (The Classic does not have a customizable "convenience key," like the one found on the 9900 and other early BlackBerry models.)

Overall, the look and feel of the BlackBerry Classic is top notch, and it is one of BlackBerry's most handsome devices to date.

blackberry classic sim memory card doors Brian Sacco

Another notable new feature is the optical trackpad, which is located in the center of the navigation tool belt. The Classic is the first BlackBerry 10 device with a trackpad, and it's similar to the trackpad on the Bold 9900 and other older models, but it's roughly 30 percent smaller. The smaller size doesn't make much of a difference, though.

The Classic runs the latest version of BlackBerry 10. More specifically, my Classic is running BlackBerry OS version I'm familiar with BlackBerry 10, having used it extensively on the BlackBerry Z10, Q10 and Passport, and the basic functionality is the same in the Classic. The most notable differences are navigation features related to the tool belt keys, many of which are designed to mimic functions in the old BlackBerry OS. For example, you can now close recent applications using the "Back" key, which is located directly to the right of the trackpad, instead of having to tap the on-screen "X" app icon. The "Call End" key, to the right of the Back button, minimizes apps and returns you to your home screen. 

BlackBerry also introduced a number of new keyboard shortcuts, which have always been one of my favorite things about the BlackBerry OS. I was disappointed to see that BlackBerry hadn't built comparable shortcuts into the software for its Q10, so I am particularly pleased to see new shortcuts in BlackBerry 10.3.1 for the Classic. Many of the shortcuts will be familiar to longtime BlackBerry users, but there are also a few new ones, such as the ability to quickly unlock, or access your lock screen, when your device is "asleep" by tapping the "U" key followed by the "enter" button.

One of the best things about the BlackBerry OS, both old and new, is the system for notifications and alerts. No other mobile platforms handle alerts as efficiently, or give users more granular customization options for notifications. The company built on this legacy in BlackBerry 10.3.1 with new options to customize app alerts with specific LED colors. Apps that change LED colors for alerts have been around for a long time, but now the functionality is built into the OS. The ability to create custom notification profiles also gives you even more control over alerts.

A few of my favorite things in BlackBerry 10 aren't unique to the Classic, but they're still notable. The BlackBerry Assistant voice control features work well, and they're notable because you don't need to use specific audio prompts, as you do with other popular voice assistants. You can press and hold the Classic's mute key, located on its side between the volume keys, to invoke BlackBerry Assistant. 

Battery life is another area in which the BlackBerry Classic shines. According to BlackBerry's official numbers, you should get 22 hours of "mixed use" from the Classic's 2,515mAh pack, which is more than enough juice to get through a typical workday. For context, I pitted my Classic against my iPhone 6 in a call-time test. During a three-hour call, the Classic lost 27 percent of its battery, while the iPhone 6 lost 31 percent. Both devices had five bars of 4G connectivity during the test, though the Classic is on T-Mobile and the iPhone 6 is on AT&T.

Overall, I've been pleased with the iPhone 6’s battery life, and in my experience, the Classic lasts even longer on a single charge. (I did have one significant issue with the Classic battery, however, and I'll address that in the next section.)

I won't get into too many details about the security features built into the BlackBerry Classic OS, because most are not specific to the device. However, I would be remiss not to at least mention that security- and privacy-conscious users will find many advanced security options, including a variety device lock options, encryption for built-in storage and memory cards, and remote device location and wipe services. 

One of my favorite BlackBerry 10 security features is BlackBerry Guardian, which you can use to scan all of the apps on your device for malware, even software from unknown app stores and sources. When combined with the company's BES EMM products, BlackBerry 10 and the Classic are impressive from a security and management standpoint.

While there’s a lot to like, the Classic isn't for everyone, and it falls short in a number of notable ways. Next up, details on the BlackBerry Classic's weaknesses. 

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