BlackBerry has gone back to its roots since the arrival of CEO John Chen a little over a year ago. The company has shifted its focus towards a more enterprise and security-first attitude, and has so far reaped the benefits of this change.
To go along with this new path, a new smartphone was promised back in February of this year that would make a lot of past users very happy. It would also bring back some of the most iconic BlackBerry hardware to date: the toolbelt and trackpad.
This new device, known as the Q20 originally, became the BlackBerry Classic; a true ode to the extremely popular Bold lineup that preceded BlackBerry 10. Its need in BlackBerry’s device portfolio would be questioned by many, myself included, in the months since its return was announced until now.
I got a chance to use the BlackBerry Classic for a little while prior to its official announcement today, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with the product BlackBerry has delivered for a variety of reasons.
Check out the full, in-depth review below:
In terms of hardware, the Classic is built as solid as a tank. Upon holding it for the first time, you’ll immediately notice how heavy it is. Weighing in at 178g, it’s heavier than every other BlackBerry 10 device except the Passport.
While this can be a turn off for some people that prefer a lighter phone, I personally love how solid it feels in my hand. BlackBerry told us it was intentionally made this way because its target audience is usually companies and people that don’t upgrade their phones often.
Having a device that can last two, three, four or more years is essential, and the Classic feels like it could take a serious beating and just keep going. It feels so strong and sturdy that if you happen to drop it, odds are you’ll be checking the floor to see if it’s okay, instead of your Classic.
BlackBerry’s new Classic also features the same stainless steel frame all around its body that we’ve been familiar with from the Bold series. Not only does it look good, but this is one of the most essential parts of its build quality.
The Classic stands a bit taller than both the Q10 and the Bold 9900. It’s slightly thinner (10.2 mm) than both the Bold (10.5 mm) and Q10 (10.35 mm), but slightly wider than both. As we’ll discuss in the keyboard section below, the added width is pretty important to the typing experience, so don’t think it’s too wide either.
Looking all around the outside of the device, we see that BlackBerry decided to keep the power button on top with the Classic, as well as the volume and play/pause rockers on the right side. The microUSB charging port is located at the bottom, like with Z3 and Passport, and is corralled by a microphone on the left, and a speaker (mono) on the right.
On the left side of the device, we have a nanoSIM tray, and an micoSD card tray, a first for a BlackBerry device. Each smartphone box comes with a little pin to pop these trays open, so don’t worry about having to get a needle or an earring to swap these out.
The rear of the device features an 8MP camera with auto-focus (more on that in the Camera section), and a really nice textured back. According to BlackBerry, this was the most optimized material for grip, and it truly feels like it.
I haven’t had any worry about dropping my Classic thanks to its back. I get a solid grip every time I grab the phone. In 2014, when it feels like every phone is super slippery and needs a case, this is a welcome design change.
The Classic’s back reminded me a lot of the Z3’s. While the pattern is a bit different, the idea is still the same: a better back = better grip.
The front of the Classic features a 3.46-inch 720×720 Gorilla Glass 2 display, a 2MP fixed-focus camera, and of course, it also sports the main reason this device was even made: the famous BlackBerry keyboard with the full toolbelt (call, menu, trackpad, back, and end) of keys.
Internally, the Classic has 2GB of RAM, and is powered by a Qualcomm MSM8960 dual core 1.5 GHz processor. It comes with 16GB of internal storage, but thanks to the previously mentioned microSD card tray, this is expandable to 128GB.
In the end, when it comes to the actual hardware, the Classic is really just a bigger Bold 9900 with the internals of a Q10.
Old vs New
The BlackBerry Classic’s 3.5″ screen display is 60% larger than the Bold 9900. The Classic will give you 50% more battery life with its 2500mAh battery than the Bold 9900. The browsing experience with BlackBerry 10.3.1 on the Classic is 3x faster than with the Bold 9900 and legacy BlackBerry OS.
The Classic’s display won’t blow anyone away, but it’s still good enough to get the job done. If you’re coming from a Bold 9900 or a Q10, the differences will be even greater. For previous 9900 owners, the 720×720 resolution will open your eyes to just how sharp a smaller sized screen can be. For Q10 owners, the Classic’s LCD display will finally bring some brightness to your lives (a little OLED joke).
BlackBerry’s decision to go with the more visually appealing screen vs AMOLED is the perfect call. Colors on the Classic look spot on – they’re crisp, and vivid. Viewing angles are great, and pixels aren’t visible.
The Classic’s display is protected by Gorilla Glass 2, so it won’t get scratched easily; again, durability is the key.
Let’s get a couple a couple of things out of the way from the get-go. If you’re coming from an all-touch smartphone, the Classic’s keyboard will take some getting used to, obviously. However, once you get the hang of it, you may never want to type on glass ever again. It’s that good.
I’ll go a little further even. The BlackBerry Classic has the best keyboard of any device I have ever used. Yes, that includes the Passport, and yes, that includes the ridiculous amount of touchscreen keyboards I have used. I cannot overstate how great it is typing on this phone.
As mentioned earlier, the Classic, by design, is a bit wider than the Bold, and the Q10, but not nearly as wide as the Passport. This extra, but not excessive, amount of space horizontally does wonders for typing. BlackBerry has found the perfect size for a physical keyboard, and that’s what the Classic has.
Overall, typing on the BlackBerry Classic is truly a great experience. Most people may compare its keyboard to the Q10’s, due to its four straight rows of keys, but the keyboard feels a lot more like the Bold 9900’s instead. The Classic’s keys are really cushiony; way more than the Q10’s ever were.
I fired up all three of these devices to compare keyboards and the Bold’s soft presses have definitely been incorporated into the Classic. When you mix that comfortability, with the wider set of keys, you end up with the best typing experience on the planet. Plain and simple.
Trackpad and toolbelt
I was one of the biggest critics of BlackBerry bringing back the navigation keys and trackpad. Back in February, I outlined a few reasons as to why this was a bad call. While I’m still not a huge fan of the decision, I understand why BlackBerry had to go back and reintroduce the toolbelt and trackpad with the Classic.
After John Chen took over as CEO of BlackBerry, one of the first things he did was talk to the company’s top customers. The need for the Classic was evident from that point on. One of the reasons BlackBerry gained its popularity was because of its keyboard and toolbelt and by leaving that off the first BB10 devices, they unintentionally excluded a good chunk of people.
The new regime at BlackBerry is in the “business of listening to customers,” so while bringing back this type of hardware and making it work properly with the BlackBerry 10 software was a challenge, they’ve succeeded in making a product that is perfect for an important group of people.
In case you’re new to BlackBerry, this famous toolbelt is made up of five keys that fit between the keyboard and the display:
Call button – This key is reserved specifically for opening up the Phone app regardless of what you’re doing or which app you may be presently using. Hitting the Call button a second time redials the previous number called.
Menu button – The menu button is meant to replace the three button icon that brings up the menu on the righthand side of a native BlackBerry 10 app. On the homescreen, hitting the menu key will bring up the drop down settings/menu.
Trackpad – The Classic’s optical trackpad offers both scrolling and clicking options across the whole OS. It can also be used to move apps around with a long press, scrolling, and clicking it again.
Back button – The Back button does exactly what its name implies. This key is mainly designed to replace the right swipe to go back to a previous page, but also minimizes apps when you’ve gone as far back within an app as possible. Hitting the Back button over a highlighted active frame will close it.
End button – The End button is made for two purposes: ending a call, or taking you back to the homescreen. Regardless of what app you’re in (including the Hub), the End key will minimize it and bring you right back to the beginning. Unlike the Back key, the End key cannot close active frames. The End key also doubles as a power button. Press and hold it to turn on/off the device.
In my testing, these keys worked as well as I expected. With the trackpad, I did find myself adjusting the sensitivity of it after the first day, and ended up lowering it to about the halfway mark both horizontally and vertically.
Much like the trackpad, the toolbelt works as efficiently as always. The Classic’s toolbelt is made up of one solid piece with a cutaway in the middle for the trackpad just like on the Bold 9900. Due to the fact that the keyboard underneath it is straight, the toolbelt follows that pattern and gives us bigger keys to press on.
This design not only makes the toolbelt look better, but it also prevents these keys from falling out after years of use like they did on some old Curves. These five keys are anything but fancy, but they do make up an important part of the overall experience with the Classic. They feel sturdy, and much like the keyboard, have a cushiony feel to them when pressed.
Sadly, the trackpad on the Classic does not light up like we’ve seen on previous BlackBerry 7 devices.
The BlackBerry Classic comes pre-loaded with OS 10.3.1. There are some subtle differences between 10.3 and 10.3.1, but most of the bigger software enhancements have to do with how it works with the hardware, specifically the trackpad and accompanying keys.
BlackBerry has designed OS 10.3.1 to work fully with the five key toolbelt. You can literally use the Classic and not miss out on any major functionality by simply relying on the keyboard, and toolbelt and never having to touch the screen. Of course, all the BlackBerry 10 gestures are still there, so you can also ignore the trackpad and navigation keys completely and treat the Classic as just a bigger Q10, but this device’s target audience won’t be doing that.
And that’s the exact point of it. When you think of all those Curve and Bold users that solely use the trackpad and menu keys to get around, the Classic and its accompanying software will make their transfer to the BlackBerry 10 world seamless.
BlackBerry has incorporated some great software changes that will surely bring back a lot of great memories from past BlackBerry smartphones.
Keyboard Shortcuts – This is probably one of the most popular features ever on a QWERTY keyboard device. By enabling keyboard shortcuts, you essentially have a ton of apps, contacts, and more at your fingertips without ever having to look for any of them.
These are the default shortcuts:
A – Address Book
B – Browser
C – Compose
D – Notes and Memo
H – Launch Help
K – Lock Device
L – Calendar
M – BlackBerry Hub
N – BBM
O – Settings
P – Phone
Q – Toggle Notifications Modes
R – Clock
T – Tasks
U – Calculator
W/1 – Voicemail
You can customize each key for a new shortcut, or set brand new shortcuts for unassigned buttons.
Custom Profiles – Users now have the ability to create new notification profiles for their device, and will have access to a greater degree of customization within existing out-of-box provided profiles. I’m still waiting for the ability to edit how hard the vibrate notification is, but I’m hopeful the next update could address this.
Trackpad within the software
Using the trackpad in apps works pretty well for the most part. In native BlackBerry 10 offerings, you can scroll through and highlight different parts of the app to select them. For example, in BBM, you can highlight and open your profile, the side menus, the bottom tabs, and chats. Every area that you can click on, is highlightable with the trackpad.
Android apps are a different story. While BlackBerry is currently working with Amazon and Android developers to get better trackpad support, you’re better off using the touchscreen for navigation as you would with the Passport or Q10. The trackpad may work with certain parts of the app, but odds are it won’t. For example, in Instagram, the trackpad, and menu keys are pretty much useless. It’s not a deal breaker for me personally, as I wasn’t expecting these special keys to work with Android apps, but it should be noted in case that was your expectation.
In the browser, the trackpad works as both a mouse and as a typical scrolling pad. Depending on the speed at which you roll over the trackpad, the BlackBerry 10 browser can deduce whether you’re trying to scroll over a specific area to highlight, or if you’re trying to go up or down the page.
Highlighting text, pictures, or other items on BlackBerry OS 10.3.1 is also a breeze. Whether you prefer using the touchscreen or the ol’ Shift+trackpad trick, you will be amazed at how intuitive BlackBerry has made this process.
Apps, apps, apps
Another huge improvement with BlackBerry 10.3.1 is on the app front. BlackBerry 10 has two app storefronts that give users access to hundreds of thousands of apps. BlackBerry World is geared towards the productivity side (along with some amazing fun native apps), while Amazon’s Appstore is more focused on consumer-friendly apps. The likes of Candy Crush, Netflix, among others are available through the Appstore, and work incredibly well on the Classic thanks to BlackBerry 10.3.1.
BlackBerry OS 10.3.1 makes Android apps run so good. I cannot emphasize this enough. I have thrown everything but the kitchen sink – in terms of apps – at the Classic, and it has withstood all my challenges [Apps that require Google services unfortunately don’t work for the most part]. I’m a huge Spotify user, and was afraid it wouldn’t work as well as it does on Android or iOS – wrong. Not only does it work, but it’s buttery smooth.
The BlackBerry Classic is equipped with an 8mp camera on the back, and 2mp fixed-focus shooter on the front. Much like the Classic’s display, its camera is not revolutionary. It takes pretty good pictures with minimum blur. Its auto-focus is heavily improved from the Q10’s even.
BlackBerry 10.3.1’s software coupled with the Classic’s hardware allows you to use a few different keys to snap a pic. You can use the on-screen button, or you can opt to click the trackpad, the space bar, or even the volume down key. If you’re looking to be able to click anywhere on the screen to take the picture, however, that’s no longer possible on OS 10.3.1.
BlackBerry received a ton of feedback from people that just couldn’t understand how to take a picture on previous BB10 versions, and wanted an actual, visual button to press. I personally don’t get those people, but BlackBerry has made it a point to listen to their customers, so that’s the reason for that change.
BlackBerry has also added a cool panorama mode to its Classic. I can’t lie, it took me a few tries to get a good panorama shot, but I’m thinking some software tweaks will help the images turn out better.
The Classic’s camera will handle pretty much anything a regular user can have in mind. It’s not fantastic in low light, but then again, most smartphone cameras aren’t. You won’t buy a Classic for its camera, but definitely won’t be disappointed with it either. Check out some pictures I took with the Classic in the gallery below!
The on-the-go professional BlackBerry is targeting needs a device with a long lasting battery. The Classic delivers a surprising amount of juice for a relatively small package. Internally, it’s packing a 2,500mAh battery which according to BlackBerry yields 22 hours of mixed use.
This is pretty much on par with the Z30 that had a similar size battery. Unfortunately, like the Z30, the Classic’s battery is non-removable which can be a bit of a change for those legacy OS users that were constantly swapping out batteries.
In my testing, the Classic gave me a solid 10 hours on heavy use. This included heavy BBM activity (including 3 groups), Twitter, email, Spotify music playback, camera usage, and more. Ten hours may not sound like a lot, but trust me, it is. Most users will get upwards of 16 to 22 hours without breaking a sweat. The Classic is a device that you can take off the charger at 6am, be out all day, and all night, and not have to plug back in until that evening or even the next morning.
BlackBerry is bringing back more than nostalgia
A lot of people will look at the BlackBerry Classic, and just ask “why?” Rest assured, if you’re asking that question, this device is not made for you. And that’s okay, it doesn’t have to be. If you want a powerhouse smartphone with all the latest specs and a cool innovative keyboard that runs on BlackBerry 10, go with a Passport.
If you want something more familiar, that you can almost just pick up and go, but at the same time brings performance and durability to the table, then the Classic is the best choice out there.
BlackBerry didn’t just add a trackpad and four extra keys to the Q10 and call it a Classic. No, in reality it’s a completely new experience that’s been designed from the ground up and it works just as intended.
The question for BlackBerry now lies on whether the Classic is enough to sway these hardcore Bold addicts to leave their current devices behind and upgrade. The foundation is solid, and the product BlackBerry has put out there delivers. Pre-orders have sold out in North America, so it seems like BlackBerry’s decision could end up proving successful in long and short term. But with this phone we could have already guessed it though.
After all, the classic BlackBerry design never goes out of style.