John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys.
Back when cellphones were first becoming popular, the secure models of BlackBerry phones and texting devices earned the company a near monopoly within the federal government.
But they stopped evolving and had limited app stores compared to Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android phones. Over time, both Android and iOS devices also began to concentrate more on security, and Microsoft got into the act by introducing Windows phones that were closely tied to their desktop counterparts.
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By the time President Barack Obama famously began carrying around his heavily modified BlackBerry on world trips, the market within government for the company had just about collapsed.
It’s been a few years since a new BlackBerry device was released and looking at the KEYone, it’s clear the company is attempting to recapture some of the notable features that made their devices so popular in government while also addressing their historical shortcomings. I was able to spend some time testing out the new KEYone, evaluating it for government suitability.
The most obvious change is that the phone no longer has a proprietary BlackBerry OS. It runs Android 7.1 Nougat. Users have full access to everything in the Google Play store, plus any special Android-based storefronts set up by individual federal agencies. When you boot the phone, it says BlackBerry, powered by Android. But really, it’s an Android phone.
There is a curious but effective mix of BlackBerry applications like Notes for BlackBerry sitting alongside preloaded Android programs like Gmail and Chrome, but they all seem to work well together. For example, the BlackBerry Hub is back, which users of the older RIM (BlackBerry’s old company name) smartphones may remember as a clever way consolidate every message the phone receives from various sources like texting, email and social media IMs. Hub puts everything into one spot for reading and processing. Users can choose to ignore Hub and just use each application directly, but I for one remembered how great it was to have all those communications centered in one place, turning my phone into a miniature command center for messaging.
The second thing you will notice, or perhaps the first, is that the hardware keyboard makes a glorious return. Personally, I really missed having the hardware keyboard. I have been using the software keyboard on my Android phone for many years now, but I instantly fell back into the groove of typing with actual keys. In fact, my typing speed increased significantly after only a few hours using the KEYone’s real keyboard, receiving actual tactile feedback with every click. The keyboard is also backlit, so even using it in total darkness is not a problem. It even responds to touch gestures, so acts like a trackpad for controlling certain apps or issuing commands.
The addition of the keyboard at the bottom of the phone adds to its length, which is 5.87-inches long, though that is not so much of a big deal anymore, with the Samsung Galaxy S8 by comparison coming in at almost the same size, 5.86-inches. However, on the Galaxy, that extra real estate equals a larger screen size. The BlackBerry screen is still sufficiently large for most applications at 4.5-inches supporting a native 1,620 by 1,080 resolution.
With the KEYone looking to move into government service, or other highly regulated industries like health care, it’s no surprise that device security is at the top of the list of features. For starters, there is a fingerprint reader hidden inside the keyboard’s spacebar. You can’t really see it, but it’s certainly there, as I locked the test unit down with my finger as the key. The reader paired with a password would give the device the required two-factor authentication needed for federal service.
There is also a unique built-in application called DTEK which acts as a privacy monitoring service. Some applications on the Google Store may try to take liberties with personal information stored on phones, but the DTEK app is designed to prevent this. You can specify what personal information can be shared, locking down things like location data, pictures or texts, for example. No application is ever allowed to override those settings without permission. DTEK also gives users a dashboard that shows at a glance how secure the device is given its current settings and configuration, and recommends any needed changes to improve its cybersecurity posture.
Peripheral features of the phone are also impressive. There is a 12-megapixel camera facing out and an 8-megapixel one for things like video conferencing or selfies. And there is 3G of storage for holding programs and data. The KEYone also has a MicroSD slot which supports up to a two-terabyte card for even more capacity.
Battery life is about what you would expect in terms of a modern smartphone, able to provide more than enough power for at least eight hours of operation with its 3505mAh battery. There is also a nice Qualcomm Quick Charge feature which enables fast charging of a completely drained battery up to 50 percent capacity in just over 30 minutes. That could be nice if you have to resort to grabbing power quickly when you can, such as in airport lounges or while pausing briefly between meetings.
I didn’t test the KEYone against the military specifications for ruggedness as it does not have an official rating, but the phone does seem to be well built. It has an aluminum frame with a soft grip textured back panel. The display is covered by Corning Gorilla glass, so should resist both shattering and scratching.
The BlackBerry KEYOne is available online and in stores for $549.99. There is also a deal with Sprint to get it as part of a contract, though the phone will work with any service provider. That’s a fair price for an Android phone with enhanced security features.
I doubt that any phone could ever restore the popularity that BlackBerry once held in government, but the KEYone goes a long way to making up for the flaws of the past, and would be an appropriate choice for any fed who can choose their own phone as part of a BYOD program. It has a lot of good features, a heavy emphasis on security, and a reasonable price. Plus, you get the hardware keyboard, an item you may not realize you miss until it’s back in your quick-typing fingers.