One of the things that originally drew me to BlackBerry devices 10 years ago was the thought they put into refining the user experience. They lost some of that when they first released BlackBerry 10 and have slowly been regaining it. Google/Android has historically been terrible at developing a cohesive and well thought out user experience and I am happy to report that bringing BlackBerry DNA to Android is a match that works out well. BlackBerry gets the leverage the popular and well supported backend infrastructure of the Android ecosystem while adding the right amount of touch to refine the experience. The first section of my review focused on the hardware. In this section of the review I will dive into the main parts of the BlackBerry DNA that made it into the Android OS. I see no real reason to review Android in general but you will see me focus on the delta between vanilla Android (Nexus experience) and BlackBerry enhanced Android.
Nothing exemplifies the move as well as the screen below. When you initially setup your device BlackBerry added a solid Content Transfer application to help you transfer over your pictures and other data. As you can see, instead of BlackBerry building their own cloud infrastructure they simply leverage Google Drive. Simple and elegant!
The next key addition that BlackBerry added to android is a side swipe bar. This is similar to the left hand hub sidebar in BlackBerry 10 and essentially gives you full time access to the latest details in your hub from a quick swipe. Personally I am torn between a quick swipe up from the bottom of the device to open the full hub and this model but there is a case for both!
The first thing that hits you when you start up the Priv (pronounced like Privilege) is how BlackBerry did not pull a Samsung and try to change the whole Google experience. Instead BlackBerry simply enhanced it with features that BlackBerry users will love. One of the main questions I get is what OS version the Priv is running. BlackBerry confirmed it is running 5.1.1 now but will have Marshmallow in the very near future. That will add a key privacy control to block apps that access excessive permissions along with enhancing the BlackBerry secure boot. You can see the details on the BlackBerry kernel and other OS details below. You can also see the model number implies that there are multiple variants… Maybe a Verizon one in the works? BlackBerry refused to comment.
Once again you see that BlackBerry avoided pulling a Samsung and even the options just look like a slightly enhanced vanilla android experience. Sort of what you would expect from a slightly custom ROM. You can even turn on USB debugging and other features that BlackBerry has thankfully not made as convoluted as BlackBerry 10.
The whole experience centers around a new BlackBerry Launcher that is VERY similar to the Google Launcher. So similar I would dare to say that they simply built the experience on the Google launcher. You even have “OK Google” voice commands and everything. The big difference you will notice is that BlackBerry has supplanted the native email Android client (not Gmail) with one that is an enhanced and BlackBerry branded version of the email client. That way it has all the features you need for exchange and all but it adds things like keyboard shortcuts.
They also added in shortcuts on the screen along with the keyboard shortcuts. I had to check if you could use it with the Google Swipe keyboard and it works beautifully but you do lose some of the functionality of the hardware keyboard like the SYM (Symbol) key showing virtually.
I am not sure if this will be the out of box experience but BlackBerry has thankfully segregated the Priv apps into the Play store so they immediately received updates!
Same goes for the different BlackBerry DNA apps like Password Keeper and even an OS update.
The one area I noticed small enhancements to was the Android notifications which simply added in icons that let you quickly filter notifications. As I said its like vanilla Android with enhancements.
Same goes for the quick tools.
One of the cool features of the launcher is that it by default has a very cool looking recents menu that looks like a mosaic. You can change that but it is hot! Also notice how BlackBerry thankfully added a clear all button unlike Google.
Launcher options are great and once again remind me of the native Google Launcher.
You can change hotkeys to work on the keyboard in different ways like Quick Search or the traditionally Quick Launch. You can even add Icon packs.
The camera is also slick with its 18MP sensor and it lets you do LIVE filters!!! Sadly we do not have the time shift we have on BlackBerry 10.
The other big change in the launcher from native Google is that there is an instant app search (Google needs to do this) and it also lets you scroll between apps, widgets and shortcuts.
BlackBerry has ported over some of the key BlackBerry apps to the Priv on Android but some are new like DTEK. This is an app that shows quite a bit of promise but has not reached its full potential yet. It gives you privacy recommendations to protect your data on Android. IT gives you a privacy report card and how you can better control access to your information. As I mentioned before it does not let you block access to data just yet but that is coming in Marshmallow!
The best part now is that it allows you to track what access the apps have over time!
The next Big change is the BlackBerry hub which brings quite a bit of BlackBerry DNA to the native Android email app. Once again BlackBerry did not decide to build from the ground up but rather enhance the open client. This gives us many of the same features as the Google client and adds more like snoozing emails.
It also adds rich text formatting and better conversation view!!!
My favorite is the custom view and the ability to set rules for what shows as a priority.
Here are some views of the hub. Notice how the BlackBerry DNA bled in with all of your notifications aggregated in one place. They even added Twitter that integrates with the native app and Facebook which will integrate soon!
Here are those options I told you about. Looks familiar right?
I love the condensed view.
Here are the rules I told you about:
You click on the bottom plus button to get the reply options or use the keyboard shortcuts!!!
The email formatting looks beautiful.
One of the key things to know about the hub is that you can easily access it by swiping up and to the right from the bottom of the device. You can also access Google Search and BlackBerry search. Those settings are customizable.
The BlackBerry calendar blows the Google one out of the water. It has features that look like Outlook on your phone and gives you full control while not losing any of the features you would have in the Google or Gmail calendar.
The contacts app takes the same approach. Its a BlackBerry enhanced version of the Google contacts app. Notice a trend here? Enhance rather than replace.
The groups view is one that BlackBerry needs to copy.
As I showed before you can see what the DTEK report shows for privacy and then what permissions a specific application has requested.
One of the coolest parts of the new phone is the small touches like the notification bar around the side of the device when you are charging showing you a green bar with the battery life and it shows text when it sleeps on how long it needs to charge.
Here are all of those launcher options I told you about that are in the main settings. It is pretty crazy how fast BlackBerry has gotten so much of this ported from BB10 in a Android way.
The advanced interactions are another sign.
The picture password almost makes me forgive BlackBerry for not having a fingerprint reader. I still want one but this blows away pattern unlock and is hard to crack with smudge prints.
Notice the small things ported over like owner information on the lock screen and smartcard support.
You will see some more options hidden under the hood that remind me of BlackBerry 10 and thankfully BlackBerry has not locked down ADB or USB debugging.
I would also suggest turning down the transition animation scale to .5x to speed things up. That gives the impression that apps launch faster!
Here is the hub swipe I told you about. This is the quick view of the hub that is available in every app.
One of the things I love about the Priv was that they added in SD card support. I am really happy to see that on top of that BlackBerry has made it easy to access the SD card by mounting it over USB.
All in all you can see a continued trend here of BlackBerry enhancing the Android experience with the Priv and adding BlackBerry DNA. I will be going deeper into some of these features in the next few days but I wanted to get this out there as soon as possible! Let me know if you have any questions.