When BlackBerry said it was getting out of the hardware business, instead licensing device production to TCL Communication, diehard fans cringed a bit. Would TCL honour the BlackBerry tradition?
After the launch earlier this year of the excellent KEYone, with its physical keyboard and solid security posture, the answer is clearly yes. And now, for those who prefer a full screen experience with a soft keyboard, we have the new BlackBerry Motion.
The Motion is proof that you don’t need to spend a fortune on a phone for it to be somewhat drool-worthy. Selling for around $600 without a contract, it combines respectable performance with a whopping 4000 mAh battery and IP67 rated water and dust resistance.
Physically, it is not shiny. The back has a textured soft touch matte black surface that keeps the phone from slipping out of your hand, and while it’s not totally fingerprint-proof, you have to work to smudge it. That’s a relief in today’s world of handheld devices that often end up looking decidedly grotty in short order.
The edges and shoulders are matte charcoal, with all controls on the right. Yes, they moved the power button, which has been on the left side of the body on BlackBerry devices since the PRIV came out, back to its expected location, below the volume key.
Below the power button is the Convenience Key, a programmable button providing one-touch access to functions of your choice. Its placement is a bit awkward as it’s easy to accidentally press it when grabbing the phone or aiming for the power button. On the left, all you’ll find is the tray for the SIM and a hot swappable microSD card. And on the bottom, there’s a headset jack and a USB-C connector.
The phone is almost the same size as the Google Pixel 2 XL, but because it has bezels, it has a slightly smaller FHD IPS screen: 5.5 inches, versus the Pixel 2 XL’s 6 inches. To keep it scratch-free, TCL has used a nano-diamond anti-scratch coating on the glass.
While the colours aren’t as saturated as on the Pixel 2’s OLED display, both still images and video still look great. The Motion has a night light setting that removes much of the sleep-disturbing blue light from the display. Similar to the competition, you can turn it on manually or schedule it to automatically activate.
The ¾-inch wide bottom bezel houses an oddity for an Android phone – a physical Home button that doubles as a fingerprint reader. It’s a little weird at first having to push a button rather than just touching a spot at the bottom of the screen, but it does prevent inadvertent navigation. The fingerprint reader seems a bit more finicky than the one on the KEYone, though that may be a function of how I trained it.
Although the base storage is a relatively modest 32 GB (both models of Pixel 2 offer either 64 or 128 GB), the Motion has the advantage of the microSD expansion, with up to 2 TB of extra space, and the option to store photos and music on the card automatically. The Pixel 2 is not expandable. The memory in both is 4 GB, but the processors differ; TCL chose to use an older Snapdragon 625, while Google opted for the more powerful 835. In practice, I didn’t have any performance issues, though – video and music played fine, and while I don’t play demanding games on my phone, the apps I use performed without a hitch.
The Motion has a 12 MP auto-focus main camera and an 8 MP front camera with a fixed focus wide angle lens to support selfie panoramas. Both offer the usual bells and whistles like auto and manual modes, LCD flash, video recording (4K main, FHD front), and video and image stabilization.
The cameras produce good pictures with true colours. While low light performance can’t rival that of the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, it does very well shooting in a room with minimal lighting, or capturing on-stage images in a darkened auditorium. Just be sure to pop into camera settings and turn on Focus Before Capture or results will be annoyingly fuzzy. The rear camera also offers a business card scanner with OCR that enters info into the Contacts, a document scanner, and a whiteboard capture option.
For audio, we have a single speaker, so grab those headphones if you want stereo sound. What does come out is good, with no buzzing even at top volume. And phone call quality rivals that of a landline.
The software begins with a hardened version of Android Nougat (7.1.2) with an update to Android 8 (Oreo) coming in the new year. TCL promises that you’ll get monthly Android security updates for a minimum of two years.
The software and OS come courtesy of BlackBerry Ltd, whose reason for being these days is security and privacy, and includes the DTEK app that shows you the security posture of your device and lets you adjust settings to best protect yourself.
On an app-by-app basis, you can see what permissions are granted, how many times each one has been used by the app, and turn off ones that offend you. Be warned, however, that an app deprived of some of its access may or may not work properly – but don’t be put off. There’s no earthly reason why, for example, a calculator needs access to your telephony functions, or a conference app needs to be able to send email without your knowledge or consent — excess permissions are often a function of developer laziness (at best), and mischief under the covers at worst.
The Motion also boasts the rest of BlackBerry’s productivity apps: the Hub, a universal inbox for communications (the LED alerts can be in the colours of your choice so you can tell which account is beckoning – for example, work mail flashing red, and personal blue); the Productivity Tab, which offers swipe-out quick access to calendar, email, tasks, and contacts; Password Keeper; a set of productivity apps for notes, tasks, contacts, and email; BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), and more.
The Convenience Key’s functionality has been enhanced so it launches one of three apps depending on the profile you select. For example, the Car profile kicks in when you’re connected to special Bluetooth, and offers voice search, play music, or another app of your choice. Meeting launches the camera or other apps when you’re in a meeting, and Home is triggered when you’re on your home Wi-Fi network. If none of these apply, you have three more app slots for other situations.
Also new to the Motion is Locker, a secure space for storing documents and photos that requires a PIN or fingerprint to access. Turn on Locker Mode, and files will not be automatically saved to the cloud.
I’ve saved what’s possibly the best for last: the battery. At 4000 mAh, it’s rated for 32 hours or more of mixed use, and Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 lets you add up to 50 per cent charge in about 40 minutes. Wireless charging is not supported.
The great part is that the battery life claim is, to put it mildly, conservative. When my Motion first arrived, despite all of the setup and app installations, it was over four days before I felt it needed feeding (it disagreed – it said it would be OK for another day or two). As I type this, it’s been happily running for seven days (admittedly, there wasn’t much usage on the weekend), and still thinks, at 28 per cent, it has a day or more left.
Of course, your mileage will vary, based on cellular signal, usage patterns, and other factors, but this is not a phone that will keep you constantly searching for a plug.
This phone may not be the super-shiny status symbol many customers crave – a lot of people are surprised that the BlackBerry brand is even still around. But be assured that it’s alive and well, and the partnership of TCL Communication and BlackBerry Ltd is producing excellent phones at reasonable prices. Take a look. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the Motion’s features and functionality, impressed by its security, and blown away by the battery life.