Once the business-tinged king of the phone world in the mid-2000s, the BlackBerry’s physical keyboards and straight-faced software didn’t survive the onslaught of the iPhone and Android. BlackBerry released one Android phone, the Priv, and then stopped making phones.
TCL then bought rights to release BlackBerry branded phones to give us 2017’s KeyOne and then 2018’s Key2, an even better sequel. A couple of other handsets came of the partnership, but as of 31 August 2020, TCL does not support these phones with software updates and the partnership is over.
So it was with some surprise that we heard in August that US company Onward Mobility has licensed the BlackBerry name and has announced that it will work to release a 5G BlackBerry device with a physical keyboard in 2021.
Here’s what we know about the new BlackBerry.
When is the new BlackBerry's release date?
The new BlackBerry Android phone will come out “in the first half of 2021”, according to a press release.
The phone will be released in North America and Europe.
How much is the 2021 BlackBerry price?
We have no indication of price yet, but our guess is that it will be fairly high, around perhaps £800/$800. The phone will not sell in huge quantities, and the TCL BlackBerry phones were more expensive than the specs warranted and compared to other phones of similar specs.
A BlackBerry in 2021 is a niche device to say the least, and the premium price will attempt to reflect the exclusivity of a secure phone with a keyboard, but the reality is it will probably be expensive because not many people will buy one.
What about the new BlackBerry 2021 specs?
According to Onward Mobility, the new BlackBerry will have 5G network capabilities and a physical keyboard. These really are the only two indications of specs that we have aside from the phone running Android, as currently the announcement is only of the partnership’s existence and nothing more.
Onward Mobility has licensed the BlackBerry name and is also working with FIH Mobile Limitied, a subsidiary of Foxconn, to manufacture the phone.
The only part of the announcement that hinted at the specs of the phone says that “there is an absolute need for a secure, feature-rich 5G-ready phone that enhances productivity.” That’s still very vague but suggests that the actual company BlackBerry could be involved at the software level as it was with the TCL phones. It did not design the hardware, but its secure software was intertwined with Android, and may well be on the new phone too.
On the other hand, BlackBerry has begun selling its catalogue of patents, with 90 sold to Huawei already - though admittedly that's a drop in the ocean compared to its purported total haul of 38,000 patents. It's not clear if selling off its smartphone software patents will affect the company's ability or intention to provide its own original software going forward.
‘Feature-rich’ perhaps means that the new BlackBerry will be an all-singing all-dancing high-end device, unlike the KeyOne and Key2. 5G phones don’t need to be touting the latest most powerful Snapdragon chipset but it might help the new BlackBerry last a few years for buyers. The KeyOne in particular runs pretty slow today and was not well futureproofed.
New BlackBerry 2021 wish list
With so little concrete information to go on, here are a few things we hope the new 5G BlackBerry has to make it a worthwhile return of the famous brand.
A high refresh rate display
The KeyOne and Key2 used the same exact screen and it was not a good one. Colours were a little muted and brightness wasn’t great. A premium BlackBerry should pack a much better display, and we’d hope for one with a 120Hz refresh rate. If Onward Mobility wants to attract business professionals, it should treat them to a premium screen.
A superlative keyboard
It sort of goes without saying that the physical keyboard needs to be good, but the last great keyboard on a BlackBerry was 2014’s BlackBerry Classic. The clicky tactile keys haven’t been recreated since. The Key2 got closest, but the keys were too small and too square.
Sliding form factor
The problem with putting larger keys in is the expectation of modern smartphone form factors. The KeyOne and Key2 had poky screens in order to fit a physical keyboard below them and still have a phone of manageable size. We think the new BlackBerry should recreate the form factor of the BlackBerry Priv, with a regular touchscreen smartphone display and a sliding form factor that hides a physical keyboard.
Then again, if the phone aped the compact design of the BlackBerry Bold 9900 and made Android work properly, we’d be in nostalgia heaven.
The cameras on the TCL BlackBerrys were all weak. We hope the 5G BlackBerry has cameras that can hold their own against modern smartphones. If companies keep bringing the brand back, they need to stop compromising on the quality of the cameras, one of the main things people value on their phones – even businesspeople.