BlackBerry Leap review: an old phone with a fresh face

fullbleed

Two years ago, BlackBerry finally broke free of the monotonous cycle it had entrenched itself in by launching its first all-touchscreen device, the Z10. Despite it being a costly flop, the company formerly known as RIM has continued to explore touchscreen territory with the help of its poke-friendly BB10 OS. BlackBerry is no longer a stranger to the form factor: It quickly followed up the Z10 with the Z30, and now the new BlackBerry Leap. There’s little that separates BlackBerry’s three main touchscreen devices as far as internals are concerned, and therein lies the main problem with the Leap. Instead of trying something different, BlackBerry has kept well within its comfort zone and pushed out another mid-range, touchscreen handset that’s marginally divergent from its predecessors. Don’t get me wrong: If a Leap lands on your desk to replace an old work phone, you’ll no doubt get on with it just fine. But, if your own money is on the table, you’re probably going to want to take it elsewhere.

Pros

  • Long battery life
  • Versatile 8-megapixel camera
  • BB10 OS is a great productivity tool

Cons

  • Bulky compared to other 5-inch phones
  • Poor-quality display panel
  • Outdated internals
  • Weak app selection

Summary

There are several things to like about the BlackBerry Leap, including its long battery life, surprisingly good camera and the productivity afforded by BB10 OS. The handset isn’t without issues, though. It can be cumbersome to use due to its size; its 720p display is of substandard quality; and even some of the most popular apps aren’t available on the BB10 platform directly. And, almost unforgivably, the phone makes do with aging internals, making it identical on the inside to the two-year-old BlackBerry Z10. Frankly, it’s impossible to recommend the Leap over cheaper handsets with superior specifications and more consumer-friendly platforms. As a work phone, the Leap will more than cut it, but if you’re looking for a personal device that isn’t solely for keeping up with email, you can do better.

Hardware

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Let’s be frank: BlackBerry isn’t known for inspired design. The recent keyboard-toting Classic is almost an admission of that, it being a regression for the company; an homage to the Bold devices that found popularity many moons ago. Even the Porsche Design collaborations, the pocket-stretching Passport and the as-yet unreleased, curved-screen slider are all variations on a weary theme. That being said, the new Leap is at least a stark change from the two touchscreen BlackBerrys that came before it. The company isn’t exactly breaking the mold, though: The Leap takes more than a few design cues from the BlackBerry Z3, a lower-end touchscreen device that has only been released in a few developing markets.

Distancing itself from the soft curves of the Z series, the Leap is a real blunt object of a phone. It’s a black and gray slab with sharp corners, meant for serious business, and I can’t help but find it lacking in character — unless that character is a middle manager at a logistics conglomerate. There are positives and negatives to this “all work, no play” design. On the one hand, it looks and feels like you could hammer nails with it. That’s to say it’s solid as a rock, to the extent that the body won’t flex or twist, even under considerable pressure. The build quality is admirable: All the parts fit together snugly, though the seams around the glass frontage are prone to trapping dust and lint. Also, the dimpled, rubbery material that covers most of the device feels like a built-in shock case, giving the impression that the handset can shrug off a fall or two.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the other hand, however, the Leap being a solid square block makes it a tad cumbersome in the hand. Sure, the dimpled back, with its slight curvature as it meets the sides, gives ample purchase and comfort; but, the device is tall, wide, thick and verging on heavy at 170g (six ounces). The Leap’s 5-inch display is flanked on all sides by healthy bezels, and while my spidery hands didn’t struggle to manipulate the device, my thumb was always leaning over dead space to get at the screen. I was constantly shifting my hand position so my thumb could reach the edges of the display, primarily because the BlackBerry 10 OS is centered around several swiping gestures that have to start off-screen. This serves to reinforce the feeling that the Leap is huge for a 5-inch device; the power button’s central placement on the top edge next to the headphone jack doesn’t help much either.

The volume rocker — or rather, the two volume keys on either side of the BlackBerry Assistant button — is more sensibly placed toward the top of the right edge, and the micro-USB port is exactly where you’d expect at the base of the device. Since the Leap’s back panel is fixed (the battery is nonremovable), the micro-SIM and microSD slots are hidden behind a panel on the left edge. Beyond the usual buttons and holes, BlackBerry’s added some subtle accents here and there. The back has an industrial look to it, with the dimpled gray canvas highlighted by a square, punched-out loudspeaker grille, sunken silver BlackBerry logo and glass band covering the camera lens, announcing its specifications in futuristic font. The front-facing camera and earpiece are joined by a large, red notification LED on the face of the device that screams, “Check your phone,” and another silver BlackBerry logo (this time with the name alongside it) sits below the display.

None of these are unwelcome touches, but they don’t combine to make the Leap anything more than indistinctive. If the handset didn’t feel so big, the grand design might blend better with the utilitarian nature of the device. But, being a little awkward to use with one hand, it doesn’t seem like a more striking look was sacrificed in the pursuit of enhanced productivity.

Display

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Leap has a 5-inch, 1,280 x 720 (720p) LCD display, which is nothing abnormal for a mid-range device at this price point. (In fact, I would be surprised if the numbers were any different). I’m not a great believer in huge pixel counts making a massive difference to user experience on small screens, but I appreciate a good quality panel. Alas, the Leap’s display left me wanting. Colors are vibrant enough and the white balance setting spot on, although you can adjust this in the settings if you feel otherwise. Blacks are of the depth typical to LCD displays, which is to say good, but not as vacuous as you see with AMOLED technology. When I’m on a particularly dark screen, I can pick out areas along the perimeter where light is bleeding onto the display. My review unit’s screen is particularly ill-fitting in the top left-hand corner, although the uneven lighting is barely noticeable with brighter colors.

Viewing angles are passable, but sunlight readability is where it really lets itself down. The display’s lacking the kind of power you need to cut through direct rays, and there appears to be no difference between 50 percent brightness and full whack when the sun’s beating down on the glass. It’s not completely unreadable — you’ll still be able to follow a map, read a tweet or just about frame that picture through the glare — but it’s just not enjoyable having to squint and spin around in search of the shade of your own shadow.

Software

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Leap runs BlackBerry 10. Build 10.3.1 of the OS, to be exact, like the BlackBerry Classic. Even if you’ve had no prior experience with BB10, you should find it vaguely familiar all the same, although it relies more heavily on gestures than other mobile operating systems. You’ll see a plain home screen when you unlock the device; a swipe to the left will bring up your app grid. Gesturing becomes important when you’re actually running an app, and swiping up from the bottom bezel will effectively minimize what you’re looking at and pin it to the home screen, which doubles as your task manager. It means you can quickly get at your most used apps and see what’s running in the background. And kinda like Windows Phone’s Live Tiles, some display snippets of live information — your last WhatsApp IM, for example. Swiping right in some apps brings up contextual menus, and swiping down from the top bezel anywhere within the OS will give you access to a quick-settings dropdown. In short, it’ll be relatively intuitive to anyone who’s handled a smartphone before, and you quickly get used to the emphasis on gestures.

From the home screen, swiping right sends you to the BlackBerry Hub, one of the key features of BB10. It’s probably best described as an email client/persistent notification bar (or maybe not). By far my favorite thing about the OS, it puts all of your messages and notifications in one place, from texts, emails, tweets and IMs to Facebook pokes, your call history, calendar appointments and low-battery reminders. You can filter, prioritize and view notifications from individual services and accounts, of course, but it’s nice to have everything within thumb’s reach. I can dismiss a missed call, mark a WhatsApp message as read, delete an SMS, archive an email and jump straight into Facebook to check the photo I’ve been tagged in right from the Hub. Being a Gmail user almost exclusively, I wish I could tag and archive emails easier, without having to go through a bunch of menus, but even I find the BlackBerry Hub extremely… productive, dare I say it.

I guess you could consider the BlackBerry Assistant another main feature of BB10, especially since it has its own dedicated physical button in between the volume keys. It’s basically BlackBerry’s version of Siri, Cortana or Google Now. You can instruct the voice-controlled virtual assistant to change settings, launch apps, message a friend, find you a dinner spot, perform contextual searches of content on the device or the web and so on. I can’t say there’s anything extra-special about this particular manifestation of a virtual aide, although it did easily answer my question of “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” What it does, it does well, even if you have to wait a couple of seconds for it to process requests. As with its peers on other platforms, though, I just don’t find myself using BlackBerry Assistant. I’d rather tap at my phone than talk to it. And let’s be honest: So would you.

A feature introduced in BB 10.3 that definitely deserves an extended mention is BlackBerry Blend. Install the Blend client on your PC or Android/iOS tablet, pair it with a BlackBerry and you can access that phone from anywhere. Within Blend, you’ll find your contact list and calendar appointments, as well as a lighter version of the BlackBerry Hub comprising emails, text messages and BBMs. In addition to being able to view this information, you can also add calendar appointments and send messages from the client without touching your phone. For enterprise users, it means you can hammer out a few work emails on your home computer without logging into a corporate VPN, or see your next meeting and text your co-worker to tell them you’ll be late if you’ve left your phone on the kitchen table.

It’s not seamless or elegant in the way Apple’s Continuity feature works between iOS and OS X, and you can’t dial out or even see your call history within Blend. But, it’s a simple, unashamedly functional app. I can’t claim to have used it extensively, but being able to access all data on the phone from the comfort of my laptop made transferring my camera sample photos a breeze. So, even if you’re not a business type, there are still tasks that Blend can simplify for you.

Since the Leap is one of a handful of BlackBerrys without a physical keyboard, it’s worth noting that the typing experience is still fantastic, and as good as you’ll find on any touchscreen smartphone. BlackBerry uses a type of predictive-text engine that suggests a couple of words you might be working toward above what would be the next letter in that word. You can lock in predictions by swiping upward on the letter below, but I found paying attention to these only slowed me down. Regardless, I can still crank out prose at a rapid pace by letting the prediction engine do its thing without my input, and for me, it’s almost as good as SwiftKey, which is the first thing I install on every Android phone I get my hands on.

Two years ago, BlackBerry finally broke free of the monotonous cycle it had entrenched itself in by launching its first all-touchscreen device, the Z10. Despite it being a costly flop, the company formerly known as RIM has continued to explore touchscreen territory with the help of its poke-friendly BB10 OS. BlackBerry is no longer a stranger to the form factor: It quickly followed up the Z10 with the Z30, and now the new BlackBerry Leap. There’s little that separates BlackBerry’s three main touchscreen devices as far as internals are concerned, and therein lies the main problem with the Leap. Instead of trying something different, BlackBerry has kept well within its comfort zone and pushed out another mid-range, touchscreen handset that’s marginally divergent from its predecessors. Don’t get me wrong: If a Leap lands on your desk to replace an old work phone, you’ll no doubt get on with it just fine. But, if your own money is on the table, you’re probably going to want to take it elsewhere.

Gallery | 23 Photos

BlackBerry Leap review

64
BlackBerry

Leap

Pros

  • Long battery life
  • Versatile 8-megapixel camera
  • BB10 OS is a great productivity tool

Cons

  • Bulky compared to other 5-inch phones
  • Poor-quality display panel
  • Outdated internals
  • Weak app selection
Summary

There are several things to like about the BlackBerry Leap, including its long battery life, surprisingly good camera and the productivity afforded by BB10 OS. The handset isn’t without issues, though. It can be cumbersome to use due to its size; its 720p display is of substandard quality; and even some of the most popular apps aren’t available on the BB10 platform directly. And, almost unforgivably, the phone makes do with aging internals, making it identical on the inside to the two-year-old BlackBerry Z10. Frankly, it’s impossible to recommend the Leap over cheaper handsets with superior specifications and more consumer-friendly platforms. As a work phone, the Leap will more than cut it, but if you’re looking for a personal device that isn’t solely for keeping up with email, you can do better.

Hardware

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Let’s be frank: BlackBerry isn’t known for inspired design. The recent keyboard-toting Classic is almost an admission of that, it being a regression for the company; an homage to the Bold devices that found popularity many moons ago. Even the Porsche Design collaborations, the pocket-stretching Passport and the as-yet unreleased, curved-screen slider are all variations on a weary theme. That being said, the new Leap is at least a stark change from the two touchscreen BlackBerrys that came before it. The company isn’t exactly breaking the mold, though: The Leap takes more than a few design cues from the BlackBerry Z3, a lower-end touchscreen device that has only been released in a few developing markets.

Distancing itself from the soft curves of the Z series, the Leap is a real blunt object of a phone. It’s a black and gray slab with sharp corners, meant for serious business, and I can’t help but find it lacking in character — unless that character is a middle manager at a logistics conglomerate. There are positives and negatives to this “all work, no play” design. On the one hand, it looks and feels like you could hammer nails with it. That’s to say it’s solid as a rock, to the extent that the body won’t flex or twist, even under considerable pressure. The build quality is admirable: All the parts fit together snugly, though the seams around the glass frontage are prone to trapping dust and lint. Also, the dimpled, rubbery material that covers most of the device feels like a built-in shock case, giving the impression that the handset can shrug off a fall or two.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the other hand, however, the Leap being a solid square block makes it a tad cumbersome in the hand. Sure, the dimpled back, with its slight curvature as it meets the sides, gives ample purchase and comfort; but, the device is tall, wide, thick and verging on heavy at 170g (six ounces). The Leap’s 5-inch display is flanked on all sides by healthy bezels, and while my spidery hands didn’t struggle to manipulate the device, my thumb was always leaning over dead space to get at the screen. I was constantly shifting my hand position so my thumb could reach the edges of the display, primarily because the BlackBerry 10 OS is centered around several swiping gestures that have to start off-screen. This serves to reinforce the feeling that the Leap is huge for a 5-inch device; the power button’s central placement on the top edge next to the headphone jack doesn’t help much either.

The volume rocker — or rather, the two volume keys on either side of the BlackBerry Assistant button — is more sensibly placed toward the top of the right edge, and the micro-USB port is exactly where you’d expect at the base of the device. Since the Leap’s back panel is fixed (the battery is nonremovable), the micro-SIM and microSD slots are hidden behind a panel on the left edge. Beyond the usual buttons and holes, BlackBerry’s added some subtle accents here and there. The back has an industrial look to it, with the dimpled gray canvas highlighted by a square, punched-out loudspeaker grille, sunken silver BlackBerry logo and glass band covering the camera lens, announcing its specifications in futuristic font. The front-facing camera and earpiece are joined by a large, red notification LED on the face of the device that screams, “Check your phone,” and another silver BlackBerry logo (this time with the name alongside it) sits below the display.

None of these are unwelcome touches, but they don’t combine to make the Leap anything more than indistinctive. If the handset didn’t feel so big, the grand design might blend better with the utilitarian nature of the device. But, being a little awkward to use with one hand, it doesn’t seem like a more striking look was sacrificed in the pursuit of enhanced productivity.

Display

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Leap has a 5-inch, 1,280 x 720 (720p) LCD display, which is nothing abnormal for a mid-range device at this price point. (In fact, I would be surprised if the numbers were any different). I’m not a great believer in huge pixel counts making a massive difference to user experience on small screens, but I appreciate a good quality panel. Alas, the Leap’s display left me wanting. Colors are vibrant enough and the white balance setting spot on, although you can adjust this in the settings if you feel otherwise. Blacks are of the depth typical to LCD displays, which is to say good, but not as vacuous as you see with AMOLED technology. When I’m on a particularly dark screen, I can pick out areas along the perimeter where light is bleeding onto the display. My review unit’s screen is particularly ill-fitting in the top left-hand corner, although the uneven lighting is barely noticeable with brighter colors.

Viewing angles are passable, but sunlight readability is where it really lets itself down. The display’s lacking the kind of power you need to cut through direct rays, and there appears to be no difference between 50 percent brightness and full whack when the sun’s beating down on the glass. It’s not completely unreadable — you’ll still be able to follow a map, read a tweet or just about frame that picture through the glare — but it’s just not enjoyable having to squint and spin around in search of the shade of your own shadow.

Software

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Leap runs BlackBerry 10. Build 10.3.1 of the OS, to be exact, like the BlackBerry Classic. Even if you’ve had no prior experience with BB10, you should find it vaguely familiar all the same, although it relies more heavily on gestures than other mobile operating systems. You’ll see a plain home screen when you unlock the device; a swipe to the left will bring up your app grid. Gesturing becomes important when you’re actually running an app, and swiping up from the bottom bezel will effectively minimize what you’re looking at and pin it to the home screen, which doubles as your task manager. It means you can quickly get at your most used apps and see what’s running in the background. And kinda like Windows Phone’s Live Tiles, some display snippets of live information — your last WhatsApp IM, for example. Swiping right in some apps brings up contextual menus, and swiping down from the top bezel anywhere within the OS will give you access to a quick-settings dropdown. In short, it’ll be relatively intuitive to anyone who’s handled a smartphone before, and you quickly get used to the emphasis on gestures.

From the home screen, swiping right sends you to the BlackBerry Hub, one of the key features of BB10. It’s probably best described as an email client/persistent notification bar (or maybe not). By far my favorite thing about the OS, it puts all of your messages and notifications in one place, from texts, emails, tweets and IMs to Facebook pokes, your call history, calendar appointments and low-battery reminders. You can filter, prioritize and view notifications from individual services and accounts, of course, but it’s nice to have everything within thumb’s reach. I can dismiss a missed call, mark a WhatsApp message as read, delete an SMS, archive an email and jump straight into Facebook to check the photo I’ve been tagged in right from the Hub. Being a Gmail user almost exclusively, I wish I could tag and archive emails easier, without having to go through a bunch of menus, but even I find the BlackBerry Hub extremely… productive, dare I say it.

I guess you could consider the BlackBerry Assistant another main feature of BB10, especially since it has its own dedicated physical button in between the volume keys. It’s basically BlackBerry’s version of Siri, Cortana or Google Now. You can instruct the voice-controlled virtual assistant to change settings, launch apps, message a friend, find you a dinner spot, perform contextual searches of content on the device or the web and so on. I can’t say there’s anything extra-special about this particular manifestation of a virtual aide, although it did easily answer my question of “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” What it does, it does well, even if you have to wait a couple of seconds for it to process requests. As with its peers on other platforms, though, I just don’t find myself using BlackBerry Assistant. I’d rather tap at my phone than talk to it. And let’s be honest: So would you.

A feature introduced in BB 10.3 that definitely deserves an extended mention is BlackBerry Blend. Install the Blend client on your PC or Android/iOS tablet, pair it with a BlackBerry and you can access that phone from anywhere. Within Blend, you’ll find your contact list and calendar appointments, as well as a lighter version of the BlackBerry Hub comprising emails, text messages and BBMs. In addition to being able to view this information, you can also add calendar appointments and send messages from the client without touching your phone. For enterprise users, it means you can hammer out a few work emails on your home computer without logging into a corporate VPN, or see your next meeting and text your co-worker to tell them you’ll be late if you’ve left your phone on the kitchen table.

It’s not seamless or elegant in the way Apple’s Continuity feature works between iOS and OS X, and you can’t dial out or even see your call history within Blend. But, it’s a simple, unashamedly functional app. I can’t claim to have used it extensively, but being able to access all data on the phone from the comfort of my laptop made transferring my camera sample photos a breeze. So, even if you’re not a business type, there are still tasks that Blend can simplify for you.

Since the Leap is one of a handful of BlackBerrys without a physical keyboard, it’s worth noting that the typing experience is still fantastic, and as good as you’ll find on any touchscreen smartphone. BlackBerry uses a type of predictive-text engine that suggests a couple of words you might be working toward above what would be the next letter in that word. You can lock in predictions by swiping upward on the letter below, but I found paying attention to these only slowed me down. Regardless, I can still crank out prose at a rapid pace by letting the prediction engine do its thing without my input, and for me, it’s almost as good as SwiftKey, which is the first thing I install on every Android phone I get my hands on.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There’s a lot to like about BB10 and yet, it still feels like it’s lagging behind the major platforms. And that’s not strictly about app availability either. The Maps application, for example, just isn’t as pretty or as slick as Google’s offering. Similarly, the stock browser lacks polish, and other core experiences aren’t as user-friendly as their competitors. Setting an alarm takes far too many taps, and various menus are unnecessarily complex. The app selection, too, is a problem for me, and I must confess to carrying around a secondary Android handset while using the Leap as my daily driver. You have access to apps from BlackBerry World, which is pitched as the place to go for productivity tools, and Amazon’s Android Appstore, which contains a bit of everything. Still, the range of apps available through both of these combined is nothing compared to Google Play or Apple’s equivalent.

The preinstalled YouTube app, for instance, is a link to the mobile site, and there’s no official Instagram client in either app store, let alone all the obscure Android apps I use regularly. You can sideload Android apps if you have the inclination and the know-how, but that’s no real solution to app scarcity — plus you have to manually update any sideloaded apps when new versions are released. It’s the same criticism of BB10 (and Windows Phone, for that matter) you hear time and time again. Now, if you’re supplied a Leap as a work phone, you’re probably not going to care all that much about filling it with apps. But, if you’re looking at one for yourself, a weak app selection might be cause for concern.

Camera

Like the Z10 and Z30, the Leap sports a modest 8-megapixel camera, with a 2-megapixel front-facing shooter for all your selfie and video-calling needs. Considering the Leap is really an enterprise device that’s geared toward productivity, not taking pretty pictures, its primary camera is surprisingly versatile. The stock camera interface is nice and light, just how I like it, with only a handful of settings. From the viewfinder menu, you can change flash behavior; aspect ratio; turn HDR on/off; set a timer; and select among normal, panorama, burst-capture and time-shift shooting modes (the latter is basically burst capture, but you pick your favorite image to keep). There’s no messing around with ISO values, exposure compensation and white balance settings: All of this is handled automatically. One thing that’s missing and shouldn’t be, however, is the option to turn off the irritating shutter sound.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s