Back in 2013, BlackBerry tried to reinvent itself with its new touch-optimized operating system, BBOS 10. It came alongside the first all-touch phone since the Storm - the Z10. But sadly, since then, it’s still the devices equipped with the physical keyboards that are selling which makes the company’s decision to launch the Leap quite intriguing. At $275/£199 it’s priced like a low/mid-range phone. But is it worth buying?
Unlike every other current BlackBerry, the Leap looks like a standard smartphone. It’s a rectangular device with nothing but screen on the front. Just a straight, no-frills, flat glass panel accompanied by a front facing camera, earpiece and LED notification light.
At 9.5mm thick, it’s not the thinnest smartphone in the world, but it’s far from being too thick. What’s more, the slightly curved back - near the edges - and the grippy, dimpled rubber on the back make it comfortable and pleasant to hold. Although this finish doesn’t exactly make the device seem luxurious or high-end, I still like it. Instead of being delicate or pretentious, it says “let’s get to work”. Like it wants to be picked up and used. Not left on a surface or held out in full view to be admired. It’s a work phone. Not a poser’s phone. It feels pretty solid too, despite being made primarily from plastic.
The only buttons are the usual, volume up and down buttons separated by BlackBerry’s special quick-access key which launches BlackBerry Assistant as default. Just like the Classic and Passport, the Leap has a non-removable battery. This means external entry ports for your Micro SIM and Micro SD card, placed - rather unimaginatively - behind a flimsy plastic flap on the left edge.
Saying that, I appreciated its overall build quality and pocket-ability. And while its bezels a necessarily large to cater for the built-in touch sensors, it’s not a bad looking device either.
In today’s competitive mid-range market, it’s commonplace to see 1080p screens being used at the $250-$300 price point. Think of devices like the OneTouch Idol 3 or OnePlus One. Both with big, full HD displays. That’s why it’s a little disappointing to see a 720x1280 resolution 5-inch LCD panel on the front of the BlackBerry. At 294ppi it’s still plenty sharp enough, but you’d expect more for this price nowadays.
Content on screen is generally sharp and clear at arm’s length, but bring it closer to your eyes, and you start to notice flaws. Fine text looks jagged, as do the “rounded” corners of app icons. Granted this is nit-picking, but in today’s market, I think that’s perfectly acceptable.
All in all though, this screen has its qualities. Colors seem natural enough and contrast levels are respectable for an LCD panel. In fact, it’s nowhere near as washed out as I’d expect. Still, the overall tone is a little cool for my liking. Overall imagery has a blueish tint. It’s only very slight, but I noticed it. Thankfully, you can change its white balance if you so wish.
I was also surprised by just how bright it could be. I barely needed it above 60% to meet my needs. Sadly though, its daylight visibility isn’t the strongest. But, being 5-inches diagonally, it’s plenty big enough (and more importantly - the right shape) to enjoy media. For the BlackBerry loyalists who want a great movie-watching or gaming experience, this is really the only option out right now and is easily the best for that. Square screens really don’t lend themselves to multimedia consumption.
Performance and Battery
Those of you familiar with BlackBerry OS 10 will know that it’s designed to be quick and snappy. Getting to your home screen is one swipe away virtually regardless of where you are in the phone’s interface. The hub where all your notifications sit is a swipe from left to right. It doesn’t matter where you want to go, you’re almost never more than two swipes away. For iOS and Android users, it could take a little time getting used to, but once you do, you’ll realize exactly how fast it can be and how intuitive it is. Not to mention, you’ll probably spend less time in between apps and screens, and more time being productive. What’s more, BlackBerry’s software keyboard is one of the fastest around - again - once you get used to its method of predicting words.
As you’d expect from a BlackBerry device, it handles its operating system with ease. There’s no noticeable lag when moving in between layers of the UI, or scrolling up and down through lists and messages. All the important stuff is swift and painless. When you consider that it’s only using a Dual-Core 1.5GHz Snapdragon processor, that’s pretty impressive. That said, there is noticeable sluggishness when loading games. At least, during the actual initial loading stage. Once your game gets started - I used Asphalt 8 to test - the Leap handles it surprisingly well. I didn’t notice any severe frame-dropping, stuttering or freezing.
Things get even better when switching to the discussion on battery life. The 2,800mAh battery inside the Leap is fantastic. In fact, I’d almost go as far as saying it’ll give you similar performance to the Passport. On a full charge, I regularly got to the end of a second day’s usage without even trying. If you’re a heavy user you should be confident of getting to the end of your workday without needing to top it up later on in the afternoon. Some might complain that you can’t remove it, but when performance is this good, you really don’t need to.
The camera, like the display and design, isn’t particularly noteworthy. As things go, the 8MP shooter is good enough for taking shots in good daylight to share on social media. Unless all your friends are particularly judgmental and overly critical photographers, you’ll be fine. Colors are good, and sharpness to and it has just the right amount of options to ensure you can get a decent shot. It even suggests when you should switch HDR on if it detects appropriate lighting contrast.
That said, there’s a flip-side. Using the camera can be a frustrating experience. Getting it to focus where you want can be a challenge and takes more than one go, particularly if - like me - you love shooting up close and personal. If you love macro, you’ll hate this.
As an overall package, it’s hard to recommend the Leap at this price. Unless you’re an absolute BlackBerry diehard fan who won’t buy any other manufacturer’s products, it’s hard to see the value in the Leap. Its display and camera are poorer than a handful of great Android smartphones like the Idol 3 or OnePlus One, and with it running on BlackBerry, you’re limited by the number of apps that run well.
For me, BlackBerry’s strength has always been creating devices that inspire productivity and don’t distract you. With the Leap, the company has succeeded with that. But I can’t help but feel they could have included a better display and camera to give regular consumers a reason to buy it. Right now, the only people I’d imagine buying a Leap are BlackBerry lovers who - somehow - hate physical keyboards. And I’m not sure those exist.