Hands On With the BlackBerry Mercury

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LAS VEGAS—The BlackBerry Mercury isn't a "real" phone yet. It hasn't been announced; that isn't even its name. But TCL started showing it off today at CES, and it's looking good, keyboard and all.

The Mercury, which has been leaked "about 600 times," according to TCL Communication North America president Steve Cistulli, is the new Android-powered smartphone running BlackBerry's software stack with the classic keyboard, complete with silvery frets between the rows.

TCL, which made the two previous BlackBerry-named handsets, the DTEK50 and DTEK60, is finally taking over BlackBerry's handset marketing and sales operation, which can only be good for the brand in North America. Sales of BlackBerrys in the US have dropped to basically zero as carriers didn't pick them up.

TCL, on the other hand, has strong relationships with carriers through its Alcatel sub-brand, and it'll be marketing the Mercury to all four major networks in the US, Cistulli said.

"We're going to create a portfolio of BlackBerry handsets that has an evolutionary path into the future, that we sell into carrier channels and the enterprise. We're going to be there in 2018, 2019, and beyond," Cistulli said.

Are they TCL phones or BlackBerry phones? Apparently, they're both, but they aren't Alcatel phones. BlackBerry is now a brand under the TCL aegis, like Alcatel but parallel to it. "The good news is that BlackBerry [the software company] is very much involved in software development," Cistulli noted.

Cistulli wanted to make it clear that the handset I was handling wasn't final hardware, and he didn't want to tell me the specs. But I puzzled some things out.

The Mercury has a big camera lens on the back and a USB-C port on the bottom. It's a single SIM phone, with a MicroSD card slot as well. The unit I was looking at ran Android 7.0 and had 32GB of storage (about 24GB available) and 3GB of RAM. I took a few photos with the camera, which focused well and quickly.

BlackBerry Mercury

The LCD screen was an appropriate aspect ratio for Android, so there won't be app compatibility issues.

CrackBerry says the Mercury has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor, a 3400mAh battery, and 18MP and 8MP cameras, but TCL declined to confirm or deny.

You want to know about the keyboard, of course. The keys were angled, to make them easier to type on. They were a little wobbly and could have been tighetned. The keyboard is capacitive, like the one on the BlackBerry Passport, letting you swipe back and forth across it to use it as arrow keys. The space bar doubles as a fingerprint scanner, which is a really cool touch.

Typing on the keyboard was a little bit deliberate. It's been a while since I used a phone with a hard keyboard, and in the 10 minutes I had, I didn't have time to get accustomed to it. But I missed a few letters by not pressing hard enough. Cistulli said the keyboard "is still a little bit of a work in progress."

We'll hear more about the Mercury in February.

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