Hands-on review: F(x)tec Pro1 smartphone
Image credit: F(x)tec
Keyboard-equipped Android handset for Qwerty-loving road warriors still looking for a successor to their BlackBerry.
Qwerty lovers who rue the BlackBerry’s demise can rejoice in the launch of this new phone. Where most new models are looking to miniaturise and fold down to half the size, this full-sized Android smartphone instead opens up to reveal a miniature physical keyboard.
It feels like a standard 6-inch smartphone but a bit thicker and heavier. You reveal the keyboard by turning the phone sideways and pushing the screen up with your thumbs. It takes a hefty push to get it moving, but then the sprung hinge takes over and it clicks into place elegantly, with the screen propped up at an angle. It’s sturdy, with no delicate workings and connections handled by a strong ribbon cable, but you can see why the phone comes with a fabric slip case: you wouldn’t want grime getting in there.
The keys are raised blisters, backlit and staggered, easy to type on with two thumbs while you hold the phone in the fingers of both hands. This comes naturally because of the layout. Each press of a key gives a proper click: the feel and the sound. If you prefer typing on a proper Qwerty keyboard and write lots of verbiage on the move, it’s compelling.
That said, I use Gboard on my Android phone and I find that its glide typing is much faster than tapping on a virtual keyboard. Every now and then a friend who’s unfamiliar with the idea sees it over my shoulder and accuses me of witchcraft. Even with practice on the Pro1, I can type faster with one thumb gliding on Gboard than I can with two thumbs tapping on the Pro1 keyboard. But everyone is different and Qwerty-tapping road warriors have been looking for a good device for years.
Pocketable Qwerty devices have been around for quarter of a century, giving the phone a nostalgic feel. In the nineties, the Psion organiser unfolded to reveal a full keyboard from its third generation onwards. Late in the decade it was followed by mini subnotebooks, such as the Toshiba Libretto, which crammed a fully featured laptop into a large pocket.
Next came the BlackBerry with its small, real keyboard – the first phone that anyone really typed emails on. BlackBerry ruled the business market until iOS and Android overtook it with the convenience of touchscreens and apps. BlackBerry never fully recovered.
The Nokia 900 was one of the most recent devices to resemble the Pro1, but its keyboard was smaller, not staggered and harder to type on. And its OS was moribund, whereas this handset runs Android 9.0 Pie, although its unlocked bootloader means techie types can choose to load a custom version of Android such as Sailfish or LineageOS, if they prefer. The biggest strength of the Pro1 is that it runs the same operating system as everyone else, so you can basically use it like any smartphone but with the added benefit of the keyboard. This means it should age well.
Besides, its keyboard offers another benefit beyond fast typing. Split screen is where it really comes into its own. Because no space is lost to a virtual keyboard, you have nearly twice as much useable screen. Open two apps side by side on the landscape screen and you can still type. So you can watch a streamed movie at the same time as composing an email, or message someone while checking your diary without having to go back and forth. It’s brilliant if you work a lot on the move using a handheld device: obviously a laptop is better if you’re sat on a train working for hours.
The full keyboard also offers 36 shortcuts: simply hold down a key to launch a specific app. Other specs include travel-friendly dual Nano SIM card slots (or one Nano SIM plus a microSD memory card). Meanwhile the touchscreen means that you can use the phone like an ordinary Android smartphone with a virtual keyboard too: the best of both worlds.
The F(x)tec Pro1 is a niche, nostalgic device but there must be enough keyboard lovers out there to give it a market. Here’s hoping they discover it.
Android touchscreen up top, tiny Qwerty below. Manufacturer TCL has announced that it won’t be launching any new BlackBerry handsets, so if you love the classic you might want to snap up a Key2 fast.
Vbestlife Universal Wireless Bluetooth Keyboard Case
This simple case adds a small Bluetooth keyboard to any Android, iOS or Windows smartphone. It also acts as a travel case and a stand, perfect for propping up your phone for in-flight movies and more.
The best smartphone virtual keyboard, Gboard (Android and iOS) lets you glide between letters, without your digit leaving the touchscreen, so you can type much faster. It’s good with voice typing, handwriting and translation too.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.