The Fxtec Pro1 (or F(x)tec) had me excited for a number of reasons. The team are based in, and the product was formulated in the UK, which made it feel a little more unique, and that uniqueness continued with the inclusion of one of the features that got me involved in smartphones, to begin with; the slide-out QWERTY keyboard. Add on the fact that this now comes with Android installed and not Windows Mobile (which was what my XDA Mini S ran) and my interest was heightened.
- Good build quality
- Sturdy keyboard design
- Good battery life
- Updates are lacking
- Poor camera performance
- Primary use is poorly delivered
BlackBerry and more lately, TCL under the BlackBerry brand, proved that physical keyboards are still sought after with their recent ‘Key’ series of devices. You can check out our reviews of their devices here for comparison. However, the QWERTY keyboard is the only real comparison to be made between the Fxtec Pro1 and other devices. There’s nothing else on the market that looks to dine out on the set of features that the Fxtec Pro1 does, with the possible exception of the Planet Computers Gemini PDA – it could be argued this is a different genre of products entirely.
Unboxing & Design
It has been over a decade since I last used a device with a hidden keyboard on a phone and opening up the box was truly a lovely experience as a tech enthusiast. The black box with gold accents is also a blast from the past. The Fxtec Pro1 box holds the device itself, as well as a glossy plastic-coated power plug with an EU, UK and US adapter, and a USB Type-C cable for good measure. There’s also a user manual, warranty information, as well as a screen protector also.
The first time I picked up the Fxtec Pro1 two things immediately jumped out at me. The first was the heft; at 244g it’s much heavier than the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra, which has already received many comments as to its weight. The second was the familiar feeling of a cold metallic chassis. I was immediately transported back to feeling my HTC One (M7) for the first time. Such a lovely matte metal finish. We’re off to a good start! Let’s look at some of the specs before diving deeper:
- General Specs
- Dimensions – 154 x 73.6 x 13.98mm
- Display – 5.99-inch 2160 x 1080 (FHD+) AMOLED with curved edges
- Corning® Gorilla® Glass 3
- Processor – Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 MSM8998
- RAM – 6GB LPDDR4
- Storage – 128GB, expandable via microSD card up to 2TB
- Input – 5-row QWERTY keyboard
- Battery – 3200 mAh
- Quick Charge™ 3.0
- Audio – Dual Stereo
- Security – Side-mounted fingerprint scanner
- OS – Android 9.0 (Pie)
- Other OS’s are supported (Lineage/Sailfish OS)
- WiFi: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac (WiFi 5)
- Bluetooth: 5.0 + LE
- NFC (supports Google Pay)
- USB Type-C with HDMI support
- Global LTE (FDD+TDD), WCDMA/UMTS, CDMA/EVDO, GSM/EDGE
- Dual Nano SIM with microSD support
- Front Camera: 8MP, fixed focus, f/2.0
- Rear Cameras: 12MP (Sony IMX363), f/1.8, 1.4µm pixels + 5MP, fixed focus, f/2.0
Performance & Use
I’m not going to lie, with the advent of Virtual Keyboards way back in 2007 with the first iPhone, I was not a fan. I was used to using a physical keyboard and a stylus on a Windows Mobile device, and BlackBerry and whilst the utility of the software these new devices could give me was a huge selling point, I just couldn’t see myself getting used to any other type of input other than a physical, tactile keyboard.
Fast forward to 2017 and TCL resurrected the BlackBerry brand to launch their KeyOne device. The familiar feel of that candybar format provided a heady hit of nostalgia and the Key2 simply improved the experience for me, and others within the team (Dom has been very vocal about his love for the Key2).
The Fxtec Pro1 feels completely different as an experience, however, it does share a goal with those devices; it’s aimed at people who want to be more productive on their smartphones than snapping the occasional Instagram story or levelling up on Candy Crush.
Let’s start with the main difference in design aesthetic to anything else you’ll find on the shelves today; the sliding QWERTY keyboard. For a start, it’s not quite a slider in actuality. I exposed the keyboard by holding the device horizontally, holding the bottom half of the device at the rear (imagine accessing shoulder buttons on a gaming controller) and then pushing backwards with your thumbs on the bottom of the screen. Given you’re pushing on a curved glass display, and the hinge itself is incredibly stiff and hasn’t eased through usage, you will find that many times it takes a few efforts to slide the keyboard out. This could be a blessing and curse depending on whether you want longevity or utility; for me I swore too many times to see the benefits.
Once open, the hinge can be seen in all its glory. It’s incredibly sturdy and I can’t see this breaking down any time soon through excessive use. Once open, the screen sits at 155-degrees which is an acceptable angle for typing and viewing what’s on the screen. Some might have argued the ability to angle the screen a little might have been a good option depending on the light source.
Moving onto the keyboard itself, I found it was well situated in terms of layout. A dedicated number row is a nice to have, and all keys seemed to be largely proportionate to what I’d expect of any standard QWERTY keyboard. That said, the keys have such low travel, are too small and close together to fit the form factor, that typing speed is severely hampered in the early days. I managed to speed up a bit after 3 days of testing, but still nothing close to using a virtual keyboard in portrait mode on a conventional smartphone. Furthermore, attempting to use thumb typing on the Fxtec Pro1 is extremely difficult for similar reasons, along with heft of the device. Suffice to say BlackBerry keyboard skills are not transferable.
In an attempt to give it a thorough test, I attempted to write a number of pieces on the Fxtec Pro1 (and some Excel documents actually) and had a mixed experience. The ability to have two documents upside by side was nice, but nothing I couldn’t deliver with a smartphone and a small folding Bluetooth keyboard. This is, however, all in one, so perhaps there’s a benefit there. The typing experience was much slower, but I did find myself using the shortcuts more than I thought I would. CTRL+C/CTRL+V usage on a device this small did bring a smile to my face. I threw up PowerPoint Mobile which was a good productivity experience actually, but that was largely to do with the stable footprint and the touchscreen.
The key points relating to the keyboard here is that it seems far too hard to expose the keyboard, the low travel and domed nature of the keys makes typing a difficult art to master, but the inclusion of backlighting and a dedicated Caps Lock notification LED are nice touches.
Stock Android Fatigue?
Moving on from the keyboard directly to the hardware and sporting a decidedly older CPU than most modern devices (Snapdragon 835 is found in Galaxy S8 and Pixel 2 devices from 2017) didn’t hamper the unit in day to day operation. Applications felt snappy, the 6GB of RAM helped keep applications open an adequate amount of time, and the few games I tested did what I’d expect.
There were a few mishaps in transitions from app to app, and in some menus the ‘Android jank’ reared its head. This can be attributed to a largely stock Android 9.0 (Pie) experience. Android 9, whilst still only 1 full release behind, is starting to feel particularly dated in look and feel, and the lack of theming on the Fxtec Pro1 doesn’t help. Still, the stock experience is one that continues to be optimised by Fxtec Pro1 to weed out any bugs, and with the exception of the Slider settings (of which there are only two anyway) there’s nothing out of the ordinary here.
As an aside, updates are critical for a niche product such as this, and my review unit in March 2020, came needing to be updated to the September 2019 security patch. To date, I’ve had no further update either. This does not bode well.
I did also notice that sometimes that the power button, and dedicated shortcut button took some time to register their respective activities, and the fingerprint scanner, mounted on the right-hand side beneath the power button, took some getting used to and it was not the fastest when it did work, which was not with any regularity. There are definitely some improvements to be made through the software and hardware integration layers.
One area the Fxtec Pro1 does excel in is in its battery life. The included 3200mAh battery is sufficiently big to deal with the 1080p display resolution and the three-year-old CPU. When the inevitable does happen, the included QuickCharge 3.0 technology will give it a boost to full in just over an hour on the charger.
A Throwback In Optics Too?
The optics on the Fxtec Pro1 can be summarised thusly; a hot mess. Unfortunately for FxTec, the device utilises a very aged, if stock, interface which does nothing to enhance an already poor experience. Settings to allow faux-bokeh and HDR change little in the final outcome, and the 12MP resolution, whilst similar on paper to some modern smartphones, utilises none of the binning technology and as such lacks some clarity. There are a number of shooting modes however including night, landscape and pro modes.
The front-facing camera is a fixed-focus 8MP camera, and the results are as expected; noisy and lacking clarity and vibrancy even in good lighting. Video on the Fxtec Pro1 can be recorded at a maximum of 4K @30fps and can be encoded in H265 or H265, but again the results are a little lacklustre.
This is one area of the Fxtec Pro1 that needed some more attention prior to release. If you’re looking to get the best of both worlds; a physical QWERTY keyboard and a competent camera setup, you’ll sadly only be getting the former.
My testing of the Fxtec Pro1 was pre-dominantly on the EE network mostly on 4G, and signal clarity was good, as were data speeds and call quality. I thought I’d start with this little titbit in my round-up as the rest of the device is a little bit of a mess.
I want to make it known that I love the fact that we’re in a position where companies like F(x)tec can create such products, and long may that continue. I have nothing but respect for the creators of form factors or niche products that look to go in a slightly different direction. That said, I see the Fxtec Pro1 as a near miss rather than any kind of hit.
There are just too many compromises for even the most ardent nostalgia fan to see this as a viable daily device. The camera is sub-par, delivering good shots once in every five attempts, performance is 2/3 generations behind current compute, and the stock Android 9 (Pie) look and feel seems smooth, but outdated and lacking the value adds that the likes of Motorola, OnePlus and more add into the Android recipe.
There are good aspects to the Fxtec Pro1 such as the battery life and build quality, but they are quickly cancelled when the value proposition is calculated. At £649 you’d be forgiven for thinking this is an upper mid-tier current generation device, and should that be the case, performance and optics would presumably be noticeably better.
This device is more concept than prime time in my opinion and those requiring more productivity functionality from their device would do well to look at ultra-portable peripherals. Should a physical keyboard be required, even with the reduced screen real estate, I couldn’t recommend this over the BlackBerry Key2 or LE variants. Unfortunately, this device is managed to capture the best of what once was, without delivering what is good about today’s technological advancements.