Before the release of the Apple iPhone — and even well into its lifespan— Research in Motion’s BlackBerry series of smartphones was seen as the phone for serious business folks. The various BlackBerry models had many features that helped to cement that reputation, but the most important was the fantastic tactile keyboard. On-screen keyboards were eventually improved to the point that they’re no ubiquitous, and now tactile keyboards are virtually non-existent in the smartphone world. Last year, Unihertz launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring the tactile keyboard back, and I’ve spent the past couple of weeks testing out the Titan that I received from backing that campaign.
Unihertz did not provide me with a Titan to review. I backed the campaign with my own money, because I missed having a tactile keyboard. When the iPhone was announced, I clearly remember telling my coworkers that it would never be successful — serious users just wouldn’t accept typing on a touchscreen keyboard. Obviously I was very wrong about that, and even I made the transition well over a decade ago. But a part of me has always reminisced about the days when I could actually feel the keyboard clicking under my fingertips, so I backed the campaign.
I received my Unihertz Titan on January 4th, which means Unihertz was very close to achieving their planned December, 2019 delivery date. I paid $259 thanks to the Kickstarter discount, and it is now available for the pre-order price of $319.99 ($20 less than the anticipated retail price of $339.99). The specifications don’t reach the bar set by the top-of-the-line smartphones, but they are still respectable. It’s a 4G LTE phone with a 2GHz octa-core processor, 6GB of RAM, 128GB of built-in storage (expandable with a micro SD Card), and a 4.6” touchscreen.
Most of the features that make the Unihertz Titan unique are tailored towards those that travel for business. It has dual SIM card support and should work in most regions. The massive 6000mAh battery is good for well over a day of heavy use, or for several days of normal use. It can be charged wirelessly or through the standard USB-C port. The case has been ruggedized, and is waterproof, dustproof, and shockproof. Most importantly, it has a large tactile QWERTY keyboard.
“Large” also describes the phone as a whole, and the first thing I noticed about the Unihertz Titan after unboxing it was how profoundly big and heavy it is. It’s both larger and heavier than the plus-sized Apple iPhone XS Max. I’m not a small guy, but I still have trouble holding it comfortably in one hand for extended periods of time. It just barely fits into the back pocket of my jeans. It weighs in at 10.6 ounces, which makes it the heftiest smartphone ever released that I can find specifications for. That factor alone will probably stop most people from purchasing a Titan, but part of me felt oddly comforted by the weight.
The keyboard is what I bought the Titan for, and what I was most excited to test out. My actual impressions, however, are less than enthusiastic. They keys feel great and have a satisfying click to them, but the position of the keyboard and the heft of the phone made them difficult to reach while supporting the weight. I found myself having to contort my hands into an unnatural position in order to balance the weight of the phone while typing with my thumbs. I also had to rely heavily on a supplementary onscreen set of buttons for punctuation, though I could have held down keys to do the same. However, the keyboard is backlit and the large center button can be used like a trackpad, which are nice touches.
The Titan Unihertz isn’t without merit, though. The touchscreen has a nice picture and is very responsive to touch. The square format is also nice for browsing websites that aren’t optimized for smartphones in portrait mode. The clean Android 9.0 operating system is a joy to use, especially when compared to the heavily modified versions that most manufacturers insist on forcing onto us. You’re free to customize your Titan however you like, and the only add-ons that Unihertz has installed seem to be those that are necessary for the keyboard and other unique hardware.
That hardware includes a user-programmable button, which might be my favorite feature. This prominent red button on the left side of the phone can be configured to perform many different functions when it is pressed once, double-tapped, or held down. It’s sort of like the Bixby button on Samsung devices, but you can use it for other purposes. You can have it turn on your flashlight, call your significant other, launch your camera app, and more.
That camera is, unfortunately, another area where the Titan is found lacking. It has both a 16MP rear-facing camera, and an 8MP front-facing camera. They both take photos with a quality that is far worse than any other smartphone on the market that I have used — or even those going back several generations. Simply put, I think my iPhone 5 took better photos than the Titan does. Resolution isn't an issue, but photos still come out grainy. That said, you can still use the front camera to unlock your phone (or you can use the fingerprint reader).
After two weeks of use, I’ve decided that I won’t be using the Unihertz Titan as my primary smartphone and will stick to my trusty Samsung Galaxy S9. I also wouldn’t recommend it for most people. But there is one market where I think it might find a niche, and that’s among sys admins and other kinds of techs that want to use their phone as a terminal. The screen format, tactile keyboard, vanilla Android, and long battery life are all ideal for that kind of work, and it’s likely what I’ll be using my Titan for in the future.