A Key Device

F(x)tec releases a smartphone with a pop-out qwerty keyboard

Android phones with physical keyboards are like buses: you wait ages for one, then three come together. I’ve covered Planet Computers’ innovative Gemini and its Cosmo Communicator successor before. Now there’s another take on the qwerty phone.

Just before this year’s IFA show, I went to see the founders of London-based F(x)tec before they took their Pro1 device to Berlin. They were understandably proud of their first phone, which has taken around 16 months to advance from concept drawings to final product.

Unlike the two devices from Planet Computers, the Pro1 looks like a regular phone when closed. The screen has a curved edge and minimal bezels; there’s a side-mounted fingerprint sensor and a dual-camera array, and a sleek black finish. The whole thing has the appearance of one of any number of mid- to high-end smartphones, albeit one that might need to go on a diet — it’s 14 mm thick, although the curved design makes it seem slimmer.

The extra bulk conceals a 64-key qwerty keypad, which is revealed by pushing the screen sideways away from the back half. Its magnesium alloy hinge is a clever piece of engineering that positions the screen 25 degrees from the horizontal — a bit more laid-back than the Gemini, but well angled for watching videos when the device is placed on a table.

The phone features a dedicated button for the camera shutter. It’s a welcome departure from the norm of touching the screen to take a photo and increases the chances of getting a well-composed shot. As more phone-makers emphasize the imaging capabilities of their devices, I hope a few find the space for a physical shutter button.

F(x)tec has no qualms about the Pro1’s durability. To subject prototypes to the stresses of real-world handling (rather than the measured forces of usual repetitive tests) the company hired someone to fling the device open and closed non-stop for two hours a day over two weeks.

In use, the keyboard has a nice feel, and is best suited to two-thumb typing while holding the phone. It’s not intended to be a replacement for a full keyboard, but it’s certainly easier and — for me — quicker than using an on-screen keyboard. F(x)tec has optimized the phone’s Android software to take advantage of the horizontal screen format, and included a small app that maps long presses on the physical keypad to custom functions. Long-press W to bring up Word, for example.

Having the screen visible at all times (unlike clamshell designs) means it’s easy to put the keyboard away and switch to vertical mode for apps that require it. As we see more foldable phones that place the screen on the inside of the clamshell, the advantages of an always-visible screen may become more apparent.

There’s certainly a niche market for smartphones with keyboards, and the Pro1 brings a new take that differs from the “phone-in-a-PDA” approach favoured by Planet Computers. We have highlighted the “long tail” of the smartphone market for some time, and F(x)tec is a good example of the diversity and innovation that characterizes suppliers in this underappreciated part of the industry.

The F(x)tec Pro1 is available from October. At £649, there’s a premium to be paid for a small-scale niche device with additional hardware features. But with little direct competition, it has a chance of being snapped up by keyboard addicts missing the glory days of the BlackBerry.

At IFA in Berlin, my colleague Ben Wood featured the Pro1 in one of his many video overviews of the show. Watch below to see the device in action.