BlackBerry Key2

Score

Pros

  • Keyboard changes make it better than the KeyOne
  • Not confined to BlackBerry’s own OS
  • Gesture control and shortcuts in the keyboard are great

Cons

  • Too expensive
  • Having the physical keyboard is restrictive in most situations
  • Awkward to hold
  • Camera just ok

Key Features

  • Review Price: £579
  • 4.5-inch display
  • Snapdragon 660
  • 6GB RAM
  • 3500 mAh battery
  • 2 x 12-megapixel cameras

What is the BlackBerry Key2?

Like the KeyOne, the BlackBerry Key2 isn’t your typical Android phone like the Samsung Galaxy S9, Google Pixel 2 or OnePlus 6: it harks back to BB’s glory days, but ditches the proprietary software for Android. This handset is very different from every other Android phone out there for the simple reason that it has a physical keyboard.

This immediately makes it an odd device. If you’re used to interacting with a phone purely via the touchscreen then being forced back to a physical keyboard is almost an unnatural experience. But if you were a fan of the KeyOne, or still harbour a desire to knock out all your emails with a physical board, then this device could be for you.

BlackBerry Key2 – Design

The KeyOne was a brute of a phone: thick, heavy and tough to hold. With the Key2, BlackBerry Mobile has put the device on a diet and given it a much-needed makeover. It’s slimmer, lighter and less intimidating than before, but without losing that classic BlackBerry identity.

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blackberry key2

The body of the Key2 is less curved, instead sporting sharper lines and corners. The flat sides make it easy to hold and the reduction in weight is most welcome – it just feels far more comfortable in the hand.

On the rear BlackBerry sticks with the rubbery plastic covering, rather than switching to a much less durable glass coating of the type seen on the majority of flagship phones in 2018. This is fitting with the message that BlackBerry is trying to convey here; this device isn’t flashy; it’s functional.

The Key2 isn’t going to trouble the iPhone X or Galaxy S9 for design awards – in my opinion, anyway – but that isn’t really the point of this device.

The Key2 lacks a water-resistance rating, so you won’t be knocking out an email during your morning shower. However, I won’t criticise BlackBerry too ferociously here: I was told during the launch of the Key2 that adding any sort of IP-rating to a device with a keyboard this intricate was currently very difficult.

blackberry key2

The keyboard clearly is the star of the show in the Key2, and it’s a huge improvement over the KeyOne. The keys are 20% larger, have a much gripper matte-coating rather than a glossy one and in general feel far nicer to type on.

Whether or not you prefer a real keyboard over a virtual one will be a matter of personal preference. Personally, I type noticeably quicker with a software keyboard; jumping back to the Key2 certainly slowed me down. I made many more mistakes whilst typing, too.

Still, if you’re looking at the Key2 then you’ll probably already know that it works for you. This keyboard is very much a job well done, but it definitely won’t be for everyone.

A new button features on the keyboard, which BlackBerry has dubbed the speed key. Press it alongside a letter key and you can easily jump between apps. For instance, if you set the ‘S’ key to open Spotify, then pressing the speed key followed by ‘S’ will open the app.

It’s possible to set a different shortcut to each key, so if you frequent Maps, Instagram, Twitter and Gmail then you can jump between all of them without going back to the homescreen. Shortcuts have always been a staple of the BlackBerry series and if you’re willing to put the time in to learn and customise them then they’ll prove super-useful.

blackberry key2

The Key2, like the KeyOne before it, features gesture control built into the keyboard. This lets you scroll up and down and side-to-side without reaching up to the display. It’s a nice touch and one that becomes seriously useful once you become familiar with the phone.

There remain some quirks, though. Often, the swipe gestures just won’t register. It isn’t something that happens every time, but it’s frustrating when it does.

The usefulness of this feature also makes some of device’s shortcomings even more obvious. Having to constantly switch between the keyboard and display for input is a pain, even when you’re scrolling around with gestures. I’d love there to be someway to select an item without having to remove my fingers from the keys.

This is hindered further by the Key2 being a fairly sizeable phone – more comparable to the OnePlus 6 or Note 8 than an iPhone or ‘classic’ BlackBerry – so moving your finger between the keyboard and something at the top of the display requires a stretch.

BlackBerry sticks with the headphone jack (I’d much rather it was located along the bottom edge rather than the top, however) and, thankfully, it’s shunted all the side-keys onto the right-hand side.

The KeyOne’s power switch was positioned on the left. This was odd, especially with the user-configurable shortcut button present too. That button remains, and it’s handy that it doesn’t force you to use it for just one thing – like the Bixby button on the Galaxy S9.

BlackBerry Key2 – Screen

The Key2’s 4.5-inch 1080 x 1620 display is pretty much identical to the one in the KeyOne. It’s a nice, sharp and bright display with decent colour reproduction and excellent viewing angles. Black levels are good, too, even though this is an LCD screen rather than OLED.

Due to the fact that the keyboard sits below the screen, this phone is very much made to be used in portrait mode. This isn’t a device for watching YouTube videos in landscape and the experience of doing so is poor. That’s to be expected, but it’s still worth noting.

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blackberry key2

Below the screen is the usual array of three Android navigation keys. Instead of being on the screen as they are in majority of other Android phones, they’re physical capacitive keys that light up when required.

I find this a slightly strange design choice and one that wastes a good deal of space. It also means you’ll be forced to always use the same keys, even when they appear to be changing in the upcoming Android P update.

BlackBerry Key2 – Performance

Even though the BlackBerry Mobile Key2 retails for a price (£599) that I’d normally associate with high-end devices, the internals are far similar to what you’d find at the heart of a mid-range phone.

Unlike the Snapdragon 845 you’ll find in the OnePlus 6 and LG G7 (two phones at a similar/cheaper price), the Key2 is home to a Snapdragon 660. Alongside is 6GB of RAM – a nice bump up from the 3GB in the KeyOne – and a starting 64GB of storage.

I’m happy that BlackBerry decided against raising the price significantly, instead sticking with a very capable processor that isn’t quite as power-hungry. The Key2 feels super-fast in everyday use, and for the tasks for which this phone is built for, including an 845 chip would be overkill.

Switching between apps using the the speed key is instantaneous and, clearly, BlackBerry Mobile has optimised the software well. 

The Key2 isn’t the best phone for gaming, in the main due to the keyboard’s presence, but it can nevertheless handle pretty much anything you’d find in the Play Store. However, you will notice slightly longer loading times and the odd dropped frame when playing more intensive titles such as PUBG or Asphalt 8.

blackberry key2

The biggest issue experienced my many folk with last year’s KeyOne was just how sluggish it was in operation. However, this likely wasn’t only down to the processor; the lack of RAM was also a contributory factor.

The 3GB was updated to 4GB with the KeyOne Black Edition and while that tackled some of the issues, six months on it was a painful experience. Upping this to 6GB has made a huge difference right off the bat, and it will be interesting to see if this remains the case over the next few months.

The Key2’s call quality is impressive, as is Wi-Fi performance, and it’s really in these areas that BlackBerry has consistently impressed. Note, too, that the base 64GB of storage can be expanded via a microSD card.

BlackBerry Key2 – Software

Keyboard aside, a lot of what makes the Key2 feel different to other more traditional flagships is the software. Like the KeyOne, the Key2 uses Android rather than BlackBerry’s own OS, so you’re free to download all the apps and games you want from Google Play.

BlackBerry Mobile has still added plenty to the Android experience, adding flourishes that should feel familiar to die-hard fans of the series.

Shortcuts are built in at a system level and are easy to customise, while BlackBerry Hub combines all your messaging and email platforms together into a single inbox. Most of the tweaks are built with productivity in mind, shortening actions that might normally take multiple steps.

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blackberry key2

The launcher used here is similar in some ways to Google’s stock experience, only with deeper customisations. You can swipe up on an app icon to reveal its widgets, while shortcuts to specific app features can be pulled out into dedicated icons. An ‘Add Event’ icon can replace your typical Calendar icon to quickly take you into the part of the app you’d use the most.

BlackBerry’s focus on business and security can also be seen throughout. The DTEK app has featured on previous devices, and it appears once again, providing an overview of how secure your phone is. It will offer tips on how to make it more secure – adding a longer passcode, for example.

Other BlackBerry apps include a password-protected locker for storing private documents and photos (a nice addition) and a couple of BlackBerry’s own Google alternatives such as a Notes app, Calendar and Password Manager.

While some of the design elements are a little outdated – BlackBerry’s apps lack a modern UI and certain aspects such as the large red notification star are plain-ugly – this is certainly one of the lighter additions to an Android skin I’ve reviewed recently.

BlackBerry Key2 – Camera

I think I’m safe to assume that few people have ever bought a BlackBerry device for its camera. When the KeyOne was launched, much was made of the sensor being the same unit featured in the Pixel, and while that might be true, the images captured were far from the quality of Google’s then-flagship.

blackberry key2

With the launch of the Key2, less has been made about the cameras here – even though there’s been a noticeable upgrade. The biggest difference is there are now two 12-megapixel sensors instead of one, with the second acting as a telephoto zoom. There’s an f/1.8 aperture on the main camera, with a narrower f/2.6 on the telephoto.

Pictures shot with the Key2 aren’t in the same league as pricier flagships such as the Pixel 2 or Galaxy S9 – obviously – and they can’t compete with the OnePlus 6, either. But for a BlackBerry, and a device where the camera is far from the focal point, it’s capable of taking some decent shots.

The sunset landscapes below feature lovely colours and plenty of dynamic range, while the fairgrounds rides come across well too.

Colours are nice and bright

Pictures can look washed out

Where the camera did fall down was in situations where it had to resort to auto-HDR. Super-bright shots were often ruined by copious amounts of glare and washed-out colours, while scenes with varying brightness points also looked poor.Low-light photos remain an area of weakness, too, with a strong yellow tinge and lots of noisey details.

Lower light shots can look good, is there is some light

The secondary camera is there for 2x zoom, offering a bit more freedom to get up-close. Note, however, that the narrower aperture on this sensor does make it pretty much useless in anything but the best of light.

BlackBerry Mobile also uses the secondary sensor to enable a portrait mode, allowing that faux-bokeh effect to blur the background. Not a single phone has really mastered this effect yet, and while the Key2’s effect is passable, it still feels very fake. Highly detailed areas such as hair strands often miss the blur and I’ve found you need to hold the phone super-still for decent results.

Video isn’t anything to write home about, either. It can shoot up to 4K at 24fps, but in my opinion you’re better off sticking to 1080p at 60fps unless you want shaky footage. The lack of OIS becomes very obvious when shooting video.

BlackBerry Key2 – Battery life

There are a number of factors that help the Key2 to impress with its battery life. The unit itself is pretty large at 3500mAh, while the Snapdragon 660 forgoes the best performance for endurance. This is helped, too, by a screen that’s smaller than much of the competition.

But in my opinion, the real reason I’ve achieved around a day and a half of power from the Key2 is that the device just isn’t particularly good at tasks that would normally eat through battery, hence I avoid them.

I haven’t been watching YouTube videos, for example, nor have I been playing any games or editing photos. This is a great phone, if you like the keyboard, for messaging and ‘getting stuff done’ – but it’s limited in other areas.

Still, the battery life is decent. The Key2 will make it through the day on a single charge even with a few hours of calls and heavy messaging on multiple platforms without you every worrying about hitting the red.

Charging up the phone takes around 90 minutes with the supplied USB-C plug and cable.

Why buy the BlackBerry Key2?

There’s no denying it: the Key2 is a niche product that will only appeal to BlackBerry die-hards and those who use their phone purely as a messaging and email device. Some of the software additions are nice, but they’re unlikely to win over those have no desire to switch back to device with a physical keyboard.

At £599, the Key2 is a tough sell, despite it righting many of the wrongs with the KeyOne by improving the design and upping the RAM.

There are too many other phones I’d recommend at this price. The OnePlus 6 is £100 cheaper and better in nearly every sense, while the Huawei P20 and LG G7 are similarly priced and again much better picks.

But if the keyboard is what you want then the Key2 is really your only choice – and at least that keyboard is very good.

Verdict

For BlackBerry die-hards only.

Score


Score in detail

  • Performance 8
  • Camera 7
  • Design 7
  • Battery Life 8
  • Value 6
  • Software 8
  • Calls & Sound 8
  • Screen Quality 8
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