BlackBerry KEY2 LE review: Retro productivity with modern security and an affordable price

  • Editors' rating
    7.9 Very good
  • $528.05

Pros

  • Functional keyboard with 52 available shortcuts
  • Lightweight with no glass back
  • Solid battery life
  • Sub-$500 price

Cons

  • No water/dust resistant rating
  • Camera is just OK

Retro phones are making a comeback and the BlackBerry KEY2 LE may be just what you are looking for while all of your other friends rock similar glass sandwiches. Today's smartphones have very similar form factors and have trends that go in waves, such as the notch, pinhole camera, and under display fingerprint scanner. TCL Communication bucks the trends and continues to release BlackBerry devices with physical QWERTY keyboards.

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After 2017's BlackBerry KEYone we saw it's worthy successor in the BlackBerry KEY2 in June 2018. The two were priced at $649 and $549, which is actually a reasonable price for a smartphone today, but still a bit high for folks not sold on a physical QWERTY keyboard.

In August 2018, BlackBerry announced the BlackBerry KEY2 LE at $100 less than the KEY2 with just a few compromises made to reduce the price. After spending a few weeks with the BlackBerry KEY2 LE, I am convinced it's a solid smartphone that is worth the sub-$500 price.

See also: Why BlackBerry should change its name

There are a few good options available today for less than $500 and the BlackBerry KEY2 LE challenges these options, even if you don't end up being a regular user of the physical QWERTY keyboard. While I am used to on-screen keyboards, it's also nice to press on keys at times and the KEY2 LE keyboard is well designed.

Specifications

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 octa-core
  • Display: 4.5 inch 1620x1080 pixels resolution IPS LCD (434 ppi)
  • Operating system: Android 8.1 Oreo with November 2018 security update
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Storage: 32GB/64GB internal with microSD expansion card slot
  • Cameras: Dual rear 13 megapixel, 1.12µm pixel, f/2.2 aperture and 5 megapixel, 1.12µm pixel, f/2.4 cameras. Front 8 megapixel fixed focus camera
  • Battery: 3000 mAh with QuickCharge 3.0 support
  • Wireless connectivity: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 5.0 LE, NFC, FM radio, GPS/Galileo/GLONAS/Beidou
  • Sensors: Fingerprint, accelerometer, gyroscope, ambient light, proximity, magnetometer
  • Dimensions: 150.25x 71.8 x 8.35 mm and 156 grams

The BlackBerry KEY2 LE has a mix of mid-level and high end specifications and a couple of nice features not seen in other phones today. These include a 3.5mm headset jack and a microSD card for storage.

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There are four variations of the BlackBerry KEY2 LE, in terms of network bands, and the one I tested is the BBE100-5, North American open market, model. This model does not support LTE Band 71 for T-Mobile's 600MHz spectrum, but it does support FD-LTE Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 20, 28, 29, and 66. It also supports TD-LTE Bands 38, 39, 40, and 41.

There is no water resistant rating on the device and we haven't seen this capability on any BlackBerry with a QWERTY keyboard today.

Hardware

The BlackBerry KEY2 LE maintains the 1080p 4.5 inch display that we've seen on the last two models of this type of BlackBerry. It looks good to my aging eyes and with a focus on productivity, we aren't looking for a high end OLED here for media viewing.

The physical QWERTY keyboard sits below the display and includes the fingerprint sensor integrated into the space bar. Like the KEY2 before it, you can assign shortcuts to long and short press all of the letters of the alphabet. The Speed key enables these shortcuts for use any time the phone is unlocked. Unless you use these shortcuts daily, I'm not sure who could actually remember the 52 available shortcuts. Needless to say, you can likely setup shortcuts to launch all of your apps and perform many functions without ever needing to open the Android app launcher.

While I rocked the BlackBerry Passport for most of a year, I now have to perform a bit of "tip-toeing" with my thumbs on the KEY2 LE to accurately press the keys. Thankfully, the software prediction on the keyboard helps a bit with my fat thumbs.

The SIM card slot is on the left side, but there are no buttons there to confuse things. Volume, power, and Convenience buttons are found on the right side with the power button having a textured finish to distinguish it from the rest. The USB-C port is on the bottom while the 3.5mm headset jack is on the top.

As we look around the edges, we see the 4GB/64GB model I am testing having a light gold finish. This is the Champagne color KEY2 LE and it looks great with gold edges and dark navy blue back and QWERTY keyboard. You can also purchase the KEY2 LE in Slate (black/gray) and Atomic (red/navy blue).

The dark blue color appears on the back panel with textured soft touch material. There are dual rear cameras in the upper right with the flash next to the camera. The secondary camera is used for portrait (bokeh) effects in pictures.

Speaking of the camera, I was satisfied with the results on the KEY2 LE. Obviously, it isn't going to challenge the high end camera performance found on the flagships from Samsung, Google, and Apple, but for social networking and for capturing shots while working it is perfectly adequate. You can use the space bar as a camera shutter button too so there is some solid usability with the KEY2 LE as a camera.

With the 3,000 mAh battery, Qualcomm 636 processor, and 1080p LCD we see solid battery life on the KEY2 LE as well. I was able to easily go a full long day of work with my typical heavy usage without charging up the phone. BlackBerry states that you should be able to get 22 hours of mixed use and my usage verifies this is accurate. Wireless charging is not supported, but Quick Charge 3.0 is there to top it off quickly when needed.

Software

The BlackBerry KEY2 LE launches with Android 8.1 Oreo with the eval unit having the November 2018 security update. As always, the software on BlackBerry Android devices is fairly stock with some BlackBerry enhancements. These include the BlackBerry Hub, DTEK security software, Firefox Focus secure browser, and a couple of other utilities.

Google Assistant is well integrated with the Convenience key assigned to this function by default. Google Lens is integrated into the camera software too.

While I wasn't able to test out all of the enterprise features, the KEY2 LE supports dual accounts so you can have cloned apps setup with personal and professional accounts associated with these apps. In addition, the BlackBerry KEY2 LE is an Android Enterprise Recommended device.

Comparison to BlackBerry KEY2

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 vs 636
  • RAM: 6GB vs 4GB
  • Keyboard: KEY2 LE does not support ability to scroll on the keyboard
  • Frame: Aluminum vs polycarbonate
  • Cameras: Dual rear 12 megapixel cameras vs 13 and 5 megapixel variants on the KEY2 LE
  • Battery: KEY2 has 500 mAh higher capacity
  • Colors: KEY2 limited to black and silver
  • Weight: KEY2 LE is 8 grams lighter

Price, availability, and competition

The BlackBerry KEY2 LE is available now for $449.99 for the model with 64GB of internal storage. The Champagne and Atomic models currently have a $50 premium with a MSRP of $499.99. You can find the KEY2 LE at Amazon, Best Buy, and through other online and brick-and-mortar retailers.

There is no competition when it comes to phones with QWERTY keyboards, but other mid-level smartphones include phones from Honor, Nokia, Motorola, and more.

Daily usage experiences and conclusions

With today's high end smartphones exceeding $1,000, it's useful to look around to see where you can save money while still having the functionality you need to get work done. BlackBerry continues to release solid performers in the mid-range zone.

I had a great time using the BlackBerry KEY2 LE and it only let me down for some occasional low light shots. However, the majority of time I take photos outside in well-lit environments and it was perfectly capable at those times. The long battery life, reliable performance, useful shortcuts, and ability to perform for less than $500 was admirable.

The KEY2 LE looks great, is lightweight, doesn't have a fragile glass back, and stands out from the sea of glass sandwiches. It was also nice to plug in headphones to the 3.5mm jack when I forgot my Bluetooth ones on the charger at home.


This review supersedes an earlier (October 2018) First Take from Sandra Vogel: 

BlackBerry KEY2 LE, First Take: An affordable phone for keyboard fans

A few months ago I reviewed the BlackBerry KEY2, which reinvented the old-school BlackBerry for the modern age but was somewhat overpriced. Today the KEY2 is selling for around £600 (inc. VAT) SIM free, putting it at the upper end of the mid-range smartphone market. Now it has a new, more affordable stablemate -- the BlackBerry KEY2 LE. As I write, this is only available in the UK in a 32GB version, at around £350 (inc. VAT). I was sent a 64GB version to evaluate.

blackberry-key2-lein-hand.jpg

A polycarbonate frame means that the KEY2 LE comes in 10g lighter than the KEY2, at 158g.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

There's not much in design terms to distinguish the LE model from the original KEY2, although there's a 10g difference in weight due to the frame being made of polycarbonate material rather than aluminium. I no longer have the KEY2 to hand, but the LE's tall, thin shape, the physical keyboard and the side buttons are all very familiar. The KEY2 LE is available in two liveries at present -- Slate and Champagne (a pinkish brown); there's also a red version called 'Atomic', but that's not available for sale in the UK at the time of writing. The colour refers to the edging, with the key spacing being black on the slate and champagne handsets, and crimson on the atomic one.

Here's a feature comparison between the KEY2 and the KEY2 LE:


BlackBerry KEY2 BlackBerry KEY2 LE
Display 4.5 inches, IPS LCD, 1080 x 1620 pixels, 3:2 aspect ratio (434ppi) 4.5 inches, IPS LCD, 1080 x 1620 pixels, 3:2 aspect ratio (434ppi)
Keyboard touch-enabled 35-key backlit QWERTY keyboard with integrated fingerprint sensor 35-key backlit QWERTY keyboard with integrated fingerprint sensor
Dimensions 151.4mm x 71.8mm x 8.5mm 150.25mm x 71.8mm x 8.35mm
Screen:body ratio 55.2% 55.6%
Weight 168g 158g
IP rating no no
Colours Black, Silver Slate, Champagne, Atomic
OS Android 8.1 (Oreo) Android 8.1 (Oreo)
Chipset Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 Qualcomm Snapdragon 636
RAM 6GB 4GB
Internal storage 64GB / 128GB 32GB / 64GB
External storage MicroSD MicroSD
Rear camera 12MP (f/1.8) + 12MP (f/2.6) with dual tone LED flash 13MP (f/2.2) + 5MP (f/2.4) with dual tone LED flash
Front camera 8MP 8MP
Speaker(s) mono mono
3.5mm audio jack yes yes
USB-C yes yes
Wi-fi 802.11ac 802.11ac
LTE Cat 11 LTE-A
GPS GLONAS, Beidu, Galileo, OTDOA GLONAS, Beidu, Galileo, OTDOA
NFC yes yes
Infrared no no
FM radio yes yes
Fingerprint reader yes (integrated in keyboard) yes (integrated in keyboard)
Face unlock no no
Battery capacity 3,500mAh 3,000mAh
Fast charging QuickCharge 3.0 QuickCharge 3.0
Wireless charging no no
Price from $649 / €649 / £579 from $399 / €399 / £349
blackberry-key2-leback.jpg

The KEY2 LE's rubberised back makes it easy to grip.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

The phone is relatively blocky: there are no curved edges here, but the back has a rubberised finish and it's grippy enough.

The big compromise here is the screen size. To get the keyboard into the tall handset, the screen measures 4.5 inches from corner to corner, and has a 3:2 aspect ratio -- the same as in the KEY2. But in these days of 18:9 aspect ratio handsets I just couldn't settle to it. I prefer the taller format, which lets me read web pages, view video and read ebooks more easily.

The keyboard itself is responsive, and reasonably fast to work with. There are plenty of shortcuts, including long-press shortcuts that you can assign to open apps, speed-dial numbers, set alarms and plenty more. But the keys are relatively small, and I felt a little uneasy holding the phone in both hands with its top-heavy screen at risk of falling out of my grip. It was difficult to use one-handed, so texting and emailing on the train was trickier than with a touch screen. With the KEY2 you can run your fingers over the keys to scroll around on-screen. That's gone here, although the fingerprint sensor is still integrated into the spacebar.

Shortcuts are one of the big wins of BlackBerry smartphones, and as well as having them on the keyboard, the good old Convenience Key on the right edge can be used as a shortcut too. There are more options than anyone can probably remember.

blackberry-key2-leprivacy-shade.png

Privacy Shade blacks out the screen, except for a movable window onto your content. You can adjust the opacity of the blacked-out section to allow for navigation.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

On the inside, things have changed a bit to keep the price down. The handset is built on Android 8.1, with BlackBerry Hub bringing together communications from various sources into one place. There's plenty of additional software, from BlackBerry Messenger to a password keeper and Privacy Shade -- an app that provides a narrow viewing window on-screen and blacks everything else out.

The specs are pared down, with the processor being Qualcomm's mid-range Snapdragon 636, with 4GB of RAM and just 32GB of internal storage on the model currently available in retail. My 64GB review sample had 11.08GB occupied right out of the box. If the same 17 percent is in use on the 32GB offering, there will be just 20.92GB free. Fortunately, the second SIM slot can be used by a MicroSD card to add extra storage capacity.

There is a 3.5mm headset slot, a built-in FM radio and USB-C for charging. BlackBerry isn't particularly noted for its smartphone cameras, and here we have a 13MP main camera and 5MP depth sensor at the back, which allows for effects such as bokeh (sharp subject, blurred background). My test shots were OK but not great, with low-light shots suffering most. The front camera, meanwhile, is an 8MP unit, as on the KEY2. This is not a handset for photo fans, but it's good enough for everyday use.

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The KEY2 LE's 3,000mAh battery is rated by BlackBerry as good for 22.5 hours. During testing, I have managed to get a full day and a morning out of the phone from a full charge. Fast charging is supported, but (as on the KEY2), wireless charging is not available.

BlackBerry users can save a significant amount by choosing the KEY2 LE, if they're prepared to accept trade-offs on build materials, chipset, RAM, storage, rear camera resolution and battery capacity.

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Specifications

Phone Features
Phone Functions Speakerphone, voice control, call timer, conference call, flight mode, voice dialing, vibrating alert
Sensors Accelerometer, ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, magnetometer, gyro sensor, hall sensor
Security Devices Fingerprint reader
Details
Integrated Components Front-facing camera, FM radio, voice recorder, navigation, dual rear-facing camera, digital player
Body Color Space gray
Cellular
Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
Type smartphone (Android OS)
Integrated Components FM radio, digital player, dual rear-facing camera, front-facing camera, navigation, voice recorder
Navigation A-GPS, BeiDou, GLONASS, Galileo, OTDOA, S-GPS
Band WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM 850/900/1800/1900
Mobile Broadband Generation 4G
Phone Form Factor touch
Form Factor Details full keyboard
Service Provider not specified
Operating System Family Android
Operating System Android 8.1 Oreo
SIM Card Type nano SIM
SIM Card Slot Qty dual-SIM
Input Device Multi-touch, QWERTY
Miscellaneous
Sensors accelerometer, ambient light sensor, gyro sensor, hall sensor, magnetometer, proximity sensor
Messaging & Internet
Messaging Services BlackBerry Messenger, MMS, SMS
Supported Social Networks and Blogs Yes
Communications
Data Transmission EDGE, FDD-LTE, GPRS, HSDPA, HSPA+, HSUPA, LTE, TDD-LTE, VoLTE
3G UMTS Band Band 1, Band 2, Band 4, Band 5, Band 6, Band 8
Wireless Interface Bluetooth 5.0 LE, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, NFC
Processor
Clock Speed 1.8 GHz
Manufacturer QUALCOMM
Processor Core Qty 8-core
64-bit Architecture Yes
Display
Type LCD display
Technology IPS
Display Resolution 1620 x 1080 pixels
Color Depth 24-bit (16.7 million colors)
Pixel Density (ppi) 434
Diagonal Size 4.5 in
Diagonal Size (metric) 11.4 cm
Smartphone Diagonal Size 4.5 in
Aspect Ratio 3:2
Protection Corning Gorilla Glass 3 (scratch resistant glass)
Color Support color
Media Player
Supported Digital Video Standards MKV, XviD, MPEG-4, 3GP, H.264, H.263, WebM, HEVC, VP8, VP9, H.265
Supported Digital Audio Standards WAV, AAC, PCM, MP3, FLAC, AAC-LC, XMF, AAC +, OGG, MIDI, MXMF, 3GA, IMY, RTTTL, RTX, OTA, EVRC, OPUS, QCELP, MID, AMR-WB, AMR-NB, Vorbis
Environmental Parameters
Min Operating Temperature 32 °F
Max Operating Temperature 95 °F
Memory
Supported Flash Memory Cards microSDHC, microSDXC - up to 256 GB
Battery
Run Time Details Mixed usage: up to 22.5 hrs
Talk: up to 1500 min
Standby: up to 408 hrs
Playback (audio): up to 17 hrs
Playback (video): up to 12 hrs
Fast Charging Technology Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0
Digital Camera
Special Effects Bokeh effect, HDR
Header
Brand BlackBerry
Product Line BlackBerry
Packaged Quantity 1
CE Input Device
Type QWERTY touch sensitive keyboard, touch sensitive screen (multi-touch)
Features
Sensors accelerometer, ambient light sensor, gyro sensor, hall sensor, magnetometer, proximity sensor
Phone Functions call timer, conference call, flight mode, speakerphone, vibrating alert, voice control, voice dialing
Security Devices fingerprint reader
Digital Player (Recorder)
Supported Digital Audio Standards 3GA, AAC, AAC-LC, AMR-NB, AMR-WB, EVRC, FLAC, IMY, MID, MIDI, MP3, MXMF, OGG, OPUS, OTA, PCM, QCELP, RTTTL, RTX, Vorbis, WAV, XMF
Supported Digital Video Standards 3GP, H.263, H.264, H.265, HEVC, MKV, MPEG-4, VP8, VP9, WebM, XviD
RAM
Installed Size 4 GB
Flash Memory
Internal Memory Capacity 64 GB
Max Supported Size 256 GB
Supported Flash Memory Cards microSDHC, microSDXC
Service & Support Details
Type limited warranty
Full Contract Period 1 year
Front-facing Camera
Sensor Resolution 8 Megapixel
Focus Adjustment focus free
Service & Support
Type 1 year warranty

Where To Buy

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Where To Buy

BlackBerry Key2 LE

Part Number: CNETBlackBerry Key2 LE