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

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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.

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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
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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.

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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.

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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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