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
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.

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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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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
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
Details
Product Type Smartphone
Integrated Components Front-facing camera, FM radio, voice recorder, navigation, dual rear-facing camera, digital player
Body Color Space gray
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
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 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 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

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BlackBerry Key2 LE

Part Number: CNETBlackBerry Key2 LE