BlackBerry KEY2 review: An old-school concept, updated

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  • Editors' rating
    7.5 Very good
  • $649.99

Pros

  • Excellent 4.5-inch screen
  • Great keyboard with some good features
  • Some well thought-out software additions
  • Good battery life

Cons

  • Average dual 12MP rear cameras
  • Relatively expensive

The BlackBerry KEY2 progresses the design and feature ideas that were expressed two years ago in the KEYone. BlackBerry Mobile takes Android (8.1), adds in a sprinkle of its own software usability tools, and mixes these with a physical keyboard that has more to it than the ability to put characters on-screen. The result is a handset that's refreshingly distinctive in an era of identikit smartphones. The BlackBerry KEY2 starts at $649 in the US, £579 in the UK, €649 in Europe, and $829 in Canada.

You couldn't mistake the KEY2 for anything but a BlackBerry. The keyboard on the front, the programmable 'convenience key' -- a button on the right edge that can be set to launch whatever you want -- and the familiar BlackBerry stylised logo on the back give the game away.

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The 4.5-inch BlackBerry KEY2 runs Android 8.1 on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 chipset with 6GB of RAM and 64GB or 128GB of storage. It has dual 12MP rear cameras, is 8.5mm thick and weighs 168g.

Images: BlackBerry Mobile

The logo sits against a black, rubbery, textured backplate. This gets a mention early on in this review because it encapsulates the ethic of this phone: simple usability over excessive styling. So while Android is tweaked, and new apps and services are added to the base offering, everything has been done with usability front and centre.

Still, this handset is a bit of a monolith. The black and silver colour scheme looks rather retro here, with silver horizontal strips separating the keyboard rows. The keyboard itself occupies about a quarter of the device's height, and oddly, the phone looks tall. But a reality check shows that it's not out of kilter: the OnePlus 6, for example, measures 155.7mm by 75.4mm by 7.75mm and weighs 177g, while the BlackBerry KEY2 is shorter at 151.4mm, narrower at 71.8mm, thicker at 8.5mm and a shade lighter at 168g.

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So the size thing is an optical illusion. What's not an optical illusion is that a physical keyboard means the screen is shorter than usual: it measures 4.5 inches across the diagonal and has a 3:2 aspect ratio -- not that much taller than it is wide. The IPS panel's resolution is 1,620 by 1,080 pixels (433ppi) and the image quality is very good.

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That said, I've become so accustomed to using the popular 18:9 aspect ratio when reviewing handsets that the KEY2's relatively short screen felt cramped. I was often tempted to switch over to my regular phone for things like ebook reading, media viewing and even web browsing. Generally I stick with a phone for all uses when reviewing, and so resisted the temptation to stray -- but I still felt it.

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The KEY2's redesigned keyboard has taller, better-spaced keys and a new Speed Key (bottom row, right) for invoking shortcuts within apps.

Image: BlackBerry Mobile

The keyboard is crucial to the BlackBerry modus operandi. It's what made the BlackBerry name in the old days -- and also when, in conjunction with BlackBerry Messenger, it became the darling of young communicators. The KEY2 keyboard has had something of a makeover, and the experience is superb -- although, just as Jason Cipriani found with the KEYone, it took me a while to get back into the swing of using a physical keyboard.

A fingerprint scanner is built into the space bar, very close to the bottom of the shell. Although I prefer fingerprint readers on the back of handsets, the KEY2's was efficient and fast -- and somehow, because I knew I'd be working with the keyboard a lot, the location was less of an annoyance than it is on all-screen devices.

All of the keys double up as a sweepable surface area for scrolling, which makes paging through emails and web pages fast and easy. Up, down, left and right automatically orient as the screen is switched between portrait and landscape formats.

While tapping out an email or text message, suggested words can be entered with a quick flick upwards on the keyboard. I never quite mastered this well enough to take full advantage, but I can see how, in time, it could be a real speed boost.

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Keys are 20 percent larger this time around, and while that might not sound like much on a keyboard that only measures 7cm across, it is significant. I found that the more I used the keyboard, the faster I typed on it. Little things like holding a key down a fraction longer than normal to get into upper case, really help with typing speed.

I also assigned some keyboard shortcuts. When on the home screen both long and short key presses can be set up to do a whole range of tasks, from launching an app to dialling a number or texting someone specific. With 26 long and 26 short presses, there should be enough shortcuts for everyone.

It's fair to say, though, that I never really felt as comfortable with one-handed use as I do with on-screen keyboards. In any case, one-handed use precludes getting secondary characters, which require simultaneous pressing of the Alt key, and also rules out using the new Speed Key, which sits on the far right of the bottom row of keys, and lets you take advantage of those long and short press keyboard shortcuts from within any app.

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Left: BlackBerry Hub. Right: Privacy Shade.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

I mentioned at the outset that Android has been tweaked and that new apps and services have been added. And what a lot of extras there are.

BlackBerry apps
BlackBerry Keyboard, BlackBerry Hub, BlackBerry Hub+ Service, Calendar by BlackBerry, Contacts by BlackBerry, Notes by BlackBerry, Tasks by BlackBerry, BBM, DTEK by BlackBerry, BlackBerry Device Search, BlackBerry Launcher, BlackBerry Password Keeper, BlackBerry Power Center, BlackBerry Productivity Tab, BlackBerry Notable, BlackBerry Privacy Shade.

Other apps
Downloads, BlackBerry Camera, BlackBerry Preview, Convenience Key, Phone, Setting, Battery Boost, Locker, FM Radio, BlackBerry Content Transfer, BlackBerry Help, Calculator, Sound Recorder, Setup Wizard, Support Center, Clock, File Manager.

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The KEY2 will warn you when it thinks a battery recharge is due, based on your usage pattern.

Image: BlackBerry Mobile

There's far too much here to go into in detail, but a few highlights are worth a mention. BlackBerry Hub -- not a new idea -- brings together key information such as calendar, email, texts and other communications in a panel that slides out from the right of the screen with a quick sweep. DTEK tells you how secure your device is based on settings and app permissions. Privacy Shade is a weird little app that blacks out the whole screen apart from a small letterbox that can be dragged up and down revealing just a small area of the screen at any one time.

All of this is solidly business focused, but the dual camera setup has wider appeal. Yet even here, things are somewhat restrained. The rear cameras both have 12MP sensors, with f/1.8 (wide angle) and f/2.6 (telephoto) lenses. The main beneficiary is the near-ubiquitous bokeh (sharp subject, blurred background) capability, plus 2x optical zoom; 4K video recording is also supported. During the relatively short test period I found the new dual camera system perfectly capable, although low-light images were lacklustre.

The KEY2 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 chipset with 6GB of RAM. It's not the most powerful smartphone platform by any measure: an average of three Geekbench 4 multi-core benchmark runs delivered a score of 5833, which pales in comparison to the OnePlus 6's three-run average of 9043. Then again, gaming fans aren't going to be drawn to the relatively small screen, and I never felt the handset held me back with mainstream workloads.

My review unit had 64GB of internal storage, and with all that extra software on board in addition to Android Oreo 8.1 I was left with just 51.56GB for my own usage. Fortunately there's a MicroSD card slot next to the SIM.

Battery life is very good, and better than I expected from a 3,500mAh battery. The processor and screen size likely help keep consumption down, and I've been getting two days of use from a single charge -- which is quite remarkable in today's handset market. The phone charges quickly too: 50 percent in a rather precise 36 minutes is the claim. And when the screen is off there's a really useful charge indicator that runs along the right edge. Simple, but very effective.

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Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Conclusions

The BlackBerry KEY2 offers an excellent keyboard, and BlackBerry fans will likely be happy to give up some screen space to accommodate it. The plentiful software won't appeal to everyone, but for those who appreciate extras such as the Hub, it works well. Battery life is impressive.

The KEY2 will appeal most to old-school BlackBerry fans who simply want to continue using a keyboard-equipped handset. For others looking for a change, it's perhaps an overpriced option -- and giving up today's larger screens might be too much of an ask.


Specification comparison: BlackBerry KEYone versus KEY2

BlackBerry KEYone BlackBerry KEY2
Dimensions 149.3mm x 72.5mm x 9.4 mm 151.4mm x 71.8mm x 8.5mm
Weight 180g 168g
Display 4.5-inch IPS LCD, 1620 x 1080, 3:2 aspect ratio, 433ppi 4.5-inch IPS LCD, 1620 x 1080, 3:2 aspect ratio, 433ppi
Keyboard touch-enabled 35 key backlit QWERTY keyboard with

integrated fingerprint sensor

touch-enabled 35 key backlit QWERTY keyboard with integrated fingerprint sensor
Operating system Android 7.1 (Nougat) Android 8.1 (Oreo)
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 Qualcomm Snapdragon 660
GPU Adreno 506 Adreno 512
RAM 3GB/4GB 6GB
Internal storage 32GB/64GB 64GB/128GB
MicroSD card yes yes
Rear camera(s) 12MP f/2.0 12MP f/1.8 + 12MP f/2.6
Front camera 8MP 8MP
Sensors GPS/A-GPS, fingerprint (spacebar), accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope, proximity, ambient light GPS/A-GPS, fingerprint (spacebar), accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope, proximity, ambient light
Connectivity- wireless GSM, HSPA, LTE, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2 LE, NFC, FM radio GSM, HSPA, LTE, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 5.0 LE, NFC, FM radio
Connectivity- wired USB-C, 3.5mm audio USB-C, 3.5mm audio
Battery 3,505mAh with QuickCharge 3.0 3,500mAh with QuickCharge 3.0
Price (USD) from $549 from $649

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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
Additional Features Android Beam, Smart Keyboard, Tap and pay, RGB LED notification light, Tap and go
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 Unlocked
Operating System Family Android
Operating System Android 8.1 Oreo
SIM Card Type nano SIM
SIM Card Slot Qty single-SIM
Input Device Multi-touch, QWERTY
Details
SAR Value 1.68 W/kg (body) / 0.72 W/kg (head)
Integrated Components Front-facing camera, FM radio, voice recorder, navigation, dual rear-facing camera, digital player
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, TDD-LTE
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 2.2 GHz
Type QUALCOMM Snapdragon 660
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) 433
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 (scratch resistant glass)
Color Support color
Media Player
Supported Digital Video Standards MKV, VC-1, AVI, MOV, XviD, MPEG-4, ASF, DivX, 3GP, H.264, H.263, WebM, 3G2, VP8, VP9, H.265
Supported Digital Audio Standards WAV, AAC, AMR, MP3, FLAC, XMF, AAC +, OGG, WMV (Sound), MXMF, AWB, IMY, RTTTL, RTX
Memory
Supported Flash Memory Cards microSDXC - up to 256 GB
Battery
Run Time Details Mixed usage: up to 25 hrs
Fast Charging Technology Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0
Digital Camera
Special Effects HDR
Header
Brand BlackBerry
Product Line BlackBerry
Model Key2
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
Additional Features Android Beam, RGB LED notification light, Smart Keyboard, Tap and go, Tap and pay
Digital Player (Recorder)
Supported Digital Audio Standards AAC, AMR, AWB, FLAC, IMY, MP3, MXMF, OGG, RTTTL, RTX, WAV, WMV (Sound), XMF
Supported Digital Video Standards 3G2, 3GP, ASF, AVI, DivX, H.263, H.264, H.265, MKV, MOV, MPEG-4, VC-1, VP8, VP9, WebM, XviD
RAM
Installed Size 6 GB
Flash Memory
Internal Memory Capacity 64 GB
Max Supported Size 256 GB
Supported Flash Memory Cards microSDXC
Front-facing Camera
Sensor Resolution 8 Megapixel
Focus Adjustment focus free

Where To Buy

Price
$649.99

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Where To Buy

BlackBerry Key2 (64GB, black)

Part Number: BLACKBERRY KEY2 BLACK 6/64GB
Price
$649.99