BlackBerry has been ‘back’ for a while now. Licensee TCL has released the KeyOne and Key2, harking back to the glory days of the hardware keyboard but modernised with Android.
But the phones have midrange specs and quite high prices and TCL is acknowledging this with the release of the BlackBerry Key2 LE – light edition.
Coming in at £200 less than the flagship Key2, the LE looks quite similar but has a fair few differences. We went hands-on with the new phone at IFA 2018, and these are our first impressions.
BlackBerry Key2 LE: Price and availability
The BlackBerry Key2 LE is well priced and starts at £349/$399/€399 for 32GB storage and 4GB RAM. There’s also a 64GB/4GB model that will cost £399/$449/€429.
This is compared to the £549/$649 Key2. A £200 price drop for a phone that is aesthetically very similar is a potentially clever move from TCL.
BlackBerry Key2 LE: Design and build
The design is incredibly similar to the regular Key2, but there are some differences when you look closely. The first thing we noticed was the lighter build and more rounded edges. Where the Key2 used harsh lines and metal on the sides, the Key2 LE is a polycarbonate with a smoother feel.
The exact measurements of the Key2 LE are 150.25 x 71.8 x 8.35mm.
The back of the phone is textured like the regular Key2 but has a different softer dotted pattern. The Key2 LE is a lighter weight, altogether friendlier version of the phone, which is also reflected in the colours it’s available in – slate, champagne, and a red that TCL is calling atomic.
It doesn’t make the phone feel cheap per se, just more accessible to an audience that may be put off by the quite masculine design of the Key2. Although its only 13g lighter than the regular Key2 at 156g, the LE is definitely less noticeable in your pocket.
The display is the same size as on the Key2 but the top bezel is slightly thicker. This is because the keyboard is actually smaller, even though it retains the same layout including a space bar with fingerprint sensor and the speed key.
That keyboard also lacks the capacitive touch function found on the Key2 and KeyOne, meaning all scrolling will have to be done via the touchscreen. In a briefing, BlackBerry said it did this to appeal to traditional BlackBerry users who might be coming from older devices like the Classic who won’t want the capacitive keys. In reality, we suspect it’s a cost saver.
The Key2 LE also has a headphone jack, USB-C port and the convenience key that you can program to any function you want.
Overall this is a neat reimagining of the Key2 at a better price point, with differences enough to justify its launch. In a briefing, BlackBerry and TCL described it as a ‘unisex product’.
BlackBerry Key2 LE: Features and specs
More of the differences are inside than out, though. Some corners have to be cut to get to the lower price point.
The 4.5in 3:2 1620x1080p IPS LCD is exactly the same panel as the one found in the Key2 and looked to have exactly the same viewing angles and brightness calibration. Due to the lack of touch functions on the keyboard of the LE, it’s more important than ever that the display is up to task so it’s good to see the same on this cheaper model.
The odd 3:2 aspect ratio is still not for everyone though, and this isn’t the phone for you if you watch a lot of video or play mobile games frequently. It’s simply the wrong shape.
Processor, memory and storage
The Key2 LE has the Snapdragon 636 chip that’s also found in the Moto Z3 Play and Asus Zenfone 5. It’s known to be an energy efficient chip that manages battery life and power consumption in midrange phones such as this.
Paired with 4GB RAM, hopefully we won’t see any slowdown in our full review testing. TCL made a big point of putting 6GB RAM in the regular Key2 to improve multitasking issues from the KeyOne. Hopefully choosing the Key2 LE won’t mean overly compromising performance.
With 4GB RAM you can choose between 32GB or 64GB storage, but all versions have a microSD card slot to expand that.
These specs are pretty standard for a midrange phone, and the Key2 LE is priced reasonably considering this.
Connectivity and audio
Charging and data transfer is done via USB-C, and there’s a headphone jack on the top edge, so no need to live the dongle life here. Otherwise you’re getting what you’d expect in 2018 with Bluetooth 5.0 and support for dual band 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
While there are dual cameras, they are a downgrade from the Key2. There’s a 13Mp f/2.2 main sensor and a 5Mp f/2.4 that allows for depth sensing bokeh effect photos. Given the Key2 was hardly a camera champ, we won’t hold out for many impressive shots from the Key2 LE.
The front facing camera is 8Mp.
But this is not the handset to go for if smartphone photography is your primary concern, and TCL knows that.
The Key2 LE should last for 22 hours of use between charges, but it’s notable that the battery is down to 3000mAh compared to the Key2’s 3500mAh. This is usual to see when the specs aren’t as demanding, but we will watch closely in our full review to see if it’s a deal breaker.
The new Key2 LE (left) compared to the regular Key2 (right)
BlackBerry Key2 LE: Software and apps
The Key2 LE has the same Android 8.1 Oreo version also found on the Key2, which is great. This means it gets the Locker app where you can keep photos and entire apps out of the cloud for your privacy peace of mind, as well as the ability to hide apps from the app drawer entirely.
New for the LE but coming to other handsets is a dual app feature where you can clone Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram or WeChat and run two accounts, with two app icons, simultaneously.
Also new is the option to use the convenience key as a Google Assistant button; one tap to trigger, press and hold to use as a walkie-talkie or double tap to go straight to Google Lens. We like this on the Key LE as the button is a fully mappable one that is for other functions if you want. Pay attention, Samsung and Bixby.