BlackBerry is back again – sort of. The brand has been revived by manufacturer TCL, a company invested in cashing in on nostalgia. The BlackBerry Key2 is a better phone than 2017’s KeyOne, but still a stunted device compared to the rest of the market.
It’s an undoubtedly slick smartphone with a look clearly modelled on 2015’s BlackBerry Passport Silver Edition, a phone that supposedly was meant to run Android until the last-minute change to BlackBerry’s own software.
History aside, the Key2 is a device with limited appeal in 2018. Unless you really, really want a keyboard on your smartphone, this is not the phone for you, despite especially secure Android Oreo 8.1 and productivity focussed keyboard functions.
But if you are in that vocal minority that insists typing on glass sucks and want some niche software features you won’t find anywhere else, then this is your next phone.
BlackBerry Key2 price and availability
BlackBerry Key2 design and build
In our time testing the Key2, we’ve had a fair few (expected) comments from friends, ranging from ‘is that a BlackBerry?’ to ‘what the hell is that?’. This is down to incredulity – most people don’t know you can still buy a BlackBerry in 2018.
We assured those people that despite its odd looks considering the year, the Key2 is a really well-made phone. TCL has used premium feeling series 7 aluminium for the frame that looks exactly like the silver BlackBerry Passport, only squeezed into a slimmer unit.
Not the slimmest, though. The Key2 measures 151.4 x 71.8 x 8.5mm (the very thinnest phones are around 7mm thick) but because of the form factor this is feels very svelte and weighs in less than the 180g KeyOne at 168g.
The metal frame neatly wraps around as the rim (or is that RIM?) of the phone as well as intersecting the lines of the keyboard. It’s a step up in design and feel from the KeyOne, as is the improved and still-unique grippy textured plastic rear of the phone. It’s a pleasing world away from the usual glass slabs that smartphones tend to be in 2018.
It’s no secret that this phone is a nostalgia trip, with BlackBerry Mobile telling us that the feel of the newly matte keyboard was modelled on the old Bold 9900. Cleverly, there’s a fingerprint sensor integrated into the spacebar. The keys are an upgrade on the mushy, glossy keys on the KeyOne.
At MWC 2019 BlackBerry launched a Red Edition of the Key2. It costs £699/$749, more than usual as it has 128GB storage. It’s still a looker though, and will surely get a comment from literally everyone who sees it.
On the Key2 they are matte, 20% larger and satisfyingly clicky, much like the excellent volume and textured power keys. Below that key is a smooth convenience key that you can map to perform nearly any function you like.
The 4.5in display is an odd 3:2 aspect ratio to accommodate the form factor and means you’ll have to get used to generally smaller on-screen text and a phone that it is not fun to play landscape games on. But TCL knows and owns this, and the trade-off is the keyboard – the whole phone works around that.
All those key gaps mean the Key2 is no way waterproof though.
Capacitive buttons on the bezel of the screen above the keyboard light up and so aren’t remappable, but they fade away when not in use for a pleasingly subtle effect. There’s also a headphone jack up top, and dual down facing speaker next to the USB-C port.
Dual cameras on the back protrude ever so slightly, while the front camera sits on the slim top bezel next to the earpiece. It’s a very pleasing piece of technology to hold, but one that is necessarily utilitarian and functional in its design. It’s one of the only phones out there that you don’t really need a case for.
BlackBerry Key2 features and specifications
So, if the design and presence of a keyboard is up your street, you’ll be wondering if the Key2 performs as well as flagship phones. Is the Key2 a flagship phone itself? Arguably yes, at £579 and the most high-end BlackBerry ever.
The screen is a 1620x1080p 4.5in 3:2 LCD with Gorilla Glass 3 and decent colour reproduction, but it isn’t the brightest, and will have you squinting to read it in direct sunlight (though this is true for the majority of LCDs). Notably you can select from natural, boosted and saturated colours just like on the Pixel 2.
Compared to the KeyOne, the display here has shifted upwards and the forehead is 25% smaller in order to fit in an overall larger keyboard area. It means that the phone is a tad top-heavy and we sometimes found it difficult to know where to hold it comfortably.
There’s useful functions like double tap to wake and an ambient option that wakes the screen when you receive a notification and briefly displays it. Also present is the ever-more common night mode that decreases the blue light the screen kicks out.
Despite the physical keyboard this is obviously a touchscreen, and you’ll find yourself tapping and swiping when necessary. BlackBerry remains the only OEM that offers a handy swipe up on apps with three dots for a quick widget view, which we love.
You can also toggle the option for an on screen keyboard should you want to, but it covers most of the display. Tapping the symbol key on the keyboard also brings up the virtual keyboard to get to those lesser used symbols.
Processor, memory and storage
The processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 paired with 6GB RAM as standard (the KeyOne’s RAM differed depending on the colour you chose). The 660 is a power efficient mid-range processor and is used here for two reasons – the Key2 is not designed to be used for high-end gaming and is also supposed to last well over a day on a single charge.
Most Key2 units have 64GB storage (single SIM) and a microSD card slot for expansion up to 256GB. You can hold out for a 128GB dual SIM model if you want, but these aren’t as readily available at launch.
The phone is noticeably faster than the KeyOne in day to day performance – the updated processor and more RAM clearly helping alongside Android Oreo 8.1. There was only the tiniest hint of slowdown, yet again when using BlackBerry’s Hub software. We found it pretty easy to not use it though, and it’s easy to disable (it’s a big RAM hog, collecting as it does every single notification you receive into one inbox).
Benchmarking the Key2 against the KeyOne and other phones with similar specs and price shows it’s a decent performer for a mid-range device, though at over £500 you might expect better performance for your money – the £469 OnePlus 6 has a Snapdragon 845.
But then again, the Key2 is a market all on its own with its physical keyboard.
This is the reason you buy this phone. The keys are the best for a while on a BlackBerry, bigger than the small square keys of the KeyOne and the Priv. Here there are angled towards the centre like much older BlackBerrys and have a matte finish that is more pleasant to type on.
There’s a dimple on the D key so you know where you are but if you’re used to typing on glass now then a physical keyboard is a slow experience. We were about 50% slower, though once you get used to it you are more precise with your strokes rather than jabbing at a glass virtual keyboard that you know will use autocorrect to the max.
Autocorrect still works on the Key2 though, and the three words suggested on the screen can be selected by swiping up underneath the correct one. As well as a decent fingerprint sensor imbedded in the spacebar there is a new key called the Speed Key. It replaces the lesser used right side shift key.
This key build on the fact you can map each key to open an app. For instance, you can programme the T key to open Twitter with a short press and Tinder with a long press.
On the KeyOne, you could only launch from the home screen, here you hold down the Speed Key like a shift key and you can hop around apps from anywhere in the OS. It’s really handy and if you are a power user who wants to program loads of shortcuts, it’s great. Similarly you can customise the currency key (we used it to bring down the notification shade).
But for most people, it’s a confusing solution to a non-existent problem. BlackBerry Mobile says it’s a time saver for the busy professional, but who doesn’t have a microsecond of time to find an app?
Yet this is one of the best keyboards ever on a BlackBerry and using it as a trackpad to scroll is still a genuinely useful thing and means your thumb doesn’t cover any of the screen. But only purists need apply – it’s all very frustrating to use if you are used to virtual keyboards (and you definitely are).
Connectivity and audio
Notably the Key2 has HD audio and a noise cancelling speakerphone, again outlining its business-minded audience. The dual speakers sound OK when on speakerphone calls (better are calls through the earpiece) but we found ourselves happily listening to podcasts without headphones.
When you do need headphones, the bundled ones are pretty good in-ears with inline remote. The tips aren’t circular and are more ergonomic to fit in your ear. They also act as the aerial for the onboard FM radio.
If you want to go wireless the Key2 has Bluetooth 5.0 for a reliable connection to smartwatches and headphones.
The Key2 is not the phone to buy if you want a stellar camera. There are improvements from the KeyOne to a dual lens system, but results are middling. Like most phones at this price, pictures in broad daylight are great, but anything in low light comes out grainy and distorted.
TCL has used dual 12Mp sensors, the main with f/1.8 and second with f/2.6 used for portrait mode or 2x zoom. Portrait mode photos are what you’d expect – a blurred background with rough edges round the subject on closer inspection.
There’s still no OIS, but an element of digital stabilisation at play that unfortunately doesn’t do a lot in low light.
A front facing 8Mp camera is nothing to write home about, but fine for video calling and casual selfie indulgence. You can also tap the fingerprint sensor to send a photo directly into the Locker app – not into the gallery or the cloud. Secure.
Video capture is impressive with 1080p at 60fps or 4K at 30fps but can be pretty shaky with no stabilisation.
With a large 3500mAh battery, the Key2 promises anything from one to two day battery life depending on usage. It achieves a day easily but if we being picky, it’s not as good as the KeyOne – a phone we regularly got two full days use out of.
The Key2 drifts into a second day but around lunchtime we were reaching for a charger. Don’t get us wrong – it still outperforms most phones out there, but there is no improvement here in longevity over the last generation which is a bit of a shame. It’s actually a tiny regression and given that many Key2 buyers might already have a KeyOne it’s notable.
BlackBerry Key2 software and apps
TCL and BlackBerry Mobile hang their hats on the keyboard and the software of the Key2. Their phones get regular security patches, which is great and the same applies to the Key2. There are also features like a Locker to put (hide) photos and files from prying eyes and unique features like a privacy shade to read slivers of screen at a time and a redactor to blur out information before sending screenshots.
The below screenshots show the home screen, app drawer, notification shade and settings menu with the in-OS dark theme applied.
The DTEK app tracks basic security and alerts you if you need to act on something, and the OS is chattier than most about letting you know if an app wants to access your camera and mic – and lets you deny permission.
Unlike many phones the Key2 also sets up a hardware root of trust when you set it up, improving security.
Android 8.1 is close to stock here and you won’t find any flashy animations or selfie stickers.There’s still the productivity tab which is a Samsung-esque swipe from the side of the screen that gives calendar, note, task and message overlays for quick access to various actions and information.
There are no animations when using the Speed Key as apps spring onto the screen immediately. The slickness of the OS is imperative in making the Key2 feel fast and productive, and at that it succeeds.