Throwback is an interesting term. For some people, it relates to unforgettable memories, their first-time experiences and so on. And for some, it’s the material things – the first car they ever owned, their first phone and so on. And if we’re talking about gadgets, then BlackBerry is one brand that would rank high on the nostalgia factor. With features like push email, QWERTY keyboards, the BBM instant messaging service, and more, the Canadian brand made the pocketable device more than just a mechanism to make or receive calls. But in an era of all-touch Android smartphones and iPhones, BlackBerry seems to be losing relevance. Yet, instead of giving up, the company aims to focus on its niche and the BlackBerry KEY2 is the best example of that. The phone comes with a full-sized keyboard, something that’s a rarity these days.
But is that all there’s to the KEY2? And how is it like using a keyboard-toting BlackBerry smartphone in 2018? That’s what I intend to answer in this review, so read on.
Specs at a glance
Design and display: stands out with its looks and build quality
The BlackBerry KEY2 is among the very few smartphones in the market that come with a 4.5-inch display. But that doesn’t mean the handset is compact, as the touchscreen is accompanied by a physical keyboard. The design language isn’t much different from its predecessor – the KEYone (review), released last year – as both phones feature similar dimensions and build quality. That also means that the phone skimps upon all the latest trends such as notch displays, taller screens, and bezel-less design, among others.
While we’ll discuss the keyboard in a bit, surprisingly enough, the handset doesn’t feel heavy at all as its 168g weight has been distributed well. The KEY2 does have a blocky design with sharp corners, and yet remains ergonomic. Its relatively thick frame of 8.5mm also helps in providing a solid in-hand feel. In terms of the button and port placement, you’ll find both the volume rocker and the power switch towards the right, along with a convenience key. Not much different from OnePlus’ Alert Slider, the convenience key lets you switch your phone’s profile to meeting or home. It also goes a step beyond though, by letting you enable these profiles with a single press of the key when you connect to a particular Bluetooth of Wi-Fi network, for instance. However, considering the proximity of these buttons, it takes some time to differentiate between the power toggle and the convenience key, and it’s good that the former has a ridged pattern.
On the left edge, you’ll find an ejectable SIM tray that can hold two nano-SIMs or a nano-SIM and a microSD card. Up top, there’s a 3.5mm audio socket, while the base is home to a USB Type-C port and a speaker grille. It must be noted that the BlackBerry KEY2 has two grilles, which looks good aesthetically, but only one of them is for audio output.
Flip to the back, and you’ll find the conventional BlackBerry pattern which offers good grip. The dual-camera array that juts out slightly from the body, and is supplemented by the LED flash module is placed on top left, while the brand’s logo can be seen towards the middle.
The 4.5-inch screen on the BlackBerry KEY2 bears a resolution of 1,080 x 1,620 pixels in an unconventional aspect ratio of 3:2. The IPS panel reproduces decent colours with sharp text. The brightness levels are also ample, and the display can be read outdoors with ease. The phone also offers Ambient display, which lights up the screen in sleep mode whenever you receive a notification. Sadly though, the use of such an aspect ratio means that that apps and content don’t appear as they should. Videos for instance, aren’t able to use the entire screen, and there are black bands on top and the bottom. Similarly, Instagram stories captured from the phone appear weirdly-cropped on other handsets, and the same is the case when viewing stories posted by others on the KEY2. I’d have also preferred virtual navigation buttons instead of capacitive keys, as that would have ensured slightly bigger screen real estate. There are also times when I mistakenly hit the overview or back button while typing on the keys, which could’ve been avoided with on-screen keys.
The key(board) to its success
There was a time when BlackBerry phones were all the rage. And one important reason for the same can be attributed to the full-sized QWERTY keyboards at a time when other handsets were simply offering T9 keypads. The keyboard made typing on the go a lot easier and quicker. But things are different now, as touchscreen keyboards let you type faster and accurately as well, along with being more versatile and disappearing when not needed.
So how was it like using the keyboard on the BlackBerry KEY2? Honestly speaking, it’s a mixed bag. The feeling of typing on a physical keyboard is satisfying, and once you have got yourselves acquainted to the keyboard and built your muscle memory, then you can type fairly quickly as well. BlackBerry has also fixed the qualms we had with the KEYone’s keyboard, be it glossy keys or not having enough distance between keys. For productivity-focused users, the smartphone offers the ability to set up various shortcuts. You can short-press or long-press any key to open an app, call a contact or compose an email… which means 52 such shortcuts can be set up considering there are 26 keys. Furthermore, with the ‘speed’ key, you can even initiate these actions from any app. Similarly, you can set up the currency key as a custom key, so you can keep using it as it is or use it as Ctrl or Shift.
The spacebar on the KEY2 doubles up as a fingerprint scanner, and even though the surface area for scanning doesn’t seem to be much, the authentication is accurate. The good thing is that you don’t need to press the spacebar, and simply need to touch it with your finger. However, the process isn’t as fast and there’s a noticeable delay in unlocking the handset.
The speed and convenience offered by touchscreen keyboards seems much better as compared to a physical keyboard, and with the KEY2, I missed features like the ability to slide-to-type, and switching to typing numbers and other symbols quickly. While there’s predictive typing enabled on the KEY2’s keyboard by swiping on the physical keys, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be able to type faster. Moreover, you can’t get emojis with a physical keyboard, something that has become the preferred mode of getting your point across in today’s day and age. Compared to a touchscreen keyboard, where you can even type without seeing and the phone’s dictionary can auto-correct some typos, it’s also not so accurate to type on the KEY2. It’s difficult to type on the keyboard single-handedly too, as it’s quite wide. You might be able to type single-word replies comfortably, but for typing sentences, using both hands is advisable.
Additionally, productivity-oriented users also love the split-screen functionality of Android that let you use two apps at the same time – watching a video on YouTube, and replying to chats on WhatsApp simultaneously, for instance. However, that’s not as good an experience on the KEY2 considering the screen size, and if you’ve to type an emoji, then the purpose of the split-screen itself is defeated. Similarly, if you are catching up on your favourite series on Netflix or reading a document in the landscape orientation, then either you need to type on the touchscreen keyboard or switch to the portrait mode to type – which makes things quite confusing.
I did like the ability to swiping on the keyboard to scroll things like webpages and my Instagram feed, etc., just like you’d do on a touchscreen. This is quite useful as you’re able to ensure that your fingers don’t block the content on the screen and there’s no distraction either. However, once again, the experience breaks if you are using the BlackBerry KEY2 in landscape mode, in some cases. While using MXplayer for example, which allows you to increase or decrease the volume by sliding on the display in the respective direction, scrolling on the keys works in the exact opposite manner. Another side effect of the scrolling feature is that sometimes the smartphone scrolls the webpage or the app on its own, in case your palms end up touching the sides of the keyboard and the palm rejection fails to work.
Software: productivity-oriented and security-focused
The KEY2 runs Android 8.1 Oreo with its proprietary skin on top. While the interface looks like stock Android, it’s filled with options. Some of the features have already been discussed above, but there’s much more to the UI. BlackBerry pop-up widgets for example, let you swipe up on compatible app icons to access their widgets. Most apps like WhatsApp, Gmail, Calendar, and even Chrome can be accessed in this manner. Then there’s BlackBerry Hub, which integrates all the notifications at one place, making it easier to view and reply to them, without worrying which app you might have received a notification from.
You also get the other features as expected on a BlackBerry smartphone running Android… such as the DTEK app which gives you an overview of security status and the promise of regular Android updates. For privacy-centric users, the DTEK app is handy as it also highlights what permissions do installed apps have, and when exactly they tracked that last. There’s also a Productivity Tab that sits on the left / right edge of the screen and can be accessed regardless of the app you may be using. It provides an at-a-glance view of your schedule, messages, To-Do, and more, along with letting you enable widgets of your choice.
I also liked the Privacy Shade and Redactor features. If you’re reading a sensitive document in a public place and want to ensure that it can’t be read by anyone else snooping over your shoulder, then Privacy Shade ensures that only a part of the screen is visible with the rest of it turned black. Similarly, if you wish to share a screenshot, but with some details redacted, then Redactor lets you do that.
Other useful apps include BlackBerry Locker, which lets you protect your photos and apps, while Password Keeper gives you the ability to save all your passwords and access them with a single, encrypted master password.
Imaging: jumping on to the dual-camera bandwagon
The BlackBerry KEY2 is the first smartphone from the brand to come with a pair of snappers at the back. The handset features dual 12-megapixel shooters, with the primary sensor offering an aperture of f/1.8. The dual cameras let you optically zoom in to the subject to get up to 2x closer or get the depth-of-field effect. There’s also PDAF (phase detection autofocus) support for allowing the camera to lock focus on the desired object quickly. A dual-tone LED flash accompanies the snappers to assist in poor-lighting conditions.
Interface-wise, the camera app offers the usual options. In the vertical orientation, the options at the bottom include a camera shutter key, toggle to the front camera, the ability to enable different modes, a range of real-time filters and the preview gallery. Up top, you’ll find the flash toggle, self-timer, option to change the aspect ratio, ability to enable the HDR mode, and access the settings menu.
When it comes to the quality however, it’s unclear why BlackBerry chose to go with a dual-camera implementation instead of offering a better single snapper at the back. While the images look good on the phone’s screen, they’re anything but when viewed on a computer. The colour reproduction is quite good, but there’s no sharpness in the pictures, especially when opened in their original resolution. There are a noticeable amount of grains, be it landscape shots or images captured indoors. Close-ups however, are a tad better with a faux depth-of-field effect. The HDR mode is also effective in improving the contrast and making the scene more pleasing, but details remain lost in this case as well. Coming to the dual-camera capabilities of the KEY2, the 2x optical zoom is of course, useful whenever needed, while the portrait mode is just passable at best… since the edges of the subject turn out soft. The smartphone also struggles in low light, churning out grainy images. You can see for yourself the imaging capabilities of the handset by scrolling through the samples embedded below.
For selfies, the phone has an 8MP camera up front. The story continues here as well, with images lacking detail and looking a tad artificial. In terms of the video, the BlackBerry KEY2 can record 1080p videos at 60fps, but due to the lack of optical image stabilisation, the result isn’t impressive. There’s enhanced video stabilisation, but I didn’t find it to be very effective. The handset also comes with Google Lens support to visually search objects, places and more.
Hardware: a dependable workhorse
The BlackBerry KEY2 isn’t aiming for the flagship stature, and instead of the latest and greatest chipset from Qualcomm, it draws power from Qualcomm’s most powerful SoC in the SD600 series – the Snapdragon 660. The octa-core chip is clocked at 2.2GHz for the high-performance cores and 1.8GHz for the power-efficient cores. The SoC is paired with 6 gigs of RAM. The combination works well to enable smooth performance while using multiple documents or switching between apps. At times, there’s a split-second lag while opening apps, but overall, the device offers a buttery-smooth performance.
The Adreno 512 GPU can handle most games with ease. But the KEY2 isn’t built for gaming, and we’re saying that not just because the screen real estate isn’t as big as you’d like. It’s not comfortable to hold the phone in landscape to play titles like PUBG or Marvel Contest of Champions where your fingers need to be on both ends of the screen.
As far as the storage is concerned, the smartphone ships with 64GB of built-in memory. After accounting for OS and other resources, the BlackBerry KEY2 has around 52.5GB space. You can also expand it further up to 256GB, if you can compromise on the dual-SIM functionality. Other connectivity options include 4G VoLTE, Wi-FI, Bluetooth and GPS.
The BlackBerry KEY2 can easily give you company for an entire day, thanks to its 3,500mAh battery. Charged fully at 7:00 am in the morning, the handset was easily able to go on till night with the usage comprising listening to podcasts, watching YouTube, web browsing, playing games for some time, and even using GPS for navigation. In my week-long usage, the smartphone was constantly able to offer more than four hours of screen-on time, which is pretty good. Thanks to Quick Charge support, the device can also be juiced up quickly. Using the bundled adapter, the smartphone can go from 10 percent to 100 within an hour and a half. There’s also a boost mode, which fuels up the phone even faster by trading off performance while it’s plugged in.
It’s clear that the KEY2 isn’t for everyone. While it scores well on all the hallmarks of a BlackBerry device – good build quality, a physical keyboard, software that focuses on security, and a great battery life, is that enough for a modern-day smartphone? Even for die-hard BB fans (or BlackBerry Boys, as the brand’s yesteryear’s ad used to refer to them), the answer isn’t as clear as black and white.
Things become even more confusing when you bring the pricing into the mix. With a sticker price of Rs 42,990, the BlackBerry KEY2 is priced similar to some of the flagships, and yet, packs in mid-range internals. The biggest competition comes from the OnePlus 6 (review), which is a loaded handset, and is available for as low as Rs 34,990. Then there’s the competitively-priced ASUS ZenFone 5Z (review), which costs Rs 36,999 for its highest-end variant that offers flagship specs along with 8GB RAM and 256GB storage. If you’re looking for something futuristic, then the recently-announced Vivo NEX (review) is an interesting option that boasts almost a full-screen fascia and top-notch hardware.
However, none of these handsets can match up to what the KEY2 offers… especially when it comes to productivity and security. And therein lies the charm. All said and done, the KEY2 is the best BlackBerry smartphone you can buy, if you are willing to compromise on certain aspects and are clear on what you’re getting for your money.
Editor’s rating: 3.5 / 5
- Solid build quality and a physical keyboard
- Smooth performance
- Versatile software with a focus on security
- Great battery life
- For non-BlackBerry fans, the keyboard will take some time getting used to
- Sub-par cameras
- Priced steeply
Photos by Raj Rout