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BlackBerry KEY2 Review: An Icon truly is reborn.

It’s no secret that I love the BlackBerry KEYone, it has been my daily driver for over a year (aside from when I’m reviewing other devices) despite having access to a plethora of bigger, more powerful devices such as the Huawei Mate 10 Pro and P20 Pro. There was something about the KEYone that made me stay with it, so when I found out that BlackBerry was working on a successor, I knew I had to have it. How is the Blackberry KEY2? Well after a little over 2 weeks of use, here is my official Review.

BlackBerry KEY2 Review
+ FOR
  • Best In Class Keyboard
  • Insane battery life
  • Rapid Recharge seems faster than others
  • Built like a Tank
  • Up to date and secure (currently)
- AGAINST
  • Screen is a bit dim and still IPS
  • Capacitive buttons aren't ageing well
  • Platform updates are an unknown
  • Some might find it pricey

Buy the KEY2 on Amazon

BlackBerry KEY2 Review

Disclaimer: BlackBerry Mobile has provided me (Dom) with this review unit in exchange for a comprehensive review. No money has exchanged hands between either company, and BlackBerry Mobile have no control over the or the contents of the final review. This KEY2 was used in the South East of the UK on the Three UK network and received no Software OTAs during our testing.

Speeds and Feeds (specs)

  • 4.5” 1620x1080p IPS LCD (3:2 Aspect Ratio)
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 SoC
  • 4x Kryo 260 @ 2.2Ghz
  • 4x Kryo 260 @ 1.8Ghz
  • Adreno 512 GPU
  • Snapdragon X12 LTE Modem (cat.13)
  • 6GB of LPDDR4X RAM
  • 64GB/128GB eMMC 5.0 storage
  • 3500mAh Lithium-Ion Battery
  • 12mp main camera, f1.8, 1.28µP
  • 12mp secondary camera, f2.6, 1.0µP
  • 8mp front facing camera, F2.0 1.12µP
  • USB-C charging and Data Port, USB3.1 Gen1 (5gbps) speeds
  • Android 8.1 Oreo

For a more complete list of the specifications, head on over to the GSMArena page here.

Hardware – BlackBerry KEY2

Right off the bat, the KEY2 is solid. Like, really solid. One of the big things BlackBerry was excited to tell us about with the KEY2 is that compared to KEYone, they managed to shave off 1mm in thickness (whilst retaining the same capacity battery) and 12g whilst also ushering in this new more angular shape.

BlackBerry KEY2 Review

Whilst I am a fan of the new design, I feel like the weight reduction paired with the loss of curves makes the KEY2 feel a little unsubstantial. It’s still stiff as a rock, with no creaks and cracks, but it just feels too light sometimes, which is exacerbated by the flat sides and it being thinner. The KEYone was a bit of a tank. In fact, I dropped my first KEYone, it dented the corner a tad, but broke one of the tiles in my hallway. Whilst the KEY2 could probably also survive that, I don’t feel like I want to give it a try. I was never one to moan about the weight of the KEYone, I think it gave it more character and served it is purpose well, but I know others didn’t like the heft of KEYone.

BlackBerry KEY2 Review

Now that that is out of the way, we can take a tour around the KEY2. Looking at the front of the KEY2 we have two pretty obvious characteristics of the KEY series, the physical QWERTY keyboard of course, but also the 3:2 screen. Yes, the KEY2 keeps the same 4.5” 3:2 LCD panel that the KEYone used, actually, it’s the exact same panel, flaws and all, meaning it doesn’t get particularly bright, and it is not the most colour accurate panel out there, but it is very satisfactory. I would have very much prefered BlackBerry to have moved to an OLED panel for KEY2, but finding a 4.5” 3:2 LCD couldn’t have been easy, a custom OLED one would have been very expensive.

BlackBerry KEY2 Review

Above that screen, we have a much smaller forehead, with a really nicely redesigned earpiece grille (which, side note, amazing phone calls on this), as well as all the hidden proximity and ambient light sensors, which move the display higher up. This is actually one of the things that BlackBerry did to enable a bigger keyboard, neat trick. Below the screen, we come to probably my biggest annoyance with the KEY2, and it is the fact that it still uses capacitive buttons. Unlike the KEYone, these are backlit, so when not in use they disappear, but I’d rather they removed those, and adopted on-screen buttons.

BlackBerry KEY2 Review

On-screen buttons, whilst also being a personal preference, is the way Google has been going for years, BlackBerry is one of, if not the only major phone maker to still include dedicated navigation keys on their devices. The KEY2 could have been a few mm shorter with Onscreen buttons, keeping the new bigger keyboard and made the phone smaller than KEYone. It would have also allowed for power user customisation, something that BlackBerry actually does care about and I’ve seen in recent months. If you’re one of those heathens that like the back button on the left? Do it. Do you want to add an extra nav button to bring down the notification shade? Sure, go ahead. Google decides to change the look of the navigation buttons or use a new gesture interface? You’re able to adapt and survive instead of instantly looking outdated. At the very least, the buttons are better than the capacitive buttons on the KEYone where which, to be honest, wasn’t hard.

BlackBerry KEY2 Review

Now we get to the keyboard, the namesake of the KEY2. BlackBerry said that they modelled this with the Bold 9900 in mind. It doesn’t have the slight “smile” curve to the keyboard that the 9900 did, but the size and shape of the keys, the slant of the keys, the feel of the depression of each key, that is what they focussed on. They gave people blind typing tests between early KEY2 units and 9900 units, and until a fair amount (I think over half, maybe more) of people couldn’t tell the difference they kept tweaking. Now that is dedication.

Before I move on, I want to state that he KEY2 keyboard is not perfect. Every member of the press I have spoken to about the KEY2 keyboard has said the same thing. The decreased key travel (or perceived lack of key travel due to the lower actuation force) and the super wobbly and inconsistent spacebar is an annoyance. The key travel is something you do get used to. It has taken me a little under 2 weeks (somewhere around the 9-10 day mark) for me to be in a position where I stopped making silly mistakes on the keyboard. This mostly stems from the fact each key from the KEYone is taller, but not much, if any wider. So it’s a muscle memory thing. The space bar problem, on the other hand, is a little harder to “fix” without some hardware changes in my opinion. Because the space bar is so much wider than the one on the KEYone, it still only has the centre actuation point, making it a bit of a seesaw, meaning the wider it gets, the more exaggerated the wobble gets. The KEY2 space bar wobbles far more than I’d like and has sometimes meant that I’ve missed space presses because I tapped on the edge of the key, and that end of the key bottomed out, but it didn’t have enough contact over the switch to actually actuate it. My solution to this is a costly one that requires some retooling. Give the space bar stabilisers on each end, just like an actual keyboard does, to stop this exact issue. Regardless of whether they take that advice, they clearly need to fix this in a revision or next generation release.

BlackBerry KEY2 Review

The rest of the frame is made from 7000 series Aluminium, meaning it is more stiff compared to the 6000 series on previous devices. It will be more resilient to bends and stress fractures also. This beautiful silver band (or PVD coated black if you opted for the stealth model) covers the entire sides (the front bit on the keyboard is actually a colour matched plastic). Peppered on the right-hand side are the volume rocker, power button and convenience key. Like the Blackberry Motion, they’re all on the same side, but unlike the Motion, the keys don’t wobble nearly as much, but also, the power key is the textured key, making much more sense this time around. Flipping around to the left-hand side we see the SIM and MicroSD tray. It’s a pretty simple affair, but it should be noted how stiff and sturdy this SIM tray is. Some metal ones feel like soft aluminium or tin foil that I could bend, and these are miles ahead of the plastic ones that Sony used. Up top is the secondary mic for noise cancelling and the 3.5mm headphone jack which, whilst not important to me, I know for a lot of people will be a must-have, and a lot of BlackBerry users still use this. Down below is the USB-C port flanked by speaker grilles, only one of which is an actual speaker grille (the right one) the other is where the microphone lives.

BlackBerry KEY2 Review

The rear of the KEY2 is quite nice, a mix of the KEYone and Motion. It still has a texture, like the KEYone, but the texture is inverted. Instead of divots going into the rear as with the KEyone, the diamond-esque pattern on the KEY2 is raised, a nice change. It is definitely less grippy than the KEYone though. I think I would have prefered the rear from the Motion though, that has grown on me more and more over the last year. Up in the top left-hand corner are the camera modules, namely a dual 12MP setup with one as a 2x telephoto, next to that is the LED flash setup, a dual colour temperature flash, nice and subtle. In the centre is the BlackBerry logo, an iconic logo that shines in silver on this model and is stealthy and black on the black model. It is important to note that unlike last year, the Silver and Black colour variants of this phone are identical specs wise, and I requested the silver model because it makes a statement, people have to look to see you’re using a BlackBerry with the Black stealth model, but the Silver one? That makes its presence known, and I dig that.

Software – BlackBerry KEY2

 

Software-wise, the KEY2 is pretty great. It ships with Android 8.1 out of the box and my unit has the May 5th security patch. Whilst BlackBerry kept up with Security patches, both the KEYone and Motion are still on Android 7.1.1, though that is set to change in a week or two with the rollout of Android Oreo for the KEYone. I assume it will be 8.0, but wouldn’t be too surprised if it is 8.1.

Whilst I am going to praise BlackBerry for the software on the KEY2, I feel it is important to note that over a year after release, the KEYone is still on the same platform version it launched on, and that’s a little underwhelming.

BlackBerry has a special experience on Android, and it is very similar to what Motorola do. It’s mostly stock, with just a few apps peppered here and there to improve the experience where they feel they can. The alterations BlackBerry have made to Android, aside from the kernel level (which they have done some extensive work on) are mostly to do with safety, security and business. One of the biggest and simplest apps that they preload that makes this point obvious is an app called “redactor”. Redactor is, what is says, an app that lets you redact information from an image or document. For example if I’m sharing some personal details with a friend but what them to see parts, but not all of it, I can pull down the shade, and tap the redactor tile, or, even easier, assign redactor to any one of the keyboard shortcuts and hit that in conjunction with the speed key to instantly launch redactor. It’s awesome, and it’s a business feature that I’ve spoken to many about, who agree with me, and will use it often.

 

BlackBerry still have their normal apps, like the hub and DTEK and others, but they’ve all been overhauled a little for KEY2. Let’s take DTEK for instance. One of the new features in DTEK is something called “Sensitive permission Access” and what this does is that it scans your device in real time, looking for when a program asks for access to something. When it thinks that an App requesting permission to use something that it thinks is a little off, it’ll just say in a notification for example “TicWear Global is attempting to Access Location and sensor data, do you want to accept?”. That is awesome and a great example of proactive security, something that business people are going to be hotter on than the average Joe.

 

Outside of added extras like that, BlackBerry have kept pretty hands off and stayed true to the standard Android approach, using mostly Google apps as the default, with the exception of a few like Calendar, Camera and calculator (and a few more). But BlackBerry use Google Photos as the Gallery instead of bundling their own, they use the Android Messages app instead of making their own etc. Not only does this cut down on a lot of redundancy, and means they few BlackBerry specific apps are easier to update, but it shows restraint. Oh, and those BlackBerry apps can also be updated through the Play Store, so that’s awesome.

One of the biggest things about the KEYone returns with the KEY2, but it is more than just software, it’s a hardware change too. BlackBerry removed the (often redundant) right hand shift key, and replaced it with what it calls the “Speed Key”. The Speed Key allows you to use all 52 keys for shortcuts (two for each alphanumeric key) anywhere in the OS. whereas on the KEYone the keyboard shortcuts only worked on the home screen, and only on the BlackBerry launcher, with KEY2 those shortcuts work anywhere in the OS, from any app., as long as you hold the button down. Now, when I remember to use it, and it is becoming more and more frequent, this method of switching apps is fast. It becomes kind of like Alt-tab, but for more than just going back to the last app. It’s just breaking the muscle memory of going home, finding the new app, launching the app etc, now that is simply replaced by Speed Key plus whatever key it is set to, and with 6GB of RAM, the KEY2 keeps them all in memory, for the most part.

As I said earlier, despite all my praise, I need to point out that BlackBerry still has not yet delivered Oreo to the KEYone, and whilst I’d like to think that Android P will come soon to the KEY2, seeing as it has Treble and the Snapdragon 660 is already certified for Android P from Qualcomm. But until it launches, we cannot know, but it doesn’t look good If you’re betting on fast platform updates.

Camera – BlackBerry KEY2

This is a little different from last year. Last year, BlackBerry proudly shouted that they used the same sensor in the KEYone that Google used in the Pixel. This year, no such bragging rights, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad camera. The 12MP main camera has an aperture f-stop of 1.8, which is pretty good. It’s not going to be a Pixel killer, and it is definitely not going to stand up against the Galaxy S9 and the P20 Pro’s of this world, but it is not meant to. The Camera on the KEY2 just needs to be better than what is on the KEYone, and on that metric, it is.

The KEY2 camera is faster, is able to capture more dynamic range, the zoom lens, whilst not the best quality, is still better than 2x digital zoom, and so in every metric that matters compared to the KEYone, the KEY2 prevails. The problem is at its suggested retail price of £580 here in the UK, that puts it up against some competition that have some pretty respectable cameras. My conundrum comes when I try and compare it to those, because it is not trying to compete with those. Those want to be the best camera at all times, and the KEY2 needs to be the best in the moment, but not all the time, and that’s what the KEY2 is. If it is all you’ve got, it’ll still give you a nice picture, but where other companies spend large portions of their R&D on cameras (I’m looking at you Huawei and Samsung) BlackBerry has decided to put that money into other places, such as security and the keyboard. If you’re that way inclined you’ll appreciate that. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a brave decision when writing a list of “must haves” for a 2018 smartphone.

Here are some camera samples anyway, enjoy.

Here are some Selfies as well, because why not.

Lastly, I decided to shoot some video on the KEY2 to show you, It defaults to 1080p, but I have bumped it up to 2160p (4K) for this sample.

Performance – BlackBerry KEY2

The performance was never a great point for the KEYone, but it was one that got worse with time, unfortunately. Whilst the Snapdragon 625 itself was a great chip, BlackBerry wasn’t able to get the performance out of it that someone like Motorola was able to. This meant that over time the KEYone slowed down, a lot. Late December early January, BlackBerry issued an OTA that dramatically improved performance, making it about on par with a new OOB unit, but it was still never blisteringly fast.

The KEY2 is. The KEY2 uses a Snapdragon 660, and it is a high-end midrange chip, using the new Kryo 260 cores, these are Semi-custom cores that are based off of the venerable Cortex A53 and the Cortex A73 µArch, whilst these aren’t the newest Kryo 360 cores, based on the new A55 and A75 cores with ARM DynamIQ interconnect, they’re still plenty performant, and it shows that BlackBerry have tried this time.

I’ll post some benchmark screenshots down below, but it’s important to note that the KEY2 never feels slow. I’m never sat around waiting for an app to load or a function to complete. It sounds silly but the most noticeable place, is the fingerprint reader. The fingerprint reader in the KEY2 is once again in the space bar, but it is lightning quick this time. I won’t be silly and call it Huawei P20 Pro quick, but man, it’s a helluva lot quicker than the KEYone is.

But don’t believe me, here are some benchmark screenshots, for those of you that still care.

Battery – BlackBerry KEY2

I feel like I could make this section a sentence long and I’d be fine with that, the sentence would just be: “You’ll run out of juice before the KEY2 does”.

Or something cheesy like that, because really, the battery isn’t an issue. Just like the KEYone, the KEY2 is a phone where 2 days of battery life is the rule, not the exception to it. On incredibly hard days I managed to knock it down to about 35%, but by that time I was dying. This is made more impressive by the beefier CPU and the miniscule-ly smaller battery in the KEY2.

BlackBerry KEY2 Review

When they made the KEY2 1mm thinner, they had to do something about the Battery, the 3505mAh in the KEYone took up a lot of space, so with the KEY2, they dropped the capacity down to 3500mAh, a whole 5mAh difference, but the entire unit s 0.85mm thinner. They’d repackaged and reworked the entire thing to be more efficient, make less heat and take up less space, all whilst being pretty much the same capacity, neat stuff.

If you do somehow kill the KEY2 in the middle of the day (maybe you’re out playing Pokemon Go in an area with weak signal, I don’t know) The KEY2 is also equipped with QuickCharge 3.0 from Qualcomm, meaning that the KEY2 charges crazy fast. Not Huawei supercharger or OnePlus DashCharge fast, but fast enough that if I put it on whilst I went to have a shower and brush my teeth in the morning, a good 30% is would have been added, and I can’t complain about that.

Radio & Networks – BlackBerry KEY2

This is the section I usually leave out, because most phones are so similar these days, but the KEY2 needed a mention here.

The KEY2 makes some of the absolute best phone calls I have ever heard. Whether it be VoIP calls on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Hangouts, or standard network-based calls, the quality of the calls I was getting on the KEY2 was stellar. A concoction of loud earpiece, HD voice (or, 4G Supervoice in my carrier’s words) good clean microphones with good noise filtering, means that, despite my distaste for phone calls, they were an absolute joy on this phone, I never had to double check if I heard something correctly, because it was so clear.

On a slightly more negative note, Cellular reception on the KEY2 does seem noticeably weaker than on other phones, most specifically Huawei ones, it might just be because those are incredibly good, and the fact that Huawei also sell the equipment to my carrier, so it all knows how to work together better, but It is something I thought I should mention.

Miscellaneous – BlackBerry KEY2

Once again, the miscellaneous section pops up, and there are 3 things I’d like to talk about in more depth here, the Sped key, the Fingerprint scanner, and USB-C video out. I’ll start with the Fingerprint scanner, because it is the quickest. I cannot find who manufactures the fingerprint reader for the KEY2 (It’s likely FPC or Fingerprint Cards) but it is remarkably fast, stunningly so, but it isn’t immune to misreads. It almost seems too anxious to read our fingerprint, and if it isn’t all over the sensor it could give a failure notice. The KEY2 fingerprint scanner also seems more sensitive than others to cuts, scars and blisters than other fingerprint readers, which sucks if like me, your fingertips are pretty messed up.

Next is the Speed Key. I am so happy this exists, It is awesome, and when asked by Logan Bell (A Senior Product Manager at BlackBerry Mobile) at IFA last year (when the Black Edition KEYone was launched) what iI’dwant improved, one of the things I said was to be able to use Keyboard shortcuts on other launchers, which we then extrapolated to system-wide. It’s such a simple concept, but they went out and did it. When Logan asked me the same question at the UK KEY2 Launch last week, I didn’t have much I could say to him, the Speed Key did more than I expected it to, and until I find a use case where it cannot help, I guess I’ll not know until they do show me the next iteration.

Lastly, USB-C Video out. You all know I’m a fan of docking phones into docks to do video out. I do a lot of work on my P20 Pro with a USB-C hub plugged into my secondary monitor. On Days where I don’t need full windows, where I don’t need to edit video or transfer stupid large amounts of files, plugging in a phone to take the place of a PC makes a lot of sense to someone like me. Now the KEY2 doesn’t do that exactly, there is no special desktop optimised UI (at least not yet, the BB guys should probably get on that.) but after accidentally plugging the KEY2 into the dock when I thought I was plugging it into a charger (they were both black USB-C cables alright, I was low on Caffeine) and the device UI popped up on my monitor, I was shocked, honestly shocked, it was just normal android but on my 32” monitor, It was awesome, even if it wasn’t optimised in the slightest. Next thing? Keyboard and mouse support gets better and better.

I Don’t know if BlackBerry will product a desktop UI and a desktop Dock for the KEY2, but I most certainly would love them to. The Snapdragon 660 definitely seems peppy enough for everyday browsing and emails, do what Razer Did, licence it from the Sentio guys. Have a desktop UI that springs into life whenever a USB-C hub is plugged in, I know i’d use it, heck I’d probably even buy the BB dock.

Conclusion – BlackBerry KEY2

The conclusion is usually the hardest part of the review, and I’m not going to pretend it is easy for this, but the KEY2 is an awesome phone for me, and It’ll stay in my pocket for the foreseeable future.

BlackBerry KEY2 Review

But I’m already someone that loved the KEYone, It was unlikely that I was going to hate the KEY2, but something I didn’t expect, It is this. If you have a KEYone, and are currently happy with it, if the speed doesn’t bother you (it didn’t bother me) if the camera doesn’t bother you, if you can deal with the heft, the out of date OS etc, then I’d say stay with it. The KEYone will get a performance boost with Oreo, it’ll also likely get a lot of the software tricks that the KEY2 has. The KEYone still has a competent camera, a ridiculous battery, is built like a tank and can still turn heads.

If you weren’t in the market for a KEYone, you’re likely not going to be in the market for a KEY2, and that is fine, many people have moved on from physical keyboards and shortcuts, and there is nothing wrong with that, but if you’ve got the urge, and can stomach the price, I can’t imagine you’d be disappointed with the KEY2.

About Domenico Lamberti

Technology has been a big part of my life for years, whether it be ripping the family computer apart to see how it worked, playing with the new phones that Dad brought home from work. Senior Reviewer for MTT.

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