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BlackBerry Key2 review: Convenience is key
Whoever thought physical keyboards would make their return to smartphones? I sure didn’t, but I’m glad they did. The BlackBerry KeyOne was one of the most unique and surprising phones of 2017 and now it’s time to get to know the BlackBerry Key2. Its physical keyboard and industrial design got a lot of people interested — including myself.
The BlackBerry Key2 proves a great successor to the KeyOne, with improved performance and a host of new features. I don’t plan on switching back to another phone any time soon.
The Key2 used in this review was provided to Android Authority by BlackBerry.
The BlackBerry Key2 is much classier than its predecessor. It actually reminds me a lot of a MacBook, with its silver frame and matte physical keyboard. That frame is made of series 7 aluminum, which wraps around the chassis and extends to the top of the display.
The front-facing camera and earpiece now blend in a little more with the black border around the display, which looks more seamless than the giant silver “forehead” on the KeyOne.
BlackBerry created a phone for people who value productivity over multimedia, uniqueness over monotony. I think they delivered in spades.
Both David and I reviewed the silver model, though the phone also comes in a sleek all-black version.
The left side of the phone is almost completely bare — housing only the microSD and SIM card slot. The volume keys, power button, and convenience key have all moved to the right side. BlackBerry made the power button textured this time around, so it’s easy to tell it from the other buttons without looking.
The convenience key is back and smarter than ever. You can still program the physical button to launch any app or shortcut you’d like (I have mine set to launch Google Assistant), and you can assign up to three actions for it. It also supports three customizable profiles that change depending on where you are and what you’re doing. You can set the convenience key to open Google Play Music when you’re driving, launch the camera when you’re at home, or a voice recorder when you’re in a meeting. The phone will automatically switch between these different profiles when it senses you’re in those locations.
Simply holding the Key2 feels better than the KeyOne. It’s lighter, slightly bigger (the KeyOne felt a little cramped), and the textured, grippy backplate makes the phone very easy to hold.
The only downside to this design is the lack of a proper IP rating, which is pretty much standard on most phones nowadays. I’m sure having a physical keyboard doesn’t make it easy to waterproof, but it’s still a feature I would have liked to see.
The display is the most average part of this phone. It’s the same 4.5-inch 1080p LCD we saw on the KeyOne, complete with the shorter, fatter 3:2 aspect ratio. Four and a half inches seems a little small by today’s standards, but I really haven’t had any problems with the size. If it were any bigger, it’d be hard to reach your thumb up to the top to pull down the notification shade. However, you can now re-route the currency key on the keyboard to show your notifications if you don’t want to reach up to the top.
The 4.5-inch, 3:2 display is the perfect size for a physical keyboard.
The display is good, but it’s no Samsung panel. It offers up decent viewing angles, and you can change the color profile to natural, boosted, or saturated, just like the Pixel 2.
BlackBerry still uses an ambient display mode (not an always-on display), which only shows up if you receive a notification. I would have loved to see an always-on display here.
My one qualm with the display was that it seemed a little too dim to me, at least when auto brightness is turned on. Fifty percent brightness on the Key2’s screen is really dim compared to any other phone I regularly use. It’s also hard to see when you’re outdoors in direct sunlight. Just be aware this isn’t nearly the brightest panel you’ll find on a smartphone.
Performance was the KeyOne’s biggest issue. Its low RAM and slower SoC meant opening media-heavy apps or multitasking was near impossible at times. I’m happy to say the Key2 fixes most of those performance issues.
The updated processor — coupled with the bump in memory — makes a fluid software experience.
The Key2 is powered by a Snapdragon 660 CPU — the same processor powering the Nokia 7 Plus — as well as 6GB of RAM. That updated processor, coupled with the bump up in memory makes for a fluid software experience. The Key2 can open applications like Instagram, Chrome, and YouTube without slowing down, and split-screen multitasking is even possible this time around. The phone lags a bit when opening Snapchat, but that’s not really the phone’s fault — Snapchat is still a garbage application.
Graphics performance is much better this time around, too. The Key2 runs on the Adreno 512 GPU, making games like Asphalt and Lego Star Wars: TFA run quite smoothly.
The Key2 isn’t as fast as the top-tier flagships of the Android ecosystem (you’ll still notice a little lag here and there), but it’s a huge step up from last year.
We ran the Key2 through AnTuTu and 3DMark to see how it performed against the BlackBerry KeyOne Black edition (the model with 4GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 625 SoC). You can see the results below:
AnTuTu gave the Key2 a performance score of 142029 — quite a big bump up from the KeyOne Black edition’s 60761 score. As stated above, the Key2 can handle multitasking and media-heavy apps with ease, while the KeyOne Black edition struggled, even with its 4GB of RAM.
Graphics performance is an even bigger step up. The Key2 received an overall score of 1368 in 3DMark, while the KeyOne Black edition came in at just 466. Playing games like Asphalt 8 on the Key2 is smooth and lag-free, while the KeyOne Black edition was choppy.
The Key2’s keyboard is much better than the KeyOne’s. The keyboard on last year’s phone was too small for my liking, had a glossy finish, and it was a bit mushy. BlackBerry pretty much fixed all of these things on the Key2.
It has 20 percent larger keys (resulting in fewer typos), a nice matte finish BlackBerry says is more scratch resistant, and clickier buttons. In fact, the buttons are so clicky, they might be too loud for some people. I tried to respond to an email right when I woke up one morning, and felt like I was going to wake up my wife. You may want to pull up the software keyboard if you’re trying to type in a quiet space.
This keyboard is terrific. It makes me not want to go back to a normal smartphone.
All the wonderful keyboard features we talked about last year have returned. You can still swipe up, down, left, or right on the keyboard to scroll through apps and web pages. You can also program up to 52 shortcuts to the keyboard to launch your favorite applications. For instance, you can set a short press of the “p” key to launch your favorite podcast app, while a long-press can open up the Play Store. This is a feature I use dozens of times a day, and something I’ll miss if I switch to a phone without a keyboard.
On the KeyOne, those shortcuts only worked on the BlackBerry Launcher’s home screen, which limited the feature’s functionality quite a bit. Now, BlackBerry’s new Speed Key makes this feature even more powerful. This keyboard key lets you use those 52 keyboard shortcuts from anywhere in the phone — whether you’re in an app, on the home screen, or even using a custom launcher.
Holding the Speed Key — it’s the one with the dots on the bottom-right of the keyboard — and pressing your keyboard shortcut instantly opens up your pre-programmed shortcut, allowing you to switch between apps quickly and easily. At the risk of sounding overly hyped, it changed the way I use my phone.
When I got this phone, I downloaded Instagram and needed to login. So, I typed out my email address, used the Speed Key to launch LastPass, copied my password, then double-tapped the recent apps key to jump back into Instagram without ever having to go to my home screen or app drawer. It just makes things so much easier.
BlackBerry increased the storage from 32 to 64GB this time, and global versions of the Key2 (not in the U.S.) will have up to 128GB of onboard storage. No matter which model you choose, you’ll be able to take advantage of the microSD card slot for up to 2TB of additional storage.
On the audio front, the Key2 appears to have two bottom-firing speaker grills, but only the right one is actually a speaker. Audio quality is okay, but I wish it was a little louder. Listening to a podcast while washing the dishes is a little too quiet for me, but it’s usually decent for playing YouTube videos or listening to music. Turning the volume up all the way doesn’t distort music, though it lacks bass — especially compared to audio-centric devices like the HTC U12 Plus or LG G7.
Also, like the KeyOne, audio creeps out of the physical keyboard on the front of the phone. Even if you cover up the speaker grill at the bottom, you’ll still hear audio coming out of the device.
Yes, there’s also a headphone jack.
I haven’t experienced any call quality issues during my testing, though David ran into a few issues with the proximity sensor while on the phone. We had a 45-minute chat one day, during which he muted himself by accident multiple times. The Key2 had a difficult time recognizing when his face was up to the screen, which resulted in his cheek pressing the in-call mute button.
Haptics are much better on the Key2 than they were on the KeyOne. The Key2 has a much more powerful vibration and gives off stronger physical feedback than its predecessor. Some people might not like a strong haptic motor, but I prefer it.
In terms of biometrics, the BlackBerry Key2 still employs a fingerprint sensor in the space bar of the keyboard. This is a wonderful place for the fingerprint sensor, though I’m still partial to rear-facing fingerprint scanners (and so are most of you, it seems). Also, there’s no facial recognition here.
The BlackBerry Key2 is one of the longest-lasting smartphones I’ve ever used. Thanks to its 1080p screen and Snapdragon 660 SoC, the Key2’s 3,500mAh battery allows this phone to easily last more than one day on a single charge.
I worked this phone pretty hard this week and have yet to kill its battery in a single day — I usually go to bed with around 40 percent battery left over. With moderate use, the Key2 will easily last two full days on a charge. That’s insane.
Between David and I, we’ve been averaging about five to seven hours of screen-on time.
You don’t get any form of wireless charging here, but there is Quick Charge 3.0 support. Plus, every time you plug in your phone, BlackBerry lets you choose between Charge Only and Boost Modes. Charge Only mode does exactly what you’d think; it charges the phone like normal. Boost Mode turns off some of the background processes and animations, which makes the phone use less power while it’s charging. This is a handy feature to use if you only have a few minutes to charge your phone before heading out of the house.
I don’t think many people expected BlackBerry to release the world’s best smartphone camera, and the KeyOne’s shooter certainly left much to be desired. The Key2 is a step in the right direction.
On the back, the new BlackBerry houses two 12MP sensors — one with a ƒ/1.8 aperture and 1.28μm pixels, the other with a ƒ/2.6 aperture and 1μm pixels, both with phase detect autofocus (PDAF). BlackBerry isn’t using the second sensor for anything fancy like wide-angle shots; it’s just there to provide 2x optical zoom and portrait mode shots.
Note: The camera samples in this review are resized. You can see all the full-res images at this Google Drive link.
Most of the time you’ll rely on the main 12MP sensor for your photos. Photos taken in well-lit conditions are sharp and detailed, though a lot of the time they’re too saturated. Look at the comparison below with the Pixel 2. The Pixel’s photo has much more true-to-life colors, while the Key2’s photo is almost too bright and rich in color to look accurate at all. That’s not how the plant looked in real life.
That’s not to say all photos turned out this way — I was surprised every so often when the Key2 got things right. It’s not at the level of the Pixel 2 or Galaxy S9, but I think it’s more capable than the KeyOne’s camera.
Low-light shots are hit or miss, but mostly a miss. It’s where the Key2’s camera struggles the most, likely due to the lack of OIS on both lenses. There is EIS on board, though it’s no be-all-end-all substitute for optical stabilization.
About 85 percent of the time, photos taken in low-light conditions are noisy and grainy. I wouldn’t rely on the Key2’s camera if you frequently take pictures at bars or other dimly lit areas. It just won’t give you the results you want.
I was literally just about to put together a set of clips to show off the EIS on the #BlackBerryKEY2 for the review, when @googlephotos sent me a notification that it did it for me. Probably saved me 30 minutes of work.Thanks Google! pic.twitter.com/59V1vNacAm— David Imel (@DurvidImel) June 26, 2018
The rear sensors can shoot up to 4K video at 30fps, though I’ve been satisfied with using the default 1080p, 30fps setting. When you’re standing still, the Key2 can produce some impressive videos. Walking and shooting at the same time results in some very shaky footage. Again, these cameras would benefit greatly with optical image stabilization.
Like every other phone out there, the BlackBerry Key2 can take portrait mode shots thanks to its dual-camera setup. You can’t edit the amount of blur before or after you take a shot like you can on other phones. Portrait mode shots are actually quite good, though. The Key2’s edge detection doesn’t get fooled as often as some other phones. Just make sure your subject is well-lit — portrait shots are hit-or-miss if there’s not enough light in the frame.
With the press of a button, you can switch from taking photos with the primary lens to the secondary one for 2x optical zoom shots. You can go even further with 4x digital zoom, too.
On the front, the Key2 has an 8MP fixed-focus sensor with a ƒ/2.0 aperture and 1.12μm pixels. You can take some pretty good selfies with the Key2. Photos generally come out more natural looking than some other devices.
BlackBerry Key2 camera samples
The Key2’s software isn’t so different from the KeyOne. The stock BlackBerry Launcher looks about the same as it did last year, which feels a bit dated. It still ships with the Marshmallow-style app drawer button in the dock, as well as the paginated all apps screen that separates apps, widgets, and shortcuts.
BlackBerry’s software is still one of the most customizable versions of Android I’ve ever used. Pop-up widgets (aka Action Launcher’s Shutters) are back, allowing you to swipe up on an app icon to quickly access an app’s widget. You can also customize app name appearances on your home screen, switch between light and dark themes, and change your icon pack.
The Key2 runs Android 8.1 Oreo out of the box, and BlackBerry says it’ll receive an update to Android P at a later date — I’m not holding my breath. BlackBerry also said the KeyOne will be updated to Oreo, but that still hasn’t happened, even 10 months after Android 8 has been out.
Privacy takes center stage with fingerprint-locked photography and a Privacy Shade.
Looking past BlackBerry’s update history, the company included a handful of useful new privacy apps. My favorite new app is called Private Locker. This is a fingerprint-protected app that lets you hide things you normally wouldn’t want to appear in the main parts of your phone. Most people will probably use this to hide their naughty photos, but you can also store sensitive files and browse privately with the Firefox Focus browser, all within the Private Locker app. You can even hide apps in the Private Locker so they don’t appear in your app drawer.
I think the coolest thing about this feature is in the camera app. If you’re taking a picture of (ahem) sensitive materials, you can touch the fingerprint sensor to take a photo. This sends the photo right to the Private Locker, and it never touches your gallery app. Pretty neat.
There’s a new Privacy Shade feature too, which keeps the content on your screen hidden from prying eyes. Pulling down from the notification shade with three fingers will essentially black out all content on your screen except for a single area that you can control. This is handy if you need to read sensitive documents in public, for instance.
The Privacy Shade also has a Redactor tool that lets you black out certain sections of the screen before you share screenshots with other people.
All of BlackBerry’s other apps have returned on the Key2. The Productivity Tab still resides on the right side of the device, giving you quick access to upcoming calendar events, tasks, new messages, and more. The DTEK security suite will still monitor your device to make sure it’s as secure as can be. This time around, DTEK will monitor apps’ foreground and background access and tell you when applications are running.
Of course, everyone’s favorite BlackBerry Hub is here too. This app curates all your messages — email, text, app notification, and more — into one easy-to-use timeline. It’s still a bit of a battery drainer, but I’d say it’s worth giving a try if you own a BlackBerry. It’s just too convenient to pass up.
Overall, I really like BlackBerry’s software approach. The company is keeping things as bare as can be, only throwing in a few apps and services where it needs to. This is similar to OnePlus’ and HTC’s software strategy, though BlackBerry tends to focus on privacy and security. If you’re looking for a phone that’s private and secure, the Key2 might be one of your best options.
4.5-inch IPS LCD
1,620 x 1,080 resolution
3:2 aspect ratio
Corning Gorilla Glass 3
Touch-enabled 35 key backlit physical QWERTY keyboard
Integrated fingerprint sensor
Qualcomm Snapdragon 660
2.2 + 1.8GHz, 64-bit
Kryo 260 octa-core
microSD expansion up to 256GB
Main: 12MP sensor with an ƒ/1.8 aperture and 1.28μm pixels, dual phase detect autofocus
Second: 12MP sensor with an ƒ/2.6 aperture and 1μm pixels, phase detect auto focus
HDR, 4K video recording at 30fps
8MP fixed-focus sensor with an ƒ/2.0 aperture and 1.12μm pixels
1080p video recording at 30fps
3.5mm headphone jack
HD audio for improved audio playback
Optimized deal microphone placement for active noise cancellation
Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0
BBF100-1 — EU, Africa, AU, Japan
FDD-LTE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 19, 20, 26, 28, 32
TD-LTE 38, 39, 40, 41
BBF100-2 — Canada, US, LATAM
FDD-LTE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 17, 20, 28, 29, 30, 66
TD-LTE 38, 39, 40, 41
BBF100-4 — China
FDD-LTE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 20, 26, 28
TD-LTE 34, 38, 39, 40, 41
BBF100-6 (Dual-SIM version) — ME, APAC, India, Indo
FDD-LTE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 19, 20, 26, 28, 32
TD-LTE 38, 39, 40, 41
All variants: HSPA+ 1,2,4,5/6,8
Quad Band GSM/GPRS/Edge
802.11 b/g/n for 2.4GHz, 802.11 a/n and a/c for 5GHz
4G mobile hotspot, Wi-Fi direct
Bluetooth 5.0 LE
USB Type-C (USB 3.0)
USB OTG, NFC, FM radio, support DP through Type-C port
Android 8.1 Oreo
151.4 x 71.8 x 8.5mm
Pricing, availability, and final thoughts
You’ll be able to pre-order the BlackBerry Key2 on June 29 for $649.99, with the phone’s official launch slated for July 13. No carrier partners have been announced, though you will be able to pre-order it from Amazon and Best Buy.
$650 is a lot of money for a smartphone, especially considering that the OnePlus 6 is available for more than $100 less. BlackBerry isn’t really marketing the Key2 towards the same consumers as OnePlus, though.
Every phone looks the same in 2018. The LG G7 looks like the OnePlus 6, the OnePlus 6 looks like the Huawei P20, and all of these phones look like the iPhone X. The BlackBerry Key2 doesn’t look like any other phone on the market. That’s huge. If you’re looking for something unique that stands out, the Key2 should be at the top of your list.
The Key2 is a worthy successor to the KeyOne, delivering slick performance, fluid software, and useful productivity features.
Of course, you should know what you’re getting yourself into. This won’t be a phone for VR fans. It’s not powered by a blazing-fast processor. Gaming on a 4.5-inch screen doesn’t exactly provide a stellar user experience, nor does watching wide-screen video.
BlackBerry set out to create a phone for people who value productivity over multimedia, and uniqueness over monotony. I think it delivered in spades.
Blackberry Key2 coverage:
- BlackBerry KEY2 specs: The KEY2 offers many improvements over its predecessor. Here’s the full list of KEY2 specs.
- BlackBerry KEY2 price, availability, deals, and release date: Head here to find out even more BlackBerry KEY2 pricing and availability details.
- Our favorite BlackBerry KEY2 features: The KEY2 is one of the more unique smartphones on the market. Join us as we round up our favorite KEY2 features!