BlackBerry Key2 LE hands-on review

Lower your expectations, here comes the BlackBerry Key2 LE

The LE in BlackBerry’s Key2 LE smartphone should stand for lowered expectations.
The LE in BlackBerry’s Key2 LE smartphone should stand for lowered expectations.
The LE in BlackBerry’s Key2 LE smartphone should stand for lowered expectations.

Highs

  • Atomic red color is a winner
  • Cheaper than the Key2
  • Keyboard feels good to type on

Lows

  • No capacitive keyboard feature
  • Limited appeal

The BlackBerry Key2 shows how the world is coming around to accepting a phone with a physical keyboard again. It has taken just three months for TCL Communications — the company that licences the BlackBerry name for hardware — to release the Key2 worldwide, compared to the nine months it took the KeyOne to launch across the same regions. This shows the level of interest out there, and how keen BlackBerry is to exploit it.

But as much as we really like the Key2, it’s not cheap. BlackBerry now has the answer with the Key2 LE, a budget conscious Key2 that’s billed as a more accessible entry point into the Key2 range.

It’s a modern BlackBerry that harks back to BlackBerry’s of old, but not always in a good way. The Key2 is everything a new smartphone should be — visually enticing, technologically innovative, and engrossing to use with a wide variety of features. It looks, feels, and operates like a premium smartphone worthy of its price. The Key2 LE is cheaper, 350 British pounds or in the U.S. about $200 to $250 less than the $650 Key2. But you’re making some sacrifices.

Design

Let’s talk about the design first. There are three colors, and it’s the red — which BlackBerry calls atomic red — you’ll want to pay attention to. Mostly because you won’t get a choice, as it’s the model BlackBerry will use to push the Key2 LE. Atomic is an appropriate moniker. It pops harder than Pennywise the clown’s red balloon, and we love how it extends to the frets between the keys. The soft-touch rear panel is a muted blue, and really complements the brightness of the polycarbonate body.

That’s right, polycarbonate. This is the first cost saving measure, and although it sounds serious, the body doesn’t feel plasticky. It’s actually a cool, pleasing texture. On the champagne/blue Key2 LE, the sides have a subtle brushed effect to fool onlookers into thinking it’s metal. It also makes the Key2 LE a little lighter than the Key2, which was in turn a lot lighter than the KeyOne. The Key2 LE’s screen and resolution is 4.5-inches and 1,630 x 1,080 pixels, and is the same as the Key2.

Under the screen is the reason why you would buy a BlackBerry phone: A physical keyboard. Well, it’s the reason you should buy a BlackBerry Key2, but we’re not sure if it’s the reason to buy the Key2 LE. BlackBerry has removed the capacitive feature, so there’s no swiping to speed up the typing experience, or to move the cursor around the screen. Is it a big deal? We think so, as it made the Key2’s keyboard more useful. The keyboard has also been reduced in size by 10 percent over the Key2, but the matte finish remains, as does the Speed Key shortcut system.

The Convenience Key comes configured to Google Assistant.

On the right-hand side of the phone is the Convenience Key, which is now, well, more convenient. BlackBerry allows it to be customized, so profiles can be added or removed depending on your use. Out of the box, the Convenience Key comes configured to Google Assistant. A single press opens Assistant, a long press activates a “walkie talkie” mode where you don’t need to use the OK Google wake-word, and a double press activates Google Lens. Other new software features include a way to clone apps like WhatsApp and include them in the BlackBerry Locker for additional privacy.

We like the design, as it closely resembles the Key2, and we love the new colors. It’s comfortable in the hand, and feels solidly made. The textured rear panel isn’t quite so pleasing as the Key2’s visually, but it provides plenty of grip. Typing on the Key2 LE felt similar to the Key2, and not more cramped despite the slight size reduction. The matte finish is still a winning decision, as your fingers glide nicely across the keys, but at least once I wanted to swipe up on the keyboard to “flick” an auto-suggested word on to the screen.

This, and all the other capacitive features the Key2 LE lacks, has the knock-on effect of slowing things down. Moving a finger from the keyboard to the screen doesn’t sound time-consuming, but it can be. Not introducing potentially frustrating elements to a likely new typing experience is very important, and the capacitive system on the Key2 helped avoid many of them. While newcomers to BlackBerry phones won’t notice, we’re here to tell you the capacitive keyboard is a feature you will want, and should pay out a little more for the Key2 to get it.

Specs and camera

Inside the Key2 LE is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor and 4GB of RAM, with 32GB of internal storage plus a MicroSD card if you want more space. A 64GB model will be sold in some regions, along with a dual-SIM version too.

Expect slightly lesser performance than the Key2, which is powered by the Snapdragon 660.

Battery life has also been cut a little, as the Key2 LE has a 3,000mAh capacity as opposed to the Key2’s 3,500mAh capacity. BlackBerry quotes 22 hours of moderate use.

We didn’t get much of a chance to try the camera out yet, but it’s a dual-camera setup on the rear with a 13-megapixel paired with a 5-megapixel lens. The front has the same selfie camera as the Key2 — an 8-megapixel shooter. You will undoubtedly get better photos from the more expensive Key2, though we’ll have to do some testing to see the difference.

Software-wise, although Android 8 Oreo is installed at the moment, an update to Android 9 Pie will come in the future.

Where does the Key2 LE stand?

It’s all a little confusing. The Key2 LE isn’t for someone who is also looking at an Honor Play, considering a OnePlus 6, or any other reasonably-priced Android phone. The atomic red version may look like it’s built for fun, but really, this is the equivalent of an accountant putting on a pair of Nike Air Max to walk to the train station after a long day crunching numbers. The slate-colored model is better representative of the Key2 LE’s intentions.

BlackBerry made no secret about how it expects the Key2 LE to appeal to businesses, and we can see how its low price and superb security features will be very attractive to firms wanting a job-lot of decent phones. After all, what says ‘successful business’ like a BlackBerry-wielding executive?

Well, that’s what it once said. The BlackBerry Key2 really did a good job of exorcising those demons, and is a phone we think many people will really like, especially in these always-connected, message-heavy times. It didn’t skimp on tech, and the capacitive keyboard made it cool. The Key2 LE, even with its atomic appeal, doesn’t have that. It’s a BlackBerry Curve, reimagined, which is a bit … boring. To sum up, the lower-spec, cheaper BlackBerry Key2 LE is a very good advertisement for the better, more technically-adept BlackBerry Key2. Even after only a short time with the phone, we’d suggest looking at it instead.

Pricing and availability

The BlackBerry Key2 LE will launch in September with final prices and regions to be announced soon. It’s 350 British Pounds in the U.K. and 400 euros in Europe. The champagne and ‘business-attire slate’ model will be released first, with the atomic red Key2 LE coming later.

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