BlackBerry Key2 hands-on review

Here's what the BlackBerry Key2's camera is capable of capturing

The BlackBerry Key2 is the perfect, refined successor to the nostalgic KeyOne.
The BlackBerry Key2 is the perfect, refined successor to the nostalgic KeyOne.
The BlackBerry Key2 is the perfect, refined successor to the nostalgic KeyOne.

Highs

  • Excellent keyboard, handy new Speed Key
  • Beautiful design
  • Speedy performance, good battery life
  • Good display
  • Lots of privacy- and security-focused features

Lows

  • Headphone jack isn’t centered

Enough with the nostalgia, it’s back to business for BlackBerry. The BlackBerry Key2 is its follow-up to last year’s surprise hit, the BlackBerry KeyOne. Yes, BlackBerry is still around. Yes, there’s a physical keyboard. No, it’s not BlackBerry OS, but Android.

To be clear, it’s TCL Communications that makes the devices now and licenses the BlackBerry Mobile brand name, though BlackBerry Limited in Canada still handles the software and security updates. The Key2 is a spectacularly refined successor, improving on the KeyOne in every single way. If the Key2 were a person, it would be the dashing CEO to a successful megacorporation. It redefines suave.

Updated on June 20: We’ve added a few more impressions and a gallery of photos taken with the Key2.  A full review is coming soon.

Elegant and charming

Put the Key2 next to the KeyOne, and the differences are striking. The Key2, which is a tad taller, oozes elegance. It’s thinner and more angular all around, with chamfered edges offering a firm grip when held in the palm. The utilitarian design strips away all unnecessary fluff on the front of the phone.

The 4.5-inch screen moves up a little, and the bezels surrounding the display have shrunk, giving the Key2 a slightly more contemporary look. You’ll still find capacitive Android navigation controls below the screen, but all the other buttons on the phone are now on the right edge — including the power button and the Convenience Key. The power button is textured, so you’ll know which one you’re about to press.

At the bottom is a USB Type-C charging port, with speaker grilles surrounding it, and at the top edge is a headphone jack that’s slightly off-center. This slightly askew placement may be the only design flaw we’ve found with the Key2: It just looks strange, and we compulsively want to correct it ourselves.

If the Key2 were a person, it would be the dashing CEO to a successful megacorporation. It redefines suave.

The back of the phone isn’t too different from the KeyOne. The soft-touch material feels nice to the touch, and best of all, it doesn’t capture grubby fingerprint marks like most glass phones these days. It’ll almost always look presentable. The camera isn’t as big and bold as the KeyOne. There are two lenses now, but they manage to look understated.

The IPS LCD screen has a 1,620 x 1,080 pixel resolution, with a pixel density of 434 pixels per inch and a 3:2 aspect ratio. The screen looks sharp, colorful, and bright enough to see on an overcast day. Blacks don’t look as rich as we’ve seen on OLED screens, but we didn’t have any qualms about the 4.5-inch display here. It’s protected by Gorilla Glass 3, which is a bit of a disappointment as most flagship phones use the stronger Gorilla Glass 5.

Despite being slightly taller in length than its predecessor, the Key2 is 12 grams lighter, and feels comfortable to hold. We also didn’t have any problems reaching the top of the screen. The only downside with the build of the phone is that it’s still not water resistant. It’s unfortunate, but understandable considering the technical hurdle with a physical keyboard.

The Key2 looks sharp, suave, and elegant. There are two color options: Silver and Black. We’re torn on which we’d pick, because we love the subtle look of the all-black color; but the accents on the silver color really do elevate the refined design of the Key2. It’s a good problem to have.

The perfect keyboard, and a new key

The Key2, like the KeyOne, is all about the physical keyboard. If it’s not good, then what’s the point? The company told Digital Trends it spent an enormous amount of time playing around with different designs of the keyboard to make sure it’s perfect. It is. We can’t think of a better word to describe it.

We’ve talked about transitioning from an iPhone X touchscreen keyboard to the BlackBerry KeyOne keyboard — a fun experiment, but our typing speed became a lot slower. With the Key2, moving the screen a little higher means there’s more room at the bottom for a slightly bigger keyboard. The raised frets are gone between the rows of keys, the keys are a tad bigger, and in general, there’s more breathing room.

Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The matte keys slope down a bit, and they deliver a satisfying tactile sensation when pressed — they’re not too mushy, but they’re certainly not stiff. The extra room really does help us type faster. That’s not to mention the fact that the backlit keyboard is still capacitive, meaning you can flick upwards under the predictive word bar to use suggested words quickly for even faster typing.

The keyboard also doubles as a trackpad, allowing you to scroll through the Android operating system and apps. Each key also can be mapped to an app or shortcut twice — a short press and a long press. For example, tap the M key to launch Google Maps, and then press and hold the M key to launch a messaging app. That’s a lot of shortcuts, and they’re often easy to remember. It helps minimize contact with the touchscreen, so your fingers are always close to the convenient keyboard.

The matte keys slope down a bit, and they deliver a satisfying tactile sensation when pressed.

But the biggest change to the Key2’s keyboard is the addition of a new key. It’s called the Speed Key, and it replaces the extra shift key that sat on the far right side of the keyboard. If you’re in an app, press and hold the Speed Key, and then short tap or long tap any other key to jump to a remapped app. It’s kind of like alt-tabbing on a computer, but it gets you where you want to go much faster — perfect for multi-taskers. For example, if you’re in Chrome, but you want to jump to Gmail, press and hold the Speed Key, and then tap the G key (presuming you’ve remapped the G key to Gmail). You’ll jump straight into the app, without having to exit Chrome, opening the app drawer, and finding the Gmail icon.

We’ve fallen in love with the Key2’s keyboard in the brief time we’ve played around with it. Will it make us transition from a touchscreen keyboard? Maybe. Most likely not. But there’s a niche group of people that adore physical keyboards and desire them, and that’s who BlackBerry is successfully targeting.

Strong specifications, improved security and privacy

The Key2 is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 660 processor with 6GB of RAM, which should be plenty of power for most people. The extra RAM will help with multitasking, but the Snapdragon 660 is no Snapdragon 845. The latter processor powers flagship phones like the Samsung Galaxy S9 and is more capable. Still, in our brief time with the phone, we encountered zero hiccups moving throughout the OS. Apps opened quickly and fluidly. We’ll do more testing to see if the Snapdragon 660 is capable enough.

There’s 64GB of internal storage in the U.S. model, and a 128GB model will be available in certain markets. There’s a MicroSD card slot too, so you can add more space when you need it.

blackberry key2 typing email
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The Key2 has a 3,500mAh battery capacity, which means it should still offer fantastic battery life. It’s only 5mAh smaller than the battery on the KeyOne, which could easily stay powered for two days. It supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0, so you can juice up faster.

The phone runs Android 8.1 Oreo, and BlackBerry said it will get two Android version upgrades. That means it will get Android P, though maybe not immediately after it’s launched, and it will get Android Q in 2019. The software is mostly stock Android, but there are a few changes made by BlackBerry and a whole lot of BlackBerry apps. The most noticeable visual addition is the BlackBerry Productivity Tab, which sticks out on the right edge of the screen — it now lets you add widgets, so you don’t need to swipe through too many home screens.

It’s only 5mAh smaller than the battery on the KeyOne, which could easily stay powered for two days.

The apps present on the phone will mostly be familiar for BlackBerry users, but there are a few new ones and big updates to older apps. There’s the BlackBerry Hub, where you can see all your notifications, BBM, BlackBerry Privacy Shade, and Locker. The Locker app now lets you store and hide apps, requiring a passcode or fingerprint activation (via the spacebar key) to open them. Handy if you want to keep a dating app a secret from coworkers, or other sensitive files. Locker also now has the privacy-focused Firefox Focus browser pre-installed, which deletes browsing history as soon as you leave the app. The default browser on the phone is still Chrome.

Photos taken with the fingerprint sensor are also hidden away in the gallery app, and they’re not uploaded to the Google Photos cloud — another privacy-friendly feature. A new app called Power Center tells you what apps are draining your battery, and it learns your charging habits so it will send an alert when it knows you won’t make it to your typical charging window.

BlackBerry said it has employed the use of machine learning throughout the operating system as well. For example, the DTEK app will tell you if there’s an app accessing sensitive information like a microphone, and you can deny the request. This happens after you have agreed to allow the app to access the microphone through Google Play permissions, as an extra security measure.

The Convenience Key — the physical button below the power button — now has three modes. There’s a Car profile, a Meeting profile, and a Home profile. So if you press the button when the phone is connected to your car’s Bluetooth, then it will present you with three pre-configured apps of your choosing such as Google Maps, or Spotify. The Work profile apps will show up when you’re connected to your work Wi-Fi, and your Home apps will be present on your home Wi-Fi. It’s succinctly convenient.

It can all feel overwhelming, but the minor redesigns and updates to apps and BlackBerry services in the Key2 make it fairly accessible for the average person to adapt to and use.

Dual camera

Jumping on the dual camera trend, BlackBerry’s Key2 has two 12-megapixel cameras on the back.

Jumping on the dual camera trend, BlackBerry’s Key2 has two 12-megapixel cameras on the back — one with an f/1.8 aperture, and the other with an f/2.6 aperture. There’s 2x optical zoom now, as well as a Portrait Mode. The shutter can react quickly sometimes, but it can also be very slow. We’ve often ended up taking a lot of unusable, blurry photos due to shutter lag. When it’s fast, though, photos taken in good lighting look pretty good. Even the Portrait Mode works relatively well, adding blur around a subject.

Sadly, the 2x zoom option doesn’t look good at all. It often strips away a lot of detail, and you’re better off not using it. The Key2 also doesn’t perform well in low-light environments. Photos are either blurry or incredibly sharp. We’ll be doing more testing until the full review.

Price and availability

The BlackBerry Key2 costs $650, and it will be available in the U.S. starting on July 13. It will be available from Amazon and Best Buy, with pre-orders kicking off on June 29, and it will only work on GSM networks like AT&T and T-Mobile (at least for now). It’s slightly more expensive than last year’s KeyOne, and but we think the build quality and dedication to creating the perfect keyboard is going to make this phone worth its price tag — especially considering there are hardly any phones out there with a physical keyboard.

Sure, it doesn’t have the Snapdragon 845 like the OnePlus 6, but again, the people buying this phone care more about the keyboard than raw specifications. We can’t wait to use the Key2 more and put it through its paces.

Updated on June 21: Added U.S. availability news.