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BlackBerry Key2 review

IT managers will want to buy the BlackBerry Key2 LE, but you won’t

BlackBerry Key2
MSRP $455.99
“BlackBerry returns to its business roots with the Key2 LE, and in shunning high-tech features, the phone borders on the boring.”
Pros
  • Good, if basic, typing experience
  • Lightweight, neat design
  • Secure version of Android
  • Software emphasizes security and privacy
Cons
  • Poor camera
  • Lacks exciting, standout features
  • Mediocre gaming and media experience

The BlackBerry Key2 showed how the world is coming around to accepting a phone with a physical keyboard again. It took 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. The interest is there, and BlackBerry is keen to exploit it.

But as much as we really like the Key2, it’s not cheap. BlackBerry now has an answer with the BlackBerry Key2 LE, a budget conscious Key2 that’s billed as a more accessible entry point into the Key2 range. The flagship Key2 is everything a 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 tries to hit all those points at a cheaper $400 price point, but it doesn’t hit the mark. The sacrifices made nix reasons to buy this phone.

Colorful design

Let’s talk about the design first. It’s definitely a BlackBerry, and highly reminiscent of the Key2, so if you didn’t like the premium BlackBerry, you won’t be impressed by the Key2 LE. It’s a neat design, and the colors do help it stand out. The body is made from polycarbonate, a cost-saving measure, but the body doesn’t feel plasticky. It’s a cool, pleasing texture.

There are three colors, and it’s the red — which BlackBerry calls atomic red — you’ll want. 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. You should ignore the boring slate version.

On the pretty champagne/blue Key2 LE, seen in our photos, the sides have a subtle brushed effect to fool onlookers into thinking it’s metal. The polycarbonate body also makes the Key2 LE lighter than the Key2, and the back cover has a dimpled, soft-touch finish that enhances grip. It’s not a phone that’s going to slip out of your hand, but it does tend to attract oil and grease, making it look unattractive until it’s given a wipe.

Typing on the Key2 LE is quick, once you get used to using the shortcuts BlackBerry provides.

In the Key2 LE’s favour is the fact that outside of the Key2, it doesn’t resemble any other smartphone available at the moment. It’s obviously a BlackBerry, and that alone will attract people, and is something BlackBerry itself pushes as a benefit in these times of notches and similar designs. The fingerprint sensor is placed inside the space bar, like the Key2, and is surprisingly natural to press, with superb reliability and speed. There’a a 3.5mm headphone jack, the buttons are all on the right hand side of the device, and the power key is textured to make it easy to find.

The Key2 LE is more pocketable than the Key2 due to the lower weight, and has a singular, individual look that’s unmistakably a BlackBerry; but it’s missing the solid, premium, reassuringly expensive feel of the Key2. This is a problem. If you ache for the days when a BlackBerry made you look like a successful high-flyer, and want to replicate that today, the Key2 manages to do that. The Key2 LE is the phone the IT department forces you to use because it’s secure, and cheap. Hardly the stuff of dreams.

Solid screen, sufficient performance

The Key2 LE’s LCD screen is 4.5-inches and has a 1,630 x 1,080 pixel resolution. It is the same as the Key2, which means we do occasionally miss the wonderful contrast and black-levels from an OLED, but sharpness and clarity looks impressive. What it’s not is a screen to devour a Netflix series in quick succession, as it’s simply not as large or cinematic as a phone without a physical keyboard.

BlackBerry Key2 LE review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Holding it in landscape orientation actually feels wrong, as the keyboard is obviously not supposed work that way around. It makes you feel like the Key2 LE is doing something alien, and would rather you were banging out an email or two instead. If you can get past this, watching YouTube and other videos works well, and the screen is happy at a 1080p resolution, so you still get a high definition experience.

The same problem occurs if you’re expecting to enjoy long gaming sessions. Playing casual games in portrait orientation is no problem, but trying to play more complicated games in landscape is more annoying as these titles are often designed for edge-to-edge displays, or at least, those without keyboards. Buttons are awkward to press, the keyboard gets in the way, and the screen feels small and cramped. It’s not impossible to play, but you probably won’t want to do it for long.

There’s sufficient performance for decent gaming and media provided by a Snapdragon 636 processor and 4GB of RAM, plus 32GB of internal storage and a MicroSD card slot.

We ran some benchmarks for comparison with other devices.

  • AnTuTu 3D: 116,113
  • Geekbench 4: 1,348 single-core; 4,946 multi-core
  • 3DMark Sling Shot Extreme: 763 (Vulkan)

These are lower than the $650 Key2’s scores, but they improve on the $300 Asus Zenfone 5Q, and the $400 Motorola Moto G6 Plus too. They’re very close to the excellent $350 .

The numbers don’t tell the whole story, as for the most part the Key2 LE never feels sluggish during normal use. It’s quite spry, only betraying its middle-of-the-road processor when opening apps — there is a slight delay compared to more powerful phones — and trying to deal with graphically-intensive games. It’s to be expected, and anyone wanting blinding speed and gaming prowess is looking at the wrong phone in the first place. It’s not for that, it’s for typing and productivity.

Keyboard

The BlackBerry Key2 made me a believer. The physical keyboard is well designed with expertly crafted individual keys, an intuitive gesture system, and a steep but satisfying learning curve for newcomers. The Key2 LE’s keyboard has been reduced in size by 10 percent over the Key2, but the matte finish remains, as does the Speed Key shortcut system. BlackBerry has removed the capacitive feature, so there’s no gestures to speed up the typing experience, or to move the cursor around the screen.

The matte finish is a winning decision, as your fingers glide nicely across the keys, and there is a wonderfully satisfying click when you press. It’s a credit to the BlackBerry team just how good the keyboard feels and operates.

BlackBerry Key2 LE review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

By removing all the capacitive features for the Key2 LE, BlackBerry forced me to adopt a new system to speed up my typing, which was to work both the physical keyboard and the virtual on-screen keyboard at the same time, just for different functions. The virtual Android keyboard has a selection of shortcuts to things like emojis, and can be swiped to one side to reveal quick responses and a number pad. It’s also faster to select punctuation than using the physical keyboard, and adding new words to the dictionary is simple. You can swipe up on the virtual keyboard to insert suggested words, but it’s not as fast or as natural to do so as it is on the Key2’s physical keyboard.

While all this did speed things up, it reduces the amount of visible screen. Typing on the Key2 LE is quick, once you get used to using the shortcuts BlackBerry provides, but typing on the Key2 is more satisfying. Oddly, the Key2 LE has a less severe learning curve for those coming from a touchscreen than the Key2, due to the additional reliance on the virtual keyboard to get things done.

Convenience and software

The Key2 LE includes all of the security and privacy features seen on the Key2, including Locker and the Privacy Shade, but the convenience key on the side of the phone has seen some changes. It now directly opens Google Assistant with a single press, Google Lens with a double press, and a long press to launch Assistant without the need to use the wake word. Its usefulness depends on how much you interact with Assistant on a daily basis. The same with Google Lens.

BlackBerry Key2 LE review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

BlackBerry’s handy slide-in Productivity Tab is similar. It’s a handy repository for Android widgets, quick glance information, and all your messages. It takes time to set up, but is worth it, as it can be a time saver. Firefox Focus is pre-installed for private browsing, and a selection of apps can be duplicated for work and private use.

All of this, and the many privacy features such as passcode protected images and files, will appeal to those who use their phone for both personal and business activities, or to those who may share their phone. However, not everyone will find a need to use them all the time, but it’s nice to know these features are not only there, but are simple to use and reliable when you need them. In addition to the privacy features, BlackBerry makes a point of emphasising how secure its version of Android is — from the hardened kernel and the DTEK security checks, to the Secure Boot system and the BlackBerry Locker app — ensuring it is suitable for business use.

Android 8.1 Oreo is still installed on our review Key2 LE, despite a promised update to Android 9.0 Pie. We would have preferred it to have arrived by now, and are also disappointed to see the security patch level is still dated September 1, while our Key2 has the October patch.

The best Key2 LE convenience feature is the Speed Key.

We did experience some hesitation when swiping between home screens, as the screen seemed to fail to recognize the swipe gesture, which may be to do with the reduced screen size — it thought we were trying to open an app.

The minimal visual enhancements mean Android looks clean and uncluttered, but there are a lot of BlackBerry services and apps installed. Remember, the hardware is designed and made by TCL Communications, and BlackBerry is a software company these days. It wants you to invest in its ecosystem, and there’s no escape from it on a modern BlackBerry phone.

The best Key2 LE convenience feature is the Speed Key. Each key on the keyboard can be assigned as a shortcut, from opening an app to performing specific functions, which are then activated by holding the Speed Key and tapping the relevant letter. F for Facebook, for example. It’s a genuinely helpful feature that everyone will benefit from.

Camera takes a step back

BlackBerry has stepped up its camera game since the KeyOne, and the Key2 LE has a dual-lens setup with a 13-megapixel, f/2.2 aperture camera, and a 5-megapixel, f/2.4 aperture secondary lens. It has phase detection autofocus, HDR, and can shoot portrait-style bokeh shots. The video camera can even shoot 4K video at 30fps.

No-one is going to buy a BlackBerry Key2 LE for its camera.

Provided you’re taking pictures during the day, the Key2 LE performs well enough, but photos don’t jump off the screen. Throw in some challenging lighting conditions and it gets much worse. Shadow dulls the overall image, and in anything other than good light, it takes very poor pictures. Low-light and night-time images are bad.

Portrait mode is solid, with well-defined edges around the subject, but it really struggles indoors, especially if the light is low. It endlessly told us there was not enough light to activate the Depth Effect mode, yet the iPhone XS Max took the photo we wanted instantly with startlingly good results. The 8-megapixel selfie camera is similarly underwhelming.

BlackBerry Key2 LE review
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

The camera app doesn’t impress either. It’s slow to respond, the modes are switched after tapping another menu key, which feels long-winded, and to switch back to standard camera mode the same menu needs to be brought up again. Switching between portrait and standard camera mode takes a couple of seconds, and feels too long.

No-one is going to buy a BlackBerry Key2 LE for its camera, but after the improvements shown with the Key2, this feels like a step back. For the price, there are phones with vastly superior cameras on the back, and that’s a problem for the Key2 LE.

More than a day of battery

A 3,000mAh battery lives inside the Key2 LE, and the USB Type-C charging supports Quick Charge 3.0, but not wireless charging. Despite the relatively small capacity of the cell, the Key2 LE has been lasting a full day and a half with solid use, and if it was switched off overnight, it’d likely last two working days. A daily charge has been necessary for us though.

Price, availability, and warranty

In the U.S. the 64GB Key2 LE costs $450, and there is a 32GB version for $400, but neither are available directly through BlackBerry’s website or any carriers. Amazon often has the slate-coloured version in stock, and Best Buy is also an outlet for the Key 2 LE. A wider launch may come in the near future. The Key2 LE is available now in the U.K. for 400 British pounds, and across Europe too. The warranty lasts for a year, and BlackBerry will repair or replace a defective device free of charge.

Our Take

Here’s the bottom line: The BlackBerry Key2 LE is a business phone, for businesses to buy. It doesn’t have the same high-tech attraction of the Key2, and the substandard camera and small screen mean it can’t quite cut it as a smartphone all-rounder.

Is there a better alternative?

Yes. The Key2 LE feels more like a BlackBerry of old, with fewer high-tech features than the Key2, pulling the emphasis back towards the presence of a physical keyboard and high levels of security. However, because it’s relatively basic, there are far more interesting smartphones available for a similar price.

The $350 Nokia 7.1 is an excellent choice, as is the Nokia 6.1, and the 230 British pound Honor 8X. Spend a little more and the OnePlus 6T is yours, and that feels like a phone from the future compared to the Key2 LE. Yes, they’re aimed at very different people, but phones need to perform many different tasks today, and the OnePlus is more versatile and will last longer.

If a physical keyboard is calling you, then we’d strongly suggest spending more to get the Key2. It’s next-gen technology inside a classic BlackBerry shell, and we like that a lot. The Key2 LE is familiar BlackBerry tech inside a classic BlackBerry shell, and we like it less.

How long will it last?

We’re pleased to see a MicroSD card slot alongside the 32GB of internal storage space, which is a little small by modern standards. The 64GB version is more expensive, but worth it for longevity. The phone does not have water resistance — the keyboard makes this difficult — and it’s not a rugged body. However, it does feel hard wearing, and we doubt it’ll break at the slightest drop. However, a case will increase the chances of its survival in a more serious fall.

An update to Android 9.0 Pie is promised, but as it stands right now, the phone has out-of-date software. It’s unknown when precisely the update will arrive. The phone does not have the fastest processor inside, and therefore may struggle to keep up with the latest apps and games after two years ownership. However, for general use, it will happily last for that time.

Should you buy it?

No. We like reinvigorated BlackBerry when it’s doing interesting, forward-thinking things, and shaking up the familiar BlackBerry formula. The Key2 LE exists for a good-for-BlackBerry business reason — it’s for IT departments to bulk buy and hand out to staff — but it’s not a phone regular consumers should consider as a daily device. You’ll get a lot more satisfaction and enjoyment from the regular BlackBerry Key2, and the many other great smartphones available for a similar price.

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