MEGATech Reviews: BlackBerry KEY2 Android Smartphone
The BlackBerry KEY2 is very much geared toward a very specific kind of user and that user doesn't have many other choices to consider.
  • QWERTY keyboard with 52 shortcuts
  • Super solid build quality
  • Remarkable battery life
  • Mid-range specs and performance
  • Awkward 3:2 aspect ratio screen
  • Mediocre cameras
7Overall Score

It really wasn’t all that long ago that BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion was the undisputed king of smartphones. It also wasn’t all that long ago that the only people who carried around a smartphone were professionals who needed to be tethered to their email 24 hours a day. Now, we’re all tethered to the Internet all the time and smartphones are hardly “just for work” anymore. And BlackBerry is nowhere near the undisputed champion it once was.

And while nearly everyone has moved on to embracing the full touchscreen experience, a dedicated and passionate cohort of users still yearn for the tactile feedback of a physical keyboard. And for those select few, the unlocked BlackBerry KEY2 is almost the only choice they have if they want a new phone with a keyboard. Well, it starts shipping today and here’s why you may (or may not) want to get it.

The Keyboard Is Back

As can only be expected, the BlackBerry KEY2 borrows much of its inspiration from the KEYone that came before it, tossed in with a dash of the more recent BlackBerry Motion that we also reviewed earlier this year. The main attraction here, of course, is the physical QWERTY keyboard that also works like a touch-enabled trackpad. I never really used that function at all, but it’s there.

Even though this device is really only BlackBerry in name, as it’s made and sold by TCL, it’s clear that TCL has come a long way since it started with the DTEK series under the same banner. This feels like a BlackBerry with its solid build and textured back. It’s not leather, like some old ‘Berries, but it still gives the same reassuring grip.

To make room for the keyboard, the screen gets shrunken down to just 4.5-inches. The width is comparable to most other smartphones and it’s got 1080 pixels in that dimension, but the height is definitely shorter (at 1620 pixels), resulting in an odd 3:2 aspect ratio. This makes for some weird compromises in certain apps; Instagram Stories are cropped and YouTube videos have black bars. And unlike many current phones with extra tall screens, there’s no options to set for how you want the phone to accommodate non-3:2 content.

As far as specs go, you’ll need to settle on just a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 running the show, though you do an impressive 6 GB of RAM. The model as tested has 64 GB of internal storage, but there is supposed to be a 128 GB variant available as well. The black version is shown but it also comes in silver.

Charging of the 3,500 mAh battery (smaller than the 4,000 battery on the Motion, but still capable of true two-day battery) comes by way of USB-C, and then you’ve got microSD expansion, a 7000 series aluminium frame, dual 12MP rear cameras, 8MP selfie camera, Bluetooth 5.0 and Android 8.1 Oreo overlaid with BlackBerry’s skin. The earbuds that come with the phone are quite nice too with the angled driver look.

Tap, Tap, Tap…

So, this keyboard. That’s really the main draw here and the only real reason why you’d consider this phone over any other.

To be perfectly honest, it’s been a few years since I’ve used a keyboard-equipped phone and going back feels like, well, going backward. To be fair, as far as physical keyboards go, this one appears to be well designed. The keys are well spaced with angled edges for separation and a responsive “clicky” feel. This is fine for alphanumeric characters, but getting into symbols and punctuation just isn’t that great.

I’ve gotten too used to actually seeing the symbols change with on-screen keyboards, so it feel jarring to go back to an interface like this. And while there is the predictive text where you can swipe up on the keyboard to select the predicted word, it’s not as robust or as responsive as on the Motion where you’re given multiple clear options. Swiping up for the predicted word was actually slower than just trying to type it out.

Maybe there’s just a learning curve here and maybe diehard BlackBerry purists will feel differently.

The Modern BlackBerry Experience

One thing I really do like, which isn’t new in the KEY2, is the ability to set 52 shortcuts from the homescreen. Press the shortcut key in the bottom right and then any of the 26 letters for one set of shortcuts, and hold any of the 26 letters for a second set. It’s like the convenience key, but way broader in scope.

The rest of the interface and features are largely identical to the Motion, so I won’t repeat them here. You can read my review of the Motion for a little further discussion. Indeed, the outward dimensions of the Motion are almost the same as the KEY2. The layout is similar too, but there are some distinct differences too of course.

Whereas the Motion had a physical home button in the chin that doubled as the fingerprint reader, the space bar on the KEY2 serves as the fingerprint reader. The home, back, and multitasking buttons are placed in a touch-enabled row between the screen and the keyboard on the KEY2.

Both phones have the volume rocker at the top of the right side, followed by the power button, and the convenience key below that. But while the convenience key is textured on the Motion, it’s the power key that’s textured on the KEY2. I guess that makes more sense? And then you’ve got all the security features here too, like the Locker, data encryption, DTEK security checkup, and so forth.

The Dual Camera Configuration

If you’re hoping for the same kind of image quality we got out of something like the Google Pixel 2, you’re going to be sorely disappointed with what the BlackBerry KEY2 is able to achieve with its dual cameras. Like some other phones that do the two lenses on the back, the KEY2 has one with the standard FOV and the other with 2X telephoto zoom. These two shots were taken from the same physical location in front of my bookshelf.

The photos are just fine and hardly exceptional in any real way. The edges appear soft on the telephoto shot in particular and nothing really “pops” with the image quality.

I also found that several of the photos I took, even in fairly decent (if not especially bright) lighting conditions came out hazy, as was the case with this Duplo set. Everything is a little muted and not especially sharp.

BlackBerry KEY2 Benchmarks

As far as benchmark performance goes, the BlackBerry KEY2 earned a performance score of 6219 in the PCMark Work 2.0 benchmark and an overall score of 1364 in the Sling Shot Extreme – OpenGL ES 3.1 benchmark in 3DMark. That places it in the same range as the Sony Xperia Z4 and the Samsung Galaxy A8 (2016). These phones are hardly “new” or top of the line by today’s standards.

In Geekbench, the BlackBerry KEY2 managed a single-core score of 1620 and a multi-core score of 5850. For perspective, the Samsung Galaxy S8+ got 1854 and 6291, respectively, in our testing. Based on the results shown within the benchmark app itself, the KEY2 slots somewhere between the original Google Pixel and the OnePlus 3.

And finally, the phone received a score of 140705 in AnTuTu, which actually puts it well below even the OnePlus 3 and the ZTE Axon 7. In short, you cannot possibly expect anywhere near top-tier performance out of the KEY2, but it was never meant to smash these benchmarks anyhow. That’s the trade-off you get for the productivity focus and the amazing battery life.

MEGATechie Just My Type or MEGATechie Quirky QWERTY Qonundrum?

It’s clear enough that this phone was designed and marketed with a very specific customer in mind. This is the person who is far more concerned about email and productivity than they are about social media and online video. They yearn for the tactile feel of a physical QWERTY keyboard. They want a phone that’s built like a tank and can easily handle a busy workday without reaching for the charging cable.

In the grand scheme of things, this ideal customer for the KEY2 makes up a very small portion of the overall smartphone market. Whereas everyone else wants great cameras, brilliant displays, and the optimal multimedia and gaming experience, the KEY2 customer just wants a BBM buddy. And there aren’t too many of those around anymore either.

The BlackBerry KEY2 is available now for $649.99 US in your choice of black or silver. Canadian pricing is set at $830 for the unlocked phone or you can pick it up on contract through Bell, Rogers, SaskTel or Telus.

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