How often do you write? You know, with a real pen? Me, not so often anymore, and certainly not longer than a few paragraphs in a birthday card.
I enjoy the process of writing, sure, and even long for the simpler days of Grade 2 cursive homework and university exam notebooks, but every time I think about pulling out my old Moleskine to jot down some thoughts, they end up on Google Keep instead. New habits die hard and all that.
I do this despite the knowledge that writing is more deliberate, more thoughtful, and ultimately more creative. There are studies. Typing is just faster, and it allows me to accomplish more in a given time frame. Typing doesn't preclude creativity, but there's a dryness to it; it's perfunctory.
I've been thinking about this lately as the industry decides once again whether to embrace a phone with a physical keyboard. Ubiquitous 10 years ago and still common in 2012, BlackBerry's hardware legacy disappeared so quickly it's almost like it was erased. And in some ways it was. Erased by bigger, taller, more versatile touchscreens, with better keyboards that made fewer mistakes.
But, like the creative power of the pen, was the keyboard phone's absence making us worse communicators? Were we falling back on shorthand, on emojis, because virtual keyboards replaced efficiency with adaptability? And is the BlackBerry KEY2 the phone to prove us all wrong?
Not quite, but it makes a sparkling attempt at it.
Price: $649 USD / $829 CAD
Bottom line: BlackBerry does right by its keyboard-loving smartphone fans, but there's enough here to attract even the staunchest of skeptics. BlackBerry just has to get them to put aside their ambivalence.
- Keyboard is a huge improvement over KEYone
- Design improvements are transformational
- Camera can be very good in decent light
- Lots of small productivity boosters included in the software
- Exceptional battery life
- Screen is too dark to use outdoors
- Camera is very bad in low light
- Single speaker is tinny and underpowered
- Performance isn't good enough for the price
Less is more
BlackBerry KEY2 The hardware
|Operating System||Android 8.1 Oreo|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 660
4x Kryo 2.2GHz, 4x Kryo 1.8GHz
Adreno 512 GPU
|Storage||64GB / 128GB|
|Expandable||microSD up to 2TB|
|Rear Camera 1||12MP (1.3 micron) ƒ/1.8
dual-tone LED flash
|Rear Camera 2||12MP (1 micron) ƒ/2.6
2x optical zoom
|Dimensions||151.4 x 71.8 x 8.5 mm|
As far as sequels go, this one is pretty conservative. But given the KEYone's loyal following, and projected success (though TCL hasn't released sales figures), changing too much would be construed as a betrayal.
But BlackBerry focused on improving areas of criticism from the first phone, especially performance. To that end, the phone has a beefier Snapdragon 660 — a substantial upgrade from the Snapdragon 625 of the original — along with 6GB of RAM in every model and an ample 64 or 128GB of storage. It has dual rear cameras, a stronger series 7 aluminum frame, and a drastically improved keyboard with keys 20% larger, and far more tactile, than on the KEYone.
Both the robust frame and redesigned keyboard are part of an overall cleanup and modernization of the phone's exterior. Most importantly, the bulbous front camera and sensor cutouts of the KEYone have been more seamlessly integrated into the bezel atop the 4.5-inch LCD panel, and the earpiece is more sunken, allowing for richer sound.
This is easily the best-looking BlackBerry ever made, and that includes the Bold. Don't @ me.
In fact, despite the presence of the keyboard, the KEY2 looks far more like a traditional phone than its predecessor in almost every respect. Thankfully, that extends to the placement of the power button, which is wedged between the convenience key and volume rocker on the right side of the phone. Its ridged texture distinguishes itself from the other buttons, which is a nice touch, but the fact that it's there, on the right side where it should be, is reason enough for me to get excited about this phone. (I'm kidding, but not really.)
This leaves the left side of the phone to deal with the SIM tray alone, all angles and matte finish. Putting the KEY2 next to the KEYone shows exactly where TCL's designers focused their energy: on removing the shiny, cartoonish elements of the original. The KEY2 comes in two colors, black or silver, and both feature brushed aluminum finishes that speak more to my understanding of BlackBerry's professional legacy.
And even if your association with BlackBerry is more BBM than holster, the takeaway for everyone looking at the KEY2 without irony (because many people still view a physical keyboard on a phone as a useless indulgence) is that it's objectively much better looking than its predecessor.
That brings us to the keyboard. BlackBerry Mobile says the keys are 20% larger than before, and more evenly spaced thanks to redesigned frets. But perhaps the most significant improvement is the key finish, which is also matte.
That's a big deal, because while the glossy KEYone may have looked good out of the box — all shiny and new — the keys got grimy and slippery after a few month's use. So far, that hasn't happened with this one.
Continuing the KEY2 tour, around back there's a familiar texture that makes the phone incredibly comfortable to hold and use. But it is top-heavy — more so than the KEYone — which affects how I hold it when I type.
In many respects, the KEY2 is more akin to a slider like the Torch than a traditional BlackBerry like the Bold or Curve. Despite being 12 grams lighter than its predecessor, the phone lilts backwards unless I'm propping it up with a pinky underneath, positioning my right thumb below my left.
This display is one of the phone's most underwhelming components, and undermines its $649 price.
On large phones with virtual keyboards, this isn't a problem because the pressure needed to execute a letter tap is negligible, but on the KEY2 I've yet to find a typing position that's both comfortable and conducive to accurate typing. This is 100% my issue, and will likely not affect anyone coming from a KEYone, but it's something to keep in mind if upgrading from an older BlackBerry or an all-touch device.
My one main issue with the hardware is the display. It's dim — far too dim to comfortably use outside. This is the same panel that was in the KEYone, and it was merely mediocre then. Now it's outright disappointing. Adding insult to injury, the display's touch response is worse than most other flagships; it's not sensitive enough to pick up minor taps, resulting in repeated presses and inconsistent scrolling.
A few other things to note about the hardware:
- Phone calls sound great out of the earpiece. BlackBerry says it's one of the few companies that still cares about call quality, and is using an extra microphone to cut out background noise for those on the other side of the line. I made quite a few, and every person told me they couldn't hear a thing, even while walking down a busy street.
- The single mono speaker is enormously disappointing. Soft at the top volume in addition to being tinny and shrill. Just a huge letdown.
- Sound from the headphone jack is great, and that there's a headphone jack at all is even greater.
- Even though all of the phone's buttons are now all on one side, it's easy to differentiate between them thanks to a raised texture on the power button and the size differences. They're also wonderfully clicky.
- The textured back is very prone to oil stains from grubby fingers, so you'll have to clean it regularly.
I've used every keyboarded BlackBerry since 2004's 8700 "Blueberry," and the KEY2's is definitely closest in style to the Bold 9900, still considered the best hardware keyboard ever made.
The key travel is a touch longer than its predecessor's, and despite my thumb placement issues, it feels easier to get into a rhythm while typing. Part of that is due to the taller keys, but it's mainly because of the matte finish, which causes my thumbs to slip far less than they did on the glossy. Identifying each letter is considerably easier, since the letters are more distinct.
I also love using the keyboard's trackpad feature to scroll through long feeds and longer articles. It takes a bit of calibration to get it right — a light touch is all that's necessary — but once you get the hang of it, it's super useful.
My main issue with the keyboard is that its on-device autocorrect companion isn't very good. Unless you're already accustomed to touch typing on a BlackBerry keyboard, and make few errors, you're likely going to be frustrated by its lack of proactive correction.
There were times when I enjoyed using the keyboard, but I find it hard to believe most people will type faster on it than a good-quality virtual keyboard like Gboard.
Minor errors — a mispressed key, an accidental space — require a degree of manual attention that not only interrupt the typist's flow but discourage me from attempting to type at a pace that would rival a touchscreen, where more errors are made but more consistently fixed.
Replacing the right Shift button is the new Speed Key, which works as a "function" button of sorts. Holding it and pressing any one of the keyboard's 26 letters can open any app or activate any shortcut the system can muster, from beginning a text or email to opening the camera or Instagram. There are 52 possible combinations, too, since you can hold on the Speed Key and long-press any letter of the alphabet.
Such functionality is estimable on the KEYone, but only from the home screen (and only using the BlackBerry Launcher). This bypasses all of those prerequisites, giving avid multitaskers more ways to manically accomplish tasks on the go. It took me a while to integrate the Speed Key into my daily routine, but once I figured out a macro system that worked, it became second nature to combo "Speed Key + S" for Slack or " SK + I" for Instagram. I found myself rarely going home anymore.
A few other notes about the keyboard:
- The phone is tall, so I appreciate the ability to reassign the currency key to pull down the notification shade. So, so useful.
- On the other hand, you can also reassign the currency key to act as a CTRL button, which allows for quick copy-cut-paste. Also super useful.
- That said, being able to swipe down over the keyboard keys to quickly enter the symbols menu, or double tap to precisely move the cursor, somewhat make up for the awkward marriage of physical and digital inputs. (It also takes quite a while to learn and remember all of these gestures and key combos.)
- Accessing symbols and emoji requires interacting with the on-screen keyboard, which feels a bit awkward when trying to focus on physical typing.
BlackBerry KEY2 Performance and battery life
The Snapdragon 660 inside the KEY2, along with 6GB of RAM, should be enough to assuage any lingering doubts about this phone's performance. Right? Right?!
Thankfully, all is well in the world. This is not a phone meant for games — a single look at the form factor makes that clear — but for productivity tasks, multitasking and everything else one would throw at a phone of this lineage, the situation is just fine.
In fact, I'd say the Snapdragon 660, with its eight Kryo cores, is closer in design and features to the Snapdragon 835 than it is to existing 600-series chips, and that allows BlackBerry Mobile to sell the KEY2 for considerably less than a modern flagship without sacrificing performance or battery life.
The phone feels quick, especially when using the Speed Key to get around between apps. And while many reviewers, including me, only saw severe slowdown manifest on the KEYone months after its release, I have faith that the ample amount of RAM should be able to prevent that from happening a second time. Still, this isn't Pixel smooth or even Galaxy smooth. There are minor performance blips that, while not show-stopping, still crop up now and then. I haven't been able to isolate them to a single app or action — it's more the odd hiccup.
On the battery front, I'm noticing uptime as good, if not better, than on the KEYone. This is a powerhouse, a phone that's meant to be pounded into submission, day after day. BlackBerry users have always insisted on this unyielding availability, and the KEY2 meets that demand.
BlackBerry KEY2 Cameras
The BlackBerry KEY2, like Motorola's recent flagship phones, sidesteps a camera upgrade in favor of adding a second sensor. This is the trend, so BlackBerry must comply.
Unfortunately, the phone is worse off for it.
On paper, the KEY2's camera should be better than the KEYone's: a 12MP primary sensor with 1.3-micron pixels, an f/1.8 lens, dual phase-detection autofocus, and an improved ISP through the Snapdragon processor. Couple that with a second 12MP sensor with twice the focal distance and you have yourself a potent combination.
Last year, BlackBerry Mobile made a big deal about the pedigree of the KEYone's camera sensor, the Sony IMX378, which was also found in the Google Pixel. At 1/2.3-inches in size and 1.55-micron pixels, the sensor itself was perfect for both daylight and low light shots, and while the KEYone struggled in dim conditions, it performed better than anyone expected. Even without significant post-processing optimization, the phone benefited tremendously from good genes, so to speak.
In 2018, the KEY2 finds a compromise. A smaller Samsung sensor — the S5K2L2 ISOCELL, which was first used in the international Galaxy S8 — the phone takes decent photos but nothing more.
In daylight, photos benefit from a liberal application of HDR, and the f/1.8 aperture manages some impressive depth of field. Colors are vivid but not exaggerated, and there are ample manual tweaks available for those who want to play with shutter speed, exposure, and sensitivity. You can see how well the camera does when compared to the Pixel 2 below. Note how much more the colors pop, and how much warmer the yellows, oranges, and reds are.
Conversely, the KEY2 really struggles in low light.
The best low-light photos are merely usable, whereas the bad ones are just awful, some of the worst I've seen from a phone in this price range. The main issue is focus — it rarely manages to settle on a subject when the lights are low — but even with ISO ratcheted to over 6000 fine details are barely discernible and color is so muted the photo might as well be monochrome. The lack of optical image stabilization hurts the KEY2 a lot here.
The primary sensor isn't saved by the presence of the secondary telephoto, either. With a 2x focal length, it's nice to grab the occasional long-distance photo, but any scrutiny belies its digital lineage. There is almost no discernible detail out of this second camera: every photo is splotchy and diffuse, like it's been run through a de-noising filter (which it likely has).
At the same time, the accompanying 12MP sensor also allows for portrait mode, which is surprisingly good given BlackBerry's lack of experience in this area, but it still suffers from the same edge detection issues as every other phone.
A few more things about the KEY2's camera:
- By default, it takes photos at the screen's native 3:2 aspect ratio. This is terrible practice, and the first thing you should do is change it to the world-accepted 4:3.
- This phone's manual mode is not a feature but a toggle: you either select Auto or Manual and stick with it, which I don't mind, but I can imagine will be a little frustrating for the average user.
- Video quality is much better than on the KEYone thanks to better electronic stabilization and support for 1080p@60 — another benefit of the Snapdragon 660.
- With the power button on the right, you can set a double-press to quickly open the camera app. You can also use the Convenience Key below it to open the camera app with a single press. You can also set the Speed Key to open the camera app. There are so many ways to open the camera app!
- Playing on BlackBerry's legacy of privacy, when you snap a photo using the space bar as a shutter key, or take a photo when the phone is locked, the shots are stored in a "locker" and aren't available to the rest of the OS. That means they won't be uploaded to Google Photos or Dropbox, and you'll have to decrypt them before sharing with others.
BlackBerry KEY2 Software and features
With Android 8.1 on board and the KEY2 certified as part of the Android Enterprise Recommended program, I'd be remiss not to point out that the phone, as popular as it is with a small number of enthusiasts, is really aimed at the enterprise market.
To that end, the KEY2 maintains its predecessor's focus on privacy and security, promising monthly security updates (bested only by Google itself) and, as part of the AER, "at least one major OS update." So you know that the KEY2 will get Android P — eventually. For what it's worth, the KEYone is still on Nougat and is expected to get Oreo shortly after the KEY2's release.
Mainstay apps like DTEK have received visual updates to improve usability, and the BlackBerry Locker now has built-in document support so files stored on the phone don't need to be uploaded to the cloud.
More interesting is a partnership with Mozilla to pre-install Firefox Focus, its new super-fast, privacy-focused browser, within the locker, so nothing is tracked and everything is kept out of advertisers' prying eyes.
There's very little not to like about the KEY2's software. It runs a very light version of Android 8.1 Oreo, and while I continue to ignore the presence of the BlackBerry Hub, which is just a resource management disaster of a productivity app, everything else is good.
Since BlackBerry shipped the Priv in late 2015, the company has shown a skill for building functional, well-designed productivity apps that work alongside the main OS. The issue today is the same one that presents itself on all Android phones today: Google's versions are just better and more full-featured.
Google Keep is better than BlackBerry Notes; Google Calendar is easier to use and faster than BlackBerry Calendar; Google Tasks syncs with the cloud and BlackBerry Tasks doesn't. Apps that have a uniquely BlackBerry angle, like DTEK or the Privacy Shade, make sense to include on a phone like this. But from a consumer perspective, there's nothing pre-installed that's better than anything you can get for free on Google Play.
Still, if you choose to use BlackBerry's apps and avail yourself of the various security features built in, you can also rest easy knowing that your phone will receive monthly security updates and will be next to impossible to hack.
BlackBerrys are still very secure, but they can no longer claim to stand alone in a sea of vulnerable Android devices.
On the other hand, BlackBerry's long-touted claim that Android is inherently vulnerable to attacks and that you need a secure device like the KEYone to protect yourself has repeatedly been undermined by Google's own ability to prevent OS-wide attacks through Play Services updates and by the Play Store's powerful Play Protect engine.
The KEY2 may be ever-so-slightly less vulnerable to physical intrusions, but the days of saying BlackBerry devices are more secure than Galaxys or Pixels are over.
Some additional notes on the software:
- Even though the KEY2 ships with Android 8.1, I wouldn't expect an update to Android P very quickly. The KEYone still has Nougat, and it's been out for nearly 18 months.
- In addition to the Convenience Key and Speed Key, BlackBerry includes a Productivity Tab that's always available with a swipe in from the right side of the screen. It's basically an overlay for emails, calendar entries, and tasks, but you have to use BlackBerry's apps for it to work. But below that, there's an area for widgets of your choice, which makes it much more useful. But not useful enough for me not to disable it.
BlackBerry KEY2 Should you buy it?
The KEY2 has one direct competitor, and it's its predecessor. Compared to the KEYone, this is a much better phone — even if the camera isn't an improvement.
But will the KEY2 sell more than the KEYone and widen the keyboard phone market like BlackBerry Mobile believes it will? Outside of its core audience, does BlackBerry Mobile have the marketing chops to convince iPhone and Galaxy owners that they need to return to the good ol' days of blinking-red-light productivity?
No, probably not. There are a number of conveniences here that I love, including the myriad keyboard shortcuts and affordances that come with having a phone that resembles a universal remote control. You can certainly do more with it, but so much of the benefit comes from setting things up exactly so, and acclimating to Android in a small-screened 3:2 world.
Most of it works — even watching video, surprisingly enough — but a year on from the KEYone's novelty, BlackBerry Mobile is facing the same problem larger companies like LG and HTC are dealing with: is it the best choice? Carving a niche is fine, but parent company TCL has set its sights high for BlackBerry Mobile, its flagship brand, and for the KEY2 in particular.
The good news is that the phone, as concept and execution, succeeds. Its profile is striking, its performance is excellent, and its inherited lineage remains intact, if more diffuse than ever.
In Canada, BlackBerry's most resilient market, the KEY2 will be available July 6 starting at $99 on contract at Rogers, Bell, TELUS, and SaskTel. That's a great endorsement.
In the U.S., it'll be available unlocked and, at first, will only work on AT&T and T-Mobile (and their compatible subsidiaries and MVNOs). That's unfortunate but not unexpected, and given the KEYone's numerous iterations throughout its 16-month life, probably temporary.
So should you buy the KEY2? BlackBerry Mobile managed to fix most of the issues, so if you were holding off on a KEYone, you'll probably love this phone. For everyone else it's about figuring out whether you can get to the point where tapping away at a physical keyboard, like pen on paper, brings you enough fulfillment that you forget about all the things you're losing in the process.
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