Why I love the BlackBerry KEY2: A second opinion review

BlackBerry KEY2
(Image: © Daniel Bader / Android Central)

The BlackBerry KEY2 is now available to order for anyone who wants to part with $650. That's more than just pocket change and it's wise that many of us are being cautious and reading reviews before we whip out the plastic. That's something we should do whenever anything costs more than a day's wages.

Daniel did a great job writing the review for this one-of-a-kind phone. The KEY2 needed someone who was familiar with a BlackBerry and the keyboard to write it, but not someone who loved it before it arrived. Which would be me. I can't deny my love for any phone that has a set of BlackBerry keys on the face and I would not have been able to forget that while I was writing. But I can (and am!) here to talk about the things I really like about the KEY2 and if it lived up to my expectations.

More: Read the full BlackBerry KEY2 review

I've been using the BlackBerry KEY2 for over a week and it's time to compare what I actually got versus what I had hoped for. I'm a big fan of phones with a keyboard, which means I'm a fan of what BlackBerry is doing in 2018 because no other company is doing it. I know why and can sympathize — the market is not there. A company can't make any money on a product unless they have the market or a proven following, and that's what BlackBerry Mobile and TCL are banking on here.

A premium BlackBerry

The KEY2 is a very well-built phone and in a world where phones are too expensive overall. $650 isn't a lot to spend on one made with materials of this quality then put together as well as they are on the KEY2. If this was a "normal" phone with an all-glass front the discussion over the price wouldn't be nearly as intense. Outliers aside (I'm looking at you, BlackBerry Storm) the BlackBerry name has always been associated with "premium" products. The KEY2 continues that trend and it's a great modern take on a classic design.

The KEY2 looks and feels great!

We can't look at the KEY2 without comparing it to two phones that are deep in its DNA — the original KEYone (of course) and the BlackBerry Bold series. The comparison to the Bold — the Bold 9000, the Bold 9700 and 9900 and the BlackBerry Tour — comes from the keyboard. The keyboard here doesn't look like the keyboard on a Bold. When I first heard people making that comparison, I was a bit confused, but after using it I agree. It may not look the same, but it feels the same.

The keys have the size and spacing of a Bold device, and more importantly, they give the same satisfaction while typing I got when I first used my Bold 9000. It's hard to describe, and if you're not a BlackBerry fan, you will probably think I'm a loon, but you just have to have some trust here. If you like the keyboard on the Bold series you'll like the one on the KEY2.

It's a 2018 take on the classic BlackBerry design, and it works.

Comparing it to the KEYone, all you really have to say is that BB Mobile and TCL gave attention to the small details and made everything better. They also did it without making anything worse, which is a neat trick. The keyboard has been improved, the internal specs have been improved, the camera is better, and the overall look is modern instead of retro. In 2014, when BlackBerry was still BlackBerry, the company did something similar with the Passport. It's a good look.

BlackBerry software

I'm not using the BlackBerry suite of apps. I can't go into this without that disclaimer. I am very familiar with the way BlackBerry approaches software and can appreciate how well the company has adapted to using Android for things like notification and inbox management or a universal way to reach a contact. I have used it and there's nothing there that makes me say it's not great. I just weaned myself off the BlackBerry way when I got my first Android phone in late 2008 and I'm used to doing things differently now.

What I can say is that BlackBerry Mobile has done two very important things with its software: it's added and improved the features and gave them a hardware platform that can let it run at its full potential.

BlackBerry's software can finally shine with the KEY2's improved specs.

Apps like BlackBerry Notes or Tasks are as good or better than any other offering from any other company (and that includes Samsung and its great Notes app) and would be a fine replacement for whatever you're currently using should you be looking for a change. The Hub does a great job keeping everything you use to communicate in one organized place and the feature list has grown to the point where it rivals the universal inbox of BlackBerry past. Apps like the calendar, contacts, clock, and others that duplicate Google offerings while still using the Google backend are good enough that I haven't gone to the Play Store and loaded up the originals from Google. I am even in the process of switching to the BlackBerry Password Keeper because I like its features better than what I'm currently using.

Features aside, the apps all run like a champ on the KEY2's much-improved hardware. A common complaint about the KEYone I have heard from my coworkers (there are plenty of BlackBerry fans here at Mobile Nations) was that the experience wasn't stellar if you used all the BlackBerry apps and the Hub. I have to agree — there were times when everything was going smooth and then, out of the blue, things would chug along or just stop for a second or two. It wasn't a matter of the software bloating because it was old and needed refreshing — this happened from day one. I can't make it happen on the KEY2, and I've tried by using dirty tricks like turning a contacts database with about 200 people into one with 2,000 people.

More: BlackBerry KEY2 and 6GB of RAM: Why it's a big deal

I'm positive that this comes from having 6GB of RAM. Android may not need that much memory to run (we know it doesn't) but that doesn't mean apps on top of it don't. A 2018 BlackBerry using the apps and services every BlackBerry fan knows and loves runs like a champ. You'll never need to "pull the battery" on this BlackBerry.

Security

BlackBerry also takes pride in the security of their products. Maybe a bit too much pride, but I'll not complain if that means the company actually cares.

The company claims that its phones are the most secure Android phones available. Technically that's the truth — the company leverages work that Google has done to harden Android and adds its own proprietary kernel-level hardening on top. Truth be told, most security-conscious folks have to say that Android on its own is more than secure enough as long as you don't turn off any of the security features. On paper, the KEY2 may be the most secure Android phone of 2018, but a more practical approach is to say the company really cares and adds its own layer above Google's — and improves that layer as needed. Which is fine with me.

One great thing BlackBerry adds is the DTEK app. I was among the people who scoffed at it when it first arrived but now I think it's a great way for someone to check the security health of their phone if they don't have a clue about how to do it manually.

There's an attractive animated meter that shows your security level, as there was on the KEYone, but now you can dive deeper and see why any portion of the tests don't pass BlackBerry's muster. More importantly, it will guide you through fixing them. I know that Oreo 8.1 with BlackBerry's kernel only needs the May 2018 security patch to be secured. But that's because I like to spend my free time reading about that sort of thing. Chances are you don't, so DTEK will tell you and you don't have to know. BlackBerry Mobile has done an excellent job evolving DTEK from a marketing tool into a useful app.

The KEYboard

This is the whole reason I'm using the KEY2 and probably will throughout 2018 until a sequel arrives. There are three very valid reactions to a phone with a keyboard — you love it, you hate it, or you have never used it and want to try for yourself. I'm in the "love it" camp and feel at home using a phone with a QWERTY keyboard on the front. I understand the "hate it" crowd, too, because a physical keyboard is a binary thing — it's always there so you either have to embrace and use it or it's just in the way.

There was (and still is) an adjustment period with the KEY2's keyboard if you're coming from the KEYone. The spacing is different, the shape of the keys is different, and the texture is different. These are the things that matter when you're trying to use a giant knobby thumb on a set of tiny keys. I can say I'm almost used to it in just 10 days or so and am in agreement that this keyboard is one of BlackBerry's best ever.

I'm feeling right at home with the KEY2's keyboard after just a week.

You use the keyboard just like you would if it were on-screen. Pressing the "a" key prints the same letter on the screen, pressing the symbol then the "p" key types "%" on the screen, and so on. You know how to use a keyboard and I'm certain you have at least once or twice. You also have access to things like emojis and secondary symbols like "greater than" and "less than" through the screen itself and you simply tap them to print one in your message or document. Other extras like the useful keyboard shortcuts are unique to a device that has physical buttons, and I love them.

A physical keyboard isn't about function; it's about familiarity and comfort. I'm familiar and comfortable using one because I have been using one for almost 25 years. I have used great ones and "bad" ones — don't ask me what I think of the Pearl Flip — and I love this one. The marriage of a good BlackBerry keyboard and Android's powerful software are exactly what I want and I can't wait to see what BlackBerry Mobile and TCL do next.

The last word

This is the replacement for your BlackBerry Classic.

This is for the BlackBerry diehards. You may never want to give up your Q10 or your Classic and I understand because I was there; I loved the Curve series and BBOS 7 and knew nothing. not BB10 or iOS or even this new thing called "Android" would ever be able to replace it. What started as a hobby — I bought the T-Mobile G1 because I wanted to play with Linux on a smartphone — slowly turned to acceptance. Now I don't want to think of being anywhere without my Android-powered phone in my pocket. It keeps me connected and ready for anything business or personal that may arise just like my BlackBerry did, except it does a better job.

The BlackBerry KEY2 is the phone that's a worthy upgrade from your BB10 device. You'll need to re-learn how to use the BlackBerry apps and services you love, and you'll find they are different but still great. Best of all, the hardware here is simply the best phone BlackBerry has ever built. All that's missing is a model built in tandem with Porsche Design.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

38 Comments
  • Jerry, you almost make me want to try one! I have never owned a BlackBerry of any description but I do like different form factors. The two issues that I have seen the Key 2 slated for are the alt functions on the keys and the screen. Maybe the Key 3 will nail everything. I don't see the price being an issue for business users by the way.
  • How do the capacitive keys perform compared to last year?
  • I think using the capacitive strip and an on-screen function for secondary alt keys is the best way to do it. I know plenty of people don't like it, but I've never heard anyone offer a way to replace it. There is no way anyone would be happy with "double press and hold the "sym" key then press the "Q" key to print a tilde (~) or something similar. If it ever gets figured out, it will be interesting to see how. @heyjohnnybravo — the screen isn't horrible. It's just not great, and other phones that are selling for $650 have great screens so it's an issue.
  • I just keep coming back to the keyboard and shortcuts whenever I try to switch phones. Great review! I'm wondering if blackberry will also add their own unique take on gestures in the future. Regardless, once android P lands on it, it will be a dreamy experience. Getting closer to having the best of all BB10 had to offer coupled with the android experience.
  • I really want one too. I'm hoping the KEY3 improves the display & camera making this a truly great device
  • That's a tough one. the phone is already expensive as heck to build and sell because they aren't shipping 30 million of them. Adding $30 to the price might have been where BBMobile/TCL have to draw a line and know they won't be able to sell enough to make a profit. But yeah, if this had an excellent display and camera I'd be pushing for it to get on our best phones list for sure.
  • I'd pay $700 (or even 50 bucks more) for such Key series. Doesn't have to ship with 845 processor, but better camera (especially at low light conditions -- GS7/8 equivalent). Not a techie here, but I am sure that's possible with lower spec chip? That way I dont have to carry 2 phones - one for work and one for pictures. I love my PKBs, carrying both Priv (personal) and Keyone (work), but both lag the camera capabilities that I occassionally need to take good business/family photos. I am not a social media person at all, no Facebook, Insta etc, no music/video streams, not even a single game installed. I certainly dont take photos of what I am about to eat/drink! Remember the old 'tool not toy" argument? Well, I fall into that category......hard. I work in financial sector (55 hours a week), I really don't have time for media activities, but hey man, we all need to take some good photos from time to time. I am not sure how other die hard fans feel about this, but I suspect if someone with user profile like me can crave for a better camera, I dont think TCL/Blackberry should undermine/underplay the importance of having a capable shooter these days. I hope a software update can fix the low light camera issue? Still buying the Key2 anyway.
  • Thanks for this review Jerry, I've been down the same path from the love affair with BB and was the happiest when the Priv was released. I skipped the KeyOne but I'm ready to try out thr Key2 and reading this review sealed that deal.
  • I'm sure this will on sale for 449 permanently when the don't move units at the original price
  • Considering the KeyOne never price slashed, outsold expectations, and delivered additional variants after release, Me thinks you'll be buying used at that price point. They are a Build to order company. So they never sit on a lot of inventory.
  • Yeah, they did. KEYones launched for $649 and $699 (Black) up here, I've seen the Black one for as low as $599 on Newegg. Amazon.ca is selling the silver one for $549 right now. KEY2 is already slashed before it started selling, MSRP is $829 but Rogers is letting them go for $799, even lower for unlocked at some resellers.
  • You are saying the original KEYone has only dropped a $100 in one year, but are hoping for the Key2 to drop $200? I agree it is a more reasonable price, but I waited for the KEYone to drop forever, and finally just decided to wait for the Key2. I pre-ordered it, knowing I was paying higher than it was worth, but it will probably be Christmas before the price drops
  • Rogers had lower price on KEYone. I got it new for $679 last year
  • Very happy for the qwerty keyboard users as this device seems like a great phone. I've been using BlackBerries since the Pearl with my last one being the Priv. I however would love a Priv 2... best of both worlds 👌
  • I'm a proud owner of not one not two not even three b b put six . I've been a b b fan for yrs. From the old curve which is still in use. To my three dteck Oh yes can't for get my classic. Anyway with the dtecks the key board sucks
    Badly with my big fingers. Also the crappie glass. I am looking forward to getting the key2 ASAP so I can type faster with the new keyboard. And really compare how it performs. If it is anything like my dtecks I will be happy. Thanks for reading. J
  • I bought the PRIV a few years ago and I get the choice to use a digital keyboard or the physical keyboard being a slider and all. I can tell you I'm still in love with the physical keyboard and the statistics back me up over the three years I've used the physical keyboard 83% of the time and digital keyboard 17% of the time. If and when this PRIV dies I will be looking forward to upgrade to the next blackberry I'm happy to see that a path is still open to make that happen.
  • Those are rookie numbers. I'm at 0% VKB /100% PKB, with the 0% being 66 words over almost 2 years.
  • Yeah the 17% words on digital only account for 29663 words
  • Great read, thank you. I'm not sure why some complain about the price? I'd honestly pay more for this device. Does anyone take into consideration that a device with 52 touch enabled keys would naturally cost more to produce? Plus, security baked into the chips along with BlackBerry's signature security software is priceless to many.
  • The security section doesn't mention anything about how the KeyOne was with security patches. How quickly do they get rolled out to these new devices? My Essential Ph-1 often gets them before Google's own Pixel phones do. How on-the-ball is TCL with these?
  • In the middle of last year (when we started to see Qualcomm and NVIDIA, etc. patches included in monthly Google patches) the requirements to be compliant changed from "You must have them within 30 days" to "Your device must be compliant using these patches or another layer of protection within 30 days." Prior to that TCL pushed them to unlocked devices just as quickly. Now they send out the ones that BB's own hardening of system/network interface/user&group policy changes do not address quickly when they are needed, but still only for unlocked devices. So the KEY2 (like the Note 8 and higher with Knox fully enabled) isn't one you can look at the patch date to decipher. Both Samsung and BB have a mobile security page you can find all the details at if you want to see them, though.
  • Can you make an article about this? I still don't really understand it fully, but it is very interesting and relevant Update - I just refreshed and realized there is an article up
  • I would love to get this phone. I've been using software keyboards for about five years now and grow weary of it.
  • The timing of this "second opinion" piece smells. Maybe the front page of the Keytwo forum at crackberry.com has something to do with it? Keyboard lag
    Bad reviews
    Keytwo: all common issues are there
    Sound distorting
    screen issues
    Keyboard double typing
    Bad start with key2
    ....and on & on they go. #waiting-for-k3
  • Jerry always loved the KEYone, I don't think it is weird for him to be on board with the 2nd opinion
  • Yeah, there's nothing unusual or unexpected about Jerry's review at all. It's a device he likes, and there is no competition for phones with a physical keyboard right now.
  • My user name is my real name on all the mobile nations sites since I work here. It's easy to check and see the last time I was in the crackberry forums. I'm guessing somewhere around 2011.
  • If I could get one on big red I'd be there. Should I get a discounted KEYone? $399 on Amazon unlocked .... Flicked via the BlackBerry keyboard on my Pixel 2
  • I'm thinking about trying one but I would like a larger screen on the key series. 5.4 in would be nice with full HD+ resolution, improved camera, splash resistance, and wireless charging. Maybe I will wait for the key 3
  • Why I switched to BlackBerry KEY 2? Read Here: https://astorrion.com/smartphones/blackberry-key-2-silver-att-t-mobile/ Click the link or Copy & paste the link in your browser
  • Stolen from Unbox Therapy. Rubbish.
  • Jerry, dude. You wrote poetry. One needs to know the features, tricks and intricacies of a device in order to appreciate or dismiss it. Kudos!
  • I tried using the Keyone at best buy to see if I'm missing anything, boy one of the worst typing experience I have had. Honestly don't get how this physical keyboard that takes up space is faster and better than onscreen keyboard especially with Swype feature. Definitely not for me especially being mostly an user of on screen keyboard in my smartphone tenure.
  • Depends on the person. You described me trying to tap tiny spots on a flat screen without hitting the other six spots around it. OTOH, I got so used to the curve 8800 keys I could type in my pocket. It's understandable. Nobody wants to have to "get used to it" when it comes to a very different input method than what they already are comfortable with. That makes the KEY2 a tough sell to anyone who isn't already a fan of keyboards.
  • Blackberry mobile needs to go all in on the Android ecosystem. They should have TCL making Chromebooks/Chromeboxes, smart watches, and tablets/chromeOS tablets.
  • So I can use the KEY2 as a "true Android" phone if I want? Meaning I don't use the Hub or native BB apps?
    I could set it up & use it exactly as I do my Pixel 2 (Textra, Gmail app w/ separate Unread Badge counts & shortcuts, Google calendar & contacts, etc) just using the physical keyboard for typing and shortcuts? I'm guessing the native Hub can't be uninstalled, you just choose not to use it & minimize the RAM usage as much as possible?
  • I don't think ever use a Blackberry, they just don't appeal to me. I remember using an old BlackBerrys that were all the rage and hated the keyboard which was placed to the bottom left corner and was so cramped how the BlackBerry fans coped with this I'll never know.
  • Jerry, Good story! Thanks. How's the Key2 treating after several weeks? How's the camera doing after some reports of inconsistency?