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BlackBerry KEY2, third opinion review: Keyboard at all costs

With our own Daniel Bader taking on the canonical KEY2 review for Android Central, and Jerry Hildenbrand following it up with his own thoughts, I'm in the privileged position of using the phone far longer before putting my conclusive thoughts down. I've been using the KEY2 for over three weeks now, which was essential for me to get over the stumbles of re-learning how to use a phone with a hardware keyboard on account of how little I used the KEYone and Priv — not to mention the half-decade since using any other device with keycaps.

It took about a week and a half to get into a comfortable mode of using the keyboard every single day for hours on end, rewiring my brain to naturally use it rather than reaching up for that touch screen for every interaction. After that point I could just start using the KEY2 like a normal phone, evaluating everything else it does — because we all do far more than just type on these things after all.

Weeks of relying on BlackBerry's latest keyboard-packing flagship hasn't been painful by any stretch, but it hasn't been entirely fruitful either.

BlackBerry KEY2 keyboard

Hardware and software

BlackBerry KEY2 Things I like

The BlackBerry KEY2's keyboard undeniably lands up here in the positive column. It was frustrating at first. I was an extremely slow typist for the first couple of days. But once I got through that barrier, I feel like I'm up to the level where I'm nearly matching my typing speed on a virtual keyboard. And once I got there, I started to enjoy everything else the keyboard has to offer. Being able to swipe along the keyboard to scroll through apps without getting your thumb in front of the screen is awesome. Using the shortcuts to launch apps is a big time saver. Swiping along the keyboard for word prediction and text selection is intuitive. The fingerprint sensor in the space bar is conveniently located.

BlackBerry KEY2 specs

The keyboard is really good, and you can learn how to make it incredibly useful.

Aside from a couple hiccups here and there, the BlackBerry keyboard experience actually complements Android really well when it's this thoughtfully designed. The keyboard feels like more than a text input device — I just started to use it as a core part of interfacing with the phone, which is key for justifying its existence.

There's also praise to be had for the non-keyboard portions of the hardware. This all-black KEY2 I've been using has a stealthy, businesslike appeal that I'm proud of as I set it on a table in public. The metal frame is sturdy, and the textured back complements it nicely with enough grip to be helpful. The side keys are super clicky, and that convenience key is programmable — I set it to toggle between sound, vibrate and silent mode. There's a headphone jack! What a concept. And phone calls sound excellent. The whole external hardware experience is befitting its price, there's nothing to complain about here.

BlackBerry's software is good and powerful, and leads to really great battery life.

BlackBerry's take on Android is also filled with good ideas and above-average execution. This isn't on the same level as what you get from OnePlus, Motorola or Google itself in terms of that final bit of fit-and-finish, but it's darn good. Many of BlackBerry's services and apps are a bit on the useless side, but they're all simple to turn off and they don't nag you after that. Its launcher is good, as are the changes in the settings and all of the keyboard integrations.

The overall emphasis on battery life with the KEY2 has come together nicely, as the phone has never left me stranded. 3500mAh is a really good capacity nowadays, particularly for a small-screened device and one that's running a power-conserving Snapdragon 660. The KEY2's software is proactive with warning you about apps that are running wild with your battery or usage patterns that may have the phone drained before you usually charge it. But I rarely needed to heed the warnings, because the KEY2 just made it through every day with battery to spare. This isn't a two-day phone, but its battery life is strong enough that I don't have to worry about it.

BlackBerry KEY2

Average isn't good enough

BlackBerry KEY2 Things I don't like

BlackBerry made a lot of improvements over the KEYone, but still feels like it followed its predecessor's lead too much considering it also raised the price. The addition of 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, is fantastic, and makes the KEY2 futureproof for a couple years. But sticking with a Snapdragon 660 is a bit puzzling — the KEY2 performs pretty well, and rarely has stutters or hiccups, but it doesn't have a fighting chance of matching the Snapdragon 800-series phones from even 2017. If you've used a modern flagship phone, you won't be convinced that the KEY2 is on the same level; its performance reminds me more of a slick-running mid-range phone than a top-end competitor.

I expect a far better display, speaker and camera for this much money.

The theme continues throughout other parts of the hardware, where the KEY2 feels stuck in the past. I understand why the display is sized and shaped the way it is, and have no problem with it — but the quality of the display is shameful for this level of device in 2018. It's practically unusable in direct sunlight, and is of just average quality in all other situations. The single down-firing speaker isn't particularly loud or full sounding. There's no water resistance to speak of. I expect far better in all of these areas from a phone of this asking price.

I'm going to make the same argument with the camera, which is a perfect example of "average" not being good enough. The KEY2 can take some really good shots, particularly in daylight and when using HDR. If you leave HDR on you get some great colors and the dynamic range is pretty good — without it, things are a bit hit or miss. Clarity and sharpness are acceptable in daylight shots, the only issue I found was inconsistent exposure — sometimes it was noticeably underexposed in bright scenes, but also way overexposed when you tap to meter on a dark subject. I took lots of photos I was proud to post on Instagram, and many more that were fine enough to keep for private use in Google Photos, but there were dozens I chose to just delete.

The camera is acceptable in daylight, but way behind the pack in low light.

In low light, this just isn't good enough at all. An f/1.8 lens is a great starting point, but BlackBerry moved to a sensor with smaller pixels than the KEYone and didn't add OIS, so the deck is stacked against it getting good low-light photos. The KEY2 is capable of a good shot in dark scenes, but not particularly often. In any case, its clarity and sharpness are below the competition in these photos. The secondary camera is entirely useless in low-light shots given its f/2.6 aperture and 1-micron pixels, but the story isn't all that much better in daylight. This is a perfect example of how the company could have benefited from using the money (and space inside the phone) dedicated to the useless secondary camera for improvements to the main camera and been far better off.

As I found in my camera comparison between the KEY2 and Galaxy S9, the KEY2's cameras just isn't ready to play with the top-end phones. That's alright in itself, because I realize camera isn't always the most important thing for people, but when you add it to all of the other uninspiring aspects of the KEY2 experience you start to wonder why you're paying so much.

Lest I be chastised for being too critical on the KEY2, let's all remember that BlackBerry is charging $649 for this phone. Everything here is plenty good for a $450-550 phone, but just isn't good enough to justify that extra jump to the mid-$600 range. It feels bad to dig on this phone so much for just being "average" or "good enough," but you have to realize that the KEY2 is trying to play in a world where that's not acceptable when we're talking about this price level.

BlackBerry KEY2

Keyboard at all costs

BlackBerry KEY2 Third opinion review

Evaluating the BlackBerry KEY2 comes down to one thing: how badly do you want that hardware keyboard?

How badly do you want that hardware keyboard? You give up a lot to get it.

For some people a hardware keyboard is essential. And after using the KEY2 for a few weeks I have even been convinced that there's serious value in having those clicky keys and all of the extras that the touch-enabled caps offer. I could happily use this keyboard and form factor without issue, because I really don't play games or watch much video on my phone. The KEY2's hardware overall is very nice, too, and I like its powerful software and strong battery life. But I still don't fall into the former camp of people who can't live without a hardware keyboard.

As such, I'm not willing to give on so many of the other parts of the phone experience just to have the KEY2's keyboard. For $650, if this phone didn't have a keyboard I wouldn't be able to recommend it to anyone. The screen, specs, performance, camera and hardware features simply don't match the OnePlus 6, which I'll remind you costs $120 less (opens in new tab). On any given day the Galaxy S9 can be had on Amazon for $700 (opens in new tab), just $50 more. At their respective price points, both of those phone blow the KEY2 away in every way ... aside from the keyboard.

When you must have a keyboard, the KEY2 is your best choice by a long shot — and the non-keyboard parts of the phone definitely get the job done. But if you're fine typing on glass, there are better and less compromised choices out there for the same money.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

25 Comments
  • Like Andrew stated in his review: The KeyTwo simply offers the most bang for your buck. Bravo, TCL and Blackberry!
  • I'm unclear as to where Andrew said that, when his conclusion seems to be that the KEY2 isn't good enough to justify the flagship-level retail price. That's the exact opposite of bang for your buck.
  • Too few main stream items are missing and display is useless outside. Again, I will pass on this BlackBerry attempt..
  • How come nobody is talking about the ability to gesture Swype with the keyboard?
  • Because they are not reviewing the phone appropriately. They obviously have not spent the time to really learn the phone, despite this person saying they spent 3 weeks with it. It's really a disgrace and goes to show just how untrustworthy review sites like this are. I could easily do a much better job of reviewing it without bias and actually give feedback on everything the phone is capable of. This site is a joke until they are willing to actually put in time and effort.
  • One of us has done their research. The other has not.
  • Ummm perhaps I misunderstood the OP, but I thought he was meaning the ability to swipe type (like the swype keyboard) which no one is talking about and is not in your review. I have done my research, you are choosing to willfully ignore aspects of the system and not consider that maybe you missed something.
  • From this review "Being able to swipe along the keyboard to scroll through apps without getting your thumb in front of the screen is awesome. Using the shortcuts to launch apps is a big time saver. Swiping along the keyboard for word prediction and text selection is intuitive. The fingerprint sensor in the space bar is conveniently located." Also, I wrote an entire article talking about all of the advanced features of the keyboard and how to make the most of them — gestures, button shortcuts and more: https://www.androidcentral.com/blackberry-key2-keyboard-tips-and-tricks
  • He's talking about gesture typing like swype. It can be done on the physical keyboard too.
  • Does the keyboard still operate as a trackpad as it did for the K1? For us who don’t have a choice but to access web pages that aren’t mobile friendly, (DOD, medical, etc.) that’s a godsend.
  • The security of the KEY2 is also superior to everybody else, which is becoming crucial in lieu of society fraud right now. And the Hub and organization is simply superior to everybody else as well. The KEY2 may be the best all-around phone in the world.
  • I appreciate that Andrew differentiated between the screen size and the screen quality. Plenty of people mash these two things together. The reality is that the smaller screen you have to use to accommodate the physical keyboard is a matter of priority and not quality in and of itself. Some people want the biggest screen possible on their phone. Others of us prioritize that against form factor and ergonomics. Screen size is in that category of prioritization (trading size for the benefit of a physical keyboard for those who see that as a benefit).
  • Can you run Nova Prime or other Android launchers & not use the BB apps at all?
  • Of course. Why should you not?
  • It's an Android phone — use any launcher, disable any apps you don't want :)
  • Take an iPhone X and a Key 2 outside then tell me which is harder to see. The $1000+ phone or the mid range K2. Poor overall review here. Shameful.
  • Will the keyboard shortcuts and stuff work with say nova launcher? Or are all the benefits of the keyboard shortcuts and gestures limited to the bb launcher?
  • it is BlackBerry launcher features
  • You keep comparing this to an S9, based on price of the new Key2 vs a nearly year old S9 that’s been marked down. That’s like buying a new Toyota Camry for 25k, and blasting it because it’s not as fast or comfortable as a used Mercedes that sells for 25 k now, but when new was a $50k car. Regardless of the. price now, it was designed to a different expectation. Why not do a point to point comparison against a phone that was $650 NEW, instead of what could be had for $650 on Amazon or via a fire-sale?
  • Because you should compare it to what people could buy for $650 now. What use are comparisons to out of date prices? Also "nearly a year old S9"? Came out in March mate. And the car thing is a terrible example. People should totally decide if they want a used Mercedes or a new Toyota when buying a car. That's how shopping works.
  • This was a great review and an honest evaluation of this device. As a diehard bb fan and crackberry addict . I agree with most of the points made here. I was disappointed in lack of improvements from last year's device . The KEYone Black Edition is probably the best bang for buck in this segment now . When the price of the key2 comes down a hundred bucks. It will be more suited to its place in the mobile space
  • Does this a phone with keyboard? Except appearance, What is the different with the common keyboard in features? BlackBerry KEY2, so cool , you never worry about if I could bring when go out.
  • Mine is coming tomorrow. 5 years without a BlackBerry and these god awful glass screens (note 2 thru note 8) and I wouldn't care if it was running gingerbread, I need phys-qwert.
    Some of you old timers might remember me on crackberry saying that the bold 9000 was too small and you'd have thought I farted in church with the triggered comments from people who said I was crazy and the device was actually "too bulky". Now look at BlackBerry's flagship device. lol
  • Good, honest review! Perhaps BlackBerry Mobile can sharpen the camera takes with software updates but the screen should be oled and the camera a really good one shooter in the first place. Then the KEY2 will speak to a larger mobile audience. I am a forever a big BlackBerry supporter and am loving my KEYone!
  • I just upgraded to the KEY2 and agree with the comment below: the reviewer is judging this phone as any other entertainment device. To the contrary the KEY2 is primarily designed to improve productivity and efficiency in the work place. That includes BlackBerry designed features unique to this device, including that fantastic physical keyboard. For me that is worth the investment.