BlackBerry KEY2 review: Perfecting a niche formula

BlackBerry has released their follow up to the strangely lovable BlackBerry KEYOne with the appropriately titled KEY2. It’s stuck to the same general idea that made the KEYOne stand out from the crowd with a few changes and polished edges.

At the end of the day, though, it’s still an Android phone with a small screen and an actual, physical keyboard. It’s 2018, so that’s pretty weird no matter how you slice it. But last year’s phone was fun, at least, so it’s time to dig in and find out if BlackBerry can do it again.

Design

If you’ve used or seen a BlackBerry KEYOne, you know what to expect from the KEY2 for the most part. There’s still a 4.5-inch display on top of a physical QWERTY keypad, making for a relatively large device with a relatively small screen. It’s a weird combination unless you’re used to it.

This time around you’ll find that the KEY2 is much more squared off than its predecessor. The original had more rounded corners, but the KEY2 feels very boxy. Normally I’m a bigger fan of rounded off shapes, but the KEY2 legitimately does feel really great in hand.

It might be the rubberized back of the device which is very grippy, making it easy to hold the phone despite a larger frame. It’s surprisingly light, too, coming in slightly lighter than the KEYOne.

The right side of the phone houses the power button and volume buttons, plus the Convenience Key that I complained about last year. The power button sits in the middle between the other two buttons and has its own textured feel, which is a significant improvement. No more accidental button presses!

There’s a headphone jack on the top side of the phone, and a USB-C port sandwiched between two speakers on the bottom. You’re getting Quick Charge 3.0 with that port, too.

The spacebar on the keyboard doubles as a fingerprint scanner, and I’m actually gonna call out that particular button as feeling pretty loose and weird. It could be because it has to house the fingerprint scanner, but I feel like if you’re going to see anything fail on the KEY2 within a year, it’s going to be this spacebar.

The phone is still kind of thick and chunky, which is to be expected with a large battery and a full keyboard, but honestly it’s a very comfortable device to hold.

Hardware

 BlackBerry KEY2
AnnouncedJune 7, 2018
ReleaseJune 2018
Display4.5-inch (1620 x 1080), IPS LCD, 434ppi, Corning Glass 3
ProcessorQualcomm Snapdragon 660, Octa-core
RAM6GB
Storage64GB/128GB. MicroSD card up to 2TB
Primary Rear Camera12MP, 1.3 micron, F/1.8,
laser+phase autofocus,
dual-tone LED flash
Secondary Rear Camera12MP, 1 micron, F/2.6,
2x optical zoom,
Portrait Mode
Front Camera8MP, Selfie Flash
Battery3500mAh (non-removable)
ChargingUSB Type-C, Quick Charge 3.0
Audio JackYes
SoftwareAndroid 8.1 Oreo
ConnectivityBluetooth 5.0 LE, WiFi 802.11 b/g/n/ac (2.4GHz & 5GHz), NFC
NetworkFDD-LTE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 17, 20, 28, 29, 30, 66
TD-LTE 38, 39, 40, 41
SensorsAmbient, proximity, accelerometer, gyro, compass, barometer, fingerprint, FM Radio,
Measurements151.4 x 71.8 x 8.5mm
Weight168g
ColorsBlack, Gray/Silver

Performance

BlackBerry went for an upgraded Snapdragon 660 CPU with double the RAM this time around, but they didn’t touch the display resolution. I found that the performance of the KEYOne was stellar without sacrificing battery life, and you’re getting all of that and then some with the KEY2.

I don’t hide the fact that I love Qualcomm’s 600 series of processors, and I usually like these mid-range phones more than the flagship phones that tout the latest and greatest CPUs. It’s not that performance is necessarily better than a Galaxy S9 or something, but when you’re saving money and getting better battery life? I’m sold.

That’s pretty much how I can describe the KEY2. There’s plenty of RAM so apps almost never need to reload (barring the occasional large or network-dependent game) and the phone is plenty powerful to handle BlackBerry’s lightweight Android skin.

The display is nearly identical to last year’s model. In fact, it might be the same screen since I can’t notice any visual differences. The resolution is the same and the colors and brightness seem close enough from what I remember. It’s not a top-shelf display, but it’s still really good. The lower resolution doesn’t matter as much since the overall screen is slightly smaller, and you’ll complain about the weird aspect ratio before you notice black levels in dark scenes on Netflix.

Battery

You’ll get a very generous 3500mAh battery in the KEY2, and like the original KEYOne, battery life is just stellar on this device. Barring constant phone usage or demanding gaming, you’ll get a full days usage out of the phone and then some. The improvements to Android in the past year only help that battery longevity out, too.

Like I mentioned earlier, this is just a perfect storm of a large battery, an efficient processor, and a screen that’s not overkill for its size. If you’re relying on a phone for heavy enterprise use (perfect for a BlackBerry) this thing’s going to go all day with you.

Software

BlackBerry doesn’t do much to the core of Android, but instead they just add their own apps and services and lock everything down with their signature security features. The KEY2 launches with Android 8.1 Oreo and all of the goodies that brings, but you’ll get plenty of BlackBerry business-centric features too.

BlackBerry Messenger is still here in case you can’t get past 2004, and there’s a custom file manager, password keeper, notes app, and FM radio, for starters. But if you’re interested in the more obscure power user tools, you’ll find an encrypted file locker and a Redactor app for obscuring sensitive information in documents. BlackBerry has also replaced all of the default Android apps like Calendar and Mail with their own tightly integrated solutions.

We covered a lot of this in the previous review, but there’s still some new stuff to talk about with the KEY2, specifically with the keyboard. There’s a universal app shortcut button that creates a more refined experience for power users by allowing you to create custom shortcuts by holding the key and long pressing/short pressing another key. That means you can have up to 52 shortcuts including quick app launches and activities, access to favorite contacts, and an easy way to jump into composing an email. The KEYOne did offer something similar, but the new shortcut button significantly cleans up the process. You still get the Convenience Key, too, which can act as even more shortcuts for flashlight access, quick camera launches, and more. Seriously, if you like shortcuts, pay attention to what BlackBerry is doing.

The keyboard is also just better to type on this time, too. BlackBerry increased the key height and made it more comfortable, and I’ve noticed that I adapted to the physical keys much quicker than I did last time.

Camera

The camera from last year was okay, but didn’t really wow anyone. The KEY2 makes some strides with a new dual-camera system that promises improved performance, a portrait mode, and better low light performance.

 

All of that is true, but if you compare the KEY2 to other $650 phones, it’s not going to be a favorable comparison.

Outdoor shots and photos in good lighting conditions will turn out pretty well fairly consistently, and low light shots were much better than what’s on the KEYOne.

With that being said, the low light shots still aren’t flagship caliber. Details get soft too quickly and portrait mode struggles in anything besides perfectly bright lighting conditions.

Closing

Make no mistake, the BlackBerry KEY2 is an excellent phone, but only if you’re the kind of person that it’s aimed at. For power users that need reliable performance, tons of shortcuts, and ironclad security, there’s no better option.

But for the rest of us, this phone is just as hard of a sell as last year’s model. There’s a lot to love for most users, including a pretty simple Android skin, timely updates, and decent hardware, but there’s no real gimmick to sell the phone. Samsung has their fancy curved screens and S-Features, LG is betting big on AI, Apple has their ecosystem, Motorola is selling Moto Mods, etc. All of those are things that appeal to your everyday consumer, and BlackBerry still doesn’t have that with the KEY2.

And you know, maybe that’s okay. Maybe BlackBerry knows that this device is for a very specific group of people, and they’re not willing to compromise that to appeal to the masses. I can respect that, and for that reason I do really like the KEY2. I like it more than the original device, which I found very endearing despite being incredibly weird.

But for someone that just wants a phone with a great camera and to watch Netflix with, I don’t think this phone will ever even make it onto their radar.


About the Author: Jared Peters

Born in southern Alabama, Jared spends his working time selling phones and his spare time writing about them. The Android enthusiasm started with the original Motorola Droid, but the tech enthusiasm currently covers just about everything. He likes PC gaming, Lenovo's Moto Z line, and a good productivity app.


  • Erik Tyler

    They dropped Verizon support. Very questionable decision and a real shame.