A little over a year ago, BlackBerry, a subsidiary of TCL Communications, launched the KeyOne, a smartphone with a full QWERTY keyboard layout. Unlike the PRIV, which released a year prior, the KeyOne had its keyboard on the front of the device and not hidden away below a slide-up screen.
With the launch of the new BlackBerry Key2, it indicates that there is room for such devices in the modern landscape. But, the Key2 isn’t an indication of the future of the smartphone. Instead, it’s a throwback of days gone by to when the BlackBerry was at its peak. To this day, there are still many who swear by the BlackBerry smartphones of old, yearning to bring back the physical keyboard. The Key2 takes all that people loved about the BlackBerry smartphones from 10 years ago and improves upon the first reboot, the KeyOne.
Build and Design
Upon first glance, you would think there isn’t much of a change between last year’s unit and the Key2. Until you spend the time to pick apart all the changes, that is. The Key2 is slightly longer, by 2mm, while also being 12g lighter overall. There are also changes to the edges, which are chamfered and flatter, which makes it much easier to grip and use in one hand. Last year’s KeyOne unit is more rounded at the corners, which has been squared up slightly, while still offering a rounded corner.
While there are two colours to choose from for the Key2, the silver unit is the main option, which offers a lot more in terms of the overall look by making all the changes visible and crisp. The Key2 is also narrower, which means the bezels around the screen are slightly thinner too, by my calculations 0.3mm on each side. The bezel above the screen is also more compact, with the screen positioned slightly higher up than previous located, which gives a little more room for the physical keyboard. The keyboard, while not entirely new, has been tweaked a lot by the design team at BlackBerry to get things just right. For starters, there’s a clear difference in the size of each key, which is a welcome bonus to all. The raised frets between the rows of keys have been removed, which gives just that little bit more space for your fingers to operate in. These three changes may be insignificant on its own but, on the whole, make typing a lot easier and comfortable to use.
The keyboard, while not entirely new, has been tweaked a lot by the design team at BlackBerry to get things just right.
Flipping the phone over you’ll notice just two changes. The metal strip on the top is gone, and the rubberised, soft-touch material is extended all the way to the top. The camera is still positioned on the top left with the LED flash to its right, but this time around offering a dual-lens camera in a rounded rectangle configuration as opposed to the circular, single lens camera on the KeyOne.
In terms of all the additional buttons ports, there hasn’t been a lot of changes there. The only major change is the speaker grille, which is a lot more refined than last year’s unit, resembling many other flagship smartphones of 2018. Overall, then, the Key2 features numerous changes over the KeyOne, refining a lot of the smaller details to make a huge improvement overall. My biggest gripe with the physical keyboard last year was its size, which I’m glad has been tweaked in 2018. There is still one outstanding issue, as with the previous unit, that being the lack of an IP rating.
Screen and Display
The screen wasn’t a huge feature on the KeyOne. Things haven’t improved much over the past 12 months, with BlackBerry still offering a 4.5″ screen. The display also remains the same at 1080x1620px, at a 3:2 ratio, along with a 434ppi pixel density. What I do find most peculiar is the decision to switch from Gorilla Glass 4 on the KeyOne back to Gorilla Glass 3 on the Key2. This compared to most other flagships sporting Gorilla Glass 5 in 2018, it does make you wonder how tough the screen is compared to modern standards.
The Key2 has an IPS LCD screen, which looks sharp and offers bright and colourful images. You won’t find the same deep blacks and high contrast qualities as with many OLED screens, but you won’t have too many issues with the overall quality, especially given the smaller screen. The Key2 isn’t a device you’ll spending hours watching Netflix and YouTube on, but it gets the job done just fine.
Performance and Battery
When it comes to the performance, the Key2 is packed with good enough hardware under the hood. Going through the specs, the Key2 sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 SoC, which released some 18 months ago, and still in wide use among the mid to high smartphone categories. The SoC includes an Octa-core CPU (4×2.2GHz Kryo 260 and 4×1.8GHz Kryo 260), 6GB RAM and your choice of 64GB or 128GB internal storage, with up to 256GB of external storage support via the SD card. This is quite a big jump over last year’s KeyOne in comparison to leading flagships, signalling some intent as to how BlackBerry wish to position the unit. This makes the Key2 a lot better at performing additional tasks, such as multitasking – although the lack of screen size will hinder multiscreen apps.
While the Key2 does show an improved performance, with benchmarks results much improved over last year, but doesn’t come close to any of the leading flagships across the board, at times halfway down in terms of outright performance.
…the Key2 is packed with good enough hardware under the hood.
Interestingly, while most of the other hardware has seen a dramatic improvement, the battery capacity has been decreased some 5mAh down to 3,500mAh. But while the capacity may be down the battery life has seen a huge improvement, thanks to efficiency increases in the CPU and software. On an average day, I was able to go the distance, powering through the work day and through the evening into the next morning. On days with much heavier usage, such as taking photos at an event, increased time on social media, or just running a few games, the battery does come under a lot more strain but is still more than capable of lasting a full work day without needing to reach for your charger. When the battery does deplete, it takes close to two hours to reach 100%, which isn’t bad at all. BlackBerry has included a tweak in the software called Boost Mode, which speeds up the charging process by reducing the performance of the CPU to prioritise charging.
Software and Camera
Since switching to Android OS with the PRIV a few years back, BlackBerry has struck a good balance between Google’s firmware and their own BlackBerry flavour. With the focus placed on business and security with apps such as the Hub, Messenger (BBM) and DTEK for security, BlackBerry stands out as the leading platform for most companies and even governments. On the Key2 it’s no different.
While the BlackBerry Hub isn’t as great as it was built natively into the BlackBerry 10 OS, it’s still a great, all-in-one hub for all your messages, emails, texts and even calendar events. With apps such as DTEK that powers the security in the background, users have control over every aspect of the device and how each app interacts with the secure elements of the OS. The DTEK software continuously monitors all the background goings-on to make sure that the unit is always protected, while also receiving numerous updates each month to keep it performing at its best.
The photos taken miss some important detail even in fully sunlit environments.
Last year’s KeyOne had a reasonable camera but wasn’t anywhere near challenging the top of the pack. Unfortunately, the camera suffers a similar fate on the Key2, even with the upgrade to a dual-lens camera. The unit features two 12MP lenses – a f/1.8, 1/2.3″, 1.28µm, dual pixel PDAF and f/2.6, 1/3.4″, 1.0µm, PDAF apertures, respectively. While it’s no surprise that the camera won’t be able to compete with the likes of the S9, iPhone Xs and the likes, it isn’t good enough to compete with the mid-range units from Samsung and Huawei.
The photos taken miss some important detail even in fully sunlit environments. The colours are decent enough, with good contrast as well. When it comes to low lit scenes, the camera suffers even more. If you’re buying the Key2 looking to take plenty of great photos, even for your social media feed, you may be in for some disappointing results on the whole. The camera does have some features that make up slightly for the lack of camera quality, such as bokeh. Unfortunately, even these features suffer a bit with getting the job done, with the blur for bokeh sometimes focusing on the incorrect object or blurring too much of the surroundings.
As with the KeyOne, there is definitely room in this world for a smartphone such as the BlackBerry Key2, especially in many developing countries such as South Africa, where BlackBerry made its name. There’s a lot to love about the Key2 as a BlackBerry fan, but it may all come down to price. Fans of the physical keyboard may not have had all their wishes granted, with the Key2 set for a recommended retail price of R12,999, which isn’t cheap. While I grew used to typing on the physical keyboard, I am glad to be back to my onscreen, swipe keyboard to which has been my primary method of “typing” since 2012.
The BlackBerry Key2 remains a smartphone that is aimed at the previous BlackBerry fan base rather than attracting and winning over new fans of the brand. With that, there is a potential for a good few millions of potential buyers and has enough under the hood to make it a worthwhile purchase.
The device comes with a pre-installed security app called DigCaller. It automatically does a phone number background check and lists any useful information found. Embedding such an app might sound unusual for a mobile manufacturer, but it will most probably continue to do so in future. At least we know that BlackBerry cares for the privacy of its users.
The BlackBerry Key2 improves a lot over last year's KeyOne model and is a worthwhile smartphone for BlackBerry fans of old who enjoy the physical keyboard. It won't be challenging the flagship devices out there, but definitely a reasonable purchase.
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