Nostalgia strikes with the BlackBerry Key2 smartphone ($649+). It’s the next-generation of 2017’s BlackBerry KeyOne and despite looking similar, the two models are different in all the right ways. The new model is slimmer, lighter and sturdier than its predecessor. The bezels on the Key2 are less prominent and its keyboard has been redesigned with 20-percent larger keys and a new “speed key” that lets users program their own shortcut to a specific app without going to the home screen. The Key2 has all its traditional specs bumped (processor, display, etc.) that you’d expect from a next-generation smartphone, too. And it’s the first Blackberry to ever have a dual rear-camera system. So in a world where BBMs are dead and iMessage is king, do you still need a smartphone with a smaller display and a physical keyboard?
The Good: Picking up the Key2 feels similar to using a mechanical keyboard with a computer — it’s different and sometimes difficult, but typing (texts, emails and Slack messages) is that much more enjoyable. The keyboard itself also comes with some neat tricks, such as 52 programmable shortcuts (one for each key), swipe gestures (which seems strange, but, for instance, you can scroll and erase messages by just swiping across the keyboard) and a fingerprint reader that’s in the spacebar. There’s an easy-access “Productivity Tab” that streamlines things like emails and calendar events. Blackberry put a number of features and apps, such as its well-known DTEK app, into the Key2 that take security to the next level. The rear-camera system is pretty decent for most photos. There’s a headphone jack.
Who They’re For: Any business person looking for a smartphone that’s primed for productivity (aka, somebody who sends a helluva lot emails via from their smartphone). It’s also not optimal for streaming videos or spending a lot of time looking at apps such as Instagram or Facebook, so the person probably shouldn’t care too much about that.
Watch Out For: Unlike many of the current crop of flagship and mid-range smartphones, the Key2 isn’t waterproof and doesn’t support wireless charging. Its display is tiny compared to pretty much every other smartphone in its price range. The keyboard can be frustrating at times, especially when you want to add symbols or numbers. The camera system isn’t great in low light.
Alternatives: In terms of other smartphones with physical keyboards, your only other option is last year’s Blackberry KeyOne, which is nowhere near as spec’d out as this much-updated Key2. At the $649, the Key2 is in line with other mid-range or older smartphones, such as the OnePlus 6, Google Pixel 2 or Samsung Galaxy S9, all of which have bigger displays and better camera systems.
Review: Full disclosure: I never had a Blackberry growing up. I never had the joy of BBMing or asking somebody, “Hey, what’s your pin?”. So getting my hands on the Blackberry Key2 was a novel experience — I hadn’t ever used a smartphone with a full keyboard before.
So let’s talk about the keyboard. Obviously, I use a keyboard on my desktop and laptop every day, so the physically typing on the condensed keyboard didn’t feel as abstract as I initially thought. The keys are small, true, but that was never really frustrated me. Instead, it was typing symbols and numbers that gave me the most problems, as navigating the Alt and Shift keys with just my thumbs felt aberrant.
The “speed key,” — that universal shortcut key — is located in the bottom-right corner of the keyboard and is surprisingly useful. It allows you to program up to 52 quick shortcuts to open apps without ever having to click the home button. I used it with just a few of my most-used apps — Twitter, Slack, Spotify, Gmail, Instagram — and I used it quite frequently. The keyboard has some swipe gestures, too, which first felt odd. You can switch between home screens, scroll up/down articles you’re reading and even delete words by just quickly moving your thumb over the keys. It’s honestly like the keys feel what I was trying to do — like a phantom touchscreen was there — but after a day or two of use, these swiping gestures kind of become second nature.
The keyboard is well-designed and feels great, but the great irony is that it actually made me a slower typer. I obviously have to caveat that point by saying two weeks of using a completely different smartphone isn’t enough time to break my habits, but still, I’m guessing most people used to typing on a touchscreen keyboard will have a similar problem.
The main star of the Blackberry Key2 is its keyboard, true, but the smartphone is also about privacy and security. As mentioned before, it has features and apps that bring this to the forefront. The DTEK app will tell you how secure each app is and let you manage permissions (it’ll tell you which apps have access to your microphone or certain log-in information, for example). The Redactor app allows you to black out sensitive information, too, so people standing near you can’t read what’s on your screen.
The other big difference is, as a result of that physical keyboard, that the Key2 has a smaller screen than other smartphones. The Key2 has a 4.5-inch display, which is slightly smaller than the 4.7-inch screen of the iPhone 8 and the five-inch screen of the Google Pixel 2, but it’s noticeably bigger — those smartphones are nearly all-screen.
For the most part, I didn’t have an issue with the smaller screen size. Apps like Gmail, Slack, Twitter, Google Maps and Messages all felt the same. However, the small screen has some noticeable drawbacks. The borders of Instagram Stories were cut off and watching landscapes videos on Netflix and YouTube is awkward. The resolution isn’t great either.
That said, the Key2 is a smartphone that’s not really meant for those things. Nor is it meant for taking photos, despite the fact that it’s the first Blackberry with a dual camera system and actually takes pretty decent photos. (I took a number of photos at my friend’s wedding and liked them enough to post on Instagram, which is saying something.) The camera, admittedly, isn’t great in low-light situations — photos can look flat — and it generally won’t impress you in the same way as the most recent iPhone, Samsung Galaxy or Google Pixel smartphones.
Verdict: At its core, the Blackberry is a very good mid-range smartphone. It’s fast, dependable and has a more than an adequate camera. Most importantly, it’s fun to use — a flash from the past. However, it’s really designed as a productivity weapon for business folks and doesn’t offer the supreme specs that are found in all today’s best flagship smartphones. The display isn’t big or beautiful, and it lacks features that have become ubiquitous, such as wireless charging and water resistance. If you want a second phone for business, or you’re just a big fan of Blackberry, the Key2 is a great choice. Otherwise, for $650, you can buy another midrange Android or an older iPhone and probably be happier.
What Others Are Saying:
• “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.” — Daniel Bader, Android Central
• “It might sound like I’m damning the phone with faint praise, but whatever: The BlackBerry Key2 is the best Android-powered BlackBerry ever made, and it improves on last year’s formula in almost every way. That said, the Key2 remains a questionable option for most smartphone shoppers — you could get a more-powerful Android phone like the OnePlus 6 for less money, and I suspect most people have moved on from physical keyboards without looking back. That said, for the right people — people who long for tactile keys and data privacy — the KEY2 just might be the right device at the right time.” — Chris Velazco, Engadget
• “On paper, it might be the best camera system ever put in a BlackBerry. But the Key2 doesn’t hold a candle to smartphone camera staples like the Pixel 2 XL and the iPhone X. After all, business users also want to take great photos with their phones, but the Key2 clearly isn’t cut out for that.” — Stefan Etienne, The Verge
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 660
OS: Android 8.1 Oreo
Display: 4.5-inch IPS LCD (1,620×1,080)
Rear Camera: dual 12-megapixel camera system; 4K video at 30fps, 1080p video at 60fps
Front Camera: 8-megapixel
Key Features: headphone jack, USB-C charging,
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