Years ago when I got my first job, I spent my first paycheck on a smartphone. I didn't go out and buy an iPhone or an Android device; I went with the BlackBerry Torch and its slide-out QWERTY keyboard.
That turned out to be a bad choice as the smartphone didn't age well, and as soon as my contract allowed me to, I upgraded to an iPhone. Regardless of the bad experience, I've had a soft spot for BlackBerry through its ups and downs. All of this is to say I was excited when the BlackBerry Key2 crossed my desk.
The BlackBerry Key2 is an incremental upgrade rather than a revolutionary one. A quick look at the new device and you'll find it's difficult to discern from its predecessor.
Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, TCL—the maker of BlackBerry devices—decided to perfect it. It looked at the design of the KeyOne and improved most of its weak parts. That includes the keyboard, the fit and finish, and the camera. Before I touch upon those, let me give a quick overview of the Key2.
A familiar design
Like the KeyOne, the Key2 is a candybar smartphone that is 70-percent screen and 30-percent keyboard. The screen is a 4.5-inch 1080p LCD panel that is flanked by capacitive buttons at the bottom that turn off when not in use. Though it's relatively sharp, the display isn't the highest quality. It gets plenty bright yet there is noticeable light bleeding at the top. Most people won't notice it, but once you do, it's hard to ignore.
Underneath the display lives a Snapdragon 660 processor, 6GB of RAM and 3,500mAh battery. It might seem like a letdown for the phone to be stuck with a 600-series processor instead of an 800-series, but during normal use you can't really tell the difference. Performance is snappy with apps opening and closing without a hitch, while split-screen multitasking is carried out with no issues.
I wouldn't say performance is perfect. There were some stuttery moments and some odd reboots, but even the premium Android handsets (and iPhones) have these issues from time to time.
The Key2 comes with Android 8.1 Oreo out of the box, so it's running the newest software available. Even better, BlackBerry has gone with a near-stock experience that undoubtedly helps the overall performance. It definitely helps out battery life, which is very impressive. You'll make it through the day easily.
Some great improvements
Returning to the the improvements I mentioned earlier, it starts with the keyboard. TCL made the wise choice to increase the size by 20-percent. I never thought the keyboard on the original KeyOne was cramped, but after using the Key2 keyboard that's exactly how it felt. Gone is the glossy finish replaced by much nicer matte black keys that not only look better, they feel much nicer too.
The space key again doubles as the fingerprint scanner that's slightly bigger and works just a great as it did with the KeyOne. You can also use the entire keyboard as a trackpad. Just swipe up and down or side to side and the screen will move.
An unexpected addition with the keyboard is the new Speed Key at the bottom left corner. Through BlackBerry's software, you can program the key to perform just about any function you want. For instance, press the Speed Key and the C key at the same time and it'll open up the camera. It takes the already available feature of programming keys to the next level.
This is the first time an new age BlackBerry keyboard has matched the experience offered by the BlackBerry Bold. The keys are ultra clicky and the spacing is perfect.
One of my biggest gripes with the KeyOne was the placement of the power button on the left side. It never ceased to annoy, but luckily BlackBerry addressed this with the Key2, one of many improvements made to the overall design.
The Key2 lost some weight, too, coming in at 168g as compared to the 180g of its predecessor. You won't notice the difference unless you hold the two phones in your hands. Also helping out is the new 7000 series aluminum frame with flat edges that replace the rounded edges of the KeyOne. The Key2 feels more durable and it's a lot grippier in the hand.
On the back, the Key2 is again a slight refinement over the KeyOne. The dual camera lives at the top left corner of a back panel and is covered in a soft touch material. On the bottom is the USB-C charging port and two speakers, and at the top is a headphone jack.
The camera isn't great
Speaking of the dual camera, I mentioned that the Key2 features a lot of improvements: the camera isn't one of them. The Key2's camera consistently came up short compared to high-end flagships. It's still a 12MP camera, but this time it is a wide-angle lens and a telephoto lens that provides 2x optical zoom.
The camera's processing is all over the place. Some images come out well when in perfect conditions—sharp with colors that are very vibrant—but those images are rare. Most images look overexposed, completely falling apart when you zoom in. Luckily, you can overcome some of the camera's image-taking deficiencies with the stellar manual mode, which gives you the option to adjust focus, white balance and ISO.
It can also shoot video up to 4K at 30 frames per second, delivering good video in decently lit situations. Anything in a dark setting and you won't like the results.
Where TCL did make improvements was with the function of the camera. Tap to focus works almost instantaneously as does the shutter, ensuring you'll take the image you want.
A phone for a select few
In a world where phones are all display, the BlackBerry Key2 is a rarity and the epitome of a niche device. People aren't clamoring for QWERTY keyboard devices like they did once upon a time. The Key2 does a great job of bringing the old school style into the new world, but it still feels like a device from a different era. The best way I can describe the phone is fun, but ultimately not worth it.
I mainly attribute that to its high price point of $650. When the OnePlus 6 costs $520 with better specs, selling a more expensive niche phone with a full keyboard and a 600-series processor seems like a big stretch.
There will be those who will oversee the deficiencies and pick up this phone because they want a QWERTY keyboard. To those people I say good for you; you'll enjoy this phone very much like I did. I just can't recommend a phone that costs $650, because there are just too many devices that undercut it in pricing and features.
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