The BlackBerry KEY2 is a phone unstuck in time, marrying modern silicon and software with a look that recalls handsets from a good decade before its release. Models like the Priv and last year's KEYone have been fighting the good fight for physical hardware keyboards long after the rest of the world has moved on.
Now the KEY2 is picking up the torch (no pun intended) with its mid-range Snapdragon 660 SoC, relatively petite 4.5-inch HD display, and a new dual-12MP rear camera system. Pricing is up $100 to $650 this year, and it's available in July unlocked at Amazon and Best Buy.
|Display||4.5” IPS LCD @ 1620x1080 (3:2 ratio)|
|Camera||12MP+12MP dual rear, 8MP front|
|Ruggedization||No dust/water rating|
|Charging||Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 (USB-PD 2.0 compatible), no wireless charging|
|Networks||AT&T and T-Mobile in the US|
|Keyboard||Newly redesigned keys look and feel a whole lot better than on the KEYone. The matte finish is much more pleasant to work with, and greater height makes the keys easier to feel. And while it's less than a game-changer, the introduction of the new shortcut-enabling Speed Key works rather well.|
|Design||Even with its physical keyboard, the KEY2 is a sleek, modern-looking handset that's noticeably thinner and lighter than its predecessor — both changes that go a long way towards making the phone feel premium.|
|Dual cameras||While image quality isn't exactly stellar, the flexibility of having both a standard-angle and a telephoto lens make shooting with the KEY2 a generally pleasant experience.|
|Security||Other elements of BlackBerry's software are less successful, but the standout DTEK security software really does a nice job at putting users in control of their handset security, while offering a pretty useful at-a-glance overview of potential problem spots.|
|Battery life||The combination of a smaller screen, mid-range processor, and good-sized 3,500mAh battery gives the KEY2 some of the best battery life you'll find of a phone in its class. While that longevity will vary based on usage needs, charging once every few days can very much be a reality.|
|The space bar||So much is wrong here. The embedded fingerprint scanner has an annoyingly high rejection rate, and can require several attempts to successfully authenticate. Pressing the space bar produces a different click sound than every other key on the keyboard, and its travel feels different when depressed. And while all other keys are firmly mounted, the space bar feels loose and wiggles under your touch.|
|Haptics||The clicky keys are nice, but the KEY2's vibration motor is garbage. It has a reverberant, “springy” quality to its buzzes that almost feels like it's trying to play a tiny horn, when a short, solid, staccato buzz would be far superior.|
|Capacitive Android buttons||At least they disappear this year, but why are we using capacitive buttons at all? They also tend to conflict with the keyboard's touch-sensitive input — while you're swiping up to scroll a web page, it's much too easy for your finger to grace the home button and dump you out of your browser.|
|Convenience Key||This user-definable button on the KEY2's right edge should be more useful than it is. While it can launch multiple apps, that's accomplished by way of popping up on-screen icons and making you tap to choose. Why not different options for short, long, or double-press? Even Speed Key shortcuts have dual short and long options, so why is the Convenience Key left out?|
|Camera performance||The dual lenses are nice, and you can get some really nice pics out of the KEY2, but the front-facer's still only passable, and low-light performance in general is poor, with images becoming soft and distorted as the camera does everything possible to avoid any hint of noise. Camera software is also unintuitive, especially when toggling between resolution options.|
|Build quality||The phone's textured back isn't the easiest sell, but we could live with it if it at least felt solid. Instead, various places (especially around the BB logo) give slightly under pressure. And while we get why a phone with a physical keyboard isn't waterproof, that doesn't keep us from wishing that it were.|
|Pricing||At $550, the price tag was the worst thing about last year's KEYone. To little surprise, it's even steeper this year, forcing shoppers to compare the $650 KEY2 against powerhouse flagships.|
Where to buy, what’s in the box, accessories, warranty, and more
BlackBerry is aligning itself with Amazon and Best Buy in the US, where the KEY2 will be sold unlocked for just about $650. Some of those handsets will make their way into Best Buy retail stores, but availability's not guaranteed at all locations, so we imagine many shoppers will head online. Pre-sales open later this week, on June 29, ahead of full retail availability on July 13. You'll have your choice of the KEY2 in either the black you see here, or a handsome silver finish.
Picking up the handset unlocked will enable you to go with your choice of network, though the lack of any CDMA support means you're likely looking at AT&T or T-Mobile in the States. So far, we haven't heard about any specific plans for carriers to sell the KEY2 in their own stores.
Taking home the KEY2, you'll find the phone packed with a QuickCharge 3.0 charger (it will also work with USB PD 2.0), USB standard-A to Type-C cable, and a pair of analog earbuds, complete with two sets of alternate buds in different sizes — an accessory that's far from a certainty with phones today. As far as documentation goes, the KEY2 comes with a welcome flyer, quick-start guides in a variety of languages, and a warranty card. And finally, there's a SIM tool for outfitting the KEY2 with the SIM card of your choice.
Each of the KEY2's side buttons feels unique, for easy no-look operation.
While we probably won't see a huge assortment of KEY2-specific accessories land, there are at least a couple of cases incoming. BlackBerry is advertising a silicone Soft Shell case that protects the phone's back and edges, as well as a more elaborate FlipCase that's made from real leather, folds closed to protect the screen, and includes slots to hold two cards. Pricing has yet to be made available for either.
In the US and Canada, the KEY2 comes with a pretty standard-looking 12-month limited warranty. If some defect pops up in that time span, TCL (who makes BlackBerry phones these days) will repair or replace your KEY2 — though you may end up with some used (“rebuilt”) parts in the process.
Camera sample gallery
Our verdict: Should you buy a BlackBerry KEY2?
Probably not. The BlackBerry KEY2 feels almost like a bespoke phone, Frankensteined together in the shadowy corners of a factory from parts that shouldn't exist. Because while it runs a modern version of Android (8.1 now, and while a P upgrade is promised, given that the KEYone is still on Nougat, I wouldn't hold my breath) and gets a nice hardware upgrade this year with its 6GB of RAM, this still feels like a phone that's custom-assembled for a very particular user — and odds are, that user's not you.
BlackBerry's trying to make the KEY2 a lot of things at once, and that can make your purchasing decision feel a little confused. More than being just a phone with a physical keyboard, it also waves its flags of device security and access to BlackBerry-exclusive software as big selling points. Those very well may be for the sort of enterprise users the KEY2 appears made for, but to your average smartphone user they might not add a ton of value.
There's one person in a crowd for whom the KEY2 just might be the perfect phone, but the rest of us should keep looking.
That's another big problem with the KEY2, because even if you really like what's going on with both the hardware and the software, the phone still doesn't come across as a good value. Part of that's probably intentional, as a “professional” phone like this doesn't want to risk the appearance of being cheap. But when there exist devices like the OnePlus 6 that offer objectively more phone for a lower price, it's hard to recommend the KEY2 to all but the most dedicated keyboard fan.
This is made all the more unfortunate because it's clear that BlackBerry has some good ideas here that only get botched in execution: Using the keyboard surface as a touchpad could be great, but sensitivity problems discourage frequent use, and it's nothing short of frustrating that the side-mounted Convenience Key isn't as flexible as Speed Key-triggered shortcuts.
Even with big improvements over the KEYone's keyboard, the KEY2 still drops the ball with a poor fingerprint scanner and inconsistent gesture input.
Even if we remove all that “extra” stuff, the KEY2 is still an unbalanced phone. The 64GB storage is very nice, and while the move to 6GB RAM should also be, multitasking is not as smooth as that much memory would suggest. Performance can be inconsistent, too, and though the 660 does a solid job most of the time, the occasional stutter and pause reminds you that you're not working with the highest-end mobile hardware around.
The KEY2 is a decent upgrade over the KEYone, and delivers a handful of well-appreciated improvements. But it's also held back in many of the same ways, encumbered by design, software, and sales decisions that do nothing to make the KEY2 as attractive as it could be to shoppers. There's one person in a crowd for whom the KEY2 just might be the perfect phone, but the rest of us should keep looking.
- Excellent physical keyboard could make a convert out of even die-hard software-keyboard aficionados.
- Battery life is tough to beat, and can easily get you through a day or two between charges.
- It has an attractive, attention-grabbing design
- Fingerprint scanner performance is just really upsetting.
- Higher pricing puts the KEY2 up against better-equipped, more mainstream hardware.
- Even with dual cameras, imaging still feels like an afterthought.