Bill Thomas is a writer for Lifewire who covers technology, music, film, and gaming. Bill has also held editorial positions at Future and TechRadar.com.
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Lifewire / Jordan Provost
Great battery life
Robust security features
Frustrating physical keyboard
Poor multimedia experience
The BlackBerry KEY2 is a device squarely aimed at professionals that yearn for the days of physical keyboards. For those people, it's a great device. But if you enjoy the streamlined design of modern smartphones, you may want to look elsewhere.
We purchased BlackBerry KEY2 so our expert reviewer could thoroughly test and assess it. Keep reading for our full product review.
About 10 or 15 years ago, the smartphone landscape looked completely different. Instead of Samsung Galaxy or Google Pixel devices taking the spotlight, it was common to see something that looked more like the BlackBerry KEY2. That nostalgia alone might be enough to sell you on it, but plenty has changed since then. Displays have become more high-resolution, touchscreen keyboards are now the norm, and some phones have extremely fast processors. We tested the BlackBerry KEY2 to see how this throwback design holds up.
When we first pulled the BlackBerry KEY2 out of its package, it looked like a Blackberry from 2005 crossed with a modern Android device. And, while that might not sound appealing, it actually kind of works for the BlackBerry KEY2.
The KEY2 has an aluminum frame, with the backplate covered in a non-slip grip. The chassis that felt solid and durable in our hands, without being too heavy or bulky. It’s elegant in a way that we miss in luxury cell phones from a decade ago.
This is all, of course, paired with a full physical keyboard, the keys of which feel nice and tactile. There’s even a fingerprint sensor in the space bar.
There are three buttons on the right-hand side of the device too: a volume rocker, a lock/power button, and a programmable key that we set to the camera. As for ports, you have a USB-C for charging, which we love, and a headphone jack.
Before we go any further we have to take a second to talk about the keyboard. For what is ostensibly one of the selling points of this device, the actual experience of using the BlackBerry KEY2’s keyboard in 2019 is an exercise in frustration. The keys have a tactile feel, but that’s where the pleasantries end.
Maybe it’s just because we’ve grown so accustomed to touchscreen keyboards over the last decade, but it took us days to get to the point where we could type proficiently on the BlackBerry KEY2. It doesn’t help that in order to type a number or a symbol, you have to pull some serious hand gymnastics: press the ‘alt’ key and then the button with the number or symbol you’re looking for.
And, because not all symbols are represented here, you may have to swipe down over physical keys. In fact, you can perform several gestures by swiping in several directions: you can delete full words, auto-complete the word you’re typing, or even scroll through pages. The problem is that it’s a bit too sensitive. There were several times that we were trying to type, but moved our finger in the wrong way and messed everything up.
Check out our guide to the best Blackberry phones you can buy today.
Setting the BlackBerry KEY2 up was an event in and of itself. While the initial Android setup was pretty standard, there were a ton of BlackBerry apps and services that needed attention. We had to sign in to our Google account twice thanks to the strange BlackBerry Hub app, and the sidebar took some wrestling to customize.
All told, it took us nearly an hour to get all the services up and running. And, with the device’s performance, we wish the launcher was a little less crowded.
The BlackBerry KEY2 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 SOC, 6GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage. These are decidedly mid-range specs for a mid-range phone, but thanks to the heavy launcher, its performance felt more like a low-end device.
Launching apps and navigating through the UI felt laggier than some budget phones we’ve used recently. This was reflected in the PCMark benchmark for Android, where the KEY2 scored a paltry 6,266 points.
But thanks to that 6GB of RAM, multi-tasking was manageable and we were able to open plenty of apps before they started to get cycled out of the memory.
For what is ostensibly one of the selling points of this device, the actual experience of using the BlackBerry KEY2’s keyboard in 2019 is an exercise in frustration.
This isn’t a phone designed with power users in mind, so that ability to have social media, email, and web browsers open without getting in the way of each other is a nice feature to have. We just wish apps launched faster.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that gaming is pretty much a non-starter on the BlackBerry KEY2. Not only does the Snapdragon 660 have a pretty weak GPU, but the keyboard will override touch controls in some titles.
When we launched Asphalt 9, we experienced laggy performance and awful image quality, which would usually be bad enough. However, rather than letting us control the game through the touch screen like we’re used to, it kept showing us keyboard prompts for keys that weren’t even on the phone.
At the end of the day, the BlackBerry KEY2 has the horsepower necessary for checking email, doing some instant messaging, and taking the occasional phone call. However, if you try to push it any harder, you’re going to run into some issues.
Network performance fares very well on the BlackBerry KEY2. Whether we were out on a walk around the neighborhood, in a crowded grocery store, or indoors connected to Wi-Fi, we didn’t experience any kind of disruption to our data connection.
In fact, the KEY2’s connectivity may be the strongest point of the device. Using the Ookla Speedtest app, we measured LTE download speeds of 52Mbps. We also tested the network performance by loading up a YouTube video and walking around the neighborhood. The Full HD video didn’t stop to buffer or get bumped down to a lower resolution.
You can count on the BlackBerry KEY2 to provide reliable network performance anywhere you actually have coverage. You won’t be limited by the phone, but rather by your carrier.
The BlackBerry KEY2 isn’t a flagship-level device, so it’s not packing an OLED display with HDR like the latest and greatest devices. The 4.5-inch display has a 3:2 aspect ratio at 1620 x 1080 resolution (almost full HD). That’s a pixel density of 433 PPI, which is respectable enough.
But the display is still awkward to use. The 3:2 aspect ratio is awful for consuming media, especially since the screen is so small. When watching full-screen YouTube videos, the already-small screen shrinks in order to fit the 16:9 content. The color accuracy also isn’t great. Whether you’re looking at photos or watching videos, colors appear washed out and bland. You won’t want to do any Netflix binging on this screen, that’s for sure.
However, we have to consider the target audience for this device: the BlackBerry KEY2 is made for checking emails more than it is for Netflix, and the display is sufficient for that. But, in our opinion, there are still so many phones out there that do it better.
On the bottom of the BlackBerry KEY2, you’ll find a single speaker and a microphone. It’s a pretty standard phone speaker—not terrible, but unable to provide an inspiring audio experience.
We tested the speaker out by playing Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next”, and while we didn’t experience any buzzing at high volumes, there was a distinct lack of bass, almost like there was no low end whatsoever.
For the occasional YouTube video or speakerphone conversation, it gets the job done. It’s loud enough and voices come through clear, so if you’re just looking for a phone for work, the BlackBerry KEY2 speaker is perfectly functional.
The product page for the BlackBerry KEY2 prominently mentions the dual rear cameras because it’s the first BlackBerry to have this setup, but the image quality is unimpressive. We played with this phone’s camera for a few hours trying to find a situation where the photography would shine, and we never really found it.
Even with natural lighting, images were lifeless and drained of color—they still looked that way when viewed on a high-end computer monitor. And don’t even try to take photos indoors. Unless you’re in an extremely well-lit area, your images will be extremely blurry. This phone also has a Portrait Mode, or at least it claims to. Through both the rear and front-facing cameras, we could barely get it to work.
Fortunately, the camera also has a more interesting feature called Locker Mode. With this mode enabled, you can take photos using the fingerprint sensor built into the spacebar to automatically secure the photo when you snap it—it won’t upload to the cloud, and people won’t even be able to look at it without verifying their identity. It’s an awesome security feature, especially for anyone who needs to take photos of business documents on the go.
Likely due to the low-powered components and low-resolution display, the BlackBerry KEY2 has amazing battery life. Over the five or so days we tested this phone, we only really had to charge it once or twice. We haven’t used a phone with this kind of longevity in ages, probably since flip phones were in vogue.
Another bonus: It charges extremely quickly. Using the charger included in the box, it was able to power up from empty in about an hour and a half. We connected it to our MacBook Pro charger to see if it would charge faster, and we were able to cut that charging time to about an hour. You could honestly take this phone on intercontinental flights without having to dig a charger out of your bag.
This phone comes with a lot of pre-installed bloatware, but some of it is super useful. Not only does BlackBerry include a full antivirus app in DTEK by BlackBerry, but it has a redaction feature that lets you easily censor information in screenshots, a Privacy Shade that lets you block out all of your display except the bit you’re reading, and the Locker Mode for the camera that we described earlier. It’s a dream come true for any security-conscious users out there.
The robust security features cement the device as a go-to for business people, especially those who need to handle sensitive documents.
We haven’t used a phone with this kind of longevity in ages, probably since flip phones were in vogue.
When we think of products designed for professionals, we expect an overblown price. The BlackBerry KEY2 isn’t quite so bad. It’ll set you back $649 in the US, which is a mid-range price for mid-range hardware with some cool security features. We’d say that’s worth it, especially if you’re part of the niche audience this phone is made for.
We understand that the BlackBerry KEY2 is appealing to people who are nostalgic for physical keyboards, but hear us out: the iPhone XR is only about $100 more expensive ($749 MSRP) and it’s much faster. You sacrifice some of the unique security options that the BlackBerry KEY2 offers, but you’re gaining enough performance that it’s the better choice for most people. Plus, the iPhone XR has a competent camera and a display that you won’t have to squint at to consume multimedia.
The right phone for the right user.
The BlackBerry KEY2 is a niche product, designed for the type of person that needs to handle sensitive information on the go and doesn’t have time to sit back and consume media. Most everyday users are going to be served better elsewhere, but the physical keyboard might convince some nostalgic consumers to take the dive.
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