BlackBerry KEY2 review: Poor value, even for keyboard fans
The BlackBerry KEY2 is a mid-range phone at a premium price, and even if you're a keyboard fan, you can do better.
- If you want a keyboard, you're not flush with choices.
- Guaranteed Android updates.
- Nice productivity optimisations.
- Dual lens camera works well for a Blackberry.
- Way overpriced for core specifications.
- Small display screen.
- Old Android version with no sign of an upgrade.
- No wireless charging.
The BlackBerry KEY2 has the one key feature that anyone looking for a BlackBerry is going to seek out, because it's still rocking a physical keyboard. It's the best reason to buy the KEY2, but it's otherwise overpriced for mediocre specifications and performance. If you absolutely must have a keyboard, consider the much cheaper BlackBerry KEY2 LE.
BlackBerry KEY2: Design
- Keyboard stands out.
- Small display.
- Convenience key.
- Headphone jack.
It feels distinctly odd to be reviewing a "new" BlackBerry KEY2 in 2019. I mean, I've been reviewing phones for decades now, and I have a certain nostalgic attachment to the BlackBerry brand, for sure. Still, it feels like a very retro throwback step to go back to a physical keyboard on a phone, and especially so when it means putting up with a lot of other compromises along the way.
You certainly can't miss the fact that the BlackBerry KEY2 is a BlackBerry phone, thanks to the absolute prominence of its full physical keyboard. There's simply no other manufacturer making smartphones this way in 2019.
It's worth noting that BlackBerry actually doesn't make phones anymore. The BlackBerry KEY2 is a BlackBerry phone running Android with BlackBerry optimisations and security software on board. However, it's produced by Chinese manufacturer TCL, which also sells TVs in Australia under its own branding, and affordable budget phones under the Alcatel brand.
There is undeniably a pleasing tactility to the BlackBerry KEY2 keyboard that you just don't get tapping away on glass. The odd factor here that took me some time to get back into the groove with was the fact that the full keyboard features a smaller strike area per key than you'd get on many software-only keyboards. Then again, none of those software keyboards has any actual key travel, which may well be important to you.
Above the keyboard you'll find the BlackBerry KEY2's 4.5 inch 1,080 x 1,620 pixel LCD display. The price you pay for that keyboard is that it features a screen that's quite tiny by general Android standards, and especially so in the premium price space that TCL/BlackBerry is placing the BlackBerry KEY2.
All of the BlackBerry KEY2's function keys sit on the right-hand side of the phone. There's a power key, volume keys and the "convenience" key, which can be set to launch apps or invoke the Google Assistant. Assistant keys aren't a new idea, but it's nice that you can configure its actions against different apps rather than the Samsung approach, where the Bixby button is just a Bixby button or nothing at all. Still, I did hit the convenience key more than once when I wanted power and vice versa.
The rear of the BlackBerry KEY2 is on point for the expectations you might have of a BlackBerry phone. Visually it's rather stern and businesslike, although the impression doesn't last long once you actually pick it up. Given the price point, the fact that the rear feels like cheap plastic isn't good.
At the same price point, you could expect a range of colours, metal or a smooth glass finish. Instead, what you get is closer to the expectations you might have of one of TCL's cheaper Alcatel-branded phones.Back to top
BlackBerry KEY2: Camera
- Dual lens camera is a first for BlackBerry.
- Fine for basic photos.
- Poor low light performance.
One of the features that TCL/BlackBerry is keen to talk up on the BlackBerry KEY2 is the inclusion of a dual lens camera. If you're a long-term BlackBerry fan, it's certainly a big step up in camera capabilities with dual rear 12MP lenses. The primary lens is joined by a 2x optical zoom lens, and while that's never an unwelcome inclusion, it's also almost what I'd expect for a premium priced phone at least.
If you compare against the wider availability of camera phones in the BlackBerry KEY2's price bracket, it's quite meagre. Dual lens cameras of the type that the BlackBerry KEY2 features can now be found in more mid-range handsets, while we're seeing increasingly better cameras even in the lower premium end of the market.
The BlackBerry KEY2's camera is mostly fine, but rarely anything more than that. Here's one of my kittens staring at me on the regular camera:
And here's the same shot taken with the 2x optical zoom lens:
Cameras have never been a key focus for the BlackBerry line, and it almost feels like TCL/BlackBerry has been begrudgingly dragged into including even a dual lens array.
For everyday shots it's fine, but any kind of fast action or low light situation will leave the BlackBerry KEY2 wanting. As an example, here's my kitten hiding in a cupboard shelf, as seen by the BlackBerry KEY2:
Here's the same shot taken on the Huawei P30, a phone that sells at the same price point:
BlackBerry KEY2 sample photos
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BlackBerry KEY2: Performance
- Snapdragon 660 isn't what you'd expect at this price.
- Productivity shortcuts are nice.
- Still stuck on Android 8.1.
I'm treating the BlackBerry KEY2 as a "new" phone, because it's new to the Australian market, but the reality here is that it went on sale internationally back in 2018. It's basically a year-old handset that we're only seeing locally now.
That's got significant impact on the technology at play here. Put aside any thoughts of 5G, or indeed of premium processors, even with the KEY2's price point, because what it's running on is a Snapdragon 660 CPU.
Even in 2018 that wasn't an impressive processor. It's basically a mid-range part. It's paired with 6GB of RAM, and either 64GB of memory on the standard BlackBerry KEY2 or 128GB if you plump for the fancier KEY2 Red Edition model.
To make matters just a little worse, the BlackBerry KEY2 is running on Android 8.1, which means it's a full Android version behind. There's no real way of knowing if the lack of updates is due to the inclusion of BlackBerry's security software, or if it's just TCL being a bit slack itself. Either way, you're paying premium money in 2019 for a phone that's well behind the times.
Rather predictably, the BlackBerry KEY2 falls behind when you compare it to phones in its price range. Actually, I'll correct myself there.
It falls way behind when you compare it to phones in its price range.
As an example, here's how the BlackBerry KEY2 compares against currently available handsets that cost a similar amount of money:
It's much the same story with 3D performance, leaving aside the challenges of game presentation on a smaller screen:
For practical purposes, the Snapdragon 660 is fine as a processor, but it's well behind the pace that you could see for the same amount of money.
That's a pity too because alongside basic Android you'll find a range of security and productivity centric applications and approaches that are quite unique to BlackBerry itself. There's an argument to be had around enterprise grade security that most smartphone users don't consider most of the time, but if that's you, then there could be some appeal here.
Likewise, the inclusion of a physical keyboard also opens up a whole world of fast launching tied to specific keys. This is totally customizable, so you could literally have each key fast tied to a single app if you wished. The response here is good, and there's plenty of potential.Back to top
BlackBerry KEY2: Battery life
- 3,500mAh battery provides an easy day's battery life.
- Lacks wireless charging.
The BlackBerry KEY2 features a 3,500mAh battery, which is decent but not spectacular at this price point. I was hopeful that it would excite me given it's running on a slower processor with a smaller screen. Could battery life be the KEY2's saving grace?
The answer is a qualified maybe. With battery life similar to that of the iPhone XR, it can last for a day's usage without too much worry. You're not likely to see more battery life, and again that's on a phone that runs slower and with fewer features than the XR. However, it's beaten out comprehensively by the Huawei P30.
Charging is via USB C, but that rear casing means that wireless charging is out of the question.Back to top
BlackBerry KEY2: Should you buy it?
- Skip the Key2 and buy the KEY2 LE instead if you must have a keyboard.
The reality is that BlackBerry sat on the BlackBerry KEY2 for a long time before bringing it to Australia, and it really hasn't aged all that well.
Even when it was "new" it was internally a mid-range phone at a premium price point.
The key selling point of the keyboard is undercut by the much more affordable KEY 2 LE. The camera, while good on BlackBerry's own terms and history, is mediocre against even mid-range devices, and essentially embarrassing if you put it up against premium competitors at this price point.Back to top
BlackBerry KEY2: Pricing and availability
A phone for those who like tapping on a keyboard
The BlackBerry KEY2 gives you that iconic BlackBerry keyboard, alongside security features you won't find in any other phone.
The BlackBerry KEY2 sells in Australia for $1,190 through Amazon. There's a premium model, the BlackBerry KEY2, which ups the internal storage to 128GB for an outright cost of $1,390.
There's also the BlackBerry KEY2 LE, which is the budget model. That phone will set you back $799, and it cuts down the processor and camera capabilities in return.
It's been a very long while since we've seen a BlackBerry available on contract terms through any Australian carrier. If you want one, you'll have to buy it outright.
BlackBerry KEY2: Alternatives
The challenge if you want a keyboard based smartphone is that there's BlackBerry, and then there's absolutely nothing else at all.
Which means your choices are the KEY2, the pricier KEY2 Red edition or the cheaper KEY2 LE.
BlackBerry KEY2 LE
A keyboard phone for less
The BlackBerry KEY2 LE brings the keyboard back, freeing you from those less-than-precise software keyboards.
At its asking price you could opt for a phone with a better camera, such as the Huawei P30.
Built for photography
Sleek, powerful and equipped with Huawei's market-leading camera technology, the P30 is an impressive addition to the premium smartphone space. Get yours now.
Or indeed the Nokia 9 Pureview.
Nokia 9 Pureview
Nokia gets serious about photography
With an astonishing 5 rear lenses and guaranteed updates through Android One, the Nokia 9 Pureview is the phone for photography professionals. Get yours today.
You could go for a style choice with a good camera such as the Samsung Galaxy S10e.
Samsung Galaxy S10e
Samsung's Galaxy S10e gives you a more affordable Samsung Galaxy S10 experience while retaining plenty of power and camera features. If you want a small and powerful Samsung Galaxy phone, this is the one to buy.
You could opt for cleaner Android via the Google Pixel 3.
Google Pixel 3
Google's smaller flagship
The Google Pixel 3 provides the best of Android and Google's own vision of a premium smartphone that's uniquely Google-centric.
- Good battery life
- Camera works well
- Powerful for a small phone
- Android Pie onboard with updates to come
Or even save yourself about half the BlackBerry KEY2's asking price and get the Google Pixel 3a, a phone with very similar specifications but better camera performance.
Google Pixel 3a
Google's Pixel for the masses
The Google Pixel 3a provides the best of Google at a lower price point than its flagship Pixel phones.
BlackBerry KEY2 Specifications
|Display size (inches)||4.5|
|Display resolution (pixels)||1080 x 1620|
|Pixels per inch (PPI)||433|
|Battery size (mAh)||3,500|
|Rear camera (1) resolution||12|
|Rear camera (1) aperture||1.8|
|Rear camera (2) resolution||12|
|Rear camera (2) aperture||2.6|
|Rear camera (3) resolution|
|Rear camera (3) aperture|
|Front camera (1) resolution||8|
|Front camera (1) aperture|
|Front camera (2) resolution|
|Front camera (2) aperture|
|Network category speed||Category 11|