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Review: BlackBerry KEY2

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Jun 27, 2018, 8:00 AM   by Eric M. Zeman   @phonescooper
updated Jun 27, 2018, 8:01 AM

The BlackBerry KEY2 takes the basic design of last year's phone and makes improvements all around. The phone has a decent-sized screen, physical QWERTY keyboard, and metal chassis. It runs Android Oreo with BlackBerry's business software on board. Combine all this with a snappy processor and a big battery and you have a potential winner. Is anything holding this phone back? We find out in our in-depth review.

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Hardware 

Is It Your Type?

TCL is back with a refreshed version of its keyboard-equipped BlackBerry. If you long for the tactile feel of real buttons and appreciate hardened security, the KEY2 — with its full QWERTY keyboard and robust encryption — is just about the only option in the market.

Body

The KEY2 is a follow-up to last year's KEYone, and demonstrates that listening to your customers can reap dividends. The phone is better in nearly every way than its predecessor.

The KEY2 carries over the basic principles of the the first. It's a large slab with a metal frame, mid-sized screen, and physical keyboard. The KEY2 upgrades to 7000 series aluminum for the frame, with a matte finish. I particularly like the new shape. You'll find squared off corners at the top of the phone, but rounded ones at the bottom. The side edges are now cut with angled chamfers that look classy. The 2.5D glass on front is curved where it meets the edges. The material and pattern that make up the rear panel are improved, too. The KEY2 comes in two colors: silver and matte black. Both are sharp, though I'm partial to the black one.

KEY2  

The phone stands under six inches tall and sits less than three inches wide. TCL claims the phone is 1mm thinner and 20 grams lighter than the outgoing model. These may sound like minor improvements, but they truly add up. The slimmer, lighter device is much more appealing to me. I was turned off by the blockier, bulkier footprint of the original. The sequel is simply a better, more usable piece of hardware. It's easy to hold, easier to use, and easier to tote around. It fits in pockets pretty well.

I would call the KEY2 more cohesive than the original, and that's evident when examining the materials and the way they're assembled. The aluminum frame is strong and the various components — display, keyboard, rear panel — are set into it snugly. There are no unsightly gaps in any of the seams.

TCL says this BlackBerry is rugged(ish). It's not tough-as-nails rugged, but it is able to handle some rough treatment. The polycarbonate rear panel, for example, isn't going to break when the phone is dropped. I'm not happy about the phone's lack of waterproofing. It can handle sweaty phone calls, some light splashing, and a spritz of rain, but no submersion into pools or other bodies of water.

Hand Fit  

TCL gave the KEY2 a literal facelift. The company reduced the size of the forehead and lifted the display upward. This gives the KEY2 more room for the keyboard, which TCL made 20% taller than last year's phone. TCL did this because owners of the original KEYone complained that the keyboard was too small. Problem solved.

The larger keyboard has bigger, angled buttons that adopt a matte finish. The keyboard boasts improved travel and feedback, and is much punchier than that of the original. The roomier layout makes for easier and more accurate typing. The keyboard drops the silver "frets" between the rows on last year's keyboard, replacing them with a small space that helps set the rows apart and keep your thumbs on point. Again, these small improvements really add up. However, the spacebar is very clicky and loud, which is a shame.

As before, the keyboard acts as a touch trackpad. You can swipe your thumb around the keyboard to move the cursor or navigate through home screen panels, apps, and web pages. This is really helpful. The fingerprint reader is embedded in the spacebar, which makes lots of sense. TCL eliminated the right "shift" button and replaced it with the Speed Key, a dedicated action button that can be used to trigger user-defined shortcuts.

Keyboard

Keyboard

The dollar sign ($) is the only symbol to have its own dedicated key. BlackBerry calls it the currency key. In addition to typing the $ symbol, it can act as a hot key to one of five other actions if you prefer. I wish there were an "@" or "." or "#" — all of which are relied upon heavily in today's social media apps. There isn't a shortcut to emoji, either. You have to press the "sym" key to open the keyboard for symbols and other non-traditional characters, which appear on the screen. It's clunky and I don't like how symbols are arranged. Consider this part of the cost to gain that physical keyboard.

Also oddly, TCL kept the capacitive back, home, and multitasking keys above the keyboard and under the display. I can't grasp this waste of physical real estate for buttons that could have been placed on the screen as needed; TCL could have given this BlackBerry a bigger screen.

A fairly typical series of buttons and ports populate the outer edge. There are three physical buttons on the right edge: the volume toggle, the screen lock button, and the user-definable action key. These keys are painted black but have polished edges so they stand out visually. All three have good travel and feedback. I like the profile of the screen lock key, which is ridged to help differentiate it from the other two.

You'll note a USB-C port on the bottom, along with drilled speaker holes. A 3.5mm headphone jack is on top. The SIM / memory card tray is on the left edge. The tray supports either one SIM card and one memory card, or two SIM cards.

The polycarbonate material that forms the rear panel is curved just a bit where it meets the side edges. TCL said it upgraded the pattern for a better in-hand feel and I think the company succeeded. The micro-diamond-shaped pattern is comfortable against your skin and provides a bit of grip at the same time. There's no removing the rear panel, nor the battery underneath. The dual camera module is raised a bit. It's accompanied by a two-tone LED flash.

Cameras

Cameras

The thinner profile and improved keyboard impress me. TCL introduced just the right number of refinements compared to the original to ensure that it's a better BlackBerry overall.

Screen

Compared to other phones, you're obviously sacrificing screen size to make room for the keyboard.

Face

Face

The display is a carry-over from the original as far as specs are concerned. It has the same 4.5-inch measurement in a 3:2 aspect ratio with 1,080 by 1,610 pixels. The resolution is fine. It has the same number of pixels side-to-side as many competing devices. Everything on the screen looked sharp and clean. I do wish it had better color. Tones appear a bit muted to my eyes on this screen and whites have a slight blue cast. The display puts out enough light for use most places, including outdoors under bright light. I like the 2.5D curved glass, which bends slightly along the edges.

TCL's software allows you to tweak the color profile, set night/reading mode, control system font/icon sizes, and more.

Display Settings  

Signal

The BlackBerry KEY2 has excellent support for U.S. LTE networks. With the exception of T-Mobile's Band 71, it covers all the major LTE bands used by AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. It lacks CDMA, however, which limits its compatibility with Sprint.

I tested the phone on AT&T's network in the greater New York area and it did very well. The KEY2 handled calls like a champ. It connected them on the first dial and didn't drop any over miles of highway driving. It performed on par with branded AT&T devices.

The KEY2 offers Cat 11 LTE and data speeds were correspondingly very good. The KEY2 isn't as fast as the Galaxy S9 or the OnePlus 6, but it handled messaging, social media, and streaming over LTE just fine. I was pleased with how well Instagram, YouTube, and Spotify all performed. It's fast enough for most people.

Sound

The KEY2 delivers a solid voice experience. The calls I made with the phone were generally focused and bright. Voices pop through the earpiece and sound lively. I sometimes had trouble hearing calls in the loudest spaces, such as city streets and subway stations. You won't have any trouble with calls at home or in the office. People I spoke to through the KEY2 said I sounded sharp.

The speakerphone is acceptable. Call quality suffers from minor distortion at times, and the bottom-firing speaking could pump out a bit more sound. Speakerphone calls are audible in quiet and moderately noisy areas areas only; holding speakerphone calls in a moving car or on city streets is difficult at best.

Ringers and alerts, on the other hand, are so jarringly loud you're in real danger of jumping out of your skin at the sound of incoming calls. The vibrate alert is decent.

Battery

TCL promises the KEY2 will provide "more than a day" of battery life and they're not lying. The 3,500mAh battery easily pushes from breakfast one day through lunch the following day, if not longer. BlackBerry prides itself on efficiency and the company has put its software skills to use in tweaking the performance of this phone. It didn't matter how I used the phone; the battery consistently cruised through more than a full day on a single charge.

The phone doesn't support wireless charging, but it will charge rapidly with the included charger.

Battery  

Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, WiFi

The KEY2 has a full array of secondary radios and they all work as expected.

The Bluetooth 5.0 radio paired with my favorite headphones and speakers no problem. It also worked fine with my car's hands-free system. Music pushed to headphones sounded good and calls routed through my car came through loud and clear.

The GPS radio often placed me on a map in a blink of an eye and within 15 feet. Google Maps breezed through point-to-point navigation in real time without falling behind.

I'm glad the KEY2 has an NFC radio. I used it to make some Bluetooth pairings a bit easier. It also supports Google Pay if you care to set it up.

The KEY2's dual-band WiFi was particularly speedy. It blasted through heavy app downloads on my home WiFi network.

For FM fans, there's a stereo FM radio aboard. As long as you have wired headphones available you can tune to your local favorite station.

Software 

Lock Screen

The KEY2 includes an ambient display, which briefly turns on the screen when new emails, messages, or BBMs arrive. You can double tap the display to recall the notification screen any time.

Lock Screen 2  

The phone also includes BlackBerry's customizable, blinking LED, which can be used in conjunction with, or in lieu of, the ambient display.

When you press the screen lock button, the screen wakes fully and shows much the same information, with the wallpaper in the background. The KEY2 will let you open the Quick Settings shade without requiring your passcode, and of course you can access the camera and Google Assistant thanks to shortcuts in the bottom corners.

The KEY2 includes a fingerprint reader in the space bar of the keyboard. It's as easy to set up as any other fingerprint reader. I found it to be accurate and speedy.

Fingerprint  

BlackBerry knows that face recognition is less secure than the fingerprint, so there's no Face ID aboard. If you're looking for an alternative to the fingerprint reader, the KEY2 does include an interesting secondary security tool called Picture Password. WIth this security method you select an image and a number that serve as your password. The KEY2 displays a grid of numbers over a picture and you align your number with a specific spot on the picture. It's easy to set up and use, but the fingerprint reader is easily the quickest way to unlock the phone.

Picture Password  

Home Screens

The KEY2 runs a build of Android 8.1 Oreo that looks like standard Google fare, though BlackBerry's software customizations are sprinkled throughout. The basic home screen experience is hardly different from that of a Pixel phone. The home screen panels, app drawer, Quick Settings panel, and full system settings menus are completely stock Android.

KEY2 Home Screens  

BlackBerry's software focuses on productivity and security. It's presented in such a way that's easy to completely ignore if you're not interested in what it offers.

For example, the Productivity Tab behaves a lot like the Edge UX on Samsung smartphones. The Tab appears as a thin sliver along the edge of the screen, and is available from within most apps. You can set the Tab to appear on the left or right side, control how tall it is, and adjust the level of transparency. The Tab offers a quick productivity dashboard, including your schedule, messages, tasks, and favorite contacts. It's on by default, but it's simple to turn off.

Productivity Tab  

The KEY2 carries over BlackBerry's "hidden widgets". The idea is to protect sensitive information while still allowing people to see new widget content. Apps that support these widgets are signified with three small dots under the shortcut on the home screen. Swipe up on the shortcut, and the corresponding widget will open. Of course, standard Android widgets are also available. The hidden widgets play a bit on the probability that someone who gains unauthorized access to the KEY2 won't know how to use them. They also protect you from someone looking over your shoulder, etc.

You can assign the "convenience key" on the side to perform custom actions. For example, you can elect to have the convenience key open a specific app, speed dial a contact, send a message, and so on. The interface for is a cinch to use.

BlackBerry phones have long supported keyboard-based shortcuts, such as pressing "T" to get to the top of a message or thread. These shortcuts are often limited to certain apps. The KEY2 builds on this with the Speed Key, which lets you create and assign actions that are available from any app.

These all kind of do double duty, but once you assign and learn your shortcuts you can can really do a lot of things quickly.

Keyboard Shortcuts  

Last, BlackBerry's multitasking function is really neat. When you hit the multitasking button, the KEY2 minimizes all the app windows so you can see every open app all on the screen at once (kind of similar to macOS). Other Android phones arrange open apps in an in a stack that hides most of each app. The KEY2's multitasking screen makes it easier to find and launch the app you want — as long as you don't have too many open.

With a Snapdragon 660 and 6 GB of RAM under the hood, the KEY2 has plenty of power. TCL doubled the RAM when compared to last year's phone, and the octa-core power of the Snapdragon 660 delivers. The phone never felt slow or sluggish.

BlackBerry Apps

The KEY2 ports in BlackBerry's core productivity apps for those power users who want to make the most of their BlackBerry experience.

BlackBerry Hub serves as a master inbox for managing literally all of your communications. BlackBerry Hub lets users drill down into their call log, SMS inbox, BBM account, email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and more. Seriously, the number of accounts and apps you can link to BlackBerry Hub is ridiculous.

BlackBery Hub  

Hub lets you snooze notifications for individual accounts, as well as sort between unread, flagged, muted, and high-importance conversations. The Hub offers an extensive number of settings for creating custom alerts, as well as prioritizing inbound messages and fine-tuning the appearance of emails. I like that the Hub search tool can scan through every account at once.

BlackBerry still has some work to do, as the Hub continues to duplicate notifications by default. For example, if you receive a new email in your Gmail account you'll receive a notification from both Gmail and the Hub. The same applies to all your social media accounts. It takes time to tweak the various notification settings so you don't get hammered with duplicates.

BBM, BlackBerry's legacy messaging service, is on board as well. The app continues to offer a feature-rich experience with tools such as read receipts, stickers, emoji, and voice/video calls. It's a great messaging service... as long as you have contacts still using BBM.

On the security front, the KEY2 includes BlackBerry's DTEK app. DTEK assesses the KEY2's security settings and lets you know if you need to take additional steps to secure the handset. DTEK is probably most useful for people who aren't aware of their security settings. As long as you have a decently strong password protecting the phone, you've done enough. Companies that deploy the KEY2 will likely enforce security through Exchange device management, making DTEK on the KEY2 itself redundant.

Hub and BBM are also available to non-BlackBerry phones.

Camera

By default, a double-press of the lock screen button opens the camera. You can also assign just about any button combo to launch the camera app. The camera opens quickly enough.

Camera App  

Basic settings line either side of the viewfinder. On the left you'll find controls for the flash and HDR — both of which have “auto” settings — as well as the timer, aspect ratio, and full settings. You'll get the full pixel count if you use the 4:3 aspect ratio; the 3:2 and 16:9 settings crop the the image, meaning fewer megapixels. On the right, you can switch shooting modes (camera, panorama, video, slow-motion, scanner, and portrait) and apply filters.

The scanner and portrait modes are new. The scanner app is meant to help you create usable documents from image scans. It can be set to recognize one default language at a time. I had trouble using this tool with anything other than business cards. It can easily take pictures of a whole sheet of paper, but creating a usable document is hit or miss.

The portrait mode puts the dual camera system to work to create photos with bokeh (blurred background). It will guide you through the process, such as telling you when you're too close or far from your subject.

The KEY2's Snapdragon 660 is more than up to the task of running the camera smoothly. I didn't experience any performance issues while testing the camera app.

Photos/Video

TCL and BlackBerry opted for a dual camera setup on the KEY2. The phone has two 12-megapixel sensors on the back. The main sensor has an aperture of f/1.8 and a 79.3-degree field of view. It works well, but isn't without limitations.

The pictures I captured with the KEY2 ranged in quality from below average to average. In general, pictures were in focus, had proper exposure, and good color. Too often, however, the camera freaked out and totally messed up the exposure. You can see how underexposed and grainy the trees are below; worse, the HDR function — which was set to "auto" — didn't help at all. The baseball shot is also really underexposed. At least focus is sharp. The camera performed its best when the lighting was even. High-contrast environments gave it trouble.

The user-facing camera snags 8-megapixel images and does a decent job. Most selfies I captured showed proper focus, white balance, and exposure. I was disappointed by the amount of grain in low-light shots.

The KEY2 can shoot video at max resolution of 4K and allows people to choose from a variety of frame rates. I was generally pleased with the results, which showed good focus, color, and exposure. The KEY2 produces fine video.

I'd say people who are casual picture takers will be satisfied with the KEY2 for everyday photo and video needs, but it's not up to par with today's leading devices. For a phone at this price point, it should do better.

KEY2 Photo Samples  

Wrap-Up 

TCL and BlackBerry did mostly good work with the KEY2. There's no question the hardware is a dramatic improvement thanks to its slimmer, lighter chassis and re-keyed keyboard. The KEY2 is a better device to hold and use, and comes across as a more premium device than the original.

The phone covers the core performance metrics in stride. The screen is good enough, voice and data quality are good, and battery life exceeds expectations. Some will surely be happy with the KEY2's support for two SIM cards and LTE networks around the globe. The keyboard is excellent, and its customization options nearlty unlimited. I wish the phone were watertight.

I'm happy with the Android user experience and the powerful productivity additions from BlackBerry can be a boon to business users. The KEY2 has more software tools than most Android phones. It's certainly more secure.

The camera is the weakest link. The app itself is fine, but the images just don't measure up.

The KEY2 costs $649. This phone is for people specifically seeking the physical keyboard and advanced productivity software. Pretty much everyone else will be best served by a modern slate from Apple, Samsung, LG, Motorola, or others.

The KEY2 didn't quite unlock my heart, but it may be the key to your corporate users' daily duties.

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