Hands On with the BlackBerry KEY2 LE
Aug 30, 2018, 10:00 AM by Eric M. Zeman
updated Aug 30, 2018, 6:08 PM
TCL has a new BlackBerry on deck for keyboard lovers. The KEY2 LE is a stripped-down version of the KEY2. It carries over the same basic form factor, but changes up the materials and colors to give it some flair for mass market adopters. Here are Phone Scoop's first impressions of the latest 'berry from TCL.
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TCL is back, but not in black! The company this week announced a new version of its key-equipped phone that's less expensive and less powerful than its predecessor, but more appealing in different ways. You'll find it ... colorful.
To start, the sturdy metal build is gone. The KEY2 LE has a polycarbonate frame that wraps around the outer edges. TCL applied a metal finish to the polycarbonate and chamfered the frame's edges. It's a respectable effect. The rear panel is made of a soft-touch material. It doesn't quite come across as rubber-y, but it almost does. The texture provides it with grippy staying power. On front, the keys are made of a dark gray plastic. The flat glass panel covering the display is carried over from the KEY2.
The basic shape and size is the same as the KEY2. That is to say, it is tall, narrow, and reasonably thin. The plastic materials and smaller battery within equate to a significant weight loss for the KEY2 LE. It's notably lighter in the hand and this is a positive for the phone. It is still rather large and won't fit into every pocket, and yet I didn't have any trouble holding and using it in the event space.
The LE has the same size and shaped keyboard as the KEY2, but the keys themselves are a bit different. They come across as a bit cheaper thanks to the more obvious plastic feel. The shaping is the keys is a bit flatter, as well, though the action remains very good. The keyboard has frets that run side to side and help keep your thumbs on point.
Sadly, the LE loses the capacitive functionality of the Key2's keyboard.
The fingerprint reader is embedded in the space button, which makes lots of sense. The LE carries over the KEY2's Speed Key. TCL nixed the right "shift" button and replaced it with the Speed Key, a dedicated action button that can be used to trigger user-defined shortcuts. This is an effective tool for calling up your favorite apps/actions.
The screen is a direct carry-over from the KEY2. It measures 4.5-inches across the diagonal with a 3:2 aspect ratio at 1,080 by 1,610 pixels. It's an average display, though it doesn't compete with today's flagships. It is bright enough for use outdoors despite its reflectivity. I like the 2.5D curved glass, which bends very slightly along the edges. It helps keep the shape in check.
A typical selection of buttons and ports populate the sides, top, and bottom. There are three physical buttons on the right edge — the volume toggle, the screen / power button, and the user-definable action key. All three have good travel and feedback. I like the profile of the screen lock key, which is ridged to help set it apart from the others. The action key can take on new behaviors thanks to a partnership with Google. A quick press opens Google Assistant, a double press opens Google Lens, and a press-and-hold lets you instantly speak your voice query to Google Search.
The USB-C port is on the bottom, along with slotted speaker holes. A 3.5mm headphone jack is on top. Amazing that this has become a differentiator for mid-range phones. The combined SIM / memory card tray is on the left edge.
I wish the phone were waterproof, but it is not. TCL claims the new plastic build is more robust than the metal one when it comes to drops.
The LE features a two-camera design just like the KEY2, but it's not exactly the same tech underneath the lenses. The module is small and tucked into the upper-left corner. It's a raised oval that has a chrome rim. A two-tone flash is next to it. The main 13-megapixel sensor has a 79.8-degree field of view and aperture of f/2.2, while the second 5-megapixel has a 84-degree field of view and an aperture of f/2.4. The second sensor is meant to help with depth information for portrait-style shots. The front camera boasts an 8-megapixel sensor with a display-based selfie flash and full HD video capture.
The LE has a 3,000mAh power cell inside. BlackBerry claims it is good for 22 hours of mixed use, or about a day and a half. The phone doesn't support wireless charging, but it does support Quick Charge 3.0. TCL says the LE can power up 50% in just over half an hour.
On the software front, the device ships with Android 8.1 Oreo and BlackBerry's secure launcher. This means the BlackBerry Hub is on board with its combined inbox for email, text, BBM, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and myriad other messaging platforms. BlackBerry's software is definitely powerful, particularly if you are a message hound.
Rounding out the specs. The phone is powered by a Snapdragon 636 processor, which is a small drop from the KEY2's 660. The RAM is dropped from 6 GB to 4 GB, but TCL says the North America version of the LE will include 64 GB of storage. That's good. The phone supports standard connectivity options like GPS, NFC, Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX HD.
Band support is fairly typical for an unlocked device. It is primarily compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile, though it can be used on Verizon's network as an LTE-only device. I'm glad it has Band 29 for AT&T and Band 66 for T-Mobile, which are newer (but not the newest) bands.
TCL played a bit coy during our meeting, but it seems as though the LE may be picked up by U.S. carriers. One of the executives said it will be far more widely available than the KEY2 was. That means it will be at Amazon, Best Buy, and other retail stores.
As for pricing, the KEY2 LE comes in well under its higher-spec'd brother. Where the KEY2 sold for $649, the LE will sell for $449. That puts it squarely in the middle of the market when it comes to price.
Who is this phone for? Well, TCL hopes the KEY2 will continue to appeal to enterprise customers. It expects the LE will appeal to a wider audience thanks to the colors and lower price point.
The Key2 LE shares the same basic size, shape, and appearance of the pricier Key2, but downshifts materials and components to make it less costly. If you're a keyboard die-hard, the Key2 LE is an intriguing and affordable option thanks to the solid Android platform and productivity-boosting software from BlackBerry.
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