BlackBerry Key2 initial review: QWERTY has never looked so good | Apps & Software
In 2017, BlackBerry Mobile - a brand now under the banner of Alcatel-makers TCL - launched the first Android phone that looked like a traditional BlackBerry. No sliding parts, just a candybar static form with a screen on top and a keyboard beneath.
There was a lot to love about that KeyOne, especially for old BlackBerry fans, but it wasn't perfect. The keyboard wasn't quite as good as older models like the Bold, and the design was a tiny bit bulky and heavy. With the Key2, BlackBerry Mobile is seeking to take what was great about the KeyOne and improve on the elements that perhaps weren't quite right.
Has it succeeded? We'll find out after more extensive testing, but we've spent some time with the device and are ready to give our initial impressions.
A modern BlackBerry
- 8.5mm thin
- 7 Series aluminium
- Steel camera ring
There was no escaping the fact that the KeyOne was a rather hefty device. It was chunky, thick and fairly heavy, although still felt good in the hand thanks to those rounded edges. BlackBerry took a very different approach this year.
The Key2 is almost a full 1mm thinner than the KeyOne, and weighs 12 grams less. It may not look like much on paper, but in the hand, the difference is striking. Perhaps part of this instant difference in feel is the new shape too.
Rather than a chunky, rounded frame, BlackBerry Mobile went with a thin, flat and squared off appearance with slim angled chamfers. Despite this thinner and lighter look and feel, the Key2 still feels strong and sturdy thanks to the 7 series aluminium chassis.
One very welcome change is the reorganisation of buttons. The power/sleep button is now no longer way out of the way on the top left corner. It joins the volume rocker and programmable Convenience Key on the right edge, and is textured to ensure it's easy to distinguish from the other two buttons, and is placed in a position our right thumb naturally fell in when holding the phone.
BlackBerry being BlackBerry, the company decided that having a device that doesn't slip from your palms was more important than having a shiny, glossy pretty back that looks good. With that in mind, the back is coated in a grippy plastic/rubber material imprinted with a micro diamond pattern.
There are other touches of class here too. In addition to the more premium shape and materials, the dual camera housing on the back is surrounded by a stainless steel ring, while the speaker port on the bottom edge has its holes individually machined.
- Four row physical QWERTY
- 20 per cent larger keys
- Touch sensitive surface
- Fingerprint sensor in space bar
You can't talk BlackBerry without talking keyboards, and here is where we think the biggest difference lies. In day to day use, typing messages, emails and notes, few things are as vital as those four rows of physical buttons separated by horizontal metal frets.
For BlackBerry, improving the keyboard meant changing several elements. Firstly, the keyboard is now larger, with keys that are 20 per cent bigger than the KeyOne's. They're also a different shape, now more square with sculpted angled edges to help separate each button from the next.
Secondly, while the KeyOne's buttons were finished with a glossy, almost slippery texture, the Key2 has a matte finish, meaning you're less likely to slip from key to key. And lastly, the clicking mechanism has been improved. The design team used the Bold 9900 for inspiration to try and recreate that "perfect" tactile feedback.
The end result, at least on first impressions, is a keyboard that immediately feels better than the KeyOne's. It's easy to type on, and buttons gave a nice clicky feedback in our short time testing it.
As has been the case for the past few generations of QWERTY-equipped BlackBerry's, the surface of the keys is touch sensitive, so you can use gestures to scroll up and down through lists, swipe through your home screens or quickly deleting words while typing.
Of course, we need more time with the device to test they keyboard more thoroughly, but our initial try was very positive indeed.
- New Speed Key
- Combines with shortcuts for app-switching
In a sort of "one more thing..." move, BlackBerry also introduced a brand new button to the keyboard called the Speed Key, which replaces the shift key to the right of the symbol key. The name might sound a little cheesy, but, its purpose promises to be incredibly useful and time-saving.
Like most BlackBerry phones, the Key2 lets you assign shortcuts to all of the keys on the keyboard. You can assign Instagram to I, Facebook to F, Camera to C, Slack to S and so on. To make use of those shortcuts on the KeyOne you had to go back to the home screen. But with the Key2, you don't.
Whichever app you are in, you can quickly (almost instantly) go to another app just by pressing the Speed Key and the shortcut key. So if you're in Facebook and quickly need to grab a link to a web page, you can press Speed Key+Browser shortcut key and instantly go to your browser, grab the link from the web page, then switch back.
We tested it a little in our hands-on time, and it genuinely seems to save considerable time over launching the regular Android app-switching view, or going to find the app in the app drawer or home screen.
- 4.5-inch display
- 1080 x 1620
- IPS LCD panel
Like the KeyOne, the Key2 has a 4.5-inch display, but this time the forehead above it is slightly slimmer and the sides push up near the edges of the frame.
Its unusual aspect ratio means - like the KeyOne - it won't be the best for media consumption. We predict lots of heavy letter-boxing, but for general day-to-day tasks like messaging, emails, browsing and other apps it should be fine.
The pixel density of the panel is still comfortable over 400ppi, ensuring that text and details are sharp, while colours seem accurate and natural on first looks.
Android Oreo, enhanced
- Android 8.1 Oreo
- DTEK security app
- Secure locker
- Private browser
BlackBerry has long been about security, and that continues with the Key2. It runs Android Oreo 8.1 out of the box, but it's been secured. As well as building additional security measures into the hardware, the software has several security focussed features.
The DTEK app returns in 2018 with the usual features. That means the ability to monitor and manage permissions that apps are gaining access to and using.
There's a private locker that - as well as allowing you to lock away secure files, media and folders - lets you password protect individual apps. It also features a secure browser (Firefox Focus) this year, meaning you can browse in peace of mind, knowing no one can track or see your browsing history.
Of course, we get all the other usual software elements like the BlackBerry Hub for managing notifications, the Productivity Edge for quick access to important information and events as well as a number of apps like Tasks, Notes and Calendar.
All day power
- Snapdragon 660 processor
- 6GB RAM
- 3,500mAh battery
- Quick Charge 3.0
- 64GB or 128GB storage
Despite its slimmer size, there's no reduction in battery capacity. BlackBerry has included the same 3,500mAh capacity in its redesigned battery.
BlackBerry promises that, just like the KeyOne, even the most heavy phone users should easily get through a full day without having to think about charging. If our experience with the KeyOne is anything to go by, most users should comfortably get part way through a second day.
When you do need to recharge, there's Quick Charge 3.0 support that can get you 50 per cent charge in 36 minutes from 0-50. There's also an intelligent battery management tool in the software that learns how you use your phone and can notify when it's time to plug in and charge, based on your usage/charging patterns.
As for the rest of the hardware, it's no surprise to see the phone powered by one of the latest 600-series Snapdragon processors. It's a more powerful, more efficient evolution of the chipset found inside last year's model. This should mean enough speed and power to get you through the day, especially alongside the now standard 6GB RAM.
More time is needed with the phone before we can say for sure how much of these promises are realistic, and whether the battery notifications are useful.
- Dual 12MP camera
- 2x "optical zoom"
- Portrait mode
BlackBerry devices don't normally place a huge focus on cameras, and the same is true this time out, although it's still been improved to offer features similar to what most other smartphones have these days.
There's a dual camera system on the back of the Key2 featuring two 12-megapixel sensors. The secondary camera means you get a 2X optical zoom effect, enabling you to zoom into scenes without losing detail, as well as being used to offer depth information to create those portrait mode shots with blurred backgrounds.
Again, further testing is required to see if it's any good, and the same goes for the front facing camera.
This new phone is all about the new design and the new keyboard which make a surprising amount of difference to the experience compared to the KeyOne. It's lighter, seems easier and more pleasant to type on, and has a potentially very useful Speed Key for easy app switching.
We're impressed with what we've seen so far from the Key2 and are very much looking forward to going more in depth. Stay tuned for the full review coming in the next few weeks.