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BlackBerry Key2 review: By default, the best keyboard phone you can buy

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
579
inc VAT, SIM free

The BlackBerry Key2 struggles to make a case for a keyboard phone revival, despite some solid improvements

Pros 
Improved keyboard
Slimline and attractive design
Cons 
Small screen
Middling battery life
Overpriced
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Does the world really need a smartphone with a physical keyboard? No, not really. Not in my view. But if you’re reading this with a serious view to buying the BlackBerry Key2, that uncomfortable truth probably doesn’t matter to you. You’ve been sold on the whole phone with a physical keyboard thing since BlackBerry phones were the most popular phones around, no matter the drawbacks.

So, I’ll put that philosophical debate on the back burner for the ongoing purposes of this review and attempt to answer the basic questions any discerning smartphone customer is asking these days. Is the BlackBerry Key2 a decent smartphone and is it worth your money?

READ NEXT: BlackBerry KeyOne review

BlackBerry Key2 review: What you need to know

The BlackBerry Key2 is the follow up to the much-lauded BlackBerry KeyOne, which was a surprise hit in 2017, and it’s a better phone in pretty much every department. Although the touchscreen is the same size at 4.5in, the Key2 is slimmer and more attractive, has a new dual-camera setup, an improved keyboard and a more modern, and faster Snapdragon 660 processor.

The BlackBerry Key2 is, essentially, the natural progression of the BlackBerry KeyOne and fans of the original will be chuffed to bits with it.

READ NEXT: Best Samsung phones

BlackBerry Key2 review: Price and competition

Effectively, there are no competitors to the BlackBerry Key2 so I’m going to have to use the price as the main criteria for comparison here and throw in a few non-keyboard based phones for comparison.

On this front, the £579 Key2 doesn’t fare well as there’s a lot of high-class competition around vying for your cash. The OnePlus 6 is our current smartphone favourite and it’s £110 cheaper, while the LG G7 is only £20 more expensive at £599. Both phones are fully kitted-out flagships, are much faster, have better screens and cameras than the Key2.

But they don’t have physical keyboards.

If having the fastest phone doesn’t bother you, you can pick up a Nokia 7 Plus, which has the same processor as the Key2 but a larger, nicer display and is £220 cheaper. And if you’re not bothered by owning the very latest thing, the BlackBerry KeyOne is now a very reasonable-looking £349. That’s £230 (or 40%) cheaper than the Key2.

Best BlackBerry Key2 contract and SIM-free deals

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BlackBerry Key2 review: Design and first impressions

The key question then (sorry) is why anyone would buy a BlackBerry Key2 when every alternative is either cheaper or better or both? A very good question, which can perhaps in part be answered by the improvements that have been made to the phone’s design.

For a smartphone that has an (arguably unnecessary) keyboard taking up the lower third of its length, the Key2 cuts a surprisingly attractive figure. It’s sleeker and lighter than its predecessor and retains everything that was good about that phone, including the grippy, textured plastic rear (see, not EVERY phone has to be glass and aluminium to look good) and the handy, customisable convenience key, which sits below the volume and power buttons on the right edge of the phone.

Most of the other smartphone staples are present and correct, too. The BlackBerry Key2 isn’t water- or dust-resistant but it does have microSD expansion, and the 4.5in IPS display is topped with Gorilla Glass 3. It’s the first BlackBerry to have a dual camera on the rear, which I’ll get onto further down, and there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack. These are all good things.

BlackBerry Key2 review: That keyboard

Even better is that the phone’s key selling point – its physical keyboard – has been refined and improved. The individual keys have been increased in size by 20%, which I found allows for faster typing and fewer mistakes. The finish has been changed, too, from glossy to matte for a more corporate look and, might I add, a more pleasant under-thumb feel.

Slightly more controversially, TCL Communications (the company that manufactures BlackBerry smartphones these days) has removed the horizontal chrome bars that once separated each row of keys and served a practical purpose – they were pretty effective in reducing typos.

Thankfully, this is mainly an exercise in aesthetic improvement. The gap between the rows is still there and the keyboard, once you get used to it, offers a very usable alternative to touchscreen-based keyboards. The key action is nice and clicky, the keys are backlit so you can see to type in the dark and you can even use the keyboard surface as a rudimentary touchpad, swiping up and down to scroll up and down web pages without your fingers getting in the way of the text.

This has potential, but on the Key2 it’s not particularly reliable and, every time I remembered to use the function, I found myself reverting to the touchscreen as I would on any other Android smartphone.

The fingerprint reader, again built into the space bar is, happily, far more effective. It unlocks the phone swiftly and the only gripe I have with it is that, once unlocked, I’d like to be able to click it or double click to go to the phone’s home screen. Instead, you have to stretch your thumb up to tap the home key just above the keyboard.

It’s also mildly irritating that, in order to search your phone for apps or messages, you can’t simply start typing from the homescreen as you could with BlackBerry phones of old. To do that you have to tap the app draw icon, again by stretching your thumb up, and then type your query on the keyboard below.

These are small things but if you have a physical keyboard, why not make the most of it? Instead, you have a phone that’s unsatisfactory ergonomically – you end up moving your thumbs up and down from touchscreen to keyboard far too much – and that isn’t fixed by BlackBerry’s new ‘speed key’.



This resides in the bottom right corner of the phone and allows users to assign apps to letters on the keyboard. Once assigned to a key (I have Chrome assigned to ‘C’), you can launch the respective app simply by holding the key down and pressing that letter.

Things improve when you get stuck into a bit of typing. I do like the fact that TCL has brought back ‘flick typing’ – just flick your finger across the surface of the keyboard in the direction of one of three next word suggestions to add it to your text – but I do wish the keyboard’s touch-sensitive surface was a touch more reliable.

BlackBerry Key2 review: Display

Speaking of the screen, that hasn’t changed over the KeyOne. It remains a cramped 4.5in, which to be frank is too small, thus illustrating perfectly why a permanent physical keyboard is a bad idea. The screen might have been larger, though, without sacrificing size and slimness, if it hadn’t been hemmed in by such conspicuously wide bezels to the left and right.

Image quality isn’t bad, though. The display is as crisp as you need with a resolution of 1,620 x 1,080 and its colour reproduction is pretty good, reaching more than 107% of the sRGB gamut by total volume. (Coverage of the sRGB isn’t quite as good at 93.3%, though). Couple that with a decent contrast ratio of 1,394:1 and you have a punchy, vibrant display that mixes it with most mid- to high-end smartphones.

BlackBerry Key2 review: Performance

This is the most powerful BlackBerry phone yet but at the price (£579 to remind you) it jolly well should be. You get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 here, running at 2.2GHz, with 6GB of RAM and either 64GB or 128GB of storage.

That’s a solid mid-range specification. Nothing wrong with it, and it’s certainly faster and more responsive than the KeyOne, but it’s a lower specification than I’d expect at this price. Here are a couple of performance graphs for comparison:

For reference, the only phone more expensive than the Key2 in the above graphs is the LG G7 and that’s a negligible £20 more. I’ll reiterate that this isn’t terrible performance. The Key2 feels responsive in all the right ways. It launches apps quickly and there’s enough RAM here to make switching between them a slick process, no matter what you have running on your phone – I’d just want a little more for my money.

Perhaps more concerning is the phone’s wireless performance. Cellular downloads are capped at 600Mbits/sec when most of its high-end rivals are edging towards 1Gbits/sec and above, and there’s clearly some sort of issue with the Bluetooth implementation. The signal would break up if I put my hand in my pocket on top of the phone, an issue that hasn’t happened with this set of headphones and any other phone I’ve reviewed recently.

Likewise, although battery life is fine, it’s nothing particularly special. With a 3,500mAh battery – no larger than the KeyOne’s – the Key2 ran for 13hrs 6mins in our video rundown test. What that translates to is a day’s worth of use but very little more. I certainly came nowhere near the two-day claim during the time I was testing and using the phone.

There is, though, at least support for Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3 standard, which will get you up to 50% from empty in just over half an hour.

BlackBerry Key2 review: Software

As for software, that’s one of the BlackBerry’s strengths. The Key2 runs Android Oreo 8.1, although the UI has been overhauled significantly to suit the BlackBerry style.

There are a few nifty features here, such as BlackBerry Hub, a service that consolidates all your messages from your various apps (email, SMS, Slack, Twitter, Whatsapp and so on) into one easy to manage place.

The phone also has a built-in security and privacy checker called DTEK, which lets you view how different apps are accessing your information, helping you to keep a closer eye on the privacy implications. There’s a file and folder locker and Firefox Focus – the dedicated “privacy browser” – comes preinstalled.

Buy the BlackBerry Key2 now from Carphone Warehouse

BlackBerry Key2 review: Camera

BlackBerry has at least managed to keep up with the competition in one department: the camera. It’s doubled down on the single camera of the first BlackBerry Key and now has a pair of 12-megapixel f/1.8 cameras, with the secondary camera offering a 2x optical zoom and also depth mapping for blurred background portrait images.

Quality is mixed, however. Photographs captured in portrait mode are pretty competent with clean edges and a pleasing fake bokeh. Otherwise, quality is disappointing. In good light, there’s plenty of grain and images lack fine detail, particularly at the edges of the frame. It’s a long way behind the OnePlus 6, which I’ve used in the examples below as a comparison.

Oddly, In low light, things improve, with the camera capturing decent colours and visual noise kept to a minimum in post-processing. Still, the camera on the BlackBerry is no match for the shooter on the OnePlus 6, with a soft smoothing effect applied across most images captured in marginal light, giving everything a slightly unnatural look.

As for video, that’s similarly middling. Quality is okay and the camera can capture 4K resolution footage at 30fps as well as 1080p at 60fps, but you don’t get image stabilisation until you reduce the resolution and frame rate to 1080p and 30fps. The OnePlus 6, for comparison, can do 4K at 60fps with image stabilisation fully enabled. And remember, it’s a lot cheaper than the Key2.

BlackBerry Key2 review: Verdict

That, in essence, is the main problem with the BlackBerry Key2. Considered on its own, it’s a perfectly fine phone and, if you want that sort of thing, it has a great physical keyboard. It’s a superior handset to the KeyOne in every way, and I do like the new speed key as well.

But I simply can’t get my head around why this phone costs £579. At that price, the Key2 comes into direct competition with any number of classier smartphones with better cameras, battery life and larger screens.

For diehard keyboard warriors and BlackBerry fans, the Key2 will still be a draw – it’s the best keyboard phone, almost by default – but the gap between it and the rest of the smartphones in the industry is just too hard to ignore.

BlackBerry Key2 specifications

ProcessorOcta-core 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 660
RAM6GB
Screen size4.5in
Screen resolution1,080 x 2,160
Screen typeIPS
Front camera8MP
Rear cameraDual 12MP (f/1.8 dual-pixel phase detect; f/2.6 phase detect)
FlashDual LED
Storage (free)64/128GB
Memory card slot (size supported)Yes (256GB)
Wi-Fi802.11ac
BluetoothBluetooth 5.0
NFCYes
Wireless data4G, Cat11 (600Mbits/sec DL; 75Mbits/sec UL)
Dimensions72 x 8.5 x 151mm (WDH)
Weight168g
Operating systemAndroid 8.1 Oreo
Battery size3500

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