The Key2 LE's keyboard is good but not as reliable as older BlackBerry
The camera is impressive for a smartphone in this price range
It comes with decent battery life and supports fast charging
When I got my first job, I was introduced to the concept of the BlackBerry; my first experience was with a Curve 9300. The purpose of a mobile phone back then was quite straightforward: secure instant messaging (good old BBM), reliable email service and day-long battery life. There was no mention of apps in devices about seven or eight years ago, and smartphones were still some time away from becoming mainstream. It was among the best times to be alive. Now, back to reality; apps are everything. From talking to friends, ordering food, finding a date and reaching a destination, there is an app for everything.
Apps make us and apps break us
If given a chance, I’ll happily go back to that era of phones like the Palm Pre, BlackBerry Bold 9300 or any HTC-made Windows Phone. But going back decades means losing out on modern conveniences such as a super responsive touchscreen, which is evident in the demise of Nokia, Palm and BlackBerry. So, it is only a saving grace to see these companies spring back to life.
While HMD Global, the Finnish company trying to revive Nokia brand, seems to have the best shot, of all these brands, the BlackBerry-branded smartphones made by licensees such as TCL and Optiemus Infracom, are not any less interesting. One of the most interesting aspects of revamped BlackBerry phones is that they retain the key feature of the brand as we know it: QWERTY Keyboard.
I was impressed with the BlackBerry Priv but it definitely seemed like a first-generation device. When we reviewed the Key2 few months back, the unanimous thought was that it attempts to deliver a unique experience that harks back to the old Blackberry days, but the cost did not seem justified. At IFA 2018, BlackBerry addressed that very issue by launching the Key2 LE, a device that retains the DNA of the Key2 without carrying it’s huge price tag. So, when I got the device few weeks back, I keep thinking if I’m ready to switch back to the physical QWERTY keyboard. And secondly, does this BlackBerry retain the original character and flavor that I first experienced when I was in college? Let’s find out.
I don’t remember the last time, I wrote a separate section about keyboard on a smartphone. It gives me a joy to say that BlackBerry Key2 and Key2 LE have a USP that no other smartphone maker will match in the near term. My quest had been to understand whether that QWERTY keyboard is there for visual appeal or if it serves any real world use.
For starters, the keyboard layout is identical to the one found on the Key2. In fact, the layout is same as the one found on any older BlackBerry for that matter. What it lacks compared to those older BB devices is the angular, curved shape of those key caps. After using the keyboard for several days, I could not really conclude whether it is good or bad.
Watch: BlackBerry Key2 First Look
The keys on the Key2 LE are on the stiffer side, which means you end up pressing the key all the way down to its actuation point. On my old BlackBerry Curve 9300, I would just press. Think of it like this; the keyboard on the older BlackBerry was equivalent to the standard of mechanical keyboard while the one on the Key2 LE are equivalent to those of newer membrane keyboards. They both get the job done but the typing experience was much more pleasant on the older BlackBerry.
If you are someone who is on the move and has to send long emails that cannot be typed using Google’s Smart Compose feature, then you will really appreciate how novel the keyboard is. It lacks the gesture support found on Key2’s keyboard but BlackBerry has kept that multi-function key, which remains one of the easiest ways to open an app. The keyboard is paired with modern features like predictive text, which appears on the lower end of the keyboard.
On the Key2, you would simply swipe your finger up on the gesture keypad to select that text but on Key2 LE, you need to manually select that word or text. I had set an audacious goal of writing this entire review using Key2 LE’s keyboard on Google Docs but I could not get past about 400 words. I went back to my laptop suggesting that we have matured past the QWERTY keyboard and are now very well accustomed to typing on the glass. Or, we’d rather use an actual computer with a full-size keyboard to get the job done.
The BlackBerry Key2 LE is a stripped down version of the Key2 but it does not compromise even a bit on build quality. I can easily say that the Key2 LE offers among the best levels of build quality on any mid-range smartphone. It is crafted out of a single piece of aluminum and has a textured back finish, which makes it really easy to hold in one hand.
The Key2 LE has a boxy design which makes it one of those unique devices which can stand on its base without any support. On the right hand side of the device, there is the volume rocker followed by a textured power button and a convenience key. This convenience key acts as quick toggle switch to activate Google Assistant but I always ended up pressing this button instead of power button. If BlackBerry creates another version of Key2 then it should either drop this third physical button or move it to the left side.
There is a 4.5-inch LCD display with 3:2 aspect ratio and resolution of 1620 x 1080 pixels. That display is the same as the one found on the regular Key2. It is a good display for the segment but there is some getting used to. For instance, the 3:2 aspect ratio is the same as the one seen on the Surface range of notebooks and on the large canvas, it seems like an ideal aspect ratio making split-screen multitasking really smooth. On the 4.5-inch screen of the Key2 LE, the aspect ratio comes across as inconvenient, especially when you look at multiple apps in the app switcher mode.
The display also suffers from LCD issues such as lower brightness and an auto-brightness setting that does not perform reliably. Despite all these issues, I must say it is readable under direct sunlight but when you move indoors, the display takes good few seconds in understanding the surroundings and adjusting the color temperature.
The Key2 LE uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 chipset, a midrange octa-core SoC found on a number of sub-Rs 15,000 smartphones. It delivers where it really matters: smooth multitasking across low-power apps, reliable battery life and GPU performance decent enough for playing basic games. During my tests, which extended for multiple weeks, I did not see any lag or slowdown caused by the chipset. Yes, sure that Snapdragon 660 is a much faster processor, but the Kryo design of the individual cores on the Snapdragon 636 makes it equally competitive.
One area where the Key2 LE shines is battery life. There is just a 3,000mAh battery, which is small by every smartphone standard but the tight integration between hardware and software allows for it to last longer than expected. I was getting a full day of use with a single charge and often averaged around 4 hours of screen-on time. This could be owed to battery management but I did not find any of my open applications get affected to save battery. There is also support for fast charging via the supplied 15W power adapter and the battery alone makes it a strong contender for a secondary work-friendly smartphone.
With the Key2 LE, BlackBerry is doing imaging a bit differently from the one found on the Key2. There is a combination of 13-megapixel and 5-megapixel dual rear camera setup with the secondary 5-megapixel sensor primarily doing the job of depth sensor. This is different from dual 12-megapixel rear camera setup found on the Key2. One major difference between Key2 and Key2 LE cameras apart from resolution and size of the sensor is that the Key2 LE does not offer dual-pixel phase-detection autofocus, a feature that the Key2’s primary camera supports out of the box.
As far as image quality is concerned, the Key2 LE positively surprised me with its dual-camera setup at the back. In situations with adequate light, it captures pictures with a great amount of detail and reproduces images accurately. Since the second sensor acts as depth sensor, there is solid separation between the foreground and background and noise isolation is also much better than most other mid-range smartphones.
If you are an Instagram photographer that posts pictures of yourself with friends, eating pizza at a reputed eatery or going for a walk alongside the beach, then this camera is the only thing you need. The pictures coming straight from the Key2 LE’s camera are well composed and retain impressive amount of detail. The camera algorithm is also good with maintaining saturation of bright colors and does not overcompensate to produce pictures that look equivalent to painting.
If there is one complain with basic imaging here is that the phase detect autofocus is not as fast as the dual-pixel phase detect autofocus on the Key2. There have been moments when I have tried to click pictures of my three-year old niece, who is always in motion, only to get blurry results.
It also has a depth effect that tries to isolate the background from the foreground and offer shallow depth-of-field. The result is not as amazing as what we’ve seen on flagship devices such as the Google Pixel 3 or the iPhone XS but I was mostly amazed by the dynamic range and differentiation of subjects. The edge detection is not perfect but the fact that depth effect is not limited to humans works in its favor. The one major takeaway is that the depth effect is neither dramatic nor is it too shabby. There is perfect balance and we all could do with that result.
While the camera sounds great, it breaks down when the condition gets tricky. For instance, this above image has been clicked by standing at the same spot and without changing any setting. The camera has captured two different images of the same scene within a difference of few seconds. Neither of the two results are perfect with one image focusing on the Sunset without maintaining details of buildings while the second image has blown out the Sun while preserving details of those buildings and shadows. The ideal result would have been fusion of these two images, overlayed to bring out both the shadow area as well as highlights.
Not a lot of smartphones in the sub-Rs 30,000 price segment can handle this situation better. So, I want to give BlackBerry the benefit of doubt but I certainly hope that their engineers tweak the camera software to use a better fusion algorithm for such tricky scenarios.
The BlackBerry Key2 LE runs Android 8.1 Oreo and I certainly see it as a bummer when the Google Pixel 3, Pixel 2, OnePlus 6T, OnePlus 6 and Nokia 7 plus already run Android 9 Pie. However, BlackBerry’s approach to Android is different from that of its rivals. Rather than changing the skin and nature of Android, like Samsung does, BlackBerry is only changing necessary elements, that would help it make the OS much more secure.
As a result, all BlackBerry-branded smartphones running Android come pre-installed with a security suite called DTEK. The main purpose of DTEK is to give you control over security and privacy attributes of your device. It alerts you when your privacy or security of the device could be threatened. I consider it similar to those McAfee Antivirus that came pre-installed on most Windows laptops from the previous decade. While there is no clear way to check if DTEK serves anything different from Google’s built-in security, it does alert when you enable installation of apps from unknown sources, which is definitely not recommended but doable nonetheless.
However, one area where BlackBerry differs from other Android smartphones is the manufacturing process called Hardware Root of Trust. The process involves injecting cryptographic keys into the hardware and securing the foundation of the device. It also uses a hardened Linux kernel that further improves on security already provided by Google. There are no tests around to check if BlackBerry is more secure than traditional Android devices but it does have a proven track record of combating against known vulnerabilities.
BlackBerry has also been consistent with issuing the newest version of Google’s security patch. The Key2LE recently got security patch for the month of October and DTEK software has been suggesting that the device is functioning as recommended.
If you ignore these security elements, then we are looking at Android Oreo with light customizations. There is a custom launcher that integrates the app drawer, widgets and shortcuts into some kind of a hub for everything. There are BlackBerry apps like Hub, BBM built into the service. While I don’t even remember my old BBM ID, the Hub is a useful way to keep a tab on activities across multiple email accounts, phone calls, text and social messages. The operating system works fluidly and leaves no bad impressions whatsoever.
In the past few weeks, I have had a chance to show this BlackBerry Key2 LE to multiple people, including those who used to be fanboys of the Canadian brand. A friend who once upgraded to every new Bold series device offered me the most shocking response: Why does BlackBerry even exist in 2018 and why are they using Android?
When I think about that comment, I can say that the smartphone industry for BlackBerry is like Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru; there is no visible chance of winning back old customers, but that does not mean you don’t try. If BlackBerry wants to try then it should not do so by making phones with touchscreens. It should rather focus on nostalgia in the form of the QWERTY keyboard.
That keyboard on the Key2 LE may not have been ideal even for typing out this rather large review, but it grows on you in a way that touchscreen keyboards don’t. I want to end this review by saying that Key2 LE may not be for all but it will do justice to those who do see some sense in it.