The BlackBerry Key2 is an ordinary Android smartphone, but with one out-of-the-ordinary feature: a physical keyboard.
The phone is rather expensive, priced at Rs 42,990, and is available on Amazon India.
Despite the years, the Key2 stays loyal to the BlackBerry way of life.
When the all-touch smartphone became a reality, people resisted. After all, how could it ever be comfortable to type on a small screen, that too without a stylus? But that’s exactly what happened; and today typing on a touch screen is second nature. And one formerly successful company that bet big on physical keyboards lost practically everything as a result of this big change in the way we use our smartphones.
BlackBerry today has changed hands and signed licensing agreements galore, but remains an existing brand with a portfolio of products. However, its brand perception has changed greatly since then, to the point that everyone I’ve showed the BlackBerry Key2 review unit to has responded with the same question “Does BlackBerry still make phones?” Yes, BlackBerry still makes phones, and they’re pretty good, too, with manufacturing and marketing in India being handled by Optiemus Infracom. Here’s our review of this year’s flagship BlackBerry, the Key2.
BlackBerry Key2 Design and Display
While other smartphones tend to look similar, the BlackBerry Key2 has one distinct difference that both sets it apart as well as defines its character the physical QWERTY keyboard. In classic BlackBerry fashion, the Key2 proudly has its solid, clicky and tactile physical keyboard sitting right below the screen. It obviously isn’t as detailed a keyboard as one you’d find on a computer, given the space constraints.
However, all the letters are present, along with buttons for backspace, enter, alt, shift, space, and symbol. Getting special characters, capitalization or numbers needs you to press one of the special keys first, then hit the applicable letter key (which has special characters in small print right above). Interestingly, you can assign shortcuts to the letter keys, allowing you to quickly trigger apps and functions from the home screen.
One clever piece of design that returns from last year’s BlackBerry KeyONE is the fingerprint sensor embedded in the spacebar. It’s a smart place to put it, since the key is large enough to fit the sensor, and effectively doubles up as both functions. Its position at the bottom also puts it at the ideal place for a fingerprint sensor, making for very effective placement. Another neat touch is that the entire keyboard is swipe-sensitive, letting you run your fingers across it to achieve the same result as swipes on a screen. You can use this to navigate around the interface, but it doesn’t necessarily work with all apps.
Typing on the keyboard is what I’d call tricky. Sure, ten years ago we all knew how to type quickly on a physical smartphone keyboard, but those habits have since gone away. We’re all comfortable with touch-screens now, and going back to the physical keyboard requires re-learning the ropes. The tactile elements of its are different too, since simply tapping is undeniably quicker than actually pressing down on a key. The trickiest is getting in special characters; it takes some effort, and is definitely slower than doing the same thing on a good aftermarket keyboard app such as Swiftkey.
And while it will involve a learning curve, eventually you can get used to it and even prefer it, especially if you spend a lot of time typing on your smartphone. It does all come down to your personal preferences, and having a physical keyboard comes at the cost of a larger screen in this case. Whether that works for you is entirely dependent on you and your use-case, though.
Right above the keyboard is the screen, complete with off-screen capacitive Android navigation keys. The screen itself is a 3:2 aspect ratio 1080×1620 pixel IPS LCD display, which is obviously unlike anything else you’ll see in the market today, particularly in this age of bezel-less phones. What you get is a screen-to-body ratio that weighs in at an unflattering 55 percent, and a screen size that’s just about 4.5-inches across. But bear in mind, the screen doesn’t need to account for the keyboard, so maybe its size isn’t a bad thing after all.
To be fair, it’s still a small screen, considering that the keyboard isn’t active on screen on a regular smartphone all the time anyway. Here you’re effectively forced to have your keyboard visible even if you’re doing something that doesn’t need the keyboard. However, a typical BlackBerry user is someone that is usually doing things that need a keyboard most of the time, such as typing out emails or text messages, or maybe writing documents on-the-go. With that in mind, the design is adequate, and even ideal for the target user.
WATCH: BlackBerry Key2 First Look
The screen itself is as good as it gets, with decent brightness and colors. While an AMOLED screen might have been a nice addition at this price, the peak brightness of the IPS LCD display makes for a practical experience when you need to be able to see the screen even under bright light. As such, the phone sticks to the brief of being practical for business and productivity purposes.
While the BlackBerry Key2 may not be about two slabs of cold, shiny glass sandwiching the phone in between, build quality is still impressive, and on-point with the corporate image. The phone has a metal frame and textured plastic back. The back has a textured finish that offers excellent grip, while the metal frame feels solid and strong. The bottom of the phone has the speaker grille and USB Type-C port, the top has the 3.5mm jack, the left has the hybrid dual-SIM tray and the right has the power, volume keys and the customizable convenience key. The power key is also textured for easy recognition by your fingers.
BlackBerry Key2 Performance and Software
When it comes to specifications, the BlackBerry Key2 does sit on the expensive side of things, especially when you take the specifications into account. The phone is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 SoC, along with 6GB of RAM, and 64GB of internal storage. You also get a 3,500mAh battery and Corning Gorilla Glass 3 on the device. These specifications are typical in a price range much lower than the BlackBerry, raising the point that Rs 42,990 may in fact be too much for this phone.
It’s fair to also point out that this is no ordinary phone, and its special features give it a definite edge over typical phones with similar specifications. The design, physical keyboard and software suite are this phone’s USPs, and indeed for buyers looking at productivity and security, the phone represents a complete package even with the specifications it sports. But this is, after all, a niche product, and most buyers would be better suited by a more conventional smartphone.
That said, the hardware isn’t bad by any means. You get a reliable experience that is adequate for the typical purposes that someone using a BlackBerry Key2 would need. That is to say that multi-tasking, typing out documents, working heavily with email and other productivity apps, and generally running a reliable and secure Android experience are what this phone is about.
The phone isn’t built for heavy graphical use, and indeed the idea of playing PUBG Mobile on a BlackBerry does come across as silly, so it doesn’t really count as a complaint. Even if you do find you need to do a bit of photo or video editing on the phone, it’ll handle these ably enough. Perhaps the only thing that falls short here is the internal storage, which is a bit low at 64GB.
The BlackBerry Key2 runs Android 8.1 Oreo, with the company’s custom software UI and suite on top. It’s designed to look classy, understated and professional, and pulls it off rather well. It also has some rather useful software tools, including the privacy shade (darkens the screen to hide from prying eyes), redactor (lets you blank out sensitive information in screenshots), a password keeper, special apps for notes, the DTEK phone security scanner, battery log, BBM and BB Hub. The last two will be familiar to anyone who has used a BlackBerry in the past.
Perhaps the only issue with the software is a lack of proper optimizations for the awkward 3:2 aspect ratio. A lot of apps don’t recognize that the phone has an awkward size of screen, with images getting strangely cropped on the edges; Instagram is one such example, with images in the ‘Stories’ function getting oddly cropped at the top. Some of these issues can easily be fixed with a software update, though. On the whole, the BlackBerry Key2 achieves the ideal balance between the familiar Android experience, and BlackBerry’s classic software additions that have made it known for productivity and functionality.
BlackBerry Key2 Camera
While not much has been said on the camera of the BlackBerry Key2, the phone does come with a capable set of cameras. At the back, you have a 12-megapixel (f/1.8) + 12-megapixel (f/2.6) dual-camera setup, with the second sensor enabling portrait mode and 2X lossless zoom. Video recording at 4K resolution is possible, and you also get a dual-tone LED flash. At the front, the phone sports an 8-megapixel camera that can record full-HD video. Interestingly, the camera app has Google Lens built in, along with software-based video stabilization, slow-motion video and panorama photos.
Results are as you would expect from a smartphone priced around the Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 mark, and comparable to the camera performance we’d seen on the Nokia 7 Plus. Images are clean for the most part, but zooming in far into the image will show you a bit of grain and loss of detail. Colors do appear a bit dull, but this is more out of processing for accuracy than for attractive and popping colors. Portrait mode also works well, as does lossless zoom. However, low-light shots fall a bit short in terms of quality, with visible over-saturation in the brighter areas. In short, the camera works well for the most part, but don’t expect best-in-class performance.
BlackBerry Key2 Battery
The BlackBerry Key2 sports a 3,500mAh battery, which is more than adequate to capably run the hardware of the phone and offer long hours of use. Everything from the Snapdragon 660 chipset to the 4.5-inch screen is geared for frugal energy use, and as such you get long hours of battery life. With moderate use, I was able to run the phone for a total of 30-35 hours of overall running time, with a screen-on time of about six hours, before needing to charge. Even with heavy use, this means more than a full day of run time.
Charging is quick as well, with the phone coming with a Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 compatible charger and a USB Type-C port. You can top-up the battery in about one hour and 15 minutes. Battery life is obviously something that productivity and corporate users will need to be top-notch, and it’s good to see that the BlackBerry Key2 has got this bit right.
Is the BlackBerry Key2 expensive? Yes, it is. Is it too expensive? That entirely depends on what you intend to do with it. If you’re a regular smartphone user that’s considering this phone purely for the nostalgia element, the BlackBerry Key2 is too expensive. You would be better off spending this kind of money on a device that more adequately serves the more typical usage patterns of smartphone users these days, and will also give you better performance for the price.
However, if you’re someone that uses your smartphone for work, or just need a second smartphone for your job, the BlackBerry Key2 is the suit-wearing corporate’s favorite toy. Its focus on productivity, quality design, good software, adequate camera and nostalgia-inducing physical keyboard make it the ideal business phone. There are small drawbacks, but nothing too serious that would qualify as a deal-breaker here. Rs 42,990 may sound like a lot, but think of it as the perfect business tool to earn all of that money back, and more.