BlackBerry Key2 Review: The Keyboard King returns for its crown

For years, BlackBerry was the best option for those in business. The physical keyboard and smart software made it a no-brainer for those who just needed to get the job done. But, as we all know, BlackBerry quickly began to fade. It stuck with its own operating system as Android and iOS dominated the landscape. A physical keyboard was no longer the draw that it once was.

BlackBerry was going the way of the dodo.

But, the Canadian company finally bottomed out and changed tactics. It made a great comeback with the Priv and KeyOne since late 2015 and it has embraced Android like few other companies. Using pure Android with some enterprise-focused features added on top made it a compelling option once again.

Now, BlackBerry is back with another installment, the Key2. The device isn’t the showstopper that the Priv or KeyOne were when they hit the market, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The KeyOne was pretty damn good and BlackBerry got the message that it just needed to build on that solid base. And that it did.

We’ve spent the last week with the BlackBerry Key2 and these are our thoughts.

Hardware

If you’ve ever used a BlackBerry device before, you’ll feel at home here. Holding the device in your hands will take you back several years to when BlackBerry dominated the landscape. I initially wondered how I’d take to using the Key2 since I’ve used nothing but metal and glass slabs for the past few years, but it just feels right.

The device is very solid. It features 7000 series aluminum around the edges, a soft touch rubber on the back and a display + keyboard on the front. Overall, it’s one of the best built phones I’ve ever used. It has a completely different feeling but reminds me a lot of the HTC One M7. Everything is where it should be, nothing moves, and I feel like it can take a beating if it needs to.

Ew

The soft touch backing makes life easy. The Key2 isn’t the most ergonomically perfect device, but it’s still pretty easy to hold onto because of that surface. Not only does it make it easier to hold onto but it looks and feels great too. Sure, it’ll still pick up some oils from your fingers, but it is far better than a glass-backed phone in that regard. Plus you don’t need to worry about it shattering if it takes a fall.

The buttons on the side of the device are satisfyingly clicky. BlackBerry is following the trend of adding some texture to the power button and we love it here. Just under the volume rocker and power buttons is a quick action button. This allows you to open an app or perform an action with a simple press. I have mine set to open the camera, but the phone also supports double pressing the power button to open up the camera.

Because it’s 2018 and we have to mention this now, yes, the Key2 does come with a headphone jack. It sits at the top of the device, the perfect place for such a thing. The bottom of the phone holds the USB type-C port and two machined speaker grills. Unfortunately only one of them puts out any sound.

That brings us to one of the big disadvantages of the Key2. It’s just not great for consuming media. The 4.5-inch display is just fine with okay colors and decent brightness. It gets very dark on occasion and can really take you out of what you’re watching. Combined with a just okay display with subpar speakers and this isn’t the first phone we’d grab to watch a TV show or movie on a long flight. We know that this phone is designed for business people in mind, but we’d imagine that those who work in an office like to watch YouTube from time to time too.

Keyboard

So, let’s quit beating around the bush. How’s the keyboard? Well, I wish I could give you a one-word answer but it’s not that simple. What you need to know is that the keyboard is larger on the Key2 than it was on the KeyOne. This makes much more comfortable to type on while only adding a small bit of height to the device. It was a great change.

The keys are clicky and easy to press. We’d understand if they were a little stiffer out of the box, but were pleasantly surprised at how the device already felt broken in the moment we set it up.

You have the full set of keys that you’d expect. But, you also have a Speed Key in the bottom right corner that lets you launch apps or actions by pressing it then a letter. It’s a really smart addition and I’ve found myself using it more and more as time goes on. No longer do I need to hit the multitasking button or go back to the homescreen to find my favorite apps. Two buttons presses and I’m there.

The smart features don’t stop there. There’s a fingerprint scanner in the space bar that gets the job done. It’s not as good as something you’d find on a Huawei device, but it reads accurately and quickly most of the time. You can also set the currency key to perform actions like dropping the notification shade- something that can be quite the task if you have smaller hands.

BlackBerry brought back some of its best keyboard features from the KeyOne too. You can easily scroll through web pages or lists by sliding your thumb up and down the keys in the middle of the keyboard. You can also double tap a key to open up directional keys and scroll through symbol keyboards on screen by tapping the SYM button next to the keyboard.

I was initially annoyed with the onscreen keyboard when I started using the device, but I can see its usefulness. You’re not going to be able to pack everything you need into the physical keyboard even with long presses and alt keys. BlackBerry captured the best of both worlds here.

Specs

In a previous discussion in our Hot Take podcast, I made the point that it was going to be really hard to recommend the Key2 based on specs alone. The phone is supposed to be priced around $650 but runs a mid-range processor, a 1080p LCD display with an odd aspect ratio, and just didn’t seem very premium. When you have devices like the OnePlus 6 out there for cheaper, it just doesn’t seem like a good buy.

But then I actually used the phone and I’m pretty blown away. We constantly ask ourselves here if we need flagship level processors and the Key2 proves that you don’t. It rocks a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660, a sold midrange processor. I’ve never once had this phone lag on me. Granted, I’ve only had it for about a week, but I’ve certainly put it through its paces in that week. I am in love with the performance.

What I’m not in love with is the display. We touched on this a little bit earlier, but it’s just not great. BlackBerry stuck with the same panel as last year and I’m wondering why. It gets just bright enough to use on cloudy days and it feels like it stays too dark too long indoors. It also has an odd 3:2 aspect ratio to fit in the physical keyboard. Watching videos and playing games just aren’t satisfying like on other devices. It just gets the job done and is probably my least favorite thing about the device.

But, my favorite thing about the device is how good the battery life is. Again, we’re taking this with a grain of salt due to our short testing period, but so far it has been fantastic. We’re getting about two days of usage with seven to eight hours of screen on time.

The Key2 has an embedded 3,500 mAh battery that supports Quick Charge 3.0. That means you should get about 50% of your battery back from dead in 35 minutes or so. We’ve yet to be able to test this but will update this section when we’re able to.

Camera

Cameras are another area where we haven’t had enough time to accurately access. We’ll continue our testing as time goes on and update this post as we come to a conclusion.

But for now, we’ll tell you that the Key2 is the first BlackBerry device to feature a dual camera setup. The rear of the device sees a dual 12 MP (f/1.8) + 12 MP (f/2.6) setup. The second lens is used to zoom instead of a monochrome or wide-angle lens as we’ve seen on other devices.

Early picture samples are just okay. There’s nothing too spectacular about the pictures here and we’d suggest looking elsewhere if you really want an out of this world camera. This will get the job done for those quick snaps you put up on social media or snapping a business card. Any more than that might be a bit of a struggle.

Software

The build quality is great and we enjoy the keyboard a lot, but where we really fall in love with the Key2 is the software. It ships with Android 8.1 out of the box with a planned upgrade to Android P. But, there’s no skin to be found. You just get stock Android 8.1 Oreo with a ton of really smart additions.

My favorite of which is the Hub. I monitor a ton of email addresses and social media accounts here at AndroidGuys and I’m now able to keep those separate from my personal emails and messages through the hub. I can switch between Work and Personal profiles to get notifications from email, Slack, Facebook Messenger, Hangouts, and pretty much any other communications app you can imagine.

BlackBerry also added two features I love to keep your content secure: Private Locker and Privacy Shade. Private Locker only works with a few apps like the camera or Firefox focus, and we’d love to see more added soon. Firefox Focus, for example, can only be accessed by using your fingerprint or password and then deletes your browsing history once you exit. You can also use the locker to store pictures you don’t want to be seen or downloaded files.

Privacy Shade blacks out most of the screen except for where you’re scrolling. This keeps prying eyes off your important content and makes sure your work stays your work. The shade is great, but BlackBerry was smart enough to add quick access to it too. All you have to do is pull down your notification shade and click on the Privacy Shade icon. It’s a really smart implementation that saves time when it counts.

Conclusion

And that’s the story of BlackBerry’s software on the Key2. It’s just smart. You can tell engineers and designers actually sat down and thought about what they were doing here. BB didn’t cram in every single feature it could think of just to sell a few more phones. It picked what it thought would make life easier for someone who doesn’t have time to screw around with their phone during the day.

I liken BlackBerry’s software to poker. It takes a minute to learn and forever to master. There are an insane amount of tricks and shortcuts that I’m still getting used to after a week of use and a reviewer’s guide sitting in front of me with all of them listed.

Some are pretty standard like double clicking the power button to open the camera, but others aren’t. You can assign pretty much any physical key a shortcut. The notification shade drops with a press of the currency key. You can open up app widgets with just a swipe of an icon. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The BlackBerry Key2 isn’t going to be the phone for everyone. BlackBerry knows this and it’s not trying to be. It is targetting a small segment of Android users that want a physical keyboard and smart software features to make their jobs easier. I love the laser focus on that goal. If you work in sales, marketing, or other related jobs, this is absolutely the phone for you.

If you’re not that person, you might want to pass. The software additions will largely be lost on you and the media viewing experience is just not great.

As we grow more and more attached to our phones each day, it’s important to have one that matches what you really want to do with it. If Netflix or YouTube are among your most used apps, maybe grab something else.

But it’s a powerful too for those its designed for. I’m still asking myself if I’m a faster typer with a physical keyboard. While that’s up for debate, what isn’t is that I’m much more accurate.

The feeling of physical keys is so satisfying that I absolutely love to type here. I will intentionally pick up my phone to respond to messages instead of using the keyboard on my desk. It’s that much fun.