Hands on: BlackBerry Key2 review

Is the iconic brand back?

What is a hands on review?
TODO alt text

Our Early Verdict

The new BlackBerry Key2 is a phone designed entirely for BlackBerry fans. You won't want this if you're thinking of upgrading from a Galaxy S7, although there's something charming about a physical keyboard still. A slightly underpowered CPU might not be up to all tasks, but it helps keep the price a little lower and seems to combine well with the improvements BlackBerry has brought.

For

  • Useful Speed Key
  • Improved keyboard
  • Lots of security features

Against

  • Doesn't pack a flagship CPU
  • Screen ratio a little odd compared to other phones

‘An icon reimagined’. That’s the tagline BlackBerry Mobile is going for with its latest phone, the Key2.

To that end, it’s refined last year’s KeyOne in a few ways: the keyboard is 20% larger and packs a new key. Let that sink in. A new key on a BlackBerry keyboard, the first in years and years.

There are myriad improvements elsewhere in the phone, from the camera to the internals to the overall design, but when it comes to the ‘iconic’ part of this phone, it’s clearly about the keyboard.

BlackBerry also knows that it’s appealing to a small subset of smartphone users with its range, and doubling down on what it thinks they’ll like.

Want to see the Key2 in action? Watch our hands-on video below:

It’s not the most powerful phone on the market, but it’s cheaper - and it comes with a number of tweaks that could be attractive if you’re bored of the same iPhone / Galaxy duopoly at the top.

BlackBerry Key2 price and release date

The BlackBerry KeyTwo was announced at an event in New York City, US, on June 7, and it’ll be available to buy from the end of the month.

The UK will be getting a dual-sim version a few weeks after that, with other country availability to follow.

It’s not the most expensive phone on the market, at  $649 / £579 ( around AU$1015) for 64GB of internal storage...but it’s also far from cheap, despite cost savings from some of the component choices inside.

A 128GB version will be on offer too, but we don't have price or release date details for that.

Keyboard

What makes a BlackBerry iconic? The keyboard. It’s best to skip over the question over whether a BlackBerry keyboard is ‘iconic’ in today’s modern smartphone society, and instead decide if the physical keys still have a place this far into the twenty-first century.

The feeling is that they do - but if you’re someone coming from the world of touchscreens, it can feel like quite an alien action initially. However, after a couple of minutes, the muscle memory began to build and we can see blind typing happening very quickly.

The new keyboard is clearly an improvement over last year. Not only are the keys now matte-finish, rather than the slick gloss of the KeyOne, but they’re also slightly raised to make them easier to find.

According to BlackBerry Mobile, the brand spent time working out the ‘clickability’ of the Bold 9900, one of the most popular BlackBerry devices of all time, to transport that feel to the new Key2.

(That statement also inherently showed the fact that this new BlackBerry is very distinct from RIM, which used to run the brand… the fact that engineers had to study an old product, rather than just know inherently how it was designed, speaks volumes).

The keyboard on the Key2 also takes in some of the impressive things on recent BlackBerry smartphones, namely that the buttons also double as a touchpad.

There’s a simple elegance to caressing the keys up and down and having the screen move in time, meaning you can read what’s happening on the display without your thumb covering things.

Or typing out a message and just rubbing the keys from right to left to delete the last word… it’s a nice touch that actually feels innovative and natural, rather than just change for the sake of it.

Talking of change, there is that new key that BlackBerry is popping on its phones: the Speed Key. It’s called as such because it’s basically an alternative version of the shift key, but instead of calling up a capital letter you’ll assign an app to each button you choose.

When it was first described to us, it seemed like a bit of a weird thing to have - BlackBerry extolled it as something that was far quicker than having to jump back to the home screen over and over again, seemingly glossing over the ‘open apps’ button that most phones have.

However, in practice it quickly makes a lot of sense, with doing something like opening Spotify a natural action when you decide you want to open a new playlist. A tap of ‘Speed Key and S’ is all it takes, and it’s open.

BlackBerry Key2 specs

The BlackBerry Key2 is pretty strong on the spec front too, with 6GB of RAM being the headline element, designed to keep things lightning quick when jumping between applications. 

To bring the cost of the device down, Blackberry has opted for the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 chipset inside - it’s an interesting choice, as in reality we can’t see people needing that much more power, and perhaps for the audience the more powerful Snapdragon 845 would be a bit wasted.

If you’re new to the BlackBerry range, the features are simple: There’s the DTEK app working in the background, letting you know which apps want which permissions and why, with an extra layer of security in the hardware to make sure nothing nefarious is working in the background.

Are these features that most people need? Probably not, but with things like ‘Privacy shade’ (making only a thin strip of the screen visible at one time, so people can’t read your emails over your shoulder) and enabling the password-protected Firefox Focus app, you can’t help but feel the BlackBerry Key2 is a step up in terms of safety from your average Android phone.

Design

The Key2 feels like a decently-made smartphone, with a build quality one would expect for the price. Well, we say that, but a few years ago the cost of the Key2 would have been expensive for any flagship phone… but suddenly we’re not fazed paying double that thanks to Apple making the iPhone X.

In any case, the BlackBerry Key2 is one of the more impressive devices from the brand, with everthing feeling like it's made out of metal or glass. 

The metallic rim around the side or encircling the dual camera feels nice in the hand, and the Gorilla Glass used feels strong and premium, also packing the SIM and microSD card slot trays. 

We're less sold on the 'diamond cut' rear of the phone, with it feeling a little less premium than some of the other materials, but it's very 'BlackBerry' and feels solid in the hand.

The right-hand side of the phone houses all the buttons now, with the power, convenience key and volume all around the middle of that edge. BlackBerry has done that to ensure that there's less palm wiggling needed to get to the key you want, and all the keys feel well-machined and easy to find in the hand.

There's less 'forehead' to this phone too, with the keyboard allowed to be a little bigger as a result, with the screen staying at the same slightly-odd 3:2 ratio. The quality of it is fine though, with a clear resolution and nice sharpness. 

It's a little darker than some out there though, which is partly down to wanting to keep the battery rolling on for longer, something BlackBerry has been keen to achieve this time around.

That battery is 3500mAh, which the brand says means you'll never need to worry about the phone running out of charge in a single day. It's a bold claim to make, as apparently this is true even for the more intense user, but with fewer pixels to drive and a less-thirsty CPU, maybe it will be possible.

BlackBerry has also slung some intelligent battery management in there too, allowing the phone to learn about you a little to try and eke out the battery life a little longer - we weren't able to check this out, but if it's like the Boost+ mode on HTC's latest phone then it could actually make a tangible difference.

There's also Android Oreo 8.1 on board, which means the BlackBerry Key2 comes with Google Assistant and Lens inside, and allows users to access the full suite of Google Play apps - with DTEK checking nothing dodgy is coming into your phone either

The camera has been upgraded quite a bit, with a dual 12MP sensor taking over from the 'whoppingly big porthole' that was stuck on the back of the KeyOne, and the quality is pretty good.

It's not the best on the market, but BlackBerry wasn't aiming to do such a thing. It's supposed to have high-end features like bokeh mode, but in our early tests it didn't really offer something that stunning.

It was... just fine. That's probably all the brand wants, as users of the BlackBerry Key2 probably aren't aiming for the very best on the market. You'll still be pleased with the quality of the snaps in most cases though.

Early verdict

The BlackBerry Key2 doesn't reinvent anything for the brand, with the KeyOne bringing the level of success the company was hoping for. 

However, the Key2 is refined in nearly every area, making it a much easier for choice if someone is thinking between the two phones.

The improved keyboard, better build quality, upgraded camera and overall speed enhancements will please any user - well, a BlackBerry user, that is. 

This isn't a phone for the average consumer, but if you're hankering after a physical keyboard still and want a decent Android smartphone underneath, this phone could well be it.

  • Not bothered about a keyboard? The OnePlus 6 is an excellent, and similarly-priced, Android alternative

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.