Excellent keyboard • Runs Android 8.1 Oreo • Solid build quality • Has a headphone jack
Takes time to relearn how to type with a keyboard • Apps like Instagram are cropped for display • Using apps in landscape is difficult
The BlackBerry Key 2 is the best and only phone to get if a physical keyboard is must-have.
I feel slightly embarrassed to tell anyone this, but I like the BlackBerry Key 2 and its QWERTY keyboard, non-all-screen and somewhat boxy design, and shortcut buttons.
It’s not the same kind of affection I have for my iPhone X or the OnePlus 6 (my two favorite phones of the current cycle), but it’s still a warm and fuzzy feeling that I don’t get from so many other well-built iPhone clones.
The feeling’s definitely not nostalgia because I never owned a BlackBerry. Which must mean the Key 2 is actually a good phone, even if it bucks all of this year’s mobile trends.
BlackBerry made quite a comeback last year with the Key One. Well, technically, TCL made the phone, but that’s beside the point, which is: people are paying attention to BlackBerry phones again for the first time in ages.
It’s not even like Kim Kardashian herself, a self-proclaimed BlackBerry fangirl, helped promote the Key One. Though Sarah Jessica Parker is apparently a genuine fan of the Key One.
TCL just built a really good phone with a QWERTY keyboard. Instead of gimmicks, the Key One focused on the non-sexy, but practical features: performance, battery life, cameras, security, and access to Android apps.
The Key 2 builds on these principles, improving all of the essentials. Once again, you won’t find any gimmicks.
It’s a BlackBerry alright
There’s no mistaking the Key 2 for any phone other than an BlackBerry. All of the things that make a BlackBerry a BlackBerry are present and better on the Key 2.
The phone’s design is sleeker than the Key One’s. My all-black matte review unit can only be described as stealthy AF — a device Batman would use for sure — but the silver and black version looks slick, too.
The rounded corners and sides of the Key One have been replaced with straight lines and sharper corners, but it’s all for the better. Though it’s not significantly thinner or lighter, the Key 2 feels nicer in the hand; the textured back is grippier and the buttons are clickier.
And speaking of buttons, has made a few very welcome tweaks to their locations. The power button is no longer at the top left of the phone, a very difficult spot to easily press; it’s now easily accessible on the right side and it’s ribbed so you won’t mistake it for the volume rocker above it and the Convenience shortcut button below it.
The Key 2 also has a headphone jack up top and a microSD card slot for storage expansion built into the SIM card tray. Some versions of the Key 2 will have dual SIM card slots, but my unit only came with one.
Despite its stealthy design, the Key 2 actually drew more attention than I had expected. I noticed more than a few blank stares at the phone during a few crowded subway commutes. I’m usually not into attention, but the Key 2 makes a statement and it felt nice. I felt cool and special. Interestingly enough, using the Key 2 didn’t make me feel like a yuppie at all, which is strange because that’s exactly the kind of user the phone’s targeting.
The keyboard’s so much better
The Key One’s QWERTY keyboard was average. I neither loved it nor hated it. I was able to get used to typing on it after a few days, but I didn’t like that the keys were glossy and mushy.
Customer feedback must have agreed with me because the keyboard on the Key 2 is 20 percent larger. There’s more separation between the key rows, which makes it a lot easier to correctly press the right keys.
The keys themselves are thankfully no longer glossy and matte instead. The fret on each key is more pronounced. The print color for each letter, number, and symbol is more visible. And there’s a new dynamic backlighting system.
It still took me a couple of days to get used to typing on a physical keyboard, but that’s to be expected when you’re so used to typing on a glass screen. I don’t think a lot of people will have the patience to learn or relearn how to type on physical keys, though. Why? Because I wanted to give up after the first few hours of making typo after typo.
During the break-in period, I kept hitting the Alt key instead of the Shift key to capitalize a letter. I also kept pressing the space bar, which, FYI, doubles as a fingerprint reader (a very good one at that), to return to the home screen only to remember that’s not how the button works and there are dedicated Android navigation buttons below the display.
I handed the Key 2 to some of my friends who did own BlackBerrys (some even owned multiple during the heyday), all of whom use iPhones now, and even they laughed at their own inability to properly type words and sentences. None of them said they’d switch back to a BlackBerry.
The keyboard does afford a type of efficiency you can’t get on other phones. Like the Key One, the 52 letter keys can be programmed for a short- and long-press shortcut to either perform an action or launch an app when you’re on the home screen. There’s something about being able to keep a clean home screen and launch Instagram by pressing “I” or “Spotify” if I press “S” or call my mom with “M.”
The Key 2 also has a Convenience key — a staple on any BlackBerry — on the right side of the device. You can program it for a number of shortcuts or to launch a specific app. The difference between this and the programmable keys is that it works anytime, not just from the home screen. I turned mine into a dedicated Twitter button, which of course increased the amount of time I spent in the app. Take my advice and don’t map it to open Instagram unless you want to become even more addicted.
And as if there weren’t enough ways to create shortcuts, there’s also a new “Speed” key that replaces the right Shift key found on older BBs. Press this key along with any of your keyboard shortcuts and you can quickly jump between your shortcuts or apps without ever needing to return to the home screen. The seconds you save not going back to the home screen or opening up the Recent Apps screen add up over time.
Not to mention, the keyboard doubles as a trackpad. It’s the same bag of gesture tricks as on the Key One — swipe up and down to scroll in apps and left and right to switch between home screens — but it’s handy not having to reach up to the touchscreen all the time.
Everything else is good, too
The keyboard is the main reason anyone should even buy the Key 2. Obviously, if that’s a turn-off or a dealbreaker, it’s not the phone for you and you should consider another device.
But if you are into the keyboard, the rest of the Key 2’s not too shabby. The screen’s the same 4.5-inch (1,620 x 1,080) LCD display as on the Key One. It’s a good screen for looking at text, but it pales in comparison to an OLED display on an iPhone X, Pixel 2 XL, Galaxy S9, or OnePlus 6. It’s just not as bright, vibrant, or visible under direct sunlight as other premium Android phones.
The crappier screen’s forgivable if you’re using the Key 2 mainly for reading text, but it’s awful when you’re viewing content created for 16:9 or 18:9, like Instagram Stories, and it’s cropped. You also don’t see as much content compared to longer displays, which is a real disadvantage in 2018.
The Key 2’s specs are midrange on paper and I felt it at times. The less powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 chip, even with 6GB of RAM, just can’t compare to a phone with a beefier Snapdragon 845 chip.
Android 8.1 runs smoothly for the most part, but once you start opening lots of apps, the phone chokes up and gets a little warm.
I especially noticed the phone’s limitations when playing 3D games with console-quality graphics. Games like Tekken and PUBG are playable, but have more dropped frames than on phones with a Snapdragon 845 chip. Casual games like Candy Crush or Wordscapes run just fine.
Not that playing games will be a priority for most Key 2 buyers — it’s not ergonomic or fun to play games in landscape when you have to reach over the keyboard with one hand. But if you do decide to play some games, you’ll be happy to know the Key 2’s got 64GB of storage and a microSD card slot for storage expansion.
Battery life was pretty good too. Nothing spectacular, but the 3,500 mAh battery was able to consistently stretch me up to a day an a half of heavy email, reading news, watching a couple of YouTube videos, Twitter, and Instagram.
The Key One took some decent photos. They weren’t the best and couldn’t hold a candle to an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, but they were good enough for Instagram, and isn’t that all that matters these days?
Same goes for the the Key 2. The dual 12-megapixel rear cameras (the secondary camera’s a 2x telephoto) take solid photos with good sharpness and color, but they’re not better than photos taken with the iPhone X, Pixel 2, or Samsung Galaxy S9.
The Key 2’s primary 12-megapixel camera has a much wider field of view compared to the iPhone X’s. By default, it also shoots photos in a 3:2 aspect ratio instead of the more common 4:3.
Colors are slightly more accurate on the Key 2 than on the iPhone X. But look how dull these golden dragon fruits look compared to the slightly more saturated photo taken on iPhone X.
Which shot above is better?
Here’s how the 2x telephoto lens on the Key 2 compare with the iPhone X.
Notice the completely different color temperatures between the Key 2 and iPhone X.
And of course, the Key 2 being a BlackBerry, it comes with the company’s own DTEK security layer, the Locker app that lets you hide files and apps, and all the other BB-exclusive features like the BlackBerry Hub, Privacy Shade, BlackBerry redactor, etc.
Not for everyone
The Key 2 is a great phone. I like its different design, its keyboard, its shortcuts, and even many of the BlackBerry software features (Privacy Shade is so great to keep your phone’s content from prying eyes on the subway).
But as good as the phone is — certainly much better than the Key One — it’s biggest challenge is convincing people to care about the keyboard. And that’s a very hard sell.
It’s not impossible to learn how to use a keyboard again on a smartphone if you’ve ever owned a BlackBerry, or a SideKick, or a Droid. But try telling anyone young enough to have never used a phone with one and they’ll wonder why you’d ever torture yourself with one.
The benefits of a larger touchscreen are far greater than a physical keyboard for most people. BlackBerry even admits the Key 2 isn’t for everyone — just a niche who knows how to appreciate it. I’ve no doubt there are loyalists who will run out and buy the Key 2, but I can’t imagine that group is growing. Not when the trend is towards phones that are entirely screen, without bezels and notches.
Kim Kardashian, though — she might want to buy a dozen. Lest they ever become a rarity like the BlackBerry Bold she loved so much.