Black­Berry KEY2

Price: £579 inc VAT from fave.co/2Ks21VR

Android Advisor - - Contents -

Black­Berry is back again – sort of. The brand has been re­vived by man­u­fac­turer TCL, a com­pany in­vested in cash­ing in on nos­tal­gia. The Black­Berry KEY2 is a bet­ter phone than 2017’s KeyOne (£349 from fave.co/2IJvnt5), but still a stunted de­vice com­pared to the rest of the mar­ket.

It’s an un­doubt­edly slick smart­phone, with a look clearly mod­elled on 2015’s Black­Berry Pass­port Sil­ver Edi­tion, a phone that sup­pos­edly was meant to run An­droid un­til the last-minute change to Black­Berry’s own soft­ware.

His­tory aside, the KEY2 is a de­vice with lim­ited ap­peal in 2018. Un­less you re­ally, re­ally want a key­board on your smart­phone, this is not the hand­set for you, de­spite es­pe­cially se­cure An­droid Oreo 8.1 and pro­duc­tiv­ity-fo­cused key­board func­tions.

If, how­ever, you are in the vo­cal mi­nor­ity that in­sists typ­ing on glass sucks and want some niche soft­ware fea­tures you won’t find any­where else, then this is your next phone.

De­sign

In our time test­ing the KEY2, we’ve had a fair few (ex­pected) com­ments from friends, rang­ing from “is that a Black­Berry?” to “what the hell is that?”. This is down to in­credulity – most peo­ple don’t know you can still buy a Black­Berry in 2018.

We as­sured those peo­ple that de­spite its odd looks con­sid­er­ing the year, the KEY2 is a re­ally well-made phone. TCL has used pre­mium feel­ing se­ries 7 alu­minium for the frame that looks ex­actly like the sil­ver Black­Berry Pass­port, only squeezed into a slim­mer unit.

Not the slimmest, though. The KEY2 mea­sures 151.4x71.8x8.5mm (the very thinnest phones are around 7mm thick), but be­cause of the form fac­tor this is feels very svelte and weighs in less than the 180g KeyOne at 168g.

The metal frame neatly wraps around as the rim (or is that RIM?) of the phone as well as in­ter­sect­ing the lines of the key­board. It’s a step up in de­sign and feel from the KeyOne, as is the im­proved and stil­lu­nique grippy tex­tured plas­tic rear of the phone. It’s

a pleas­ing world away from the usual glass slabs that smart­phones tend to be in 2018.

It’s no se­cret that this hand­set is a nos­tal­gia trip, with Black­Berry Mo­bile telling us that the feel of the newly matte key­board was mod­elled on the old Bold 9900. Clev­erly, there’s a fingerprint sen­sor in­te­grated into the space­bar. The keys are an up­grade on the mushy, glossy keys on the KeyOne.

On the KEY2 they are matte, 20 per­cent larger and sat­is­fy­ingly clicky, much like the ex­cel­lent vol­ume and tex­tured power keys. Be­low that key is a smooth con­ve­nience key that you can map to per­form nearly any func­tion you like.

The 4.5in dis­play is an odd 3:2 as­pect ra­tio to ac­com­mo­date the form fac­tor and means you’ll have to get used to gen­er­ally smaller on-screen text and a phone that it is not fun to play land­scape games on. But TCL knows and owns this, and the trade-off is the key­board – the whole phone works around that. All those key gaps mean that the KEY2 is no way wa­ter­proof, though.

Ca­pac­i­tive but­tons on the bezel of the screen above the key­board light up and so aren’t remap­pable, but they fade away when not in use for a pleas­ingly sub­tle ef­fect. There’s also a head­phone jack up top, and dual down fac­ing speaker next to the USB-C port.

Dual cam­eras on the back pro­trude ever so slightly, while the front cam­era sits on the slim top bezel next to the ear­piece. It’s a pleas­ing piece of tech­nol­ogy to hold, but one that is nec­es­sar­ily util­i­tar­ian and func­tional in its de­sign. It’s one of the only phones out there that you don’t re­ally need a case for.

Dis­play

The Black­Berry has a 1,620x1,080 4.5in screen with Go­rilla Glass 3 and de­cent colour re­pro­duc­tion, but it isn’t the bright­est, and will have you squint­ing to read it in di­rect sun­light (though this is true for the ma­jor­ity of LCDs). No­tably, you can se­lect from nat­u­ral, boosted and sat­u­rated colours just like on the Pixel 2. Com­pared to the KeyOne, the dis­play here has shifted up­wards and the fore­head is 25 per­cent smaller in or­der to fit in an over­all larger key­board area. It means that the phone is a tad top-heavy and we some­times found it dif­fi­cult to know where to hold it com­fort­ably.

There are use­ful func­tions like dou­ble-tap to wake and an am­bi­ent op­tion that wakes the screen when you re­ceive a no­ti­fi­ca­tion and briefly dis­plays it. Also present is the ever-more com­mon night mode that de­creases the blue light the screen kicks out.

De­spite the phys­i­cal key­board this is ob­vi­ously a touch­screen, and you’ll find your­self tap­ping and swip­ing when nec­es­sary. Black­Berry re­mains the only OEM that of­fers a handy swipe up on apps with three dots for a quick wid­get view, which we love.

You can also tog­gle the op­tion for an on-screen key­board should you want to, but it cov­ers most of the dis­play. Tap­ping the sym­bol key on the key­board also brings up the vir­tual key­board to get to those lesser used sym­bols.

Pro­ces­sor, mem­ory and stor­age

The pro­ces­sor is a Qual­comm Snap­dragon 660 paired with 6GB RAM as stan­dard (the KeyOne’s RAM dif­fered de­pend­ing on the colour you chose). The 660 is a power ef­fi­cient mid-range pro­ces­sor and is used here for two rea­sons – the KEY2 is not de­signed to be used

for high-end gam­ing and is also sup­posed to last well over a day on a sin­gle charge.

Most KEY2 units have 64GB stor­age (sin­gle SIM) and a mi­croSD card slot for ex­pan­sion up to 256GB. You can hold out for a 128GB dual SIM model if you want, but these aren’t as read­ily avail­able at launch.

The phone is no­tice­ably faster than the KeyOne in day to day per­for­mance – the up­dated pro­ces­sor and more RAM clearly help­ing along­side An­droid Oreo 8.1. There was only the tini­est hint of slow­down, yet again when us­ing Black­Berry’s Hub soft­ware. We found it pretty easy to not use it though, and it’s easy to dis­able (it’s a big RAM hog, col­lect­ing as it does every sin­gle no­ti­fi­ca­tion you re­ceive into one in­box).

Bench­mark­ing the KEY2 against the KeyOne and other phones with sim­i­lar spec­i­fi­ca­tions and price shows it’s a de­cent per­former for a mid-range de­vice, though at over £500 you might ex­pect bet­ter per­for­mance for your money – the £469 OnePlus 6 has a Snap­dragon 845. But then again, the KEY2 is a mar­ket all on its own with its phys­i­cal key­board.

Key­board

This is the rea­son you buy this phone. The keys are the best for a while on a Black­Berry – big­ger than the small square keys of the KeyOne and the Priv. Here there are an­gled to­wards the cen­tre like much older Black­Ber­rys and have a matte fin­ish that is more pleas­ant to type on.

There’s a dim­ple on the D key so you know where you are, but if you’re used to typ­ing on glass now then a phys­i­cal key­board is a slow ex­pe­ri­ence. We were about 50 per­cent slower, though once you get used to it you are more pre­cise with your strokes rather than jab­bing at a glass vir­tual key­board that you know will use au­to­cor­rect to the max.

Au­to­cor­rect still works on the KEY2 though, and the three words sug­gested on the screen can be se­lected by swip­ing up un­derneath the cor­rect one. As well as a de­cent fingerprint sen­sor imbed­ded in the space­bar there is a new key called the Speed Key. It re­places the lesser used right side Shift key.

This key build on the fact you can map each key to open an app. For in­stance, you can pro­gramme the T key to open Twit­ter with a short press and Tin­der with a long press.

On the KeyOne, you could only launch from the home screen, here you hold down the Speed Key like a shift key and you can hop around apps from any­where in the OS. It’s re­ally handy and if you are a power user who wants to pro­gram loads of short­cuts, it’s great. Sim­i­larly, you can cus­tom­ize the cur­rency key (we used it to bring down the no­ti­fi­ca­tion shade).

But for most peo­ple, it’s a con­fus­ing so­lu­tion to a non-ex­is­tent prob­lem. Black­Berry Mo­bile says it’s a time­saver for the busy pro­fes­sional, but who doesn’t have a mi­crosec­ond of time to find an app?

Yet this is one of the best key­boards ever on a Black­Berry and us­ing it as a track­pad to scroll is still a gen­uinely use­ful thing and means your thumb doesn’t cover any of the screen. But only purists need ap­ply – it’s all very frus­trat­ing to use if you are used to vir­tual key­boards (and you def­i­nitely are).

Con­nec­tiv­ity and au­dio

No­tably, the KEY2 has HD au­dio and a noise can­celling speak­er­phone, again out­lin­ing its busi­ness-minded au­di­ence. The dual speak­ers sound okay when on speak­er­phone calls (bet­ter are calls through the ear­piece), but we found our­selves hap­pily lis­ten­ing to pod­casts without head­phones.

When you do need head­phones, the bun­dled ones are pretty good in-ears with in­line re­mote. The tips aren’t cir­cu­lar and are more er­gonomic to fit in your ear. They also act as the aerial for the on-board FM ra­dio. If you want to go wire­less the KEY2 has Blue­tooth 5.0 for a re­li­able con­nec­tion to smart­watches and head­phones.

Cam­eras

The KEY2 is not the phone to buy if you want a stel­lar cam­era. There are im­prove­ments from the KeyOne to a dual lens sys­tem, but re­sults are mid­dling. Like most phones at this price, pic­tures in broad day­light are great, but any­thing in low light comes out grainy and dis­torted.

TCL has used dual 12Mp sen­sors, the main with f/1.8 and sec­ond with f/2.6 used for por­trait mode or 2x zoom. Por­trait mode pho­tos are what you’d ex­pect – a blurred back­ground with rough edges round the sub­ject on closer in­spec­tion. There’s still no OIS, but an el­e­ment of dig­i­tal sta­bi­liza­tion at play that un­for­tu­nately doesn’t do a lot in low light.

A front-fac­ing 8Mp cam­era is noth­ing to write home about, but fine for video call­ing and ca­sual selfie in­dul­gence. You can also tap the fingerprint sen­sor

to send a photo di­rectly into the Locker app – not into the gallery or the cloud. Se­cure.

Video cap­ture is im­pres­sive with 1080p at 60fps or 4K at 30fps but can be pretty shaky with no sta­bi­liza­tion.

Bat­tery life

With a large 3,500mAh bat­tery, the KEY2 prom­ises a bat­tery life of any­thing from one to two days de­pend­ing on us­age. It achieves a day eas­ily but if we be­ing picky,

it’s not as good as the KeyOne – a phone we reg­u­larly got two full days use out of.

The KEY2 drifts into a sec­ond day but around lunchtime we were reach­ing for a charger. Don’t get us wrong – it still out­per­forms most phones out there, but there is no im­prove­ment here in longevity over the last gen­er­a­tion which is a bit of a shame. It’s ac­tu­ally a tiny re­gres­sion and given that many KEY2 buy­ers might al­ready have a KeyOne it’s no­table.

Soft­ware and apps

TCL and Black­Berry Mo­bile hang their hats on the key­board and the soft­ware of the KEY2. Their phones get reg­u­lar se­cu­rity patches, which is great and the same ap­plies to the KEY2. There are also fea­tures such as a Locker to put (hide) pho­tos and files from pry­ing eyes and unique fea­tures like a pri­vacy shade to read sliv­ers of screen at a time and a redac­tor to blur out in­for­ma­tion be­fore send­ing screen­shots.

The screen­shot on the fol­low­ing page shows the home screen, app drawer, no­ti­fi­ca­tion shade and set­tings menu with the in-OS dark theme ap­plied.

The DTEK app tracks ba­sic se­cu­rity and alerts you if you need to act on some­thing, and the op­er­at­ing sys­tem is chat­tier than most about let­ting you know if an app wants to ac­cess your cam­era and mic – and lets you deny per­mis­sion.

Un­like many phones the KEY2 also sets up a hard­ware root of trust when you set it up, im­prov­ing se­cu­rity.

An­droid 8.1 is close to stock here and you won’t find any flashy an­i­ma­tions or selfie stick­ers. There’s still

the pro­duc­tiv­ity tab, which is a Sam­sung-es­que swipe from the side of the screen that gives cal­en­dar, note, task and mes­sage over­lays for quick ac­cess to var­i­ous ac­tions and in­for­ma­tion.

There are no an­i­ma­tions when us­ing the Speed Key as apps spring onto the screen im­me­di­ately. The slick­ness of the OS is im­per­a­tive in mak­ing the KEY2 feel fast and pro­duc­tive, and at that it suc­ceeds.

Ver­dict

The KEY2 has ex­cel­lent build qual­ity, thought­ful soft­ware ad­di­tions and a key­board that purists will adore. But in the smart­phone mar­ket, that doesn’t make it a vi­able choice for most peo­ple. Typ­ing on a phys­i­cal key­board this small is dif­fi­cult no mat­ter what any en­thu­si­ast says, and the form fac­tor is harder to hold than the smaller Black­Berry Bolds of a decade ago. Bat­tery life is above av­er­age and it runs much faster than the KeyOne, but the

KEY2 is very much a phone for a se­lect few peo­ple who still must have a key­board – and no one else. Henry Bur­rell

Spec­i­fi­ca­tions

• 4.5in (1,620x1,080; 434ppi) IPS LCD ca­pac­i­tive touch­screen • An­droid 8.1 Oreo • Qual­comm SDM660 Snap­dragon 660 pro­ces­sor • Octa-core (4x 2.2GHz Kryo 260, 4x 1.8GHz Kryo

260) CPU • Adreno 512 GPU • 6GB RAM • 64/128GB stor­age (mi­croSD up to 256GB) • Dual rear-fac­ing cam­eras: 12Mp (f/1.8, 1/2.3in, 1.28μm, dual pixel PDAF); 12Mp (f/2.6, 1μm, PDAF), dual-LED dual-tone flash • 8Mp front cam­era: (f/2.0, 1.12μm), 1080p • 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi • Blue­tooth 5.0 • A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS2 • NFC • Fingerprint sen­sor (front mounted) • USB 3.0, Type-C 1.0 • 3,500mAh non-re­mov­able bat­tery lithium-ion

bat­tery • 151.4x71.8x8.5mm • 168g

Dual cam­eras pro­trude from the back of the KEY2 ever so slightly

Com­pared to the KeyOne, the dis­play here has shifted up­wards and the fore­head is 25 per­cent smaller

Low light

From left to right: home screen, app drawer, no­ti­fi­ca­tion shade and set­tings menu

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