BlackBerry KEY2, third opinion review: Keyboard at all costs

By | 13th July 2018

You better really love that hardware keyboard, because you're giving up a lot to get it.

With our own Daniel Bader taking on the canonical KEY2 review for Android Central, and Jerry Hildenbrand following it up with his own thoughts, I'm in the privileged position of using the phone far longer before putting my conclusive thoughts down. I've been using the KEY2 for over three weeks now, which was essential for me to get over the stumbles of re-learning how to use a phone with a hardware keyboard on account of how little I used the KEYone and Priv — not to mention the half-decade since using any other device with keycaps.

It took about a week and a half to get into a comfortable mode of using the keyboard every single day for hours on end, rewiring my brain to naturally use it rather than reaching up for that touch screen for every interaction. After that point I could just start using the KEY2 like a normal phone, evaluating everything else it does — because we all do far more than just type on these things after all.

Weeks of relying on BlackBerry's latest keyboard-packing flagship hasn't been painful by any stretch, but it hasn't been entirely fruitful either.

Hardware and software

BlackBerry KEY2 Things I like

The BlackBerry KEY2's keyboard undeniably lands up here in the positive column. It was frustrating at first. I was an extremely slow typist for the first couple of days. But once I got through that barrier, I feel like I'm up to the level where I'm nearly matching my typing speed on a virtual keyboard. And once I got there, I started to enjoy everything else the keyboard has to offer. Being able to swipe along the keyboard to scroll through apps without getting your thumb in front of the screen is awesome. Using the shortcuts to launch apps is a big time saver. Swiping along the keyboard for word prediction and text selection is intuitive. The fingerprint sensor in the space bar is conveniently located.

BlackBerry KEY2 specs

The keyboard is really good, and you can learn how to make it incredibly useful.

Aside from a couple hiccups here and there, the BlackBerry keyboard experience actually complements Android really well when it's this thoughtfully designed. The keyboard feels like more than a text input device — I just started to use it as a core part of interfacing with the phone, which is key for justifying its existence.

There's also praise to be had for the non-keyboard portions of the hardware. This all-black KEY2 I've been using has a stealthy, businesslike appeal that I'm proud of as I set it on a table in public. The metal frame is sturdy, and the textured back complements it nicely with enough grip to be helpful. The side keys are super clicky, and that convenience key is programmable — I set it to toggle between sound, vibrate and silent mode. There's a headphone jack! What a concept. And phone calls sound excellent. The whole external hardware experience is befitting its price, there's nothing to complain about here.

BlackBerry's software is good and powerful, and leads to really great battery life.

BlackBerry's take on Android is also filled with good ideas and above-average execution. This isn't on the same level as what you get from OnePlus, Motorola or Google itself in terms of that final bit of fit-and-finish, but it's darn good. Many of BlackBerry's services and apps are a bit on the useless side, but they're all simple to turn off and they don't nag you after that. Its launcher is good, as are the changes in the settings and all of the keyboard integrations.

The overall emphasis on battery life with the KEY2 has come together nicely, as the phone has never left me stranded. 3500mAh is a really good capacity nowadays, particularly for a small-screened device and one that's running a power-conserving Snapdragon 660. The KEY2's software is proactive with warning you about apps that are running wild with your battery or usage patterns that may have the phone drained before you usually charge it. But I rarely needed to heed the warnings, because the KEY2 just made it through every day with battery to spare. This isn't a two-day phone, but its battery life is strong enough that I don't have to worry about it.

Average isn't good enough

BlackBerry KEY2 Things I don't like

BlackBerry made a lot of improvements over the KEYone, but still feels like it followed its predecessor's lead too much considering it also raised the price. The addition of 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, is fantastic, and makes the KEY2 futureproof for a couple years. But sticking with a Snapdragon 660 is a bit puzzling — the KEY2 performs pretty well, and rarely has stutters or hiccups, but it doesn't have a fighting chance of matching the Snapdragon 800-series phones from even 2017. If you've used a modern flagship phone, you won't be convinced that the KEY2 is on the same level; its performance reminds me more of a slick-running mid-range phone than a top-end competitor.

I expect a far better display, speaker and camera for this much money.

The theme continues throughout other parts of the hardware, where the KEY2 feels stuck in the past. I understand why the display is sized and shaped the way it is, and have no problem with it — but the quality of the display is shameful for this level of device in 2018. It's practically unusable in direct sunlight, and is of just average quality in all other situations. The single down-firing speaker isn't particularly loud or full sounding. There's no water resistance to speak of. I expect far better in all of these areas from a phone of this asking price.

I'm going to make the same argument with the camera, which is a perfect example of "average" not being good enough. The KEY2 can take some really good shots, particularly in daylight and when using HDR. If you leave HDR on you get some great colors and the dynamic range is pretty good — without it, things are a bit hit or miss. Clarity and sharpness are acceptable in daylight shots, the only issue I found was inconsistent exposure — sometimes it was noticeably underexposed in bright scenes, but also way overexposed when you tap to meter on a dark subject. I took lots of photos I was proud to post on Instagram, and many more that were fine enough to keep for private use in Google Photos, but there were dozens I chose to just delete.

The camera is acceptable in daylight, but way behind the pack in low light.

In low light, this just isn't good enough at all. An f/1.8 lens is a great starting point, but BlackBerry moved to a sensor with smaller pixels than the KEYone and didn't add OIS, so the deck is stacked against it getting good low-light photos. The KEY2 is capable of a good shot in dark scenes, but not particularly often. In any case, its clarity and sharpness are below the competition in these photos. The secondary camera is entirely useless in low-light shots given its f/2.6 aperture and 1-micron pixels, but the story isn't all that much better in daylight. This is a perfect example of how the company could have benefited from using the money (and space inside the phone) dedicated to the useless secondary camera for improvements to the main camera and been far better off.

As I found in my camera comparison between the KEY2 and Galaxy S9, the KEY2's cameras just isn't ready to play with the top-end phones. That's alright in itself, because I realize camera isn't always the most important thing for people, but when you add it to all of the other uninspiring aspects of the KEY2 experience you start to wonder why you're paying so much.

Lest I be chastised for being too critical on the KEY2, let's all remember that BlackBerry is charging $649 for this phone. Everything here is plenty good for a $450-550 phone, but just isn't good enough to justify that extra jump to the mid-$600 range. It feels bad to dig on this phone so much for just being "average" or "good enough," but you have to realize that the KEY2 is trying to play in a world where that's not acceptable when we're talking about this price level.

Keyboard at all costs

BlackBerry KEY2 Third opinion review

Evaluating the BlackBerry KEY2 comes down to one thing: how badly do you want that hardware keyboard?

How badly do you want that hardware keyboard? You give up a lot to get it.

For some people a hardware keyboard is essential. And after using the KEY2 for a few weeks I have even been convinced that there's serious value in having those clicky keys and all of the extras that the touch-enabled caps offer. I could happily use this keyboard and form factor without issue, because I really don't play games or watch much video on my phone. The KEY2's hardware overall is very nice, too, and I like its powerful software and strong battery life. But I still don't fall into the former camp of people who can't live without a hardware keyboard.

As such, I'm not willing to give on so many of the other parts of the phone experience just to have the KEY2's keyboard. For $650, if this phone didn't have a keyboard I wouldn't be able to recommend it to anyone. The screen, specs, performance, camera and hardware features simply don't match the OnePlus 6, which I'll remind you costs $120 less. On any given day the Galaxy S9 can be had on Amazon for $700, just $50 more. At their respective price points, both of those phone blow the KEY2 away in every way ... aside from the keyboard.

When you must have a keyboard, the KEY2 is your best choice by a long shot — and the non-keyboard parts of the phone definitely get the job done. But if you're fine typing on glass, there are better and less compromised choices out there for the same money.