Android Hardware Phones Reviews

BlackBerry Key2 LE review: does the keyboard save this old dog?

BlackBerry Key2 LE review
BlackBerry Key2 LE
  • Build quality
  • Camera quality
  • Speed & battery

Verdict

If you need a phone for business use, this could be your ideal “second” device

Overall
3.7

Pros

  • Highly secure
  • Designed for businesses
  • Keyboard shortcuts

Cons

  • Mediocre camera
  • No speed increase when typing
  • Reduced screen space

Next week marks my 20th anniversary working as a technology journalist, and BlackBerry has been an ever-present companion. Sure, it’s had its ups and downs, but I have a fondness for BlackBerry phones that I never had for, say, Nokia’s. So when the BlackBerry Key2 LE was released, I was keen to take a look.

BlackBerry Key2 LE review: who is BlackBerry anyway?

First things first: BlackBerry doesn’t make this phone. Around two years ago, the Canadian company took a strategic decision to concentrate its resources on the more profitable software and services side and let someone else manufacture BlackBerry phones.

That someone is Hong Kong-based TCL Communication, which is itself a subsidiary of the Chinese TCL Corporation. TCL Communication now makes Alcatel phones and the recently released Palm. (Nokia phones, incidentally, are now made by Foxconn.)

Back to BlackBerry. It now pitches itself as a solutions provider (horrible phrase) so that businesses can give mobile devices to employees and know they’re secure from threats. So you’ll still find its software embedded in BlackBerry phones, despite the fact that they’re now built on Android.

One final note: throughout this review, I say “BlackBerry made” or similar, even though BlackBerry the Canadian company didn’t actually make anything. It’s just simpler that way!

BlackBerry Key2 LE review: that keyboard

BlackBerry Key2 LE review

What people first see on a BlackBerry phone is the keyboard. The display is squashed to accommodate a 35-key board underneath.

Is this necessary in the world of software keyboards such as Gboard and SwiftKey? If all you’re doing is responding to emails then no, I don’t think so. I took a couple of online typing tests and could only get up to around 20 words per minute (wpm) on the Key2’s keyboard.

By comparison, I hit 86wpm on my desktop keyboard and 30wpm using Gboard.

But you’ll only get that level of speed if you’re typing regular words. As soon as you hit lesser-known place names, codes and irregular phrases it inevitably stumbles and you’re back to painful hitting of individual buttons.

It’s also a little easier to select, say, brackets: press the “alt” key (bottom left) and G brings up the “(” symbol, while $ has a key all to itself. By default, this uses the currency to match the chosen keyboard language, so in my case pressing it brought up £.

The other advantage? Shortcuts. If I want Google Chrome to launch every time I press C, I simply need to press C and select the app from the list provided.

It’s even clever enough to suggest apps based on the letter. So when I pressed B it brought up all my installed apps that begin with B. You can also set long presses to be different to short presses, so a short-press B might launch BBC Sounds and a long press BBC iPlayer.

BlackBerry Key2 LE review: the convenience key

BlackBerry Key2 LE review
The convenience key sits on the right-hand side, just below the power button

Three silver keys sit on the Key2 LE’s right-hand side. The topmost is a volume up/down switch; beneath it the power button; and underneath that, what BlackBerry calls the convenience key.

You can set this up to produce three shortcuts depending on context. In general, it might be launch buttons for, say, Settings, Calculator and Quick Dial.

But in a meeting you may want one of those shortcuts to be a voice recorder. Or, when connected to your home network, you may want to launch BBC iPlayer.

How convenient is the convenience button? Certainly a nice-to-have, but not a make-or-breaker.

BlackBerry Key2 LE review: privacy features

There’s a belt, braces and harnesses approach when it comes to security. For instance, BlackBerry Locker allows you to hide certain photos and files away from view. The only way to view them is via the Locker app, unlocked via fingerprint or a password you enter during setup.

Then there’s DTEK by BlackBerry, which does an instant audit of your phone to check for security holes. For instance, if you don’t have a recent security patch installed then you’ll be prompted to do so. It also looks for dubious behaviour from apps.

There’s also the curious Privacy Shader (see the video below), which lets you grey out areas swathes of the screen when you’re on a train, say.

People who share their screens might also appreciate Redactor, a simple app that plasters black marks wherever you tell it (for example, over lines of text or photos).

BlackBerry Key2 LE: camera quality

BlackBerry Key2 LE review

Don’t be fooled by the posh-sound specifications; a dual 13-megapixel/5-megapixel rear camera sounds good, but picture quality suffers in low light.

If I compare it to my Huawei Mate 20 Pro with this simple shot – of the fridge that lives under my desk – you’ll see that the Key2’s image (left) looks smudged compared to the Mate 20’s results.

BlackBerry Key2 LE photo
The Key2 LE’s photo is on the left, the Huawei Mate 20 Pro on the right – click on the photo to see it at full-size (opens in a new window)

It’s capable of taking 4K videos at 30 frames per second (fps), or Full HD video at 60fps but a lack of optical image stabilisation means results are no match for a high-end phone.

In short, don’t choose the Key2 LE if photography or video is a passion. You’ll be disappointed.

BlackBerry Key2 LE: performance and battery life

This is a mid-range phone with a mid-range processor, and it’s more than capable of chewing through Android for its likely life of 2-3 years. But it ain’t great for games. Results are at the bottom of this review.

Another problem when running games is that the screen’s cut-off dimensions don’t fit in with current game design convention. Everything is playable but it isn’t as enjoyable an experience as on a “normal” phone.

Battery life is distinctly mid-range too. Most people should get a day’s typical use without a struggle, while support for Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 standard – and the sleek 18W Quick Charge 3.0 charger in the box – meant it charged from 0% to 51% in 30 minutes when I put it to the test.

That result was with it switched off. Turning it on, and charging it for a further 30 minutes, took it to 92%.

Incidentally, one nice touch is that you can see how charged the phone is without flicking on the screen. When charging, a coloured bar snakes around the screen and indicates the phone’s current charge.

BlackBerry Key2 LE review: colour options

I was sent the “Atomic Red” version of the Key2 LE, which costs £399 and comes with 64GB of RAM and a dual SIM slot. Now, “atomic” isn’t an adjective I’d normally associate with a colour, but somehow it works. This is a classy phone, and one I’d be happy to be seen using.

Two things contribute to this. First, it’s slim: 8.35mm means it can slip into a jacket or jeans pocket comfortably. Second, BlackBerry eschews the glassy back of modern phones for a leather-effect rear, and it actually looks nice. To my eyes at least.

You can also buy a Champagne Gold Key2 LE, and although I haven’t seen this myself I’m assured it looks similarly classy. This version also costs £399 and includes the same specs.

Finally, there’s a £349 Slate version. This comes with 32GB of storage and a single SIM slot. Note you can add a microSD card up to 256GB in size.

BlackBerry Key2 LE review: buying decision

In a sea of anonymous phones, the Key2 LE is an interesting departure. The keyboard sets it apart, while the security features could come in useful – particularly for those who deal with sensitive information.

It isn’t a phone for most of us; there just aren’t enough plus points to balance out the weaknesses. But if you work somewhere where BlackBerry phones are on offer, it could be an excellent complement to your main phone.

BlackBerry Key2 LE review: specifications

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 (4 x 1.8GHz, 4 x 1.6GHz) processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • 32GB or 64GB of RAM
  • microSD slot (256GB max)
  • 35-key Qwerty keyboard
  • 4.5in 1,620 x 1,080 IPS display (3:2 aspect ratio)
  • Dual 13MP/5MP rear camera
  • 8MP front camera
  • 3,000mAh battery
  • USB-C port
  • Android 8.1 with BlackBerry overlay
  • 71.8 x 8.35 x 150mm (WDH)
  • 156g

BlackBerry Key2 LE review: test results

3D gaming/GFXBench

  • Aztec Ruins Open GL (High Tier), on-screen: 4.4fps
  • Aztec Ruins Open GL (High Tier), 1440p: 2.2fps
  • Car Chase, on-screen: 7.5fps
  • Car Chase, 1080p: 6.3fps
  • Manhattan 3.1, on-screen: 12fps
  • Manhattan 3.1, 1440p: 5.7fps
  • Manhattan 3.1, 1080p: 10fps
  • Manhattan 3, on-screen: 18fps
  • Manhattan 3, 1080p: 16fps

Geekbench 4

  • Single-core: 1,337
  • Multicore: 4,922

Screen test

  • Max brightness: 473cd/m²
  • Contrast: 1,342:1
  • sRGB coverage: 98%
  • Delta E: average 2.62, max 5.65 (Delta E measures colour accuracy; closer to zero the better, less than 1.5 is a good score)

READ NEXT: Still want a keyboard? Then take a look at the Cosmo Communicator

About the author

Tim Danton

Tim Danton is editor-in-chief of PC Pro magazine and has written about technology since 1999. He enjoys playing with gadgets, playing with words and playing tennis. Email tim@bigtechquestion.com

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