Hands on: BlackBerry Key2 review

Keyboard fans get an updated BlackBerry

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

With the BlackBerry Key2, TCL improves the performance, tweaks the design and adds a better camera. It's shaping up to be a solid phone for keyboard enthusiasts.

For

  • Improved keyboard for better typing
  • Android 8.1 out of the box
  • Strong enterprise software

Against

  • Limited appeal- it's for keyboard fans
  • Pricey for the specs

The BlackBerry KeyOne released last year proved to be more successful than TCL had anticipated. According to the company, it was officially released in more markets that originally planned (over 50) and sold more than twice as much over the original forecasts. 

Thus, it's not surprising to see the BlackBerry Key2 being announced today with tons of upgrades and improvements over the original. Everything from the keyboard to the cameras and the internals have been swapped out with newer components. 

The design has also been tweaked to make the phone appear more modern with a thinner and lighter profile. Hopefully, TCL has also sorted any construction quality issues with screens popping out that plagued some of the KeyOne models.

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

BlackBerry Key2 price and release date

The BlackBerry Key2 will come in two configurations- a 64GB model and a 128GB model. In the Middle East, the 64GB model will cost AED 2,399 / SAR 2,399 (US$ 650) and be available in silver while the 128GB model will go on sale for AED 2,699 / SAR 2,699 (US$ 735) and be available in black.

Although the silver version comes out better in pictures, during our hands-on with the device, the all stealth black was clearly our favorite. 

TCL is expecting the phones to be on store shelves in the second half of June which will certainly shorten the time between the announcement and availability compared to the original KeyOne.

BlackBerry Key2 keyboard

Though the BlackBerry KeyOne featured a good keyboard, TCL has worked on improving the keyboard on the BlackBerry Key2 to make it easier to type on and at the same time, given it a refreshed design. And there is a new key to boost productivity.

You'll immediately notice that the Key2 has a matte finish on the keyboard compared to the glossy version found on the KeyOne. This makes it easier for your thumbs to stick on keys when typing quickly which should result in fewer mistakes.

 Also missing are the raised frets between the rows with the frame of the phone acting as a separator - very much like the BlackBerry Passport. Also worth pointing is that the frame of the device is now construction using Series 7 aluminium for a cleaner look that's also stronger. 

TCL has also increased the height of the keys by 20% well as the key travel which makes typing on the Key2 easier than it was on the BlackBerry KeyOne. You can also use the keyboard to scroll through pages by lightly gliding your fingers over the keys.

During our hands on time with the Key2 scrolling web pages and contacts lists wasn't as smooth as using our finger on the touchscreen, however, TCL did mention that we were using a pre-production device with beta software. 

Like the BlackBerry KeyOne, the fingerprint sensor is neatly tucked into the keyboard’s space bar and is quick to unlock the phone.

New to the BlackBerry Key2 is the Speed Key which, when pressed in conjunction with any other key, allows you launch any app, contact someone from your address book or access a shortcut that you've programmed. 

This lets you to bypass Android's home screen and directly move from one app to another app or action. Over time, you'll be switching apps or contacting people like a Ninja with this feature.

BlackBerry Key2 interface and performance

One of the complains many owners of the BlackBerry KeyOne have is the lack of Android updates. While BlackBerry Mobile has been good with providing monthly security updates, the KeyOne is still on Android 7.0 Nougat.

While we can't guarantee on how things will proceed with Android updates for BlackBerry Key2, it does come with the latest official release of Android out of the box which is Android 8.1 Oreo. 

BlackBerry Mobile adds it's launcher on top of that which, while being minimal and quick, is starting to look a bit dated. For example, the app draw is still an icon press away, even though Android supports a swipe up gesture to view your apps. 

The BlackBerry Key2 is powered by the the Snapdragon 660 chip and 6GB of RAM - which is a first for BlackBerry. We've seen this processor on the Nokia 7 Plus and it performs well so expect the Key2 to be rather zippy.

There's 64 or 128GB of storage housed inside the Key2, and that can be expanded via the microSD slot on the phone. The phones releasing in the Middle East have a hybrid tray that allows you to either use the MicroSD or dual SIM cards.

There's also a 3500mAh battery inside the Key2 which is on par with the KeyOne so expect great battery life. We haven't had a chance to test out the battery yet and you'll have to wait for our review to find more on that but TCL is suggesting two days.

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BlackBerry Key2 display and design

The BlackBerry Key2 has the same 4.5-inch touchscreen with the odd 1620x1080 resolution. To accommodate the larger keyboard without increasing the size of the phone, TCL has reduced the bezels and pushed the screen a bit higher on the Key2.

This makes the Key2 look more modern in design compared to the original though there is some room for improvement. TCL could push for smaller bezels and get rid of the capacitive but fixed Android navigation keys - yes, they're still there. TCL should shift to onscreen buttons like every other Android phone manufacturer to gain some more screen estate.

To clean things up and to make it easier for users switching from other phones, TCL has thankfully move the power/lock key from the left of the phone to the right and given it a textured finish to distinguish it from the convenience key which sits below it and the volume keys that sit above it.

The convenience key can now be programmed to launch three of your favorite apps or actions, which, combined with the new Speed key helps get things done faster.

TCL has also changed the finish on the rear of the phone providing a lot more grip which will help keep the phone in your hands, pockets and steady on surfaces.

Early verdict

The BlackBerry KeyOne was a decent phone that sold well and based on our initial tests, it appears that TCL has put in reasonable effort to justify the update. 

The BlackBerry Key2 has better specs making it faster with more storage and a refined design that looks more classy and sits better in your hands. While cameras have never been a strong point for BlackBerry, there is now a dual camera setup with 2X zoom on the Key2. We'll test that out once we receive the unit for review.

TCL is raising the price for the Key2 and it now costs right about the same as the OnePlus 6 which features much higher specs. However, the Key2 has a great keyboard that you just don't get on any other Android phone.

Granted that there aren't many looking for a physical keyboard anymore, those that still like that will find the Key2 to be a great phone that has a lot more to offer that the typing experience they crave.

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.