Every phone hitting the market seems to need a gimmick to stand out from the crowd. Whether it be a notch, moving cameras or a stylus, each tries to throw in a feature they hope will win customers over.
TCL, which owns the license to manufacture BlackBerry Mobile phones, already has this feature in the brand’s signature physical keyboard which many pine for either out of nostalgia for BlackBerry’s heyday or that satisfying typing experience.
Those people, however, will be disappointed once they get their hands on the KEY2 – the latest phone to try and marry that keyboard with a modern Android ecosystem and a few other present-day specs.
But before we get to that lets start with the keyboard. Does the physical keyboard on the KEY2 give you a better tactile experience compared to an on-screen keyboard? Yes. Is it better in any other way? No, not at all.
It’s a bit disorientating using this keyboard in the beginning as you miss out on all those features you would have on the screen. To the KEY2’s credit, it has a very clever system to replace some of this functionality as the entire keyboard is sensitive to swipes. You can use this to accomplish a lot but it still feels inferior to a screen.
This, combined with a frustrating grid layout, actually made us want to type less.
The poor typing experience is the cause of this phone’s other huge weakness too: a tiny screen. At just 4.5 inches doing anything with that small amount of real estate is an absolute chore. Even communicating with other people – something this phone is supposed to excel at – quickly becomes frustrating as the various text boxes and messaging apps are squashed right at the top of the device.
Content consumption is even worse. Regular 16 X 9 videos have letterboxes making them even smaller on this screen. Many other apps are also tedious because they were not programmed with this type of screen in mind, so for every app that works well (Excel was great here) you will find many more that will leave you wanting.
The only benefit of this tiny screen is the phone’s battery life. While the 3 500mAh battery here isn’t outstandingly large, because it needs to drive such a small display you will see very impressive life out of a single charge. In fact, if you’re careful you can eke out two days worth of use, but that obviously depends on what you’re doing.
It was a flashback to years gone by where we can use a device throughout the day and still have around 50% battery left. Whether we were using the phone less because of the aforementioned problems is a discussion for another day.
The last big draw here is a dual camera, which is the first time such a setup has been seen on a Blackberry. This too fails to impress with images we found to be overblown with fuzzy edges around objects. It’s usable, sure, but it’s far behind the pack.
All of this is a shame, really, because the other hardware packed inside here is actually very competent. The 6GB of RAM paired with the Qualcomm SDM660 gets the job done and provides a snappy experience overall. In our synthetic benchmarks (AnTuTu and PCMark) the KEY2 scored 140 957 and 6 523 respectively, which is respectable but not outstanding.
This is all packed inside a body that feels high quality with a pleasant textured back that we wish more phones had. It even has a programmable, physical button on the right side which just reminded us how much we loathed the fixed Bixby button on the recent Note 9.
But aside from those bright spots we really struggled to enjoy our time with the KEY2. Looking past the great build quality and decent performance, we’re just happy that it exists in the present day for the sake of consumer choice. Outside of that, however, we cannot recommend it at all.
It’s not that the KEY2 is heinously bad, it’s just got dozens of irritations and bad design choices that stack up over time.
If you always have been a BlackBerry fan you probably already have this phone, and anyone else looking for a physical typing experience should instead look at a keyboard case. The latter is a much cheaper gamble to see if this way of typing is something you still want in your life, and we’re willing to bet that the majority of people will work out that it’s not for them and return to screen typing with open arms.