BlackBerry Key2 LE Review: GREAT Design, But Do You Want Physical Keys Again?

by

Spread the love

Whenever we review a new BlackBerry phone it is customary to mention that for a great many people, the company is a relic from the past; a fallen giant from that period before the iPhone came along and changed the design of smartphones forever. Despite this, it’s worth noting that BlackBerry remains a force within the mobile industry, even if it is a shadow of its former self.

By removing itself from hardware manufacturing (all BlackBerry devices are now outsourced to TCL Corporation, the same company that makes Alcatel and Thomson’s phone these days) and concentrating instead on the software side of things, BlackBerry (formerly known as RIM) has managed to emerge from its financial troubles with renewed vigour and focus; another part of this plan is the shift from is own software to Google’s Android OS, which opens up access to a massive ecosystem of apps and of course means that the company doesn’t have to worry about creating and maintaining an entire OS.

Despite the fact that most punters on the street don’t even know that BlackBerry phones are still a thing, there has been a string of new blowers bearing the famous logo, and the BlackBerry Key2 LE is the latest. Based on the popular BlackBerry Key2, the ‘LE’ might make you assume that this is somehow an upgrade, when in fact it’s more likely to denote ‘Light Edition’. Almost everything has been cut back on this model so that BlackBerry is able to hit a lower price point (the Key2 was around £600, whereas this unit is closer to £400).

Do all of these cutbacks mean this is a handset to avoid, or will it bring the famous BlackBerry magic to a wider audience? Let’s find out.

BlackBerry Key2 LE Review: Design

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44019″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

Aside from the slightly different colour options (grey, gold and red), you’d be forgiven for assuming that the Key2 LE is the exact same design as the original Key2. However, there are some key differences this time around; the metal frame has been replaced by a cheaper polycarbonate one, which has different speaker / microphone grilles on the bottom. This makes the device feel even lighter than the Key2.

On the back, there’s a rubberised texture which makes the phone easy to grip (we prefer it to the pattern on the original Key2), complete with that iconic logo and the dual-camera setup. On the top edge you’ll find the 3.5mm headphone socket, while the bottom has the USB Type-C port. The left-hand side is home to the dual SIM tray, while the right-hand side has the volume rocker, power / unlock button and the famous ‘Convenience Key’, which can now be configured to open any app you wish – we set it to Google Assistant. The buttons are all metal, despite the fact that the frame is now plastic.

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44020″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

It’s only when you look at the front of the Key2 LE that it becomes clear this is a BlackBerry device, and that it’s quite unlike any other Android or iPhone on the market right now. Physical keyboards may have been part of Google’s plan in the early days – lest we forget the HTC Dream, Motorola Droid and Motorola DEXT – but in 2018 the idea of having buttons for text input seems positively archaic. At a time when companies are falling over themselves to give their phones larger screens with almost invisible bezels, BlackBerry has taken the opposite route and presented a device which has a smaller-than-average display, huge bezels and a massive keyboard at the bottom.

Despite all of this, the Key2 LE still looks elegant and appealing; the keyboard is thin enough to allow the screen to dominate the front of the phone, but large enough to prove useful (more on that in a second). From a pure design perspective, we couldn’t help but fall a little bit in love with it. The mixture of rounded edges and sharp, 90-degree right-angles looks fantastic; this is a phone that catches the eye no matter how you look at it. It’s also relatively compact and pocket-friendly, especially for an Android device in 2018.

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44021″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

The plastic frame is likely to take punishment better than an easily-scratched metal one, and the rubberised back means you might be able to get away with not putting a bulky case on this blower, if you’re brave. To be honest, the Key2 LE feels so nice to hold, covering it up seems almost wrong somehow.

It’s worth noting that there’s no water or dust resistance on this phone – something we probably shouldn’t expect for a mid-range device, but a shame regardless.

BlackBerry Key2 LE Review: Display

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44022″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

One aspect of the Key2 LE that hasn’t changed from the original Key2 is the screen. It’s the same 4.5-inch 1620×1080 pixel IPS panel with that odd 3:2 aspect ratio, a side-effect of having a physical keyboard. Initially, it seems like it doesn’t cause that much of a headache; most apps run perfectly well and the screen is sharp enough to carry plenty of detail. It can look a little on the dull side when compared to an OLED panel, but brightness and contrast are generally good.

However, after a while the shortcomings of having such a truncated display in an era of super-wide 18:9 screens become obvious; most apps are designed to work on tallers screens and in some – like Instagram and Pokemon GO – part of the screen is actually cut off. This means you have to scroll to take in the whole picture, which is a bit of a headache. When you’re watching things like YouTube and Netflix, the issue is perhaps worse; because of the odd aspect ratio most 16:9-formatted video has ugly black borders at the top and the bottom.

Given that there are a set of capacitive buttons at the bottom of the screen – and taking into account the pronounced bezel at the top – it’s a shame that more effort wasn’t made to expand this screen; it potentially could have been taller, for sure. Granted, the LE is supposed to be the cut-price version of the Key2 so expecting sweeping design changes is perhaps unwise, but by making the display slightly taller BlackBerry could have solved one of the biggest issues with this handset. As it stands, having a 3:2 ratio screen on a smartphone in 2018 isn’t a disaster, but it certainly isn’t perfect, either.

BlackBerry Key2 LE Review: Keyboard

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44023″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

The keyboard on the Key2 LE remains largely unchanged from the one seen on the original device, which is a good thing; it’s tactile and responsive. The biggest change is that there are raised plastic bars which run down each row, which makes it easier to ‘find’ keys with your fingers and means you’re less likely to accidentally press two keys at the same time. As before, the fingerprint scanner is located on the ‘Space’ key, and is both fast and accurate, considering how small it is.

Given that the rest of the mobile industry has given up on the keyboard, does it really stand up in 2018, where swipe-based text input and predictive software enable us to type at alarmingly fast speeds? Coming from a Samsung Galaxy S9+ with Gboard installed, I found the Key2 LE was something of a mixed bag in this regard; I was definitely slower with physical keys to begin with, but I made less mistakes than I did on my Galaxy S9+. After a few days, typing felt like second nature, and while I’m not sure I could hit the input speeds I achieve on my Samsung phone, the tactile nature of the experience did give me some ‘nostalgia feels’.

If you love the feel of real buttons then the Key2 LE is something of a no-brainer in this respect; outside of BlackBerry devices, you don’t really have any other options right now. However, seasoned touchscreen addicts might not see the benefit, especially when you take into account the fact that so much of the phone’s front is taken up by buttons.

BlackBerry Key2 LE Review: Software & Performance

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44024″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

Back in the old days, BlackBerry owners prided themselves on the fact that the software powering their handset was powerful, versatile and secure; these points – combined with the iconic keyboard – made BlackBerry phones the solid choice for serious business-types.

Since the shift to Android, that focus has changed somewhat. There are still loads of exclusive apps that are super-useful – such as BlackBerry Messenger, DTEK, BlackBerry Hub and a comprehensive power management suite – but the real news is that you can use any Android application to replace these core BlackBerry programs. In fact, you can disable all of BlackBerry’s default apps and use Google’s options instead, if you want to.

Before we get onto that, it’s worth looking at the unique apps which are actually useful. BlackBerry Hub takes all of your messages, emails and alerts and places them in a single timeline, giving you a much broader view of your mobile world. It’s a clean and functional app which will be a godsend to those who have multiple email accounts and social media profiles, but it can become a little overwhelming at times – and you’ll also want to disable notifications on all your other apps unless you want duplicate alerts all the time.

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44025″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

BlackBerry Messenger may seem less appealing in the age of WhatsApp and iMessage, but it still has its uses – even if less people are using it now than ever before. BlackBerry Locker is a neat app which secures things like photos, apps and other files behind password-based security. In a neat touch, you can take locker-enabled photos by pressing the Space key right from the camera app itself.

Outside of a few core apps, BlackBerry has opted for a largely stock experience here, which means Android purists will find a lot to like. The phone is running Android 8.1 out of the box, which isn’t the most up-to-date version – that’s Android Pie – but is perfectly fine. The ability to create clone versions of apps is also welcome – you can run two versions of the same app with different login details.

In terms of performance, the decision to drop from the Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 seen in the Key2 to the weaker Snapdragon 636 is one that will leave a bad taste in the mouths of many. Aided by just 4GB of RAM, this octa-core chipset isn’t in the same league as the Snapdragon 845 which powers the vast majority of Android flagships this year; while it’s more efficient when it comes to power consumption, it struggles when there’s a lot of activity taking place at the same time. The 4GB of RAM is also a problem; within a day of use we got a warning message saying that the phone was running low on available memory, something we hadn’t seen on an Android device in years.

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44026″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

Before this sounds like a doom and gloom situation, it’s worth noting that in the vast majority of situations, the Key2 LE feels fast and responsive – the issue seems to be when there are loads of things happening in tandem. A device like the Galaxy S9+ would simply shake this off by virtue of its faster processor and increased RAM, but the Key2 LE slows down when it reaches a choke point, and this can occasionally impact the user experience. If speed is a concern then you may be better off opting for the original Key2, which has a slightly beefier processor.

In terms of benchmarks, the Key2 LE scored 116416 on Antutu. In Geekbench 4, it managed a single-core score of 1343 and a multi-core score of 4917. Those are blistering numbers when compared to the flagship competition, but in the mid-range sector of the market, they’re perfectly adequate.

BlackBerry Key2 LE Review: Battery & Memory

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44027″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

The Key2 LE has a 3000mAh battery, which means you’re losing 500mAh when compared to the original Key2. To be honest, we didn’t really notice much of a difference in terms of stamina, because the Snapdragon 636 is more power efficient. Enough juice is supplied to get you through an average working day; we even managed to make it home in the evening with around 30 percent to spare on one occasion, which doesn’t happen often with smartphones these days.

Quick charging is present and blisteringly fast – even more so than the quick charging on our Galaxy S9+ – but there’s no wireless charging, which isn’t that much of a shock, given the price point of this device.

Our review unit comes with 64GB of storage, of which should be more than enough for most users. If you desire more room then you can slot in a microSD up to 256GB in capacity.

BlackBerry Key2 LE Review: Camera

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44028″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

At first glance it looks like the Key2 LE has retained the exact same photographic setup as the original Key2, but closer inspection of the handset’s specs reveals this isn’t quite true. Yes, there’s a dual camera configuration on the rear, but we’re not getting a like-for-like situation here at all.

On the Key2, both cameras were 12-megapixel snappers, with the secondary camera offering x2 optical zoom. This time around, the main sensor is 13-megapixel, but the second camera is a 5-megapixel variant which is used mainly for depth information.

This means you can’t take zoomed-in shots but it should – on paper, at least – make for more convincing ‘bokeh’ portrait mode images. In practice, things aren’t quite as positive as you might assume, but the Key2 LE does seem to do a slightly better job of blurring out backgrounds than the Key2. It still gets a little confused when you’re shooting objects with holes in (check out the photo of the railings below to see what we mean) but on the whole, it’s relatively successful.

Sadly, low-light shooting is a real pain (as it was on the Key2) and shutter speed is sometimes less-than-impressive. Still, when you have decent light the Key2 LE is capable of producing good images with loads of detail, plenty of punch and good contrast. Video tops out at 4K / 30fps, which is decent.

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44029″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44030″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44031″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”465″,”width”:”620″}}]]

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44032″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”465″,”width”:”620″}}]]

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44033″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

BlackBerry Key2 LE Review: Conclusion

The Key2 LE is a tricky phone to review, because while it’s cheaper than the original Key2 and introduces a lot of new things we like, it’s definitely a step backwards in a lot of respects, and doesn’t do enough to fix the issues we had with the older model. A taller screen would have worked wonders here, for example.

The weaker processor can cause some performance bottlenecks, and the loss of optical zoom on the secondary camera is a shame, but when you consider the price being asked for this device – and the fact that with its physical keyboard, it scratches an itch no other smartphone can reach right now – it’s easier to forgive its faults. Add in an excellent suite of apps and a mostly stock Android UI and the Key2 LE becomes easier to recommend. We’re also head over heels in love with the design, too – that revised textured rear panel makes it comfortable to hold, and it’s refreshing to see so much functionality being packed into a device which still manages to slip effortlessly into your pocket.

[[{“type”:”media”,”view_mode”:”content_full_width”,”fid”:”44034″,”attributes”:{“alt”:””,”class”:”media-image”,”height”:”413″,”width”:”620″}}]]

Will the Key2 LE start a physical keyboard-based revolution? Perhaps not, and we’re still not entirely sure keys need to make a comeback, given how good text input is on modern, big-screen smartphones. Even so, it’s nice to have the option there, and if you’re a longtime BlackBerry supporter who simply wants a phone which brings back warm memories of the good old days, then this is well worth a look.

Comments
You might also like...