There was a time (circa 2007) when almost every person in South Africa either owned, or wanted to own a BlackBerry. If you didn’t, you’re probably a teenager or living under an Apple tree. Thereafter, things went awry for BB, as they had for Nokia. BlackBerry never went away, but they did shift their high-end phones from their own OS to Android, and clung to the physical keyboard for loyalists.
The latest offering from what was once Canada’s third most famous export (after Celine Dion and Bryan Adams) is a fascinating piece of tech. Called the Key2, it’s a slimmer, sleeker version of the BlackBerry KeyOne that preceded it, and features the same physical keyboard (obviously). We’ll get into more of the details below, but if you think there’s no market for these bad boys, you’re mistaken: we had a few people working for other titles in Stuff Towers asking to play with the Key2 (though, granted, none of them were under 40). Mass market? Nope. But a niche product that’s worth a look if physical keyboards are your thing? For sure.
Design: Not as Bold
You might do a double-take, because this smartphone resembles the previous KeyOne device in almost every way — it’s just got an improved keyboard along with some other similarly subtle updates you might not notice at first. The keyboard shares the front with a 4.5in display, which makes for a weird aspect ratio.
The BlackBerry Key2 is thinner and lighter than the KeyOne, and weighs in at 168g. At 8.5mm thick, it feels comfortable in the hand, like a conventional smartphone these days should.
It doesn’t seem BlackBerry is very concerned with conventional smartphone attire. It has decided to wrap the sides with aluminium, while the back is a diamond-bevelled soft touch plastic. Many might disagree, but we quite like the textured back — it’s definitely more practical when placed on smooth surfaces. We just wish the camera didn’t protrude. If it didn’t, we’d probably be willing to skip putting a case on the Key2.
The BlackBerry Key2 screen is not really on par with other smartphone design trends, because the surrounding bezels aren’t ultra-slim. It has separate light-up soft keys and, obviously, relatively little of the front is taken up by the display compared to the likes of an iPhone or a Galaxy device. And speaking of the screen, it’s IPS LCD (no OLED here) with a 3:2 aspect ration and a resolution of 1,080 x 1,620.
It’s sharp and vivid, but it’s definitely not designed for consuming media. Playing games on this aspect ratio is also very strange, and you definitely don’t want to watch Netflix, as it shrinks down the video for a better fit. If you play back a 16:9 movie, you’ll see black bars (letterboxing) above and below the image, which makes the already small screen seem even smaller.
That said, the BlackBerry Key2 is still perfectly happy to play video on Facebook and Instagram, and casual games played in portrait aspect play just fine. Just because the display is a bit off while gaming doesn’t mean that games don’t run well. The Key2 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 CPU, which is a mid-range processor that’s enough to run just about everything decently.
Most BlackBerry users aren’t expected to be trying to rock Fortnite on their Key2. Instead, they’re likely to be perusing emails and documents, and to this end we’ve got no complaints… aside from the fact that the combo of touchscreen and physical keyboard took a lot of getting used to. But then, that’s just because we’re not used to physical keyboards anymore.
Performance and features: Not missing BIOS
If anything, the BlackBerry Key2 was designed with someone who wants convenience in mind — and we don’t want to limit that to businesspeople, like BB used to do in its marketing campaigns. It’s ideal for anyone who enjoys organising, multitasking and typing on a real keyboard. And all that in Android, mind you.
Talking about the keyboard — the BlackBerry Key2 has a fingerprint scanner built right into the spacebar, and the keys are all touch-sensitive, which kinda makes the display real-estate that it loses more usable.
The keyboard can be used as a trackpad, and allows you to scroll up and down menus and articles with a light brush across the top of the keys. Each key can also be programmed for a certain shortcut — which is ideal for shortcut-obsessed multitaskers, assuming they can remember what they’ve assigned to each key.
It is the BlackBerry Hub software that might prove useful for these obsessive get-stuff-done types. Flick from the side of the screen and a neat display of tabs for your calendar, emails and daily tasks appear. There’s also the full Hub app at your service, which gathers all your messages and accounts into one space — like Gmail, SMS, WhatsApp and Facebook.
The BlackBerry Key2 also has a built-in speaker that is surprisingly solid — just about loud enough, and not harsh at max volume. And pleasingly there’s a headphone jack, with some bundled headphones included in the box.
There’s a 3500mAh battery powering the Key2, which means it should keep up with the age-old BlackBerry tradition of being a long-lasting device, especially as we don’t reckon you’ll be watching much video or doing other excessively battery hungry things with it. Unless you have an Instagram addiction that is, but then at least there’s fast-charging, which should get your battery up to 100% in under two hours.
Camera: Not bad for a berry
No one bought a BlackBerry for its camera, and that’s still true today. Yeah, you will get decent pictures from it, but it’s by no means competing with the likes of the Huawei P20 Pro or the Samsung Galaxy Note 9.
The back of the Key2 is fitted with two 12MP camera sensors, one a standard, the other a 2x zoom.
Image quality of the zoom camera is a lot worse than its neighbour. They may have the same resolution, but the sensors and lenses are totally different. That said, in good lighting the Key2 does take some great shots.
It doesn’t have the clever dynamic range tweaking you’d get on other smartphones, which could leave you with overexposed highlights and too-dark shadowy parts. Night shots are pretty bad, so you’ll have to allow the flash in some cases.
The BlackBerry Key2 can shoot video at up to 4K (and at 30fps), but without any stabilisation, which you only get at up to 1080p (and 30fps). We don’t expect mobile videographers will opt for a BB, and well-groomed business folk probably don’t need 4K video footage, so that’s hardly a dealbreaker.
Blackberry Key2 Verdict
If you’re looking to play Fortnite on mobile, the Key2’s not for you. If you want to binge offline series on Netflix, it’s also not for you. But if you want to finally sort out your e-life, its might just be the device for you. If you miss BlackBerry keyboards, you’ll probably love the BlackBerry Key2. We know you (and people like you) exist. We just don’t encounter that many of them. And trust us, we’ve asked around.
BlackBerry has tried to squeeze every bit of use out of the keyboard, meaning it can be a control centre for the whole phone if you’d like. As that’s the Key2’s defining feature, we can’t fault BB on its attempts to make it not just a solid physical keyboard, but a highly capable one that outdoes anything like it. But with the Key2 priced at R13,000, we’re suspect many potential buyers will opt for one of the other options in that price range (like the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 or the Apple iPhone 8 Plus, for example). For the Key2 to win you over you’ve really got to want that keyboard.