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BlackBerry Key2 review: Strictly for keyboard die-hards

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I didn't write this review on a BlackBerry Key2. But I wanted to. My thumbs were too sore to let me.

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7.2

BlackBerry Key2

The Good

The BlackBerry Key2 improves on the KeyOne across the board. Outdoor daytime photos are crisp and bright, and portrait mode works well. Keyboard shortcuts that open other apps are fantastic, as is a programmable convenience key. Battery life is excellent.

The Bad

Despite larger buttons, the Key2's QWERTY keyboard still feels cramped. The Key2 is laggy, and suffers from weak low light photography and capacitive navigation buttons that get in the way.

The Bottom Line

If you rely on an older BlackBerry phone, the BlackBerry Key2 is a worthy upgrade, but it will frustrate people switching from all-touch phones, despite some winning extras.

I thought that after switching my SIM card over to the Key2 -- BlackBerry Mobile's second attempt at creating a modern Android phone with a physical QWERTY keyboard --  I'd regain my old knack for typing on a physical keyboard. I used to love those things.

But after using the Key2 for absolutely everything for more than a week, my thumbs ache, I feel hobbled and slow, and the work of pressing additional buttons for punctuation makes me weary to the core.

BlackBerry Key2 changes everything

See all photos

That's a glum beginning for a phone with fantastic battery life and genuinely smart ideas, like keyboard shortcuts, a dedicated shortcuts button on the side of the phone and widgets that are built into your screen icons. Plus, there's a new "Speed Key" that helps you open the shortcut app no matter which screen you're on. The space bar doubles as a fingerprint reader (though I had some problems with accuracy) and there's a productivity tab that shows your calendar appointments and weather at-a-glance.

The Key2 also drastically improves last year's KeyOne from nose to tail in almost every way, from the size and shape of the keyboard buttons to the dual cameras on the back -- a first for BlackBerry devices.

But there are unignorable problem areas, like the fact that apps tend to lag when they load, and some apps trigger a virtual keyboard, like Gmail, which stacks the soft keyboard on top of the phone's hardware keyboard, with little screen space left over. The phone's touch screen didn't always respond as it should have, so I sometimes tapped the same area multiple times.

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Check out that classic BlackBerry logo.

Josh Miller/CNET

When it all boils down, the Key2 isn't the phone for most; it certainly isn't the phone for me. But BlackBerry fans like Susan, the lovely woman who owns a frame shop in San Francisco and squealed in delight when she saw the Key2 in my hand, will get an upgraded experience over older models like the BlackBerry Passport she uses.

Longtime BlackBerry fans who love the accuracy and physicality of pressing down on real keys will also embrace the Key2. But I hope BlackBerry Mobile will have worked out the kinks by the time we see next year's Key3.

The BlackBerry Key2 goes on sale July 13 and preorders begin June 29. It sells for $649 and £579. The US price converts to roughly AU$847.

BlackBerry Key2 keyboard: Is it any good?

Good stuff first. The Key2 buttons improve on last year's KeyOne. They're 20 percent taller, easier to grip, and better separated than before. Keyboard shortcuts are the phone's best feature. You can customize up to 52 apps or tasks to load when you short-press or long-press a key. It's truly terrific.

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A close look a that new Speed Key.

Josh Miller/CNET

Unfortunately, when it comes to typing on the Key2, I'm all thumbs. This is as far as I got writing notes about the Key2 using the notes app and the QWERTY keyboard:

  • Thumbs hurt

  • I don't want to text a lot

  • Sometimes I have to manually tap the text field to place the cursor. Doesn't always populate the first available text field*

  • Touch screen doesn't seem uniformly responsive

  • I keep pressing the capacitive home button and the target keeps registering on the screen just above the button - boo

  • Everything feels slower. Navigation; switching apps

  • Miss an always on display

  • Like that there's a built in file folder

*The phone is supposed to let you double-press the space bar to place the cursor in a field, but that didn't ever work for me.

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Typing on the Key2: you'll either love it or you'll hate it.

Josh Miller/CNET

I should mention that as a phone reviewer, sore thumbs are already a hazard of my job, where I probably spend more time smacking my fingers against a hard glass surface than the average person. I was surprised at how much the Key2's physical keyboard exacerbated the issue.

I also felt slow, especially as I remember being a fast, precise typist on a BlackBerry keyboard like the iconic BlackBerry Bold. The Key2's keyboard still feels cramped despite the larger buttons. But since people want their phones to be narrow, the Key2's QWERTY arrangement can get taller, but probably not much wider without the phone getting wider, too.

My hands are on the smaller side, so I didn't have problems finding keys. It was more that to type with the accurate capitalizations, numbers and punctuation, I had to break the flow to reach for the Shift and Alt keys. If you accidentally double-tap Alt, for example, you're stuck typing a long string of senseless punctuation marks until you realize your mistake. (:*( 4_9'4. <-- Yes, that's a real thing I typed.

The Key2's keyboard is touch-sensitive, which means you can swipe it to scroll; this works fine from side-to-side, but vertical scrolling, like on a web page, was often slow. You're supposed to also be able to flick up on the physical keyboard to select predictive text. I found that in apps with a virtual keyboard enabled, I had to swipe the virtual keyboard instead. The cursor sometimes appeared in the middle of a word (instead of at the end) without me realizing it. 

The fact that most of today's apps aren't made for physical keys means you'll often see the virtual keyboard pop up on screen anyway, which blocks your view of the app, with no way to hide the digital keyboard.

BlackBerry Key2 design, camera, speed, battery life, everything else

And what about the rest of the phone? BlackBerry Mobile deserves a high-five for updating almost every part of the Key2's physical design and hardware internals. The phone runs Android 8.1 Oreo, but in terms of the software and layout, the Key2 looks and feels just like the KeyOne, which ran on Android Nougat 7.1.

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Berry Creek Falls, taken on the BlackBerry Key2.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Much improved design

Classier looks: Compared to the KeyOne, the BlackBerry Key2 is much more refined, with straight sides and more sophisticated-looking side buttons and accents. The phone bucks trends and keeps a rubberized backing. It isn't as fancy as glass, but it doesn't accrue fingerprints and I never once worried I'd drop it.

Convenience key (aka the phone's third side button): You can set this up to float shortcut icons for up to three apps on your screen. I set up Calendar, Flashlight, and Compose a Gmail message. You  can also use this button to switch to a new a profile, like your work profile. This is best for actions you use often, or easily want to get to without having to scrounge your mind. 

Speed Key: The 9-dot button you press to launch a shortcut from any screen. It's a good solution, but apps can take time to load. Things get confusing here, so bear with me. You press this button before pressing your shortcut key 1) any time that you're invoking a long-press action, and 2) any time you're invoking a short-press action from a screen other than the home screen.

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The BlackBerry Key2's convenience key gives you three customizable actions with the press of a button.

Josh Miller/CNET

If you're on the home screen, you don't need to press the Speed Key to launch a short-press action. For example, Just press F for Facebook. For a long press action, press the Speed Key and then press and hold F.

Fingerprint reader: Lives in the space bar. It didn't always unlock with my thumb the first time. Registering the thumbprint twice helps.

Major problem: When I tapped the capacitive Home button that lives above the QWERTY keyboard, I often hit the lower part of the screen instead, which routinely opened things I didn't want opened.

Software and apps

Battery Meter: A green (or yellow) line sometimes runs along the BlackBerry Key2's right side. This is a visual battery meter, which is on by default. But I found it jarring. You can also read your remaining percentage by pulling down on the notifications shade, but not at a glance.

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Setting up keyboard shortcuts is kind of fun.

Josh Miller/CNET

Productivity tab: A pull-out productivity tab you can swipe open from any screen shows you your calendar, messages, widgets (like the weather) and recent calls. I didn't use this much.

Widgets: Some apps have three dots underneath their icons. That means you can swipe up to see a widget, like for your text messages, Gmail inbox, or social messages.

Private locker: Store apps, photos and documents in a password- or fingerprint-protected folder. It also includes Firefox's Focus Browser, a private browser that deletes your browsing history when you close it.

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The Key2 is the first BlackBerry phone to have two rear cameras.

Sarah Tew/CNET

No always-on display: I miss having an always-on display that you find on phones like the Samsung Galaxy S9, LG G7 and others. I was annoyed that I had to double-tap the screen to get the time.

BlackBerry Apps: BlackBerry Hub, BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and BlackBerry DTek come preinstalled. Hub is a unified inbox for all your text and social media messages, email, phone calls and calendar appointments. This is far too noisy for my tastes, but there are longtime BlackBerry users who swear by it. BlackBerry Messenger is a messaging network for Blackberry owners. DTek will track your data privacy and device security.

Dual-rear camera, selfies and portrait mode

Dual 12-megapixel cameras on the back of the Key2 take clean, crisp and colorful photos when there's plenty of light around.

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The Key2 takes great photos in broad daylight.

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Portrait mode worked nicely in my test shots, but you won't have control over background blur or extra lighting modes.

Low light photos struggle with muddied detail and flat colors.

Selfies taken from the 8-megapixel camera were usable, but not as even in tone as selfies taken on other phones, like the Galaxy S9.

What else? There's a manual mode, HDR and filters, but you won't find buckets of photo features, like skin-softening beauty mode, for example (I'm personally ok with that, but I know others who swear by this feature).

Speed and performance

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This was the best of three attempts.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

For basic navigation (opening apps, scrolling through home screens), the BlackBerry Key2's Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processor is just fine, but a little slower than phones using the top-tier Snapdragon 845 chipset.

Opening apps with the speed key can take a little longer (especially if the app isn't in your Recents list). Opening an app with a long-press takes longer still.

Performance results on benchmark tests like Geekbench 4 and 3D Mark's Slingshot Unlimited and Ice Storm Unlimited were about half that of the Snapdragon 845. The Key2 was never a phone for gamers; it's best to stick with less demanding games like Candy Crush.

Battery life

Battery life is excellent: The Key2 ran 18 hours on a single charge in our looping video drain test in airplane mode. BlackBerry Mobile promises two-day battery life, but if you stream a lot of music or directions, or use your phone as a mobile hotspot during your commute, expect to charge once per day. The Key2 can get hot to the touch, but not uncomfortably so.

BlackBerry Key2 unboxing: Here's what you get

  • BlackBerry Key2 phone in black or silver

  • SIM card ejector tool

  • Charging brick

  • USB-C to USB-A charging cable

  • In-ear wired headset with BlackBerry logo

BlackBerry Key2 specs vs. Xperia XZ2 Compact, OnePlus 6 and LG G7 ThinQ


Blackberry Key2Sony Xperia XZ2 CompactOnePlus 6LG G7 ThinQ
Display size, resolution 4.5-inch LCD; 1,680x1,080 pixels5-inch; 1,080x2,160 pixels6.28-inch OLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels6.1-inch IPS LCD; 3,120 x 1,440 pixels
Pixel density 434ppi483ppi402ppi563ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.96x2.82x0.33 inches5.31x2.56x0.48 inches6.13x2.97x0.31 inches6x2.8x0.31 inches
Dimensions (Millimeters) 151.4x71.8x8.5 mm135x65x12.1 mm155.7x75.4x7.75 mm153.2x71.9x7.9 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.3 oz; 151g5.93 oz; 168g6.2 oz; 177g5.7 oz; 162g
Mobile software Android 8.1 Oreo Android 8.0 OreoAndroid 8.1 OreoAndroid 8.0 Oreo
Camera Dual 12-megapixel 19 megapixels16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephotoDual 16-megapixel (71 degree, f/1.6 and 107 degree, f/1.9)
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel 5-megapixel16-megapixel8-megapixel (f/1.9)
Video capture 1080p4K4K4K
Processor 2.2GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processorQualcomm Snapdragon 8452.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 8452.8GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
Storage 64GB, 128GB64GB64GB, 128GB, 256GB64GB
RAM 6GB4GB6GB, 8GB4GB
Expandable storage Up to 256GB external storageup to 400GBNoneUp to 2TB
Battery 3,500 mAh2,870 mAh3,300 mAh3,000 mAh
Fingerprint sensor In the space bar key Back of phoneBackBack
Connector USB-CUSB-CUSB-CUSB-C
Headphone jack YesNoYesYes
Special features Keypad with 52 possible shortcut keys, DTek securitySuper slow-motion video (960fps), IP68 water resistantPortrait mode, notifications toggle, dual SIM, Dash ChargingWater resistant (IP68), wireless charging, DTS:X 3D Surround, Quad DAC
Price off-contract (USD) $649 (64GB)$650$529 (64GB), $579 (128GB), $629 (256GB)AT&T: N/A, Sprint: $792, T-Mobile: $750, Verizon: $750, US Cellular: $750
Price (GBP) £484 (64GB)£529£469 (64GB), £519 (128GB), £569 (256GB)£560-£590 converted
Price (AUD) AU$847 (64GB)AU$830AU$702 (64GB), AU$769 (128GB), AU$835 (256GB)AU$980-AU$1,030, converted
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7.2

BlackBerry Key2

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 6Camera 6Battery 10