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BlackBerry Key2 review: Strictly for keyboard die-hards

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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.

7.2 Overall
  • Design 7.0
  • Features 7.0
  • Performance 6.0
  • Camera 6.0
  • Battery 10.0

I didn't write this review on a BlackBerry Key2 ($650 at Amazon.com). But I wanted to. My thumbs were too sore to let me.

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.

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 ($400 at Amazon.com) 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.

blackberry-key2-josh-miller-8526

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 ($168 at Amazon.com) 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.

blackberry-key2-9435-001

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.

blackberry-key2-josh-miller-8656

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.

blackberry-key2-waterfall

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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