BlackBerry Key2 LE review: A welcome key-change

A curious throwback, but it does have one or two nice party tricks going for it

Price
£291
  • Realistic pricing; Some lovely business and security software
  • You can do much better for the price; Camera requires you to stay very still

We weren't the biggest fans of the BlackBerry Key2 when it first launched (or the BlackBerry KeyOne, for that matter), but it appears BlackBerry owner TCL has been paying attention to its critics.

It's launched a mid-generation update to the Key2 - the BlackBerry Key2 LE - which addresses one of our major concerns; namely, the price. The original Key2 was a whopping 482 before tax, which is a huge sum considering its various shortcomings.

The Key2 LE, on the other hand, is a much more palatable 291 before VAT - a saving of almost 200. Is this healthy price-cut enough to justify its existence, however?

BlackBerry Key2 LE: Design

The Key2 LE's design is actually rather smart and we've found ourselves growing rather fond of it over the time we've spent using it as our main phone. It's certainly different. A 3:2 aspect-ratio display in an era where phone screens are favouring 18:9 or greater is a bold move, although not quite as bold as occupying the bottom two-fifths of the front with a 35-key keyboard. It's separated from the screen by a bezel filled with off-screen capacitive navigation keys.

The rest of the design is nice, too. The top of the chassis is neatly squared off, the bottom has curved corners so it shouldn't catch on the lining of your pocket and the whole phone is framed in a smart, champagne gold trim.

Flip it over and you'll find a rubberised back that feels wonderfully grippy in the hand and a genuine breath of fresh air when compared with rivals. The familiar BlackBerry logo is embossed in silver two-thirds of the way up and a dual-camera sits at the top.

You can buy a dual-SIM version and it supports microSD cards up to 256GB in size. It isn't waterproofed - there are quite a lot of gaps between those little keys - but it does maintain the headphone jack, just like the good old days.

BlackBerry Key2 LE: Keyboard

We've never seen the appeal of poking at tiny buttons like I'm playing the world's most tedious miniature game of Whack-A-Mole. In fact, we only type on our phone as an absolute last resort. So it came as a pleasant surprise to find ourselves enjoying using the BlackBerry Key2 LE's keyboard. We can certainly see the appeal, even if part of that appeal is the clickity-clack of looking important while you hammer out a tiny email.

The keys are well spaced enough that typos are rare, although it has the strange side effect of making us watch our fingers, rather than the words appearing on the screen. Additionally, adding commas and question marks requires you to press the tiny "alt" button first, which is tedious if (like us) you're the kind of bore that insists on perfect grammar in your texts.

Generally, the predictive text jumps in at exactly the points where you would want it to, offering suggestions that make sense and adding apostrophes to save you the frustrating alt-key dance. The fingerprint reader is also embedded in the spacebar, which is a nice touch and works well. It's only a pity that said space bar doesn't double up as a home button.

The one noteworthy cut compared to the full-price Key2 is that the keyboard is no longer touch sensitive. That means you can't use it as a touchpad for scrolling through webpages and it doesn't allow you to flick your fingers upwards at the words you want to pick. You can still set keys to act as shortcuts to launch apps, though.

Would we pick this over a touchscreen keyboard? No, but it was a closer call than we thought it would be before we picked up the BlackBerry Key2 LE. The deciding factors are twofold: first, we miss swiping our words, which we still find the quickest way of entering text in a hurry. Second, we found that to type with any kind of speed on the BlackBerry, we needed to use two thumbs. That makes texting and walking nearly impossible, which is a real pain if you're running late and need to tell someone pronto.

BlackBerry Key2 LE: Display

Two years ago, phones switched up their aspect ratios, most moving to a long and thin 18:9, rather than the dumpier 16:9 of old. The resurrected BlackBerrys don't play these games at all, providing a 3:2, 4.5in touchscreen placed just above the keyboard.

That makes interacting with apps notably more awkward. Even pressing the home, back or menu buttons requires you to lift your thumb above the keyboard, which is as fiddly as it sounds.

In all other ways, though, using the screen is a pleasant experience. It's an IPS panel, with a resolution of 1,620 x 1,080 meaning you get a decent pixel density of 434ppi. Better still, it covers 98.5% of the sRGB colour spectrum, up 5% on its pricier sibling, and it reaches a peak brightness of 470cd/m2 compared with the Key2's 397cd/m2.

BlackBerry Key2 LE: Camera

On paper, the camera specs look better than the original Key2 but make no mistake: this is a downgrade disguised as an upgrade. Yes, it's now 13 megapixels compared with the original's 12 megapixels, but the aperture was a larger f/1.8 and it's now f/2.2. Worse, the sensor size has shrunk from 1/2.3in to 1/3.1in, which means considerably less light-gathering potential.

The complaints we had with the Key2 are repeated here: a smoothing effect seems to apply in post-processing that leaves areas of similar colour looking smudged. And this assumes you stay perfectly still in the second after pressing the capture button. If you don't, the result will be a blurred image. Suffice to say, this makes our Instagram hobby of cat photography almost impossible.

BlackBerry Key2 LE: Specs and performance

The new BlackBerry Key2 LE comes in three configurations. For 349, you can buy the slate grey, single-SIM, 32GB version. Paying an extra 50 doubles the storage to 64GB and gives you a dual SIM - and the choice of "champagne gold" or "atomic red" colours.

All three include a Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 processor, compared to the Snapdragon 660 inside the Key2. Both are octa-core chips but there's a 400MHz clock speed difference between them. And while the Key2 had 6GB of RAM, the Key2 LE has to make do with 4GB. So, what does that mean in practical terms?

The good news is that it's not too far behind the non-LE version in Geekbench 4. You may come up against a memory ceiling now and then. The software warned me at one point that I needed to close things to make it perform better. Generally, however, the difference shouldn't be all that different.

The elephant in the room is how much better you can do for the money with a non-BlackBerry phone. The Xiaomi Pocophone F1 wipes the floor with both BlackBerry phones, yet costs 330, while the Nokia 8.1 is 30 more expensive than the BlackBerry Key2 LE and beats it comfortably.

Battery life is equally underwhelming, comparatively speaking, with the Key2 LE lasting only 13hrs 18 mins in our video playback test. Confusingly, this is 12 minutes longer than the Key2 despite it having a 500mAh smaller battery, which is likely down to the lower-powered internal components.

BlackBerry Key2 LE: Software and features

Of course there's more to phones than just benchmarks and one of the things that has most impressed us about the Key2 LE is the software. It's a nicely skinned version of Android with some BlackBerry-specific flavours.

Some of these are purely cosmetic. We like the charging bar that snakes around the edges of the screen when you plug the phone in, and the tiled apps that appear when you tap the menu button, but other features are a lot more useful.

BlackBerry Messenger may be a peculiar throwback in 2019, but DTEK by BlackBerry is a useful privacy and security checker, and there are other brilliant tools built in for the privacy and business conscious. Privacy Shade makes the entire screen pitch black, except for a single-line window that you can drag along with your finger, meaning sensitive emails are safe from people reading over your shoulder. Redactor is equally useful, allowing you to paste thick black lines over text in screenshots before sending them, removing secrets from prying eyes.

BlackBerry Key2 LE: Verdict

Should you buy a BlackBerry in 2019? We wouldn't advise it. Touchscreen keyboards have come a long way in the last decade and a physical keyboard feels like a relic that's more likely to get in the way than prove genuinely useful nowadays. However, only you will know if you're willing to make the sacrifices on camera quality and overall performance in return for the (arguable) convenience of a physical keyboard.

But if you do long for a handset that's a little different then you could do worse than the BlackBerry Key2 LE. On the whole, the cuts TCL made to the original Key2 have been made in the right places, and the result is a better-value overall package. And yes, you could add a keyboard cover to the Samsung Galaxy S8 for a better overall Android experience but if you prefer everything with a BlackBerry taste, then the Key2 LE is worth a nibble.

Verdict

While we're still not sold on the utility of a physical keyboard in this day and age, the sensible cuts TCL has made to the BlackBerry Key2 LE make it a much more attractive proposition - particularly for security-conscious businesses.

ProcessorOcta-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 (1.8GHz)
RAM4GB
Screen size4.5in
Screen resolution1,620 x 1,080
Pixel density434ppi
Screen typeIPS
Front camera8-megapixel
Rear camera13-megapixel, 5-megapixel
FlashDual-LED
Dust and water resistanceN/A
3.5mm headphone jackYes
Wireless chargingN/A
USB connection typeUSB Type-C
Storage options32GB; 64GB
Memory card slot (supplied)microSD (256GB)
Wi-Fi802.11ac
Bluetooth5
NFCYes
Cellular data4G
Dual SIMYes (shared with microSD)
Dimensions (WDH)150.3 x 71.8 x 8.4 mm
Weight156g
Operating systemAndroid 8.1
Battery size3,000mAh
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