All of you here know I am a big fan of BlackBerry; I own a KEYone, KEYone Black Edition, Motion, and a KEY2. In fact when I’m not reviewing other devices, the KEY2 is my daily phone by choice. So when I found out that BlackBerry planned to introduce a lower end version of the KEY2 I was intrigued. Does it live up to the KEY2 name? Read on to find out.
- Solid build
- Stellar Battery
- Classic BB keyboard
- Very secure
- Middle of the road performance
- Underwhelming camera
- Fingerprint scanner is slow
Disclaimer: BlackBerry provided me with this KEY2 LE unit for the purposes of this review. No money has exchanged hands and BlackBerry are not checking this content before it goes live. My Unit is running build ABE236 and has received no System OTAs in my testing over the near 2 week testing period. A UK SIM Card on the Three Network in the Southeast of the UK was used for Testing.
4.5” IPS LCD
64GB Internal Storage
Expandable MicroSD slot (256GB)
Qualcomm Snapdragon 636
4x Semi-Custom Cortex A73
4x Semi-Custom Cortex A53
Adreno 509 GPU
Qualcomm X12 Modem
Dual Camera Setup
12mp Main camera
1/3.1” sensor size
5mp Secondary Camera
Depth sensing module.
8mp Front facing Camera
3000mAh Internal Battery.
For a more comprehensive spec sheet, head on over to GSMArena here
From an aesthetic perspective, the KEY2 LE is just that, a form of KEY2, and just starting at the two, aside from the colour variations in the two models (KEY2 Comes in Black and Silver, LE comes in Slate, Champagne and Atomic) You’d be hard pressed to know that these are two very different phones.
Pick the phone up though, and the changes are most apparent. Whereas the KEY2 is a solid chunk of Aluminium with a soft plastic back, the KEY2 LE is all plastic. The KEY2 LE doesn’t feel cheap, let me say that right off the bat, but it is extremely light. One of the things I moaned about going from the KEYone to the KEY2 is that the KEY2 was lighter, around 12g or so, going from the KEY2 to the KEY2 LE was even more jarring as that’s an additional 18g lighter, so whereas the KEY2 felt commanding and present in your hand, there are times when I thought I was going to drop it as it was so slippery and light.
That being said, the KEY2 LE is still extremely solid, it’s still a BlackBerry after all. Despite using a plastic frame and being thinner and lighter than the KEY2, there is no flex in the body, no creaking, and it’s nearly impossible to “torque” it, So I think my reservation about the weight is more apparent as I use the KEY2 as my regular phone and this is the phone equivalent of the uncanny valley, so close to being perfect that the flaws stand out more.
Taking a tour around the phone, from the front we have the now recognisable 3:2 IPS screen with backlit capacitive buttons, below that we have the famous BlackBerry QWERTY keyboard, and above the screen, we have the earpiece, the ambient light and proximity sensor as well as the 8mp selfie camera. The screen is the same as the KEY2, which in and of itself was the same as the KEYone, which means it’s fine. It’s a quirky 3:2 aspect ratio, making it great for emails and text-based workflows, if less so for Video work. The issue of it being the same screen is that it then has all the same issues, meaning that it is a bit dim, and somewhat more reflective than I’d like, and the main issue is with it being an IPS LCD instead of an OLED.
One slight Issue I have is that the capacitive buttons under the screen, aside from being capacitive and not onscreen are problematic. mainly in the fact they’re almost too sensitive. If I am in Instagram for example, touching the post button, or the notification button is very likely to trigger the home or recent capacitive button, even when I know I didn’t hit the trigger. This has caused me to, multiple times in the review period, grunt and seethe in frustration, something I’ve not done with my KEY2, KEYone or even, Motion, this just makes me even more upset that BlackBerry hasn’t implemented an on-screen navigation paradigm yet.
The Keyboard change is a little more obvious, first off, the keys have a slightly more textured matte feel to them, meaning you’re even less likely to slide off of the keys than even on the KEY2, but the changes that BlackBerry have made “under the hood” stand out a bit more. Whereas the KEY2 Keyboard was modelled after the Iconic Bold 9900, this one feels somewhat mushier, a mix between the original KEYone and the awesomeness that is the KEY2, though this does not have the same issue with the space button as the KEY2 does. The biggest issue for me is what they removed, the capacitive scrolling. For what I’m assuming is a cost-cutting measure, BlackBerry removed the capacitive sensors under the keys, meaning you can no longer swipe and gesture around. Whilst initially I didn’t think this was a big deal, once I started to use the KEY2 LE as my daily for the review period, I realised just how ingrained that input mechanism had become to my daily use. Whether I’ms scrolling through emails during my morning Triage session, scrolling through Instagram or Twitter on a break, or just using it to manoeuvre the cursor in typing, the capacitive input mechanism was a big loss for me.
But then I realised that I know what I’m missing, as I’ve used all the previous BlackBerry phones. The person that the KEY2 LE is aimed at isn’t likely to be upgrading from a previous BlackBerry, so they aren’t going to miss something they have never had. For those people, the KEY2 LE is a cheaper option than the KEY2, yet it still has the same screen and a great keyboard, they probably don’t even know about the touch-sensitive keys on the KEY2, and may not even know that feature is a thing.
Having a look at the sides, the Left hand side on the KEY2 LE has the MicroSD and NanoSIM slot, simple as, and the right-hand side has the Volume rocker, Power button and the Convenience key, And thankfully, all of these keys feel amazing, so nice and clicky, despite the mass of the device going down, usually going from a metal chassis and metal buttons to plastic chassis and buttons means a crappy feel, but not here, BlackBerry managed to still make each and every key feel super satisfying to press, almost like a fidget toy/stress reliever.
Lastly, we have the rear of the phone which, honestly, Is quite attractive. The Hyper dense crosshatch/diamond-like pattern on the KEY2 is swapped out for a soft touch almost circular scale like design in this dark navy blue. That colour is the same no matter which Colour of KEY2 LE you get, they all come with this Blue back, and boy is it pretty. I have to say, Whilst this back wouldn’t fit in on the KEY2, I think I prefer the in-hand feel of this soft touch scale pattern to the rubbery diamond pattern on the KEY2 proper, which isn’t something I thought I’d say. The layout of the rest of the rear is the same, with the dual camera system in the top left and the Dual-Tone LED flash next to it, with the BlackBerry logo in the upper third centred, and the regulatory information silkscreened at the bottom, this is a near identical layout to the KEY2.
Lastly, we’ll look at the top and bottom. Up top, we have the 3.5mm audio jack and the secondary noise-cancelling microphone, and the bottom houses the USB-C port, with two sets of 3 slits either side, one covering up the speaker and the other hiding the main microphone. The KEY2 LE is all clipped together and glued, meaning no screws around the frame this leaves us with a nice aesthetic of continuous lines, not broken up by antenna bands (because the phone is actually radio transparent now) or screw holes, neat!
The KEY2 LE really is, from an aesthetic point, a colourful KEY2, and from a hardware perspective, it’s a minutely cheaper KEY2, and both of those actually work kind of well in its favour.
Software wise the KEY2 LE is doing pretty good. It’s a mostly stock version of Android with a few of the BlackBerry customisations on top. A Lot of the core apps here are standard Google ones, with a few exceptions, such as the Blackberry contacts app and Camera app, though if they are in the Play Store, there is nothing stopping you installing the Google Counterparts of the apps.
One of the better software packages on the KEY2 LE and all BlackBerry devices is the Hub, and it’s just as good here. Whilst It still remains a right royal pain in the arse to set up, once the Hub is set up, it is my favourite way to go through all my notifications. Having everything be routed into a single app in chronological order, or segregated into each apps’ notifications etc, being able to set up swipe gestures to do any multitude of things (I have it set to mark as read) or to pinch and zoom to hide all the read notifications and leave only the unread ones for you to focus on, I absolutely love the Hub and I use it on other phones as well, I just wish It was a whole load easier to set up.
The Issue I have here is updates. The KEYone had given me high hopes of a solid update situation, but I was let down, whilst security updates continue to come, my KEYone has only just received a stable Oreo release this past week when Pie has been officially released for over a month already. My KEY2 LE is running 8.1.0 on the August 5th security Patch, for a company that prides itself on security, I feel like having an up to date security patch is important. Annoyingly, having Launched on Oreo, the KEY2 and KEY2 LE both have Project treble support, making updates easier, they are also both using SoCs that are already certified for Pie by Qualcomm, So I’m not in the best of moods with regarding the software situation on the KEY2 LE.
This gets a bit sketchy. For the most part, the KEY2 LE is perfectly fine performance wise. The Snapdragon 636 is a decent and capable chipset, but now and then, the KEY2 LE struggles for just long enough to be perceptible
The Slim software package on the KEY2 LE obviously helps things here, There isn’t a crazy amount in use behind the scenes, no rogue notification services etc, which leads me to believe that the issue with the performance here is from early un-optimised software, and I’ll definitely revisit the KEY2 LE after it gets an update or two, because as we learnt from the BlackBerry Motion, a single update can take a phone from “wow this isn’t really enjoyable to use at all” to “wow, this is actually really good”.
For those of you who care, I’ll leave a small gallery of benchmark results here for your perusal, though as always, real-world experience doesn’t always match up with benchmark results.
BlackBerry worked hard on making the Camera experience on the KEY2 to be as good as it can be for a productivity-focused handset, and to its credit, they actually made a pretty competent camera for the most part, sadly swapping out the optics for cheaper ones and doing the same to the SoC means that the Camera suffers on the KEY2 LE and it’s noticeable.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to get good photos on the KEY2 LE, far from it, I actually have a fair few that are surprising enough to me that I’ve shown them off, but as with many a low-end phone, the requirements to get that phone to take good or great photos is high. You need to be as still as possible, have your subject as still as possible, make sure you have plenty of light, either natural or artificial, and if you’re using the artificial light in a room, make sure the phone compensates before you take the image etc.
Whilst I’ve been able to take a fair few landscape shots that I liked on the KEY2 LE, those fall into that perfect remit I told you about, I’m standing still, the landscape isn’t going to drastically change, I’m outside so there is plenty of natural light etc. But take the Phone indoors and try to take a low light selfie? Or a pet moving around, forget about it, the KEY2 LE just can’t keep up.
Here are the Selfies I’ve taken on the KEY2 LE, I’m not great at taking Selfies, but as you can see, the KEY2 LE does an okay job capturing my likeness, if nothing more.
All this makes me wonder though, does it really matter that the KEY2 LE doesn’t have a terrific camera? Honestly, I don’t think it does. Whilst there will be some people that buy this and try and shoot a short film on it, the people that the KEY2 LE is marketed at is businesses, who’ll buy hordes in one go and hand them out to staff, this will be their business phone. They might be disappointed that the camera isn’t stunning, but the business parts of the business phone work really well, if this was a media consumption or creation tool, the KEY2 LE would look a lot different.
This one was always going to be good. I Can’t think of a single day where I was able to kill the KEY2 LE in a single day, even on a day where I was travelling on a train and therefore losing signal, listening to an audiobook on Audible and a whole load of social media, they KEY2 LE still outlived me that day, something very few phones can claim to do.
The 3000mAh battery is reduced from the 3505mAh of the KEYone or the 3500 of the KEY2, but the Snapdragon 636 is also lower end than the 660 in the KEY2, meaning it sucks less juice. The KEY2 LE also has quick charge 3.0 on board, but sees to juice up faster than most other devices that aren’t using Huawei’s SuperCharge, So I’m impressed with that, of course there is also the “Boost mode” which disables certain features in order to allow the battery to recharge as quickly as possible, a handy-dandy feature for a midday top up, and when I say midday I mean on the second day, because I cannot think of a single way you’d be able to get the LE down to a low enough level to need to charge by midday if you wake up at a reasonable time.
The Miscellaneous sections of my review are just that, miscellaneous, they differ from device to device on what I found interesting, but not enough to give it it’s own section. On the KEY2 LE that means the fingerprint scanner and the radio performance.
Starting with the Fingerprint scanner, this I think is another casualty of either poorly optimised software or just the inadequacy of the SD636, as unlocking the KEY2 LE is noticeably slower than the KEY2, and oftentimes even an original KEYone, something seems off there, you tap the button, wait a second, will feel a vibration and then a second later the device will wake up and you’ll be in, and IT does feel glacially slow.
For Radio performance, the KEY2 LE was actually better than the KEYone and KEY2, and I have a guess as to why the plastic chassis. Both the KEYone and KEY2 use metal frames with plastic inserts for radio signals to pass through, the KEY2 LE doesn’t need those, because the plastic frame is already radio transparent, and in doing this, the KEY2 LE has some of the best Bluetooth performance I’ve seen in a while, even on par with the Honor 8X, which I think is the best device for Bluetooth I have ever tested.
So overall, I’ve pretty positive on the KEY2 LE, but I think there are a few areas where it is a little too “lite” even if the LE doesn’t officially stand for “Lite Edition”. All of this depends though on where BlackBerry focus their marketing for the KEY2 LE, If they try to go to a normal non-business consumer, I think they’ll fail, with the price of £399, the KEY2 LE makes too many compromises for anyone but the hardest BlackBerry stalwart to look over.
The worst part? I’m not even sure what they could have really done differently. They couldn’t give it a better screen than their flagship, and the market for 3:2 mobile displays is pretty slim already. On the SoC side, the SD636 is practically the only viable step down from the 660, and if the SD636 can barely handle the 12mp+5mp system on this, imagine trying to give it a 12mp+12mp setup, it wouldn’t work all that well.
All in all, the KEY2 LE makes sense for a very small nice, but BlackBerry has found a way to wiggle in and snuggle into many niches over the years, so whilst I can’t see it yet, When the successor eventually comes out next year, I’ll probably be kicking myself over this paragraph.