2018's Most Unique Smartphone, and the Gold Standard in Privacy
While most manufacturers have been relying on shrinking bezels and adding in notches, TCL is trying something completely different with the Blackberry KEY2. Easily the most readily identifiable smartphone in 2018, the Blackberry KEY2 is designed for folks who need all the information at their fingertips, ones that are constantly communicating with others, and power users who want as much customization as possible. Does it sacrifice too much to be considered a premium flagship smartphone in 2018? Let's take a look.
Specs and Box Contents
Retailing for $650 and selling unlocked on Amazon.com, at Bestbuy stores and Bestbuy.com, the Blackberry KEY2 ships in two main colors: Black, and our review color, Silver. While the size of the Blackberry KEY2 is similar to most modern smartphones, the overall design is very much different. A 4.5-inch 1620 x 1080 resolution (434 PPI) IPS LCD display sits up front, sporting a unique 3:2 aspect ratio. Below it are a trio of capacitive touch navigation keys, and below that is a dedicated 35 key hardware keyboard, which is 20% larger than the one on the Blackberry KEYOne.
A front-facing fingerprint scanner is found on the spacebar. Inside is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 SoC with Adreno 512 GPU, 6GB of RAM, and a choice of 64GB or 128GB of internal storage. MicroSD cards are supported for up to 256GB of hot-swappable expandable storage, and a large 3,500mAh battery powers the experience. Android 8.1 Oreo is the OS version at launch, and a USB Type-C port with USB 3.1 speeds and Qualcomm QuickCharge 3.0 is at the bottom.
On the front you'll find a single 8-megapixel fixed focus camera, while two cameras lie on the back of the device. The main rear camera is a 12-megapixel sensor with 1.28-micron size pixels and Dual Phase Detection Autofocus (Dual PDAF), behind an f/1.8 lens with 79.3-degree FoV. The secondary rear camera is a 12-megapixel sensor with 1.0-micron pixels and regular PDAF, behind an f/2.6 lens with 50-degree FoV (2x optical zoom). The aluminum chassis measures in at 151.4mm high, 71.8mm wide, and 8.5mm thin, with a rather nice weight of 168 grams.
Inside the box you'll find the usual quick start guide and warranty pamphlets, as well as a SIM tray removal tool. Underneath is a QuickCharge 3.0-rated power brick (5v/3a, 9v/2a, 12v/1.5a), as well as a USB Type-A to Type-C cable. BlackBerry has also packed in a pair of black earbuds with 3.5mm jack on the end.
Two main display trends have been converging over the past year or so: tiny bezels, and super tall screens. While the bezels around the screen aren't huge by any means on the BlackBerry KEY2, the dedicated keyboard along the bottom completely changes the look and feel of the display, including the aspect ratio. Utilizing a 4.5-inch IPS LCD with a 3:2 aspect ratio, the display is substantially shorter and slightly more squat than the average 2018 smartphone. Given that Android is able to scale with various resolutions and aspect ratios with little problem, and you'll find all apps and games work just fine on the BlackBerry KEY2. The issue has more to do with the look and feel of apps and games at this aspect ratio, especially if you're used to a taller 18:9 aspect ratio.
Apps like social media, email and other forms of communication aren't negatively impacted by this aspect ratio at all. Videos are certainly less enjoyable on the KEY2 than a phone with a larger/wider display. Because the aspect ratio is 3:2, you'll find all widescreen content is letterboxed on top and bottom. It's also slightly awkward to watch widescreen content because of the off-centered nature of the screen, which is aligned ¾ of the way to whatever side the phone is being held. This also makes it a little difficult to play games that are held in landscape orientation, as the keyboard takes up about ¼ of one side of the phone. Some portrait mode games are letterboxed on the left and right sides too, since the aspect ratio is uncommon on smartphone screens, and it can make such things slightly awkward looking at times.
The quality of the IPS LCD on the KEY2 is passable enough, but it won't be earning any awards. Typically you'll find an IPS LCD on a phone that's either trying to stay in budget or is working to be ultra bright, and while this isn't a budget-tier display, it's not quite super bright either. Sunlight readability is decent, at best, and I struggled to see stuff on the screen at times in bright lighting conditions like these. As a whole I felt the display was a bit dim most of the time, and there's a fair bit of light bleed from both the top and bottom of the display. Color accuracy and white balance are extremely nice, with friendly colors that look deep and contrasty, but not overly cartoony or dull, and accurate white balance as well. There's an ever-so-slight bit of motion trailing on the display, but it's only noticeable when looking for it, and won't tread on most content.
Hardware and Build
Just about every part of the BlackBerry KEY2 eschews 2018 design trends, and in almost every case this is a very good thing. There's no secret that design has become a bit plain in the industry, with some decisions clearly having little foresight to potential issues that crop up in daily use, and some that are deliberately anti-consumer. Everything about the KEY2 looks and feels luxurious, smart, and even sexy at times. This is a phone that looks all business and doesn't apologize for a minute of it. The silver color we have for review is certainly a looker, but the black model is especially gorgeous, and really looks like a mean machine that'll catch the eye of anyone in a room. During the review period I had a number of people that immediately recognized that this was a BlackBerry phone, and all of them wanted to try it out. It's rare anymore to have such a response from people in everyday life, but this phone certainly achieved that goal.
Aside from being striking, the KEY2 is an incredibly well build phone that's easy to hold and easy to use. Along the back you'll find a rubberized grip that's very slip resistant, with squared off metal sides that help grip even more. This back is mostly flat, but has a slight curve to the left and right edges, tapering up to the flat sides. There's no IP rating for water or dust resistance, so be sure to keep the phone from getting wet, because it probably won't end up well. The phone has an average size to it when comparing to other modern smartphones, and actually comes in a little lighter than many other 2018 flagships as well. A 3.5mm audio jack is on top, while a USB Type-C port is in the usual place on the bottom, right a single speaker to the side, despite the faux speaker grill being to its left. All buttons are metal and are located on the right side, with a volume rocker near the top of the right side, textured powered button below that, and convenience key below that.
Apart from having a design that's very un-2018-like, the KEY2 very prominently displays something no other phone in 2018 has launched with thus far: a back-lit physical keyboard. While phones with physical keyboards have become unicorns, without a doubt, there are still plenty of people who would prefer such a thing over a virtual keyboard. BlackBerry isn't just content with slapping a physical keyboard on and calling it a day though, they've further improved the design from last year's KEYone, including a 20% larger design, 20% higher keys, and a new Speed Key that's never been on a BlackBerry phone before. It's been quite a few years since I've spent any significant amount of time with a phone that has a physical keyboard, having previously reviewed the BlackBerry Priv back at the end of 2015, and my thumbs are clearly not used to having to apply force while typing.
The basic typing experience is similar to a virtual keyboard in that words will be automatically corrected, and can be un-corrected with a quick press of the backspace button. The keyboard functions almost like a touchscreen in a few ways though, and a flick up will automatically choose the predicted text in the software prediction bar at the bottom of the screen. Likewise, flicking to the left anywhere on the keyboard will delete single words at a time, and double-tapping anywhere on the keyboard will bring up a row of software arrow keys, allowing quick and easy movement of the cursor between letters.
The keyboard will even act like a touchscreen when in any app that scrolls vertically, such as a web page, keeping the screen from getting all smudgy. Main keys functions are colored in white text, while the smaller light-grey font characters are activated by pressing the alt button. Additional symbols are located in a separate virtual keyboard panel, brought up by pressing the symbol key at the bottom right. Pressing this key will cycle through two pages of symbols, and a third press will put the panel away.
A brand new feature to the KEY2 is the Speed key, located in the bottom right, represented by a grid of 9 dots. This key, when pressed in conjunction with any letter key on the keyboard will quickly launch any assigned shortcut at any time on the phone. Short and long-pressing keys are two different actions too, meaning you can assign a whopping 52 total shortcuts. Google's idea of double-swiping up in Android P to bring up the app drawer certainly makes accessing every app quicker than what's available on phones without a physical keyboard, but BlackBerry has everyone beat with speed and ease of launching apps and tasks quickly, and the beauty is that any action can be assigned to these keys as well. For instance, you might want to open your email inbox with a short-press on the letter i, while you can compose a new message immediately by long-pressing the letter i instead. The possibilities are near endless, and since it's totally customizable, you can change it up for what works best in your life.
Security and Performance
BlackBerry is marketing the KEY2 as the most secure Android phone on the market, and it's any reason given the amount of customization they've added to Android in terms of security and privacy features. Permissions have been part of Android for some time now, giving users the ability to allow or deny any system-specific permission for apps on a single permission basis. It's likely that most users normally hit allow when asked for these permissions without having a real understanding of what they do or how the app accesses their information. BlackBerry's DTEK software runs in the background at all times and helps users understand why apps are asking for information, and even prompts users before the app can even ask for permission, warning them that something is about to do so.
In addition to this, BlackBerry's DTEK app presents an easy-to-understand hub of information that not only details important security settings like data encryption, developer options, and operating system integrity, to name a few but also includes ultra-detailed app permission tracking. This is something no other manufacturer on the market does, and it includes super granular tracking of what permissions each app has asked for, how many times it has requested permission, the information the app accessed, including specifics as to how many contacts were read or what location it picked you up at, as well as a detailed timeline of every single time the app accessed said info. It's dizzying, to say the least, and offers more information than ever, allowing users to track where their information has gone and what app accessed it.
DTEK will also alert users of apps trying to access permissions in the background, especially when it's something sensitive like listening in on the microphone or using the camera without your specific interaction. Aside from tracking what's happening on the phone, BlackBerry gives users a way to more proactively protect their privacy and personal data too. Private locker is a place where users can go to grant an extra layer of protection to individual files and folders, such as photos or notes. Private photos can be taken directly from the camera's viewfinder by pressing on the fingerprint scanner instead of the shutter button, and the photo is automatically sent to the private locker instead of the built-in gallery. Likewise, you'll find Firefox Focus is preinstalled and accessible from this hub, with an always-on private browsing mode that also blocks ads and tracking cookies.
Private locker can be easily accessed via the notification shade, found in the quick toggles panel on top, instantly accessed via specific fingerprint straight from the lock screen, and can even be hidden in the app drawer too for extra security. Any app can also be included within private locker as well, for instance, your favorite messaging app can be put into app locker so that it always requires your fingerprint to be scanned before the app is launched. BlackBerry also allows users to change the icon and name of any app installed, so you can easily hide apps you'd rather not have others see, as well as protect the contents of that app in case anyone so happens to open it. Since this is only biometrically locked and not PIN locked, there's little worry of it ever being accessed by someone who simply has your phone and your PIN or password.
In addition to these incredible privacy settings, BlackBerry also provides ways to protect information that's directly on screen in two meaningful ways. Privacy Screen is a way to protect sensitive information on screen from prying eyes nearby, blacking out all but 15-20% of the screen. Privacy screen can be accessed through the notification shade's quick settings panel, or by swiping three fingers down at any time. This visible bar can be resized and moved around the screen at will, and the blacked out part can be made partially transparent, if you so choose.
BlackBerry also offers a way of quickly marking out private sections of on-screen information before sharing a screenshot, also accessed via the notification shade. This brings up an easy-to-use interface where users can draw a black box with their finger to black out any sensitive information, including an easy sharing button at the bottom when everything is good to go for sending out to the world. There's even a pre-installed BlackBerry Password Keeper tool that's a system-level app, helping users keep track of passwords and provide automatic entry, all while remaining a secure system app that can't be easily modified. This will even back up passwords to Google Drive, using a secure encryption key, so that your passwords are safely and securely backed up for future use.
Wireless Connectivity, Sound and Battery Life
As an unlocked phone, the BlackBerry KEY2 works on almost all GSM networks worldwide, including AT&T and T-Mobile in the US. In our testing, the KEY2 had better signal strength than the average smartphone, and calls were able to be made and easily heard even in locations where other phones had trouble keeping the audio clear. VoLTE is supported by the phone but has to be enabled carrier-side, and at the time of review was not enabled on T-Mobile US. There appears to be no support for WiFi Calling, which is a missed opportunity, to say the least.
BlackBerry has outfitted the KEY2 with everything it needs to output quality sound, no matter your audio device preference. A 3.5mm audio jack up top is available for existing wired audio peripherals, and the USB Type-C port on the bottom works great for all-digital wired audio. Bluetooth 5.0 includes better range and bandwidth than previous versions of the Bluetooth spec, and Android Oreo standardized the availability of all high-quality Bluetooth codecs such as aptX, aptX HD, and LDAC, so you can have ultra high-quality sound even using wireless speakers or headphones. The speaker on the bottom is fairly average, with sound quality typical of a single bottom-firing speaker, but it's quite loud at the least and is able to be heard even in a noisy room.
Battery life of the phone is nothing short of stellar, and we never had an issue getting through a full day on a single charge. The Snapdragon 660 SoC is a lower power SoC when compared to the Snapdragon 845 that can be found in most 2018 flagships, and combined with the large 3,500mAh battery and smaller 4.5-inch screen, you're all but guaranteed to get at least a full day out of the phone, no matter how long you use it. Some folks will likely find that 2-day battery life is more than achievable, as I had a number of days where the phone ended the day at greater than 60% battery, even with moderate daily use.
QuickCharge 3.0 is supported for fast top-ups, using any Qualcomm-approved charger or the one that comes with the phone. Something quite unique is a feature Boost Mode, which is selectable just after plugging the phone in and shuts off various services in order to help the phone get a quicker charge. The Power Center app helps manage battery and memory usage of every app installed on the phone, as well as provide a neat and easy checklist of things to do in order to keep battery life at its best.
The BlackBerry KEY2 is easily one of the most highly customizable phones out there, not only allowing users to change the look and feel of the launcher but customize almost every aspect of its daily organization and functions. Aside from the privacy functions that were discussed above, which will certainly change how many people access information on their screens on a daily basis, as well as the keyboard and its numerous convenience shortcuts, BlackBerry also includes three main areas of convenience for users to get things done: BlackBerry Hub, a slide-out sidebar, and the new Convenience Key.
New to the KEY2 is the convenience Key, which brings up 3 user-specific shortcuts when pressed. Any three apps, shortcuts, or system actions can be assigned to this key, and up to three additional profiles can be added for specific situations: while at home, while in the car, and while in a meeting. These situations are determined by a specific WiFi connection for home, specific Bluetooth connection for the car, and any meeting entry in the calendar for the meeting preset. While these specific situations will probably a bit niche in their use, having three immediate actions, in addition to the shortcuts provided by the keyboard, once again highlight BlackBerry's desire to let users to completely customize their phones use and function to their liking.
The swipe-out sidebar isn't anything new, but it's well worth noting since this is a BlackBerry-specific function. Within this slide-out menu, accessible anywhere on the phone by swiping inward on the tab on the side of the screen, you'll find a quick way to check your calendar, read messages propagated through the BlackBerry Hub, check to-dos, communicate with contacts, and see any custom widgets setup as if it were a home screen. The more BlackBerry hub is set up and functioning with all your communication needs, the better this section will be. Hub has been around for quite some time and presents a single way to manage all your points of contact, including text messaging, emails, any chat app on the phone, social media accounts, and plenty more. Having the ability to not only read all of these in one location but also to post straight from here, is simply brilliant.
BlackBerry's excellent launcher still functions the same as before too, with a unique way of accessing widgets that other launchers don't provide. Many people keep direct shortcuts on their homescreen instead of utilizing the app drawer or placing widgets on here like a desktop, so BlackBerry has found a way to please both sets of parties without taking away functionality. Swiping up on the icon of any app that has a widget will bring that widget up in a floating box, allowing for quick one-swipe access to more information without needing to open the app. Apps with more than one widget will ask for a default upon first swipe, and these apps with widgets are represented with three dots underneath the icon, meaning you won't be needlessly swiping on icons that don't have increased functionality.
BlackBerry's camera design, as a whole, is quite excellent and is both easy to use and powerful at the same time. Along the bottom, you'll find a typical row of icons, including a dedicated shutter button and button to toggle between the front and rear-facing cameras, as well as a button to switch between modes. Clicking this mode switching brings up a small row of 6 icons, giving quick one-thumb access to all modes without causing annoyance the way any camera interfaces with swipeable modes often do. While this icon's function isn't immediately obvious, it's simple enough to figure out what it does on the first click, and its readily-accessible place makes it a generally good UX choice.
While the camera software launches very quickly, switching between common modes like photo and video takes a bit too long. This isn't because of a performance issue, rather the fact that all modes are found in this mode drawer, and there's no quick way to move between simple photo and video modes without having to open the tray and click the icon for the desired mode. On the positive, this grid of icons is always the same, no matter the mode, and you'll always know where to find the video, photo, portrait, slow-mo, panorama, or scanner modes, as the icons' positions never change, meaning muscle memory will eventually kick in, making mode switching faster over time. Still, a dedicated shutter and record button would alleviate this need for the two most commonly used modes.
Manual mode is a bit more hidden than is probably necessary, but once enabled, provides an excellent way to control every aspect of the photo-taking experience. Within settings is the option to switch between auto and manual control modes, adding a left-oriented vertical row of icons for each manual setting. The labels for each setting are extremely clean and clear, leaving no room for misinterpretation, and provide a quick one-touch way of controlling all manual photo settings without having to go into a separate manual mode. Anyone who prefers manually adjusting any of these attributes, even if only once in a blue moon, should definitely keep these controls on screen, as they provide the easiest way to quickly adjust important settings at a moment's notice.
Something special to BlackBerry's camera design is Private Capture, which goes hand-in-hand with the Private Locker functionality described in the security section of this review. Private Capture's functionality isn't terribly obvious at first, but once you figure it out, becomes an easy way to take photos that might be considered private for any reason, without having to switch modes or open another app. Pressing the standard white circular shutter button on the viewfinder takes a normal photo, which is stored in the phone's normal photo gallery app (Google Photos by default), but a private photo can be taken by simply touching the space bar's fingerprint scanner instead. This places the photo within the Private Locker on the phone, which is inaccessible to anyone or any app that's not placed in the Private Locker, and keeps prying eyes away from sensitive photos.
Camera Performance and Results
While the BlackBerry KEY2's raises the bar for quality on BlackBerry phones as a whole, the overall quality doesn't quite match up to what other phones in the same price range can provide. As BlackBerry's first dual-camera setup, this is a step in the right direction for quality hardware, and even the software design itself is quite good. Utilizing a dual-pixel phase detection autofocus method, the KEY2 instantly focuses on any subject, and can switch between subjects at a moment's notice. In fact accurate focusing is just as important as fast focusing, and it's in these two key areas where the BlackBerry KEY2 shines.
It's just a shame the rest of the package doesn't shine quite this much, as you'll find pretty average dynamic range as a whole, decent overall color accuracy, and details which are a bit softer than what we're used to seeing on most phones. Zooming in during good lighting conditions shows processing that's a bit heavy on noise removal, and tends to muddy details a bit. This tends to be most apparent on objects further away than a few feet, but macro shots and other close-up photos turn out just fine in this regard.
The secondary lens is a 50mm 2x zoom lens, which allows for optical zooming when pressing the 1x/2x button on the viewfinder, but needs to be done in the viewfinder to take advantage of this feature. Surprisingly the advantage of zooming in ahead of time isn't quite as pronounced on the KEY2 as it is on many other phones that feature a secondary sensor with a zoom lens, and while there's certainly a difference between cropping a standard shot after taking the picture versus one taken using the 2x zoom in the software viewfinder, it's not particularly noticeable unless you look very closely. The quality of the overall photo stays about the same no matter the lighting conditions, although this secondary sensor has smaller pixels, and as a result, has slightly less dynamic range than the standard sensor.
Dynamic range, as said before, is a bit lacking, and you'll find the more contrasty the scene, the darker things tend to be. As a whole the phone tends to underexpose quite often, resulting in very few blown out highlights, but lots of missing shadow detail as a result. This is also a problem in lower lighting conditions, where the sensor clearly struggles to pull in enough light to keep a scene bright without introducing too much noise. As a whole, the camera prefers higher ISO over long shutter speeds, which is a positive note for keeping moving objects sharp as well as reducing hand jitter, but the heavy noise reduction process further muddies up the details in these kinds of shots.
Low light performance in general leaves quite a bit to be desired, as a result, often ending up in dark, very soft photos with obvious traces of heavy noise removal throughout. In our testing, there were very few lower light shots that came out looking decent and relatively few that could be considered good looking when compared to other flagships on the market. There were a few times when the software would pause after pressing the shutter button in semi-low light, resulting in a blurry image because I had moved my hand thinking it already took the shot. This wasn't super common, but it did happen a handful of times.
The new dual-camera setup unlocks portrait mode, and this second camera utilizes a 50mm FoV, meaning an effective 2x optical zoom. Portrait mode is generally quite nice looking, although the phone has to be brought back a fair bit since that second lens is a "zoom" lens. Edge detection is generally good, although there were a few times where it didn't get the edges quite right, resulting in a hazy effect around the hair or other finer details.
While the front-facing camera has the potential to take some rather good photos, some major focusing issues kept it from bring truly useful most of the time. Many shots focused on the background rather than the foreground; a curious software decision when shots from a front-facing camera are typically for selfies. HDR is supported on this sensor, and does a good job of balancing shots as a whole, making these focusing issues all the more a shame. As a result, front-facing shots look quite good in thumbnail form, but fall apart immediately upon enlarging.
The BlackBerry KEY2's main rear-camera lens is wider than most; something that becomes readily apparent when comparing directly next to another flagship smartphone in 2018. As a result you'll find more visual information is fit into the frame, and at 4K/30FPS, there's plenty of detail to go around. There's higher 60FPS recording support at 1080p and 720p, and standard 120FPS slow-motion recording at 720p. Overall dynamic range of videos is good, and colors pop nicely with excellent contrast. The sensors are only optically stabilized at 4K, meaning you'll definitely notice motion like walking in the form of bumps and shakes. A combination EIS/OIS is available at 1080p or 720p if more stable recording is a necessity, and looks considerably smoother than 4K video, even if it's missing the extra detail.
Unique look and feel
High quality build with uncommon materials in 2018
Very easy to grip
Keyboard feels great to type on
Keyboard gestures are brilliant and functional
Speed Key shortcuts are game changing
3.5mm audio jack
DTEK security is genius, with granular permission control and tracking
Tons of privacy controls, including Privacy Shade and Redactor
More customization than most phones could dream of
Stellar battery life
Wide compatibility with worldwide networks, including VoLTE
No WiFi Calling
No IP rating for water or dust resistance
Display aspect ratio doesn't work best with media consumption
Camera quality overall doesn't hold up with other flagships
No ARCore support
In a sea of nearly identical black slabs, TCL has crafted 2018's most unique smartphone. It's unapologetically Blackberry, and that's the true beauty of this device. Blackberry says it best themselves; this phone is built for productivity, for folks who type all the time, people who want to keep track of everything going on, but aren't focused on mobile gaming or watching HDR content on a giant screen. This phone is for the doers, the posters, the social media buffs, and anyone who's just looking to keep their information safe in a world that's constantly compromised. Blackberry's new masterpiece is here, and it's easily one of 2018's most fantastic phones in every way it tries to be.