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The Blackberry Key2 looks perfectly sophisticated and functional. Like all Blackberry devices in the past, this is the businessman’s phone of choice, one who doesn’t watch videos or play games, but furiously replies to emails and texts. It’s also a power user’s phone given all the shortcut options it has. It’s certainly not for a performance enthusiast or a gamer, but anyone who still hasn’t shaken off the charm of typing on a physical keyboard should consider buying the Blackberry Key2.
It’s hard to spot a Blackberry in the hands of people these days, but when you do, you know the person has some really specific needs which can be fulfilled only by a Blackberry. Such is the reputation of Blackberry that even when its presence in the global smartphone market has dwindled to an all-time low, the company’s phones (now made under licensed deals by third parties) still carry the signature design as well as the security features that once made it the business man’s phone of choice. That DNA is hard to shake off for Blackberry, and going by the latest offering, the Blackberry Key2, the company seems to be at ease with the niche it is now operating in.
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The Blackberry Key2 is designed by TCL and manufactured by Optiemus in the Indian subcontinent, under a license agreement from Blackberry. The phone retains a lot of elements that made Blackberry the smartphone of choice for many back in the day. Those same elements hold the Key2 back from becoming a mainstream device. I’m talking about the physical QWERTY keyboard and the smaller display. Interestingly though, Blackberry’s use of those older elements make this phone a super fun and refreshing offering in a market that is crowded with phones with notches, phones with near bezel-less designs and what not. But is a physical keyboard enough to convince buyers to shell out a hefty Rs 42,990 for the Key2? Let’s find out.
Most part of my time reviewing the phone went into getting used to the keyboard. After years of using a touch keyboard, using a physical keyboard on a phone felt alien to me. And this is after I’ve had my fair share of full-fledged physical keyboards in the Blackberry Curves and Samsung Corbys back in the days. But once I settled in, the physical keyboard on the Key2 actually helped improve my productivity. Every alphabet on the keyboard doubles up as a shortcut key. That means you have 26 individual shortcut keys that you can short or long press to launch a required app, action or service. Having that many shortcuts might be overkill for some, but assigning WhatsApp to W, Facebook to F and Gmail to G sort of changed the way I used a smartphone.
The Key2’s keys are a little bigger with more surface area, as compared to its predecessor. Blackberry has also moved on from using plastic entirely to a matte metal body with plastic keys. That helps with the ergonomics a lot as the keys are now solid enough to register swift typing. The keys are also quite tactile, although, coming from a touch keyboard, the travel felt like an eternity. The Space Bar once again doubles up as the fingerprint sensor which is easily accessible and quite fast at unlocking the phone. The best part about the keyboard is the capacitive navigation. Swipe your finger over the keys and you can go left, right, up and down. It’s a handy way to scroll while reading a long document. You can also enable swipe-based typing where you essentially swipe your fingers around the keys (without actually pressing them) to type. It’s one way of catching up with modern times but I found the experience more cumbersome than actually pressing the keys. There are separate on-screen navigation keys that take up bottom part of the small 4.5-inch display.
Say what you have to say about Blackberry not keeping up with changing times, but the design of the Key2 actually looks more sophisticated than most other flagship devices. There’s a lot going on in the design than it meets the eye. The first of course is the rubberised back which makes a lot more sense over glass backs that flagship phones have been implementing this year. It’s slip proof and smudge proof. The dual camera unit is horizontally aligned in the top left corner while the Blackberry logo is etched in the top center. That’s all that there is at the back. The right edge of the phone houses the power button, the volume rockers and the Blackberry Convenience Key. The Convenience Key can be programmed to launch just about anything and doubles up as yet another shortcut key. The key also doubles up as a mute button while on an active call.
The Blackberry Key2 is functional and premium at the same time. It doesn’t hold up to 2018 trends of bezel-less displays, a notch in the middle and a large screen, but that doesn’t hold this beauty back from being useful. Depending on how you use your phone, you will love the Blackberry Key2 or hate it. For those who hate it, there are hundreds of alternatives, but for those that crave for a phone built specifically for power users, the Blackberry Key2 is like mana from heaven.
Because of the physical keyboard on the Blackberry Key2, the display had to be capped at 4.5-inches. It’s a size reminiscent of the iPhone 4S when phones used to be compact enough to use with just one hand. Well, unfortunately, you wont be able to use the BlackBerry Key2 with a single hand Based on the size, it’s clear this isn’t a phone for someone who watches a lot of movies on their phones, and neither is it for gamers. This is meant for reading documents, replying to emails, and being on social media. Essentially, this is a corporate man’s phone, just as Blackberry wants it to be. The screen size is just about perfect to accommodate most of the apps, and to read content on it. Now that the keyboard doesn't hog up the real estate, the 4.5-inch panel is used purely for content. The panel itself is quite sharp with a full HD resolution and a 434 ppi pixel density. It’s also adequately bright at 359 lux, while outdoors, the panel seems a little washed out.
The BlackBerry KeyOne last year was criticised mainly for its underwhelming performance thanks to a mid-range Snapdragon 625 chipset. Well, with the Key2, Blackberry has upped the ante a bit. The Key2 uses the Snapdragon 660, a top-of-the-line mid-range chipset. It is adequately powerful although when you put it against more affordable phones powered by the flagship Snapdragon 845, it obviously cannot match up to the performance. It’s at par with other Snapdragon 660-powered phones like the Xiaomi Mi A2 and the Nokia 7 Plus, which cost a whole lot less.
On AnTuTu, the Key2 scored 137879 while on Geekbench Single and Multi-core tests, it scored 1622 and 5682 respectively. The scores are actually higher than what the Mi A2 registered and is at par with Nokia 7 Plus’ scores, which is quite impressive considering the Key2 is running custom software as opposed to Stock Android powering the other two phones.
A lot many might call out Blackberry for powering the Key2 with a chipset that powers phones under Rs 20,000. But this phone isn’t for performance enthusiasts. It’s for power users who want a fast, secure device and the Snapdragon 660 is just about enough to support and run all the features and apps. In my usage of the phone, I felt no slowdowns or lag. I didn’t play any games as this isn’t a gaming phone by any means, but I did perform operations on a spreadsheet and replied to emails and messages using the phone. Safe to say, I didn’t see anything that slowed the experience down or hampered it.
While every element of the phone carry the DNA of Blackberry phones, the only thing that Blackberry actually worked on themselves for the new smartphone is the software. And for the most part, the UI acts as the perfect bridge between the nostalgic design and modern trends. For instance, software support enables the keyboard to turn into a shortcut factory, while the UI itself has been remade to accommodate the physical keyboard. The icons and menus looks a lot like Stock Android, but there are added functionalities and features that make the Blackberry Key2 stand out from the rest.
The basic layout is still the same, despite a physical keyboard. You get a launcher that has an app drawer, on-screen navigation keys, Google Assistant Support and the likes. The multi-tasking screen is a bit different from other Android Oreo based devices and it shows you screenshots of active apps arranged in a 2x2 column. Furthermore, there’s a nifty edge screen like on Samsung devices where you can peek into incoming mails, messages, tasks, place a quick call and browse your widgets. It’s a good way to keep the home screen from cluttering. The UI also has numerous ways of implementing shortcuts. Apart from the 52 possible shortcut combinations from the keyboard alone, there’s the dedicated convenience key on the right, a shortcuts tab in the app drawer and the edge panel.
The UI surely has a fairly steep learning curve. It’s not as simple as using a stock Android phone. But once you get used to having all those shortcuts in your hands, it’s really difficult to go back to a barebones, vanilla UI. Adding to the convenience is the suite of apps made by Blackberry. That includes the DTEK security app, the Blackberry Hub, Locker, Password Keeper, Privacy Shade and Redactor.
The DTEK security app monitors various points of vulnerability of your phone on a real time basis. Launching the app gives you a quick look at the phone’s security status. Delve a little deeper and you can see granular information like what app used which permission when, events where a particular core feature like the Calendar, Contacts and the likes are used. System settings like security patches, operating system integrity, etc. can be monitored too. All these settings combined gives you an overall score of the phone’s security status. Anybody paranoid about the flow of data in and out of their device, as well as the sort of activities third party apps are indulging in, should be satisfied by the level of detail the DTEK app goes into.
Next is the Blackberry Hub where every means of communication is channelised into various sections, all housed under the same app. It’s supremely useful if you have to manage multiple email and social media accounts as it does way with having to switch between multiple apps. The Hub is also the default email client and the sms app. You can integrate your Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and even Instagram in the Hub. Almost all messaging apps are supported by the Hub and you can snooze messages, and keep a track of notifications.
Then there’s the Locker and Password Keeper. The locker app stores sensitive information in an encrypted enclave and is protected with a password. The Password Keeper stores all your passwords under one master password and can be invoked every time you need to type in a password.
Redactor blacks out part of the screen so that when you’re sharing a screenshot with your colleague, you can black out parts that contain sensitive information. Privacy Shade is also quite useful if you have to access sensitive documents in public. The app puts a black tint on the display and keeps only a tiny strip readable so as to prevent onlookers from snooping.
One of the main reasons to buy a Blackberry in this day and age is for the software and the apps it comes bundled with. Blackberry may be out of the hardware game, but they are still creating a version of Android that is more focussed on security and convenience, from an enterprise perspective.
Most of Blackberry’s Key2’s features are rooted to the past, but not the camera. This is actually the first Blackberry phone with dual cameras at the back. It’s a little more traditional in its dual camera approach — One that has proved to be more useful than the rest. The primary 12MP camera has a wide-angle sensor with f/1.8 aperture and 1.28um pixels, while the secondary 12MP camera has a telephoto sensor with a smaller f/2.6 aperture and 1.0um pixels that supports 2X optical zoom and portrait mode. The camera can record 4K videos at 30fps, along with security features like the Private Capture feature that discretely takes a photo without turning on the camera app.
Blackberry was never known for making good camera phones, and the camera UI seems to suggest the same. It doesn’t really utilise the keyboard to shoot photos, but the volume key doubles up either as a shutter button or zoom button. Manual mode in the app is a setting and not a mode in particular. You turn it on and the manual settings like ISO, Shutter Speed and White Balance simply cram the viewfinder even more.
As for photos, the Key2’s images look fairly well-balanced. It produces sharp and detailed images, ones that you could consider at par with other flagship phones. The saturation is a little on the higher side, but it does look good on the small 4.5-inch screen. Dual Pixel PDAF works to focus on the subject quickly, but the dynamic range leaves a lot to be desired.
In the sample shown below, you can see the colours are quite well reproduced, but the shadows are a lot underexposed even though this had HDR enabled.
Macro photography actually looks really good on the Key2. Provided there’s ample light, the camera is quite adept at capturing the small details up close. In the sample you can see, the flower’s petals and the pores are quite well captured. However, anything outside the focus area is blurred including the water droplets which happens to be on the same plane as the flower.
As for indoors, the Key2’s camera can preserve the colour balance better than most other flagships, but there’s significant loss in details.
Under low light, the camera simply falls flat. You won’t get desirable results unless you use the manual mode and set a shutter speed above one second. There’s ample noise and majority of the frame will be underexposed with next to no focus.
The front camera of the phone works quite well though. It’s fast and snappy and can take portrait shots. Portrait shots taken from the back and the front camera come out nice provided the lighting is perfect. The blurred areas look natural and isn’t like what we have seen on phones by Huawei and Honor.
The Blackberry Key2 is a power user’s phone but its battery life isn’t what a power use would want. The 3,500mAh battery drains out within a day of use. While reviewing, I plugged the phone out of full charge in the morning and by the time it was evening (8PM), battery would be down to 20 percent. The phone supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 and comes with a fast charger out of the box.
The Blackberry Key2 is not the phone of choice for everyone. It is aimed specifically at older Blackberry users who still wish for a QWERTY keyboard. In fact, this is the dream phone for anyone wishing for a physical keyboard paired with the Android interface. In fact, it is the only phone catering to that audience. In that regard, the Blackberry Key2 remains unchallenged. In the more mainstream category though, the Key2 will be called out for its over-the-top price tag of Rs 42,990, where flagship phones with flagship hardware operate. However, in its own niche, the Key2 is definitely a worthy upgrade over last year’s KeyOne. It improves on the camera, the typing experience and the performance. There’s also the Blackberry Evolve and the Evolve X which have the same hardware as the BlackBerry Key2, but without the physical keyboard. They too can be handy alternatives, but we’re yet to test the Evolve and the Evolve X to draw a definitive verdict between the two.