BlackBerry no longer produces smartphones itself, but has licensed its name to different companies around the world who are keeping the dream of physical keyboards on smartphones alive. In India, the licensee is Optiemus Infracom, and it's selling two distinct product lines now – the Evolve and Evolve X for those who want modern smartphones with big screens, and the Key2 and Key2 LE for buyers who still need a keyboard. All of them run Android with BlackBerry's security and communications software tweaks baked in. You can't quite recreate the classic BlackBerry experience, but at least you have choices if your old phone is dying and you don't want to switch to any other brand.
The Key2 LE, priced at Rs. 29,990, is a more affordable version of the Key2 which launched earlier this year. If you look at things purely in terms of hardware and specifications, that price is still unreasonable, and you can easily find phones with similar specifications selling for half as much or even less. The value proposition is almost entirely predicated on the keyboard and BlackBerry's software. Are they good enough to outweigh all other concerns? And who should really buy one of these phones in 2018 anyway? We have the answers.
BlackBerry Key2 LE design
The BlackBerry Key2 LE has the overall proportions of a current-day smartphone, but obviously the keyboard at the bottom means that the screen isn't the usual shape or size. The borders above and below the screen are quite thick by today's standards. There are even capacitive Android navigation buttons between the screen and keyboard, all of which feels wasteful.
Of course the main attraction is the keyboard, and if that's what you're here for you'll forgive all shortcomings. The keyboard is pretty much exactly what we encountered on last year's KeyOne, with the standard four-row BlackBerry layout but the same vertically compressed design. Purists will notice that the right Shift button has been replaced with one that has a grid of nine dots. This is what's called the Speed Key, and in short, it lets you use the home screen shortcuts assigned to each alphabet's key from within any app, even if you're in the middle of typing something. It's strange that the Shift key was dropped, considering there's blank space to either side of the bottom keyboard row.
Just like with the KeyOne (Review), a fingerprint reader has been embedded into the spacebar. It makes a lot of sense and it's natural for us to place a finger there to unlock this phone. We also kept hitting the spacebar as if it was a Home button, which it isn't. On the downside, this model's reduction in price means that the keyboard isn't touch-sensitive. This was one of the coolest features of previous BlackBerry models, allowing you to glide your fingers over the keyboard to scroll, make selections, and even “fling” autocomplete suggestions into your text. It's a pity, but it's understandable.
The keys are angled slightly, facing outwards, so your thumbs rest on them naturally. A big problem with the KeyOne was that the keys at the ends of each row were exposed and easy to snag on fingernails or loose threads, and this seems to have been fixed with the Key2 LE. Luckily, this phone isn't too heavy at 156g, so it doesn't feel difficult to balance while typing with two thumbs.
As for typing comfort, the keyboard is very good. Even though BlackBerry isn't manufacturing this phone itself, the distinctive keyboard quality has not been lost – at least as far as hardware quality goes. We'll have more on the actual usage experience later.
The rest of the BlackBerry Key2 is also quite interesting. The entire back has a texture that's meant to improve grip, but it doesn't do much for aesthetics. In fact, it makes this phone look rather odd and toy-like. Optiemus says that the Slate Blue colour of the rear and the lower front is a first for BlackBerry, but to us it just looked grey most of the time, and there are no other options in India. The enormous shiny BlackBerry logo is visible from quite a distance and will attract quite a bit of attention.
There's a dual-camera bump on the rear with a dual-LED flash next to it. The power and volume buttons are all on the right, which is pretty normal for Android phones but might not be loved by long-time BlackBerry users. They're joined by the BlackBerry convenience key which triggers Google Assistant by default but can be set to bring up quick shortcuts to apps. Sets of apps can even be customised and activated automatically depending on whether you're currently connected to a specific Bluetooth device such as a car console or a specific Wi-Fi access point such as your office network.
Unfortunately there's a hybrid dual-SIM tray, which means choosing between more storage and a second SIM. On the bottom, there's a USB Type-C port and a single speaker with a second grille for symmetry. A 3.5mm audio socket is on the top.
Like the KeyOne and the Key2, this phone's overall shape is rounded on the bottom and flat on the top. It's subtle though, which we think people will like. The Key2 LE is comfortable to hold and use for typing and general productivity. Screens this small are now unusual, but we found that it was easy to reach all corners of it with one thumb. The flipside of this is that use in landscape mode, especially when gaming with both thumbs on the screen, is quite awkward.
BlackBerry Key2 LE specifications and software
BlackBerry phones over the past few years have not been known for being both affordable and powerful, and this one is no different. The processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 636, which is fairly powerful, but is thoroughly outclassed by the Snapdragon 845 which is not uncommon at the sub-Rs. 30,000 price level now. We've seen the Snapdragon 636 in phones that cost roughly one-third as much, most notably the Asus ZenFone Max Pro M1 (Review) which starts at Rs. 10,999.
The 4.5-inch screen has a 3:2 aspect ratio and a resolution of 1080x1620. The pixel density is 434ppi which is quite impressive, but colours are a little washed out. The battery capacity is 3000mAh and Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 is supported. You get an 18W charger in the box to take advantage of that.
The primary rear camera has a 13-megapixel sensor and f/2.2 aperture, while the secondary 5-megapixel depth sensor has a poorer f/2.4 aperture. PDAF is supported and you get a Portrait mode. You can record 4K video at up to 30fps and there's no sign of stabilisation. The front 8-megapixel camera has a fixed focus and there's a screen flash option in the app.
There's 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, which you can bump up by 256GB using a microSD card if you don't want a second SIM. 4G and LTE are supported. You get Bluetooth 5, and the spec sheet indicates support for Wi-Fi 802.11n on the 2.4GHz as well as 5GHz bands, but Wi-Fi ac on only the 2.4GHz band. There's also NFC, GPS, and FM radio. The sensors include a magnetometer, gyroscope, and Hall sensor in addition to the proximity and ambient light sensors.
The Key2 LE runs Android 8.1 and our unit was running the October 2018 security patch. BlackBerry's customisations run deep, beginning with the useful ability to swipe up or down on home screen icons to pull up widgets for those apps. Android's contextual menus have been given large shortcut icons, which we liked.
Each keyboard key can be given a long-press and a short-press shortcut, for a total of 52 possible actions – these are what you can trigger from within apps using the new Speed Key. These shortcuts can also be pinned to the home screen as icons. Shortcuts can be as simple as launching an app, but you can also get straight into a message compose window with a specific contact's email address or phone number already in place, jump to individual pages of the Settings app, pull up a filtered view of a mailbox, or launch an app and go to a specific section or function.
Security is a huge selling point for BlackBerry. The DTEK app is a security dashboard but a lot of what it shows are standard Android functions. It showed us an “all clear” because we had set up a Google account and passcode, and because we hadn't enabled developer mode or bypassed the Play store's security. You can quickly review the permissions that all your apps enjoy and check whether your software is out of date. DTEK gives you a nice overview of what your phone is doing, but it doesn't seem to do much itself. Power Centre does much the same for power-related settings such as the screen timeout and adaptive brightness, and shows you which apps are consuming the most power.
The Locker app is more interesting, because it gives you private instances of your photo gallery, file storage location, Web browser, and apps of your own choosing. You can lock it with your own password and choose whether or not your fingerprint can be used to unlock it.
The BlackBerry Hub isn't tightly integrated as it was when it first debuted with BlackBerry's BB10 OS. It takes the form of an app that unifies your email and messaging accounts (including BBM). You can quickly sort and filter messages and use keyboard shortcuts to reply. There's a bit of a learning curve if you want to take advantage of those features. People who find themselves drowning in email every day might benefit from this app.
BlackBerry also has its own Calendar, Tasks, Contacts, and Device Search apps. Password Keeper does exactly what it sounds like. Privacy Shade lets you dim the screen except for a small movable area that you control with your finger, so peeping toms have a hard time looking over your shoulder. Redactor is a similar tool that lets you black out parts of screenshots before you share them.
If you're thinking that the high cost of the hardware might be worth it because of this software and the overall usage experience, keep in mind that most of BlackBerry's apps (including the BlackBerry Launcher) are now available to users of other Android phones. You'll have to either put up with ads or pay Rs. 65 per month after a 30-day trial period on non-BlackBerry phones.
BlackBerry Key2 LE performance, battery life and cameras
Living with the BlackBerry Key2 might require a few compromises. The apps we used seemed to all scale well enough to the short, squarish screen – including games such as PUBG and Asphalt 9: Legends. Asphalt detected the keyboard and assumed that this was our primary form of control, which of course didn't work well in landscape mode.
The BlackBerry Key2 LE tries to combine the benefits of physical keyboard keys and a touchscreen, but the integration is very messy. We went into detail about this in our review of the KeyOne, and unfortunately nothing has changed in the time since then. You get a row of autocomplete suggestions and some shortcuts on-screen, but the row of capacitive navigation buttons is between the keyboard and screen. This makes it very easy to mess up and accidentally exit the app you're working on. The on-screen component also expands to five full rows sometimes, such as when you press the Sym button to show a number pad and punctuation symbols on screen. When trying to dismiss this, we wound up instead cycling through different views, including a full on-screen QWERTY keyboard that shouldn't even exist. It can be quite confusing and frustrating.
This obviously isn't the best phone for watching videos, but the screen and single speaker are good enough for casual entertainment. General usage is smooth, with no problems. The fingerprint sensor is snappy, and if you want face recognition, you can use Android's Trusted Face feature.
The Key2 LE did well enough in benchmark tests. AnTuTu threw up a score of 114,271 and Geekbench's single-core and multi-core runs gave us 1,345 and 4,793 points respectively. 3DMark Slingshot returned a score of 1,534. GFXBench scores benefited from the reduced screen resolution, so we got 40fps in the T-rex scene and 12fps in the Manhattan 3.1 scene. Games run fairly well, but we did notice that the back of this phone got quite warm after just a few minutes of playing Asphalt 9: Legends. If you want to play games, there are far better phones available at this price level.
Our HD video loop test ran for a very disappointing 8 hours, 20 minutes, but the phone fared better with real-world usage. We had a few email accounts set up and running through the BlackBerry hub, we spent some time online, and we also streamed some video and played games intermittently for a few hours one day. The Key2 LE still had about 20 percent remaining after 14-15 hours of such treatment, so it can easily get through a heavy working day. If you focus only on productivity, you'll do even better.
Camera quality was not impressive. First of all, the app is a little odd. It takes three taps to record video and a dive into the settings menu to display manual controls on screen. You can hit the spacebar to capture a photo, which is convenient, but if you tap the fingerprint sensor (with any finger, registered or not), a photo will be captured directly to your secure Locker app's gallery and can't be found in the Google Photos app – with no warning. We encountered a bit of shutter lag and also saw that the phone had trouble locking focus on occasion.
Tap to see full-sized BlackBerry Key2 LE camera samples
A lot of the photos we took in the daytime actually came out looking good, with rich colours and decent reproduction of details. Bright areas tended to be overexposed but overall the results were satisfactory. The Bokeh effect in portrait shots was also good. You might not get every spontaneous shot that you want, but posed and still subjects will be fine. At night, there was a bit of motion blurring and a lot of shots were just muddy and black with very little even visible. It was hard to focus on subjects, and we didn't get much use out of this camera at all. Video is decent but nothing to get excited about. The slow-motion mode produced extremely poor quality video.
As we go through each feature and capability of the BlackBerry Key2 LE in turn, we see that they are all good enough for a phone at the Rs. 10,000 – 15,000 level, but not if you're spending Rs. 29,990. Sure, a BlackBerry phone with a physical keyboard and productivity software should come at a bit of a premium, but a 2X - 3X price gap is far too wide. We don't think it's really a fair tradeoff, and it overshadows every good thing about this phone.
By this point in 2018, even hardcore BlackBerry fans and enthusiasts will have at least tried out a touchscreen phone. Unless you're utterly and completely certain by now that you need a physical keyboard, the Key2 LE is not the best use of your money. The most obvious competitors around this price are the Asus ZenFone 5z (Review) and Poco F1 (Review), both of which have flagship-class specifications and cost less than Rs. 30,000. You could also look at several good options at lower prices that would save you some money, and subscribe to BlackBerry's Android app suite for a small amount each month.