BlackBerry KEY2 LE review: Physical keyboards aren’t for everyone anymore

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Looking at the BlackBerry KEY2 LE you’ll notice a striking homage to the BlackBerry roots.

TA-ratings-91Here we are in 2019 talking about BlackBerry. But this isn’t the BlackBerry you once knew. While the design and look of the hardware still hold true to its roots. The power inside is now pushed by Android OS. But, it’s that keyboard that still draws the faithful back to BlackBerry. Our own Jason Bouwmeester reviewed the BlackBerry KEY2 in October and gave it high marks. Now, here we are in March and I had the task of reviewing the BlackBerry KEY2 LE.

There are certainly plenty of things to like about the BlackBerry KEY2 LE but the main card BlackBerry holds, just might be a card no one is interested in playing anymore. Read on for the full review of the BlackBerry KEY2 LE.

Specifications

The BlackBerry KEY2 LE has the following features and specifications:

  • Operating System: Android 8.1 Oreo
  • Display: 4.5-inch, 1620×1080, IPS LCD, 434ppi, 3:2 aspect ratio, 24-bit colour depth
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 636, Kryo 260 Octa-Core 4 x Gold (1.8GHz) + 4 x Silver (1.6GHz)
  • RAM: 4GB
  • Storage: 64GB
  • Expandable microSD: up to 256GB
  • Rear Camera: Dual Camera 13MP Fov 79.8°, Pixel-1.12um, F2.2, Phase Detect Auto Focus (PDAF) with Dual Tone LED Flash, HDR, 4K video recording at 30 fps, Scan, Private Capture and a 5MP Fov 84°, Pixel-1.12um, F2.4
  • Front Camera: 8MP Fixed Focus, Selfie flash, 1080p/30 video
  • Battery: 3,000 mAh non-removable
  • Charging: USB-C, 9V2A 18W QC3.0 Charger
  • Water resistance: No
  • Headphone jack: Yes
  • Security: DTEK security suite, FIPS 140-2 Full Disk Encryption, Android For Work, Google Play for Work
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11ac, 5GHz, Bluetooth 5.0 LE, NFC, GPS, GLONASS, Beidou, Galileo, OTDOA, FM Radio, 4G Mobile Hotspot, Wi-Fi Direct, USB OTG
  • Dimensions:
    • Height: 150.25mm
    • Width: 71.8mm
    • Depth: 8.35mm
  • Weight: 168g

What’s In The Box

  • BlackBerry KEY2 LE
  • USB-C to USB-A charging cable
  • USB power adapter
  • In-ear headphones
  • SIM removal tool
  • User guide

Design

Looking at the BlackBerry KEY2 LE you’ll notice a striking homage to the BlackBerry roots. That boxy and squared-off body along with the iconic keyboard and smaller 4.5″ display, there’s no mistaking it for anything else. Sure, there are some subtle updates to its overall design, but the design language is pure BlackBerry.

Unlike the KEY2, there is no aluminum here. This is a polycarbonate build along with other high-quality plastics and compounds. This makes the KEY 2 LE slightly lighter than the KEY2, although I rather like that myself. Even though the body is polycarbonate, it still feels well-built and robust. It actually feels sturdier than most all-glass flagship phones that could very easily shatter from a small drop.


 

Along the right edge of the phone, you’ll find the volume rocker, textured power button, and Convenience Key. Along the bottom are your USB-C port and speaker grilles. The top of the phone houses the headphone jack and a microphone. The left side houses the SIM card tray and nothing more. Around the back is the BlackBerry logo along with the dual-camera setup and a rubbery textured back plate.

Turning the phone over to its front you’ll find the 4.5″ display which looks bigger than it is due to the soft keys being housed in the bottom bezel. The left and right bezels are not bad in terms of thickness, certainly thicker than many other phones, but not horrible. The top and bottom bezels are a bit thicker but it sticks to that BlackBerry design language.

That iconic BlackBerry keyboard is front and center here, as you would expect it to be. This is the main card the BlackBerry KEY2 LE has to play and a big part of why people will want to buy this phone. Physical keyboards aren’t for everyone anymore and the amount of touch screen devices being sold shows that. Still, there are a few who still prefer this input method.

BlackBerry KEY2 LE

The keyboard

There are some differences between the KEY2 and KEY2 LE in the keyboard department. First, the KEY2 does not have gesture input as the KEY2 has. This might not be a big deal for many and the price difference between the two probably justifies it but it would have been nice to have.

Still, even without gesture support on the keyboard. It’s the physical size of the keyboard that is also different between the KEY2 and KEY2 LE. The keys on the BlackBerry KEY2 LE are 10% smaller than those on the KEY2. For this reason, I felt like the keyboard was cramped and clunky to navigate on. Now, this could totally be just my own issue and I do believe that the keyboard experience is going to be highly subjective. So take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

Using the physical keyboard does take some time to relearn if you haven’t used one in a while. When I first got the KEY2 LE I thought I’d enjoy going back to a physical keyboard, unfortunately, I didn’t. I found the keyboard to be cramped and clunky to use. Perhaps this is from years of swiping and using a touchscreen keyboard which has taken the place of physical keyboards. I would have liked to test the KEY2 keyboard to see if the 10% size difference in keys was a factor but I couldn’t do that. So while I do think there are plenty of people who are going to appreciate a physical keyboard. I do think the majority of users just aren’t going to be interested in them any longer.

Overall, the BlackBerry KEY2 LE design is much like its predecessors in its look and feel. This is a good thing for those who want that classic BlackBerry and the keyboard will be great for those who still have that want. For me, the keyboard was just not up to the task and that could very well just be me.


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Display

So I’m not going to lie here. Getting used to a 4.5″ display after using displays that measure 6″ and above for the last several years took some getting used to. There is a benefit to the BlackBerry KEY2 LE physical keyboard and that is there is no software keyboard that pops up and covers your content. So in that respect, I like it. However, I have to say that I never really got adjusted to the smaller screen.

Watching video and gaming is a little cringy on the BlackBerry KEY2 LE. Mostly because the screen is smaller, although some things scaled to its 3:2 aspect ratio okay video was not very enjoyable. It’s certainly not the same as newer 6.5″ screens at 16:9. The panel itself is just okay. Colors are fine, not great, but fine and contrast and whites are good as well. Brightness is weak though. This was difficult to use in bright sunlight even with brightness set to max.

Overall, the display on the BlackBerry KEY2 LE is just okay. It’s not anything special and its low brightness isn’t great for bright light situations. While the price tag on this device isn’t all too bad, it would have been nice to get a bit better of a display.

BlackBerry KEY2 LE

Getting used to a smaller screen was hard for me.

Software

This particular BlackBerry is loaded up with Android 8.1 and Google Assistant is assigned to the Convenience Key, which is awesome! Of course, the usual Google suite of apps is pre-loaded along with a few BlackBerry apps alongside them. BlackBerry has always been about productivity and security and there are plenty of apps that cover that aspect of the user experience. Here is a rundown of some of the apps that come pre-installed on the KEY2 LE.

  • BlackBerry Keyboard
  • BlackBerry Hub
  • BlackBerry Hub+ Service
  • Calendar by BlackBerry
  • Contacts by BlackBerry
  • Notes by BlackBerry
  • Tasks by BlackBerry
  • BBM
  • DTEK by BlackBerry
  • BlackBerry
  • Device Search
  • BlackBerry Launcher
  • BlackBerry Password Keeper
  • BlackBerry Power Center
  • BlackBerry Productivity Tab
  • BlackBerry Notable
  • BlackBerry Privacy Shade
  • Firefox Focus

As you can see, BlackBerry is still very much catering to those whose focus is productivity and security. Most of the included apps are fantastic for accomplishing what you need to do and they’re great at keeping it secure as well. The BlackBerry Hub is an interesting application and one I can see many users liking. I personally found it odd at first but got used to it after some time. The Hub basically aggregates your notifications from your other apps into one place. This keeps you from having to open one app and then another and another. So in theory, you remain more productive. I really can see how business-focused users enjoyed using this type of organized operating system.

Overall, the software experience was good, it’s not for everyone but for those seeking productivity and security, this has you covered. Right now the KEY2 LE runs on Android 8.1 and I have not seen any announcements as to if or when it will get Android 9.0.

Performance

The KEY2 is running a Snapdragon 660 which some criticized it for, saying it was underpowered for the price. The KEY2 LE is running an even lower powered processor in the Snapdragon 636 and comes with either 3GB or 4GB of RAM. I really didn’t have any issues running basic apps and watching videos and YouTube.

I truly don’t think this phone is made or meant for gaming, you can run some games just fine on it but it’s not the best experience. It’s certainly not the most powerful phone on the market but it’s also not aiming for users who need that much power. I think most users will be okay with the 636.

Overall, the BlackBerry KEY2 LE performs as a midrange phone meant for productivity and security and it doesn’t try and be anything more than what it is.

BlackBerry KEY2 LE

USB-C and Speaker

Speakers/Sound

There is really nothing to write home about on the speakers here. Fine for general use, podcasts, voice calls, and that sort of thing. But the speakers and sound aren’t going to win any awards for immersive entertainment by any means. They’re tinny and dirty at best but really, I didn’t expect much here at all. Overall, the speakers will do fine for general things but get a pair of headphones if you want to enjoy movies and music on the BlackBerry KEY2 LE.

Camera

I’m sure most people aren’t buying the BlackBerry KEY2 LE for its camera prowess. There are far better cameras on smartphones but the KEY2 LE is at least passable. It struggles in low-light and doesn’t produce the sharpest or best-colored images. I’m not saying the camera is complete trash but it is just a bit below what I would consider great for a midrange device.

Like most of the newer smartphones, the KEY2 LE has Portrait Mode which gives you that DSLR bokeh effect behind your subject. It also features 4K video recording, which is nice for a phone at this price point.

The usual suspects are here for the camera. Slo-mo video, pano mode, portrait mode, a scanner mode, and the selfie camera has one of those “beauty” features. There is also an array of Instagram type filters you can apply to your photos. Overall, the camera isn’t the best, but it’s not the worst. As I said earlier, most people are likely buying this for productivity and security so this camera will likely be fine for most. The scanner feature is useful for productivity-focused users.

Reception/Call Quality

Bluetooth and LTE reception is great, no complaints here at all. Call quality is equally great and I had no issues with hearing calls and callers could hear me just fine as well. Overall, a phone made for productivity should have good reception and call quality and the KEY2 LE delivers here.

Battery Life

Battery life is pretty amazing here. I was able to get through my entire day using the phone in a variety of ways and still end up with just over 40% by the end of the day. The BlackBerry KEY2 LE could very easily last some an entire two days of use without needing to be charged.

The phone also supports Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 which should get your battery charged quickly and put you back on the move. Overall, the battery life is fantastic. Part of that is no doubt due to the screen resolution and also it’s lack of brightness. But still, battery life is stellar here.

Price/Value

Our review unit came priced at US$449.99 with 64GB of storage and 4GB RAM. This isn’t a bad deal for those who are seeking a physical keyboard, productivity, and security. I think there’s plenty of value here for the right buyers. For those who are curious about trying out a physical keyboard again, I’d say, you might not like it as much as you think. At the end of the day, it’s your call.


Wrap Up

It’s been a very long time since I’ve used a BlackBerry. I think the last one I used for any period of time was the BlackBerry 8700C. So reading several other reviews will certainly help give you a more rounded idea about what to expect with the KEY2 LE. I don’t hate the phone, but I didn’t find the physical keyboard experience as good as I thought it would have been. This may be entirely different for you and you might actually love it. The best I can say is, buy it and try it. Or maybe find someone with a KEY2 or KEY2 LE and give it a go for a few minutes just to get an idea. It’s a fine mid-range device, but it’s my opinion that physical keyboards are just not for everyone anymore.

*We received a review unit of the BlackBerry KEY2 LE for the purposes of this review.

BlackBerry KEY2 LE

US$449.99
9.1

Design

9.0/10

Display

9.0/10

Software

9.0/10

Performance

9.0/10

Speakers/Sound

8.0/10

Camera

8.5/10

Reception/Call Quality

10.0/10

Battery Life

10.0/10

Price/Value

9.0/10

Nailed it

  • Classic BlackBerry design
  • Decent display for its size
  • Google Assistant can be used with Convenience Key
  • Focus on security and productivity
  • Battery life is amazing
  • Lightweight and feels well built
  • Feels nice in the hand

Needs work

  • Camera isn't all that great
  • Keyboard feels clunky and cramped (this is probably a very subjective critique)
  • No gesture navigation on keyboard like the KEY2
  • Lacks water-resistance
  • Screen brightness isn't great

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