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BlackBerry still gets physical

BlackBerry’s new KEY2 begs the question: Does the physical smartphone keyboard have a place in 2018? BRYAN TURNER has a few answers.

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BlackBerry, a name that was once synonymous with smartphones, has made yet another comeback with a refreshed KEY handset. The new device appears aimed at appeasing those who want to use a physical smartphone keyboard again.

The most important enhancement of the KEY2 is dramatically improved ergonomics. Compared to the KEYone, there is a slightly increased space between the bottom of the phone and the bottom row of keys, which makes the space bar more reachable. The overall weight distribution also seems to be improved, with the top half of the smartphone being lighter than the bottom. This makes it feel more balanced when typing, making for a dramatic improvement from the KEYone. 

The iconic BlackBerry keyboard underwent a slight redesign from the KEYone, making it more BlackBerry Bold-like than before. Scrolling through on-screen event using the capacitive touch keyboard is a lot more responsive than one would expect. In fact, users were often impressed with how accurate it was when they tried it out. Flick-typing is still a function of the keyboard, but can be turned off if one accidentally triggers suggested words while typing. The fingerprint sensor remains in the keyboard spacebar, as with the KEYone.

The metal body of the KEY2 in silver is something to admire, giving the smartphone a very premium aesthetic. The back is textured black plastic with the silver BlackBerry logo has remained unchanged since the late 2000s. 

The hardware keys are placed on the right side of the phone, starting with the volume rocker at the top, followed by the lock/wake button, then by a custom “Convenience Key” which can be programmed to quickly access specific apps. The left side features a Micro-SIM and SD card slot; the latter can be expanded up to 256GB. The top holds the 3.5mm headphone jack while the bottom sports a symmetrical speaker/microphone grid and a USB Type C port.

Portrait mode photograph with the BlackBerry KEY2. (Picture: Bryan Turner)

One of the most interesting redesigns is the 12+12MP dual camera setup, which proved to take superb portrait mode photos compared to other options in the mid-to-high-range smartphone market. The video recording proved to be good at shooting 4K videos at 60 frames per second. That being said, a huge disappointment was the lack of ability to deal with low-light, as it consistently delivered grainy, blurry photos in night-time situations.

The screen has not changed much from the KEYone: a 4.5 inch full HD display includes touch navigations keys, placed neatly between the keyboard and screen. The display colours are good but the 3:2 aspect ratio is a little weird, to say the least. This creates little black bars above and below YouTube videos, which wouldn’t happen on a typical 16:9 smartphone screen. Losing screen space is one of the sacrifices of having a physical keyboard.

BlackBerry’s software claims to use one of the most secure flavours of Android on the market. At first glance, BlackBerry has skinned very little, leaving a lot of the aesthetic as vanilla Android as possible. But, when looking deeper, one finds motifs of “professional BlackBerry design”. BlackBerry DTEK, software included with the BlackBerry, routinely scans and keeps the user informed about what apps are doing and what they are accessing. This proved to be quite an eye-opener in terms of how much an app can access on one’s phone.

Overall, the KEY2 is a smartphone for the nostalgic business person who misses a physical keyboard and doesn’t use the device for video media.

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