In a smartphone world full of edge-to-edge displays that all look very similar indeed, it's quite nice to see a manufacturer not following the crowd.
BlackBerry did just that last year with the launch of the KeyOne, bringing back the full physical keyboard that's so synonymous with the brand and sticking with what it does best - not being like anything else on the market.
As such, that means it's not going to be for everyone. But if you want a phone that puts productivity at the forefront of its concerns, the Key2 looks very promising indeed - particularly with its design, camera and performance improvements.
READ MORE: BlackBerry KeyOne review
While the KeyOne took us at least someway back to the BlackBerry days of old, with a compact physical keyboard under a sizeable screen, BlackBerry realised it had perhaps sidelined its standout feature a little too heavily.
That’s why, on the Key2, the keyboard is a little more prominent. Keys are now 20% larger and have a matte finish rather than the slippery gloss from the KeyOne. As a result, typing is much nicer and faster. In fact, it’s probably one of the most enjoyable typing experiences I’ve ever had on a BlackBerry.
There were still typos, but going from a touchscreen to a physical keyboard is always going to require a bit of a handover period.
The Key2 helps with this by keeping the Flick Type feature from the KeyOne, which offers up word suggestions at the bottom of the screen as you type.
If you spot them in good time, you can save your thumbs some work by simply swiping up across the keyboard, underneath the word you want to put in. I wasn’t sold by this on the KeyOne, but after using it briefly on the Key2, I think I’ve started to see the appeal.
The ability to use the keyboard as a trackpad returns too, for swiping around homepages or scrolling websites. The space bar still holds the fingerprint scanner too, and despite its slender dimensions, works well.
As well as the new keyboard, there is also a new button within it, which is called the Speed Key. The idea is that it will help you to more easily switch between apps - almost like a multitasking key.
The KeyOne already had built-in shortcuts, allowing you to set each of your physical keys to load an app with a short or long hold. However you had to be on the homescreen to activate them - the Speed Key allows you to access your shortcuts from wherever.
Simply press it down followed by your shortcut key to jump into whatever app you need. It will probably take a bit of use to feel second nature, but we can see the appeal, and brings proper multi-tasking to BlackBerry for the first time.
Keyboard aside, BlackBerry has also given the overall design some tweaks, and to good effect. It’s slimmer and lighter, and the edges are a little cleaner than they were on the KeyOne, so it feels loads better to hold, with aluminium around the edges and a new, grippier back panel.
The buttons have had a re-jig too - they're now all on the right hand side, with the power button getting some added texture to make it stand out from the volume rocker above and BlackBerry's Convenience Key below. This can be set to launch whatever you want with a single press, but with all the shortcuts available up front on the keyboard, it feels largely redundant.
More traditional audio fans will also be happy to hear that the BlackBerry Key2 keeps the 3.5mm jack, and includes some improved headphones bundled in the box too. Sound has also had a tweak - the single mono speaker at the bottom of the handset has been improved, while the internal dual microphones have also been moved too, to further improve call quality.
As for colour ways, there is the black and silver version that the KeyOne came in, plus a black on black finish as well. That would be my pick of the two, but both look very smart indeed
Screen: business as usual
The 1620 x 1080 4.5in screen on the Key2 hasn’t changed a whole lot from the KeyOne, but has been pushed up a bit to make room for the larger keyboard, giving the phone 25% less “forehead”.
While this doesn’t change the overall size of the phone from the KeyOne, it does give it a slightly fresher, more modern look - when you look at the KeyOne now, the spare space at the top just looks wasteful.
It's still an LCD, which means while colours are punchy, the blacks on offer won’t challenge an OLED.
In my short time with it, it was certainly clear and bright enough to enjoy browsing and flicking around the phone, with no discernible pixels (434ppi) to ruin the experience.
I’m still not sold on it as a phone for entertainment though. The 3:2 screen ratio makes video viewing black-bar-tastic, and the smaller screen doesn’t really lend itself to gaming either. This is a phone that’s still very much focused on productivity above anything else.
Performance & software: high demands
The Key2 is powered by the Snapdragon 660 processor, with 6GB RAM - double that of the KeyOne.
That should mean performance is nice and fast for all the extra multi-tasking you’ll be doing compared to its predecessor. There are faster processors out there, but flicking around the phone in our hands on time threw up no issues - shortcuts with the Speed Key were slick, with transitions smooth and load times quick.
Elsewhere, there is 64GB built-in storage (a 128GB version will be coming to the UK later in the year), plus microSD expansion, and a pretty bold statement on battery life.
Speaking of the 3500mAh cell, which is decked out with QuickCharge 3.0 for 50% charge in 36 minutes, BlackBerry told us: “Imagine the most demanding day ever, you will never need to recharge the battery”.
That’s a bold promise, and one we’ll be putting to the test in our full review, but BlackBerry also said that the Key2 will be able to learn your usage habits, and give you charging tips to ensure you don’t fall short.
As for software, thankfully BlackBerry’s proprietary days are long gone, and it’s Android Oreo 8.0 at play here. There are still a few BlackBerry favourites on board so it doesn’t feel entirely swallowed up by Android, such as BlackBerry Messenger and BlackBerry’s excellent security software, Locker.
The latter will allow you to place files, photos and apps in a secure location that will not be shared with the cloud, and which will need a password to view. Firefox Focus is also found here, which offers incognito browsing as standard.
Camera: seeing double
The Key2 offers a pretty decent camera upgrade for a phone a little more focussed on productivity. There are now dual 12MP lenses on the back instead of one, along with the same 8MP one on the front.
The second rear lens works to offer up to 2x optical zoom, as well as bokeh effects for the “portrait mode” effect that you’ll now find on just about every smartphone going.
BlackBerry is also claiming faster autofocus, improvements to white balance, and is chucking in the much-needed optical image stabilisation that was so missing in the KeyOne. That’s promising - here’s hoping the camera app itself is a little more user friendly than we found on its predecessor.
We didn’t get much chance to play around with the camera in our hands-on time, so we’ll be leaving our opinions on its performance for our full review.
BlackBerry Key2 first impressions
If you liked the KeyOne, but were as annoyed by its niggles and quirks as we were, the KeyTwo appears to pick up the slack in just about every area.
The design is loads better, the keyboard is back to its best and the battery life, performance and camera improvements seem very promising indeed.
If you’re yet to be won over by a physical keyboard, the Key2 might struggle to do that unless you’re really committed to it. And if your phone experience is usually reserved for gaming, movies and social media, it will probably fall short too.
However, for those that put productivity and security high on their smartphone must-haves, the BlackBerry seems to remain a solid choice. We’ll bring you our full review very soon.