It’s 2018. Do people still want a phone with a physical keyboard?
That’s the question TCL is trying to answer with its new BlackBerry Key2, a $650 smartphone with a 4.5-inch screen and an actual physical keyboard.
I spent about 10 days with the BlackBerry Key2 to test how it compares with other high-end smartphones on the market. I also wanted to see if, as a former BlackBerry user way back when, I still enjoyed using a physical keyboard.
Here’s what it was like.
First things first: The BlackBerry Key2 is a good-looking phone, and it certainly doesn’t look like anything else on the market.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the look and feel of the BlackBerry Key2. It has a grippy, textured back that feels rugged and vaguely pleasant, and I enjoyed the squared-off edges, chrome details, and overall businesslike aesthetic. Plus, the phone gets great battery life — I typically got about a day and a half out of it before it needed charging.
TCL says the device is lighter and slimmer than its predecessor, the BlackBerry KeyOne, but it’s hard to tell. Compared with my aluminum iPhone 6S, the Key2 feels notably heavier.
The BlackBerry Key2 has a 4.5-inch LCD display, which is a hair smaller than the 4.7-inch display on the iPhone 6S. But it’s a physically larger phone, thanks to the keyboard at the bottom of the device. That said, I have relatively small hands, and I didn’t find the device to be too big for me — in fact, at about 6 inches long, it’s likely to be the perfect size for most people.
One other note on the display: While it’s sharp and incredibly vivid, it doesn’t get very bright. This wasn’t an issue most of the time, but I sometimes found myself squinting at the screen, even with the brightness turned all the way up.
A few other design choices stand out, for better or worse.
There were things that I liked about the design, and things that I really hated.
For instance, the BlackBerry Key2 does have a headphone jack, though it’s at the top of the device rather than the bottom like most people are used to.
And while the phone may have physical keys, it doesn’t have a physical home button. Instead, a digital home button is above the keyboard.
This is all well and good, but it’s going to be a major adjustment for most people. Since most smartphones have a physical or digital home button at the bottom, that’s where I automatically pressed when I was trying to hit the home button. But that’s where the keyboard’s space bar is, which does not double as a home button (though it does have a dual purpose — more on that in a minute).
Nine times out of 10, I would press the space bar first before remembering where the home button was. For me, it would probably take several weeks of using the phone to get out of that habit.
The keyboard’s space bar doubles as a fingerprint scanner, but it doesn’t do a great job.
I was excited to try the fingerprint scanner on the BlackBerry Key2, because I loved how subtly it was built into the phone’s design. The scanner lives inside the space bar, meaning you should just be able to press it lightly to unlock your phone each time.
It’s a great idea in theory, but it isn’t very practical in real life.
The space bar is a long, narrow rectangle, and it’s not ideal for capturing fingerprints. About 80% of the time, it took me several tries to get my phone unlocked using the scanner. If you didn’t place your finger just right on the space bar, it refused to open your phone. This grew tiresome after a while, and I eventually resorted to using my passcode each time.
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