Saturday 7 July 2018

BlackBerry KEY2

I have to admit to being rather disappointed after my short time with the KEY2, which mainly left me wondering why they had gone to all the bother of upgrading the KEYone. I really don’t get it, nor do I see what is sparklingly different enough for anyone to want to upgrade.

I actually prefer the KEYone! In my review of the KEYone ( a year ago, I had so much praise for the unit, even though I probably miss out on most of the BlackBerry software goodness which long-term business users will have enjoyed. To be fair, my view now may be jaded by this device being silver, not black. I’ve just seen a picture of a black one and it looks so much nicer, much like the KEYone did. Anyway, read on...

A Word on Updates History
The KEYone still awaits Oreo and is stuck on Android Nougat 7.1.1. The Google Security Updates have been keeping up and I guess that BlackBerry fans will consider that the most important aspect. But a year later and the Messageboards continue to scratch their heads about the promised Oreo and now fear that BlackBerry are just going to do the same as they did with the Priv. Empty promises of updates. Discontinued hardware. I sincerely hope Oreo comes. This, for our crowd at least, is a concern. We’ve come to impatiently expect all available updates yesterday - and I now don’t trust that BlackBerry will keep up with the pack, non-Pixel, being led by Nokia. However, it may not bother you. So, What’s Changed?

The Keyboard
There is some increase in the key size/spacing. The keys are certainly easier to not crunch with my fat thumbs. However, the whole experience is so much more hard work, not only over on-screen keyboards but also over the effort of pairing up a bluetooth one, if one’s phone is really needed for typing that much/seriously. The slightly taller keys and space between the rows, even taking into account the reduction in bezels, has made the device taller - and it didn’t need that. It was tall enough as it was.

The keys have been made less ‘domed’, more chamfered on their sides and flat-faced, like older BB devices - and I think that’s a mistake. They should have kept them as they were. They could have still made them taller if needed - and spaced out the rows - and ended up with a more usable keyboard as seen on the Nokia E6, for example, should, to be fair, that have been bigger. They have made them ‘matt’ instead of ‘gloss’ in terms of a finish and again, I don’t see any advantage. The keys worked well enough as they were.

What's with the two blank spaces still, where keys should be? Is that supposed to be a thumb resting space? Seems like a waste to me and the ‘alt’ key could be down there on the left or enter key bigger on the right, or the space bar wider. Maybe I'm missing the point! Maybe it's supposed to make it easier not have to peck and hunt the alt and return keys.

There’s a new shortcut button, which allows hot-key access to any app or setting you fancy assigning to each key, times two (short and long press), so there are tons of options for productive use of the keys without touching the screen. The difference here is that, unlike the older model, they’re accessible from anywhere in the UI instead of just from the homescreen. It does make a difference in use of course, and the more your brain learns where they are and which is what, the longer you invest your time and attention into the system, the more use it will become.

Let’s not forget that the keyboard is actually a capacitive trackpad, too. And that might be it’s greatest trick. Works incredibly well, keeping fingers away from the small screen, scrolling pages and controlling cursor in text. But that is the same, pretty much, as the KEYone. And also, the gesture-based predictive text with up-swipes to accept, if you want to invest the time in training your brain to use it. I suppose I’m not really committed enough to the change here. I just can’t be bothered! Pah! What a lousy reviewer!

The bottom line here is that if you’re geeky enough to want to embrace this system and learn how it works (or remember as a current user) then there’s great fun to be had with the keyboard. There are tons of options and ways to use it, loads of settings and tweaks and shortcuts. When I had the QWERTY Nokia phones back in the day, I did do this - and was well enthused. The days when money was tight and we saved up for a device and kept it for two years, not 2 weeks!

I think that the usability leap is too high for me. The constant frustration is holding the device in one hand, finger of the other interacting with the screen, then having to shift the whole holding position in both hands when you need to type even one character, or enter a password etc. That, I find, the primary annoyance. And I find that I need to use it with two thumbs. Quickly pressing a hardware key with one finger while the other hand is left where it is, is just odd. It interferes with the workflow and input flow horribly for me. Maybe over time I'd get used to it.

Evolutionary Convenience
The Convenience Key on the right allows now three apps/actions to be assigned to it, missing from the KEYone but included in the Motion. Seems a bit of a gimmick really, which I never used on any of these devices. With thumb-unlock on the space-bar, what benefit then over a homescreen folder, which, into the bargain, can hold many more shortcuts. A physical shortcut key should really do one thing, from cold/screen-off, without having to then execute a screen-tap in my view. Surely a long-press from Off should be assignable? Or allow it to be used as a Shutter release, Sony-style? (Yes, I know, Volume rocker can do that.) Or Google Voice Assistant from screen-off. Surely the point of a Convenience Key is convenience.

The overall feel and design makes it feel even taller and just the wrong shape! The 7000-series aluminium build materials have made it feel less substantial in the hand, the heft and weight have gone and the result is a device which feels disproportionately light, less premium and qualitative.

The back of the BBK2 is a better, however. There’s a good textured plastic surface there now which makes it more grippy for someone who is going au naturel.

The fingerprint scanner remains in the space-bar and, like the KEYone, has an indent/groove in the middle. Seems to work very quickly and well still.

USB-C is present again on the base which exchanges data and charges via QC3 the (pretty much) same 3500mAh battery. There’s still no Qi charging, which is a missed opportunity I guess, with an all-plastic back. I found the battery to echo the use of the KEYone. Solid performance for my average use pattern, getting me through to the end of a long 16 hour day with 6 hours of screen time.

Out of the box, the device arrives with very nearly up-to-date Android (8.1.0. and May 2018 Security) with BlackBerry’s skin over the top. The skin is not actually that intrusive and feels like it’s not that far from Vanilla, but BB being who they are and doing what they do, include oodles upon oodles of their own apps and adjustments (most of which can be turned off) to make BB users feel right at home and productivity high. I don’t really know where to start there are so many(!) but certainly the visible ones are the Hub and Productivity Tab, these alone transforming the way in which you can cash in on BB’s security whilst using Android, using their PIM and other services instead of many of the Google ones. If you really feel the need! I think that most people would probably just turn them all off. But then I guess most people being supplied with one by work, would probably have them on, for maximum impact in the enterprise sector.

Another feature making it over from the Motion is a Privacy Shade, where a section of the screen can be made into a ‘letterbox’ which can then be scrolled up and down and the screen content inside it is the only bit visible, cutting out casual snooping. The kind of thing I fail to see anyone using for security really - more likely not to wake up a sleeping partner!

The 4.5” IPS LCD, 1080p, 3:2 ratio screen remains, shortened in use by the overlay of a capacitive half-inch of permanent navigation controls. I agree with +Steve Litchfield here as he mentioned in his Phones Show Video Review ( in that surely with all that huge, smart capacitive keyboard underneath some gesture control could have been worked out to change a small screen into a medium-sized one. The LCD is perfectly good in use in most light conditions except for direct sunlight where, again as Steve mentioned, it’s near useless! You can’t see it! Not a phone to use in Cairo!

The screen is covered with GG3, a strange step down from GG4 on the KEYone, the unit has a Snapdragon 660 chipset over last year’s 625, and 6GB RAM on both models, 64GB and 128GB, over last year’s baseline 3GB/32GB model and black 4GB/64GB ones. The microSD Card slot remains to allow for storage expansion. The device is certainly no slouch and that SD660 has proved its worth in a few devices to date, notably the AndroidOne based Nokia 7 Plus. The multi-tasking and speed around the UI is just fine and I detect no slowdown anywhere, switching or running. Games, productivity or media consumption.

Holding the device to type, cradled in two hands, using two thumbs, completely blocks the single bottom-firing loudspeaker because of the natural resting place of the baby finger. That’s rubbish. Time and again during this review period I was wanting to listen to music whilst typing, and time and again realised that the sound was muffled. Bad location. But then maybe hot-typists in enterprise situations won’t be listening to music, audiobooks or podcasts when they’re supposed to be working - or hold it differently!

The speaker is decent enough. It’s going to break no records, but it’s up there with the mid-tier pack being very well good enough for spoken word or casual listening but no good for a party. The volume is pretty good but when cranked up fails to deliver beyond personal listening at short range.

There is a 3.5mm audio-out socket and I have used it with my AKG headset as usual during testing and, as usual, it sounds fabulous. I think that I must have low standards when it comes to audio-out to headphones as I don’t ever find a phone which doesn’t sound great with good headphones these days!

Bluetooth 5 is an increase from 4.2 and there is a bundled FM radio, though with no recording facility.

This year’s model has been upped to follow the trend with a dual camera setup. A 12MP f/1.8 and 12MP f/2.6 rule the roost in order to facilitate 2x optical zoom. There’s a range of Manual settings much like last year’s model with the addition of the Locker Mode, brought in from the Motion, where you can take snaps by combined use of the fingerprint scanner/shutter and assign them to a private folder instead of letting the main settings dictate where ‘ordinary’ snaps go, get stored, backed up or shared. All to do with the enhanced security claims of course. Also applies elsewhere to files, folders and apps. The Secondary 8MP f/2 camera is the front-facing selfie and is not of note.

Same old, same old from me here - all cameras perfectly good enough for 95% of uses for 95% of people. As usual for more in-depth on the camera, I’ll point you back to Steve.

I quite like the square format thing. I sometimes use it by choice. The orientation of the use of this device facilitates that mentality and encourages an Instagram account! Back in the day when I was using film cameras, I remember with much fondness and preference often, the TLR format, Yashica Mat 6x6 anyone? I always advocate landscape photography these days and hound those I see holding the phone 'the wrong way' (let's not open that can of worms again!) but if you're going to shoot that way, then square, and this device, is just the ticket!

The KEY2 is currently on sale at £579. Outside of enterprise markets, I’m not sure who’s going to pay that for it. It’s pretty much the same price as the KEYone was at launch and, yes, there are various tweaks to the hard and software, but I stand by my previous really. I prefer the old one! I’m trying to work out the rationale for that and certainly the silver colour doesn’t help. It doesn’t help also that I know there’s a 128GB version in black coming soon. It doesn’t help that it’s lighter, bigger, taller, feels less substantial and premium than its mother.

The question posed last year is the same one as now, really. Do you type enough. Do you love hardware QWERTY enough. Are you 50 plus. Will this genuinely make you more productive, even if input becomes slower. It’s a personal choice of course - and depends how you view the universe and how much spare cash you have.

As usual, I really want to love a phone with anything approaching a different form-factor just because it is different - and in some respects I wish I was stuck with it and had to get on with it and use it for 2 years. But my job here was to compare the new with the old. And that’s my verdict. Give me the old.

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