Since TCL took over making BlackBerry-branded handsets under the BlackBerry Mobile brand, the company has worked hard to build devices to tempt back those who were once BlackBerry fans. There are still some out there who want a physical keyboard to type on, and building phones that they will like is the aim, along with the focus on keeping enterprise users satisfied. 

With the BlackBerry KeyOne and Key2 it was all about building a 'Bold replacement', high-end QWERTY keyboard phone made from premium materials. At £500-£600 those were hardly budget handsets, making them difficult to sell for mass rollout within companies and those who simply don't want to spend that much on a phone. 

In comes the Key2 LE. Its aim: creating a more affordable device, while retaining all the key characteristics of a BlackBerry. Less premium build and slightly less high-end tech wrapped in a package that promises a great keyboard and long battery life. 

Typing heaven

  • Four row QWERTY keyboard
  • Slim, shiny frets between rows
  • Fingerprint sensor within space bar
  • Speed Key for quick switching between apps

For those looking for a true BlackBerry experience, few things matter as much as the experience of typing on the keyboard. In some ways, typing on the Key2 LE has been more consistent and reliable than the more expensive Key2. Its QWERTY keyboard is ever so slightly smaller than that of the Key2 proper, but still larger than the keys on the KeyOne. More importantly for the LE is that there's no noticeable difference between the feel of the letter keys and the space bar.

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One of the key differences between the LE and its more expensive predecessor is that there's no capacitive surface on the keys. Undoubtedly, the feature was removed to help bring the price down, but it also results in a more traditional BlackBerry-esque vibe. You don't have to worry about whether a swipe along the keys is going to be ignored, or if an accidental gesture is going to be picked up.

If you're used to scrolling up and down pages by swiping on the keys, not having the feature does take some getting used to, but we didn't massively miss it. What's more, it's the Speed Key combined with keyboard shortcuts that turn this from a regular QWERTY 'board into a tool of ultimate productivity.

Once shortcuts are assigned, just pressing the Speed Key along with one of the letters quickly launches an app or a function, whereever you happen to be in the interface. The switch to the desired function is quick and effortless, ensuring you're not left waiting between apps. It helps you keep busy on the move, without taking up lots of your time.

No frills looks

  • Plastic build
  • Dimpled, textured back
  • 150.3 x 71.8 x 8.4 mm; 156 grams

One thing we've enjoyed in BlackBerry devices in the past is their 'pickupability'. Something about their design and physical keyboard makes it a phone you're happy to pick up, bash out a message, and throw it back in your pocket. The Key2 and KeyOne had it to an extent, but we think the LE exhibits this more than either of those.

Part of that is down to its lack of premium materials, as the LE has a chassis and body made almost entirely from plastic. It's light and durable, and won't leave you worrying about whether or not you might scratch anything. There's no 7000 series aluminium, polished edges or surgical grade stainless steel. This is a tool for getting work done. It's not a piece of jewellery.

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Despite that, there's still something quite attractive about the LE. Our review model's dark navy colouring, accented by gold coloured edges, is a looker. Likewise, the red and blue model is certainly eye-catching, while the all-navy model is the safe option for mass-rollout within enterprise.

It might not have the high-end materials of the Key2 proper, but in some ways that's not a bad thing. For instance, we much prefer the feel of the LE, as it feels softer - thanks to a soft-touch dimpled back casing and the warmer plastic edges.

Not for the media hounds

  • 4.5-inch LCD IPS display
  • 1080 x 1620 resolution
  • 3:2 aspect ratio 

This almost goes without saying, but - as with every QWERTY-equipped BlackBerry device - the LE's screen doesn't exactly lend itself to watching Netflix or YouTube on the move. It's a 3:2 aspect ratio panel for starters. And at 4.5-inches it's far from huge. That means the inevitable letterboxing on content is even more noticeable than it would be on a 16:9 or longer ratio display.

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It's an LCD panel too, so you get nice accurate whites and natural colours with decent viewing angles which works well for getting work done. Text is crisp, and it's bright enough that you can see it indoors or outdoors (well, in most conditions).

Saying that, the LE's auto-adjustment to light is one area that lacks. With automatic brightness turned on, moving between rooms with varying levels of brightness, the display took its time to adjust. When it did it wasn't smooth either, almost cranking up slowly through various steps until it was happy with its own brightness levels. Our suggestion - keep it in manual and slide the brightness slider yourself.

Reasonable performer

  • Snapdragon 636 processor, 4GB RAM
  • 3,000mAh battery capacity

Some other performance elements are stuttery too. The flashing notification light didn't pulse smoothly, again, stuttering between brightness levels. Similarly, when viewing the screen and changing orientation, the LE takes too long to rotate the content on screen to match (often needing another 90-degree rotation and back again to kick it into the realisation) - but we don't rotate a QWERTY phone often, so it's not a major bother.

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Otherwise, for the most part, the Key2 LE gets things done without much of a fuss. Loading up apps and games, or browsing the internet, is a fairly hassle-free experience. Opening the Android app drawer, or switching between apps using the Speed Key is pretty quick. Granted, it's not as snappy as you'll find in a much more powerful device, but it's good enough.

Useful, uncluttered interface

  • Android 8.1 Oreo
  • BlackBerry Hub suite of apps

We've long admired BlackBerry's attention to the software experience. Even before Android-based BlackBerry phones were on the scene, there was a lot to like about the company's own smartphone OS. It was clean, uncluttered, and full of useful features like the Hub for managing notifications and the Calendar, among others. Those main features have since been ported over, so the LE is great for productivity.

As an overview, there's plenty of preinstalled apps, including Calendar, Files, Content Transfer, Device Search, Notes, Notable, DTEK for easy security management, and even the age-old Password Keeper app that's been on pretty much every BlackBerry in the history of the brand.

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Apart from keyboard shortcuts combined with the Speed Key, our other favourite thing is the Hub. It's not so much how useful it is to see all your notifications in one inbox, but also that the calendar is integrated. Any upcoming events can be revealed quickly by just swiping down on your Hub inbox screen. Essentially, the Hub means no hunting for any apps or appointments, as it's all right there to see.

The only downside is that to actually read messages on third-party apps, you're whisked away to those apps themselves. You can't always just read and respond to messages right within Hub, which is something that's always been a bit of an inconvenience, but we suspect there's little BlackBerry Mobile can do about it. 

Camera

  • 13MP + 5MP dual rear camera
  • Dual-tone flash
  • 8MP front camera

There's no real nice way to dress this up: the dual camera system on the back of the Key2 LE is not good. The sensors and optics have taken a step down from the Key2. And you can tell.

Take any picture in anything other than bright daylight and it'll be blurry, noisy and lacking in definition. Which means you don't want to be getting this phone if you're also looking for something to take Instagrammable photos of yourself in poorly lit bathrooms or clubs. In good light things are better. Not amazing, but colours are decent, details are sharp enough and the application works fine.

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With BlackBerry Mobile focusing more on productivity within the software, battery life and typing experience, it's almost understandable that camera takes a back seat. But in 2018, when so many other compelling devices exist with decent cameras at prices lower than the Key2 LE, it's hard not to be disappointed. It may be a 'serious business tool' for 'serious business people', but even business people need decent cameras in their pockets more often than not these days.

Verdict

If you're looking for a daily driver with a physical keyboard then the BlackBerry Key2 LE could be the phone for you. Especially if you're reticent to spend £500 on a phone.

At £349, the LE's price reflects its mid-range specs, but what you get is still a solid, productivity-boosting device that holds true to the values you'd expect from a BlackBerry. You really don't miss much from the more expensive aluminium Key2, except the superior camera.

Granted, 99 per cent of shoppers aren't looking for a BlackBerry, rather a more versatile, screen-forward, skinny-bezel phone. Indeed, even in this price range you'll find more powerful and feature-rich devices than the LE. BlackBerry Mobile knows this, but it also knows that for those who love physical keys and all-day battery, none of those other phones matter for that one per cent.


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