TCL Unveils New BlackBerry KEY2 Security-Enhanced Smartphone

The latest security enhanced BlackBerry phone, produced under license by TCL Communication, starts at $649 and will begin shipping later in June.

BlackBerry KEY2 Smartphone

BlackBerry may not be building its own smartphones anymore, but China's TCL Communication is hoping that won't prevent enterprise buyers from looking into and buying its latest BlackBerry-licensed, security-enhanced handset, the BlackBerry KEY2.

The latest phone includes a 4.5-inch touch-screen LCD display with a 3:2 aspect ratio, a redesigned "intelligent" physical keyboard, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 660 processor, 6GB of memory, 64GB or 128GB of built-in storage and a microSD slot for expandable storage cards.

The handset also includes a battery that promises up to two days use on a charge, a Corning Gorilla Glass display cover glass for durability and the first dual rear cameras on a BlackBerry-branded phone. It runs on the Android 8.1 Oreo operating system.

The KEY2, announced by TCL on June 7, comes one year after the company introduced its first BlackBerry-licensed smartphone, the KEYone, in June of 2017. Prices for the KEY2 start at $649 in the U.S. and are expected to go on sale later in June around the world.

New features for business users 

One of the things that's made a BlackBerry phone a BlackBerry throughout its history has been its iconic physical keyboard. The KEY2 continues that tradition and includes a new key, called Speed Key, which is a universal shortcut key that enables users to instantly access up to 52 apps, contacts or functions. The keys on the keyboard also gain about 20 percent in travel for an improved typing experience, among other improvements. 

Also included in the KEY2, are the all-new dual 12-megapixel main cameras on the rear of the device, which deliver faster auto focus, improved image stabilization and new photo modes that haven’t been included in earlier BlackBerry devices. The handset also includes Google Lens, which allows users to search for more information on many topics by capturing an image and allowing Google to provide more details. 

The KEY2 also includes the enhanced security features that BlackBerry buyers expect, from its hardened operating system to its DTEK by BlackBerry application that constantly shows users the security status of their devices. DTEK by BlackBerry now includes a new Proactive Health check feature, which allows users to instantly get feedback on potential vulnerabilities and security optimizations on their phones. 

The handset has an aluminum frame for strength and a soft-touch back that has been updated to give users a firmer grip. 

TCL says it has designed and built the KEY2 to better meet the needs of business buyers and users over rival phones from larger vendors including Samsung and Apple. 

"Although there are many different smartphones for consumers to choose from today, most tend to offer very similar experiences without much distinction from one to the next," Alain Lejeune, senior vice president of TCL Communication and president of BlackBerry Mobile, said in a statement. 

Analysts foresee limited customer demand

"The BlackBerry KEY2 phone itself is really interesting," Avi Greengart of GlobalData told eWEEK. "It has unique design features—that keyboard—and software capabilities like being able to securely store photos without them getting to the cloud," while also allowing users to get alerts when apps ask for permissions that they shouldn't possess, Greengart said. 

"There absolutely should be a market for this phone," said Greengart. "The problem is that most consumers don't want a physical keyboard, and TCL has not proven it can find and build a niche audience willing to pay for it," especially at its $649 price tag, which is close to phones from Samsung and Apple that have more features and better specifications. 

Since TCL has not announced any U.S. mobile carriers that will sell the KEY2, customers would have to buy the handsets elsewhere and then go through the process of getting them to work with their cellular provider’s network, he said. 

Gartner's Tuong Nguyen said that despite TCL's marketing messages to enterprise buyers, he expects traction to be extremely limited for this phone model. 

"I don’t think the name, nor features like a physical keyboard make it appealing enough to garner significant interest for this product," he said. "This feature might in fact give it a niche appeal, rather than broad, mass market interest." 

In the past, physical keyboards could be a key feature for some users, but today they are being outshined by other interface options, such as artificial intelligence and voice control, said Nguyen. 

"Dual camera is nice, but that's not a great or new idea that's not already being implemented by others," he said. "Same with the shortcut key." 

Although security and privacy have always valuable features in earlier BlackBerry models, "the industry has moved away from BlackBerry," said Nguyen. "This leads me to believe that consumer and enterprise users alike have other options and priorities." 

Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group, said he is a BlackBerry KEYone user who already wants to get one of the new KEY2 handsets for his own use. "For anyone serious about security and who finds the need to make lengthy text responses on a phone, this thing is invaluable," said Enderle. 

"It has the strongest defense of a phone you can actually buy against things like root kits and other forms of malware. It has the strongest endpoint security, and it runs Android so has all the apps," he said.  

Enderle said he can see the KEY2 being a business-focused phone for people whose phones are critical to their jobs and careers.   

"It continues to amaze me that the market doesn't recognize that BlackBerry is arguably the better choice if you are concerned at all about safety and privacy," said Enderle. 

After watching its market share for smartphones dwindle to almost nothing after the rise of Apple's iPhones and competing handsets from makers including Samsung, BlackBerry announced in September 2016 that it would no longer build or market handsets. Instead, the company said it would license the BlackBerry name to others to build BlackBerry phones while the company continued a transition into a software company.