BlackBerry bets on a return to physical keyboards with its new $399 phone

  • TCL Communication unveiled the BlackBerry KEY2 LE on Thursday.
  • It has a larger physical keyboard than its predecessor and has a starting price of $399.
  • TCL is hoping the new BlackBerry device will turn around dismal smartphone sales.
The BlackBerry KEY2 LE smartphone on display. Chinese firm TCL Communication make the BlackBerry phone.
BlackBerry
The BlackBerry KEY2 LE smartphone on display. Chinese firm TCL Communication make the BlackBerry phone.

TCL Communication unveiled a cheaper version of its flagship BlackBerry smartphone on Thursday, with larger physical keys as it doubles down on efforts to win back customers who still aren't sold on touchscreen keyboards.

The BlackBerry KEY2 LE smartphone features a redesigned physical keyboard with keys that are nearly 10 percent larger than on the device's previous model, the KEYOne. The phone is manufactured and sold by TCL Communication, a Chinese tech company that bought the licensing rights to BlackBerry's brand in 2016.

Other key features of the new phone include:

  • A dual rear camera that includes portrait mode
  • Google's Android operating system
  • 4.5-inch display
  • Three color options: slate, champagne and atomic.

The KEY2 LE retails at $399 for the 32-gigabyte variant and will be available from early September. The smartphone is a cheaper version of the KEY2 that was released earlier this year with a starting price of $649. The move by TCL comes amid miserable smartphone sales, with the Chinese firm unable to penetrate the market or challenge larger players like Apple and Samsung.

Efforts to boost sales of BlackBerry smartphones, which dominated the market a decade ago, have fallen short. TCL reported a 41 percent year-on-year decline in first quarter shipments of mobile phones and equipment. In addition to BlackBerry devices, those figures include sales of Alcatel mobile phones, which are also sold by TCL under a licensing agreement. BlackBerry accounts for less than a tenth of a percent of the global smartphone market, according to Counterpoint Research.

At the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin, Germany, TCL said the new BlackBerry is the thinnest and lightest phone in its KEY series. The company advertises the devices as everyday alternatives to other "one size fits all" smartphones.

The low price point pits the KEY2 LE against low-to-mid-priced Chinese rivals like Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo, all of which have managed to grow their sales rapidly. The 4.5-inch screen and physical keyboard also goes against the large-touchscreen trend that has been gaining steam, as evidenced by Samsung's latest Note 9 smartphone.

BlackBerry, meanwhile, has moved away from hardware and is instead focused on building up its enterprise software brand.