Introduction and design
Update: Interested in getting your hands on the Blackberry Passport? For our US readers, you’ll want to check out an AT&T Store near you. For pricing details, have a look here. Also, if you’re interested in another perspective on the Blackberry Passport, Jeff Parsons went into detail on his intense love/hate relationship with the smartphone in question.
BlackBerry’s square-shaped new flagship is here, and it’s just as weird in real life as it looks in the promotional pictures. It’s a square, boxy little device with a metallic trim and a dumpy physical keyboard attached to the bottom. Ergonomics? Screw ’em.
And yet, dig a little deeper and there might just be something there after all. The 4.5-inch slab boasts a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM.
There’s 32GB of storage, a microSD slot and a rear-facing 13MP camera. In other words, the Canadian company has thrown everything at this device when it comes to specs.
It’s not a cheap phone either: it’s £529 for a SIM free version ($599, around AU$680) and free on a £30 to £35 a month contract in the UK – meaning it’s up there with the iPhones, HTC and Samsung phones of the world.
BlackBerry’s also confident the new form factor best suits those business customers that are the unabashed target of this device.
It calls them “power users” and argues that they want a device for working on. Emails, spreadsheets, reports – basically, what BlackBerry has always been known for. The 4.5-inch 1:1 screen incorporates 60 characters in a line, compared to the 40 on a regular smartphone.
Early indicators seem to show that people are responding to it well. BlackBerry says it has already taken 200,000 orders for the Passport and is in the process of developing another “unconventional” device.
This seems different though, it’s not a case of following the likes of the iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy Alpha, it’s a case of genuinely trying something different. Unfortunately, it also makes some rather basic errors when doing so.
The biggest talking point about the BlackBerry Passport comes from its, ahem, unconventional appearance. People will notice it, and they’ll ask about it.
The design is based around the 4.5-inch square screen that, with a 1:1 aspect ratio, is unlike any other smartphone on the market.
There’s no portrait or landscape mode to be had here – it’s a perfect square. This begets the obvious question of why – why has BlackBerry done this? Well, it ties in to the type of customer the company is focusing its efforts on.
BlackBerry is betting that you’ll be using the Passport for checking spreadsheets, office documents, ebooks, presentations and full-scale websites. All of which, it says, are reproduced better on the square, 1440 x 1400 Gorilla Glass 3 screen.
It’s an undeniably weird-looking phone, but BlackBerry tried to follow the crowd with the BlackBerry Z10 and it didn’t work. So props to the company for attempting something a little bit different.
The second big design point is the return of the keyboard – which was always BlackBerry’s calling card. It’s attached to the bottom of the screen with a somewhat squat appearance – due to dropping from four rows of keys to three. This means common punctuation marks, as well as numbers, appear as on-screen keys directly above the physical buttons.
Once you get past the alternative form factor, the Passport is an attractive handset. There’s a stainless steel trim that runs along the edges of the phone while the back is a soft rubberised plastic that’s comfortable to grip while you fire out emails from the keyboard.
You’ll find three physical buttons on the right hand side, used to control volume as well as pause music or video playback. The power switch meanwhile is on top of the handset (as is the 3.5mm headphone jack) and placed slightly right-of-centre.
Given the width of the phone, it’s extremely difficult to hit this when you’re operating it one handed. I always found it easier to slide upwards on the capacitive screen to unlock the phone instead. I’m not quite sure why BlackBerry didn’t put the power switch on the side of the device.
There’s a heft to the 194g BlackBerry Passport; but the Canadian company has kept the chassis to a fairly standard 9.3mm thickness. And it looks smart thanks to the black and silver design and the blend of materials BlackBerry’s used. It reminded me of a PDA from the mid-90s. Take from that what you will.
It’s clear the design of the BlackBerry Passport is more suited to the inside jacket pocket than the one on the sides of your jeans. Also, in real life the size of the device makes it unwieldy. It measures 90.3mm wide and 128mm long and, as I said, is very difficult to use with just one hand.
This is a phone meant for prolonged productivity rather than a quick bout of social media browsing. The problem with that is that for most working types, prolonged productivity is handled during the day at a desk on a laptop or desktop. We want to be able to use our phones quickly while out and about and that can often mean one-handed use, which this phone is awful for.
To assume that people will only buy this device for work is plain folly – the modern smartphone can do it all, and for the high end price being charged for this phone, I’d expect it to do so.
Having always looked favourably on physical keyboards – a particular favourite was the Nokia N97 – I was anxious to get going with the BlackBerry Passport’s offering.
In practice, using the keyboard is a really nice experience – there’s decent travel on the keys and each button is backlit so you can type away in the dark. And it’s comfortable thanks to the moulded keys.
But, there are some issues with it. Firstly, it’s cramped – meaning that on occasion, I mis-hit a letter. Secondly, and more importantly, speed will take a hit for anyone used to bashing out texts on a touchscreen. Which, these days, is pretty much everyone.
One very cool feature is that the keyboard itself has touch functionality built into it. A swift double-tap activates a bubble-like cursor that you can use to scan your message or email although in use, this feature really is more trouble than its worth.
You can also swipe directly across the keyboard to scroll up or down websites, leaving the screen free to view. It’s a small, but really good feature that adds a bit of extra usability to the keyboard.
The new BlackBerry Blend feature lets you effectively access your phone remotely via an encrypted Wi-Fi connection from any PC, Mac or Android tablets. All the content (messages, documents, media) stored on the Passport are accessible in real time and changes you make are reflected on the handset.
As for the security requirements, I was told that none of the data remains on the login device after you close the software down.
The principle behind it is that you can still access the Passport even if you’ve left it at home or the office.
It’s also the method by which you can put media on the Passport and requires installation on a Windows PC before you can transfer anything. It’s a bit frustrating when compared to Android’s drag and drop simplicity. But, as we’ll see later, chances are you won’t be using the Passport for media.
Joining the ranks of Siri and Cortana is the BlackBerry Assistant. Like the aforementioned digital PAs, you can use the Assistant to set reminders and prompt you with the weather as well as dictating search terms.
In most cases it picked up on my question. There’s a bit of a wait time as the Passport casts around for the answer though. The Assistant currently recognises commands in English, German, Spanish and Italian.
Interface and performance
Make fun of the boxy screen all you want, but BlackBerry has put some serious muscle into the Passport. It runs on a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor with a massive 3GB of RAM.
Combine that with the integrated nature of the operating system and you’ve got a very smooth, very quick device.
There’s 32GB of native storage on board, but you can boost that up that to 128GB thanks to the microSD card nestled next to the nanoSIM slot.
Connectivity-wise, you’re looking at Bluetooth 4.0 LE, NFC, Wi-Fi and LTE in terms of wireless and a single physical microUSB port. BlackBerry provides a SlimPort HDMI adaptor in the box that plugs into the port and lets you hook the Passport up to a monitor or TV. That’s pretty cool.
On paper, the Passport has enough under the hood to go up against some of the best smartphones out there and, while it’s got a tailored audience, any user is going to appreciate the power.
Multitasking in particular works well, given the amount of RAM on offer and the tiled homescreen that shows currently running apps lets you quickly dive in and out of active programs.
BlackBerry’s newly updated BB10 OS is as much a USP of the Passport as it’s interesting design. It’s focused around BlackBerry Hub that compiles all your notifications from various email and social network accounts.
Swiping right takes you to the aforementioned open apps screen and a second right swipe takes you to the grid layout for app shortcuts.
On top of BlackBerry Hub is the Priority Hub, which learns the interactions that are important to you and collects them into a single stream. You can also manually tailor this to your liking. Even a small amount of time using this feature is rewarding as I was suddenly spared the hassle of jumping between apps to check updates.
A lot of the interface is navigated by swiping which is a good idea in theory but falls down in practice. Sometimes it would take two or three swipes for the Passport to acknowledge what I wanted it to do.
There’s still a lot of swiping involved if you want to get anywhere anyway. A simple, physical home button like that on the iPhone 6 or Samsung Galaxy S5 would have been a really useful addition.
Apps were a massive downfall of earlier Blackberry’s, but the company has remedied this to an extent by partnering with Amazon. The full Amazon Appstore (some 250,000 apps) are available to use on the Passport.
There’s also BlackBerry World, which is the company’s own app store with curated content that, as you’d expect, caters towards the business user.
Some apps I tried, like Wikipedia or Yahoo Mail, adapt well to the 1:1 screen while others (notably gaming and media) suffer from the shift from widescreen.
As a side note, gaming is far from the Passport’s strong point. There’s no way of using the physical keyboard with the games and trying to tilt the device to steer/move is really hampered by the shape of the chassis.
Also, it goes without saying that while some of the major apps are there, others aren’t. There’s no Instragram and no Snapchat. But there is Tinder, if that’s your thing.
Some people might say that having Snapchat on this phone is irrelevant. It’s a business phone after all.
Except, well, it’s not though. If it was then the Amazon App Store wouldn’t be needed. If apps weren’t of interest, why bother with that at all? A phone needs to be able to turn its hand to anything – a jack of all trades and a sort of master of some, where the Passport is amazing in some respects, but costs the same as the other phones which can do so much more.
Battery and the essentials
BlackBerry is making a bold claim when it comes to the 3,450mAh battery. The company says that it will provide up to 30 hours of mixed use for a “very active user”. That’s in part due to the latest BlackBerry 10.3 OS which, the company says, has made significant improvement when it comes to power consumption.
The company has a vested interested in being bullish about battery life as, given the target customer for the Passport, it’s likely to be a chief concern. The handset charges via a microUSB port on the bottom of the phone and should take only a couple of hours to juice up completely.
Unlike other prominent handsets, there isn’t any kind of power saving mode that turns off the non-essential or intensive apps in order to save power. Presumably, BlackBerry is confident enough of the battery prowess of the Passport that it deems such things unnecessary.
Thankfully, it actually proved true. I was able to use the Passport pretty solidly for a couple of days at a time without needing a nightly recharge. A 90-minute video, playing with full brightness and all push notifications enabled only dropped the battery to 87% from a full charge.
I was very impressed with the battery performance and would list it as one of the handset’s best features.
The essential features are, in the Passport’s case, handled well. The bells and whistles are what drag the phone down a bit, but that’s not what this section is about.
It’s true that these elements are starting to become less important for customers who will increasingly use Skype or FaceTime rather than a phone call, or Whatsapp over a text message. But, like everyone’s least favourite grandparent, we’re still clinging onto that which was important back in our day.
There’s plenty to talk about in the rough and tumble world of business and the Passport delivers a clear audio signal with plenty of volume to be mined. The difficulty comes with the fact that the form factor makes it quite uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time.
Like some phablets (the Sony Xperia Z Ultra comes to mind) it’s possible to wrap your fingers around the Passport, but not comfortably so. Thankfully, it has Bluetooth 4.0 and a 3.5mm headphone port, so you can use a hands-free device to save your strength.
The contacts app blends all the contacts from your various social networks as well as your SIM card. You’re likely to see some duplication at first, although each can be linked under a single contact card.
Under each contact, you’ll get not just their stored details, but also latest updates from whichever network you have them linked onto. Profile pictures from said network are already added as thumbnail images in the address book.
At any time you can pull up your call history and the dial pad by clicking the phone icon in the lower left hand corner. Of course, that’s easier said than done if you’re holding the Passport in your right hand and trying to operate it one-handed.
Messaging and email
Both SMS messages and emails are combined in BlackBerry’s Hub feature, making it particularly easy to find all your incoming mail. Swiping to the right brings up the toolbar showing which accounts are connected to the hub and indicated how many unread messages are in each account.
It’s a useful way of having your business and personal email alongside your LinkedIn and Facebook profiles and save time when checking.
You can delete each message or notification directly from the hub as well as shunt them off to a designated folder. If (like men and most working professionals) you receive hundreds of emails a day, the ability to quickly delete is a real blessing. There’s also a search option that lets you track back through your various inbox to locate a particular message or recipient.
Messaging is one area of usage where the Passport’s form factor really helps. Emails (particularly because they tend to be longer) are really well displayed and the raison d’être for the screen being the way it is. Text messages are likewise very well displayed and it makes reading them much easier than on a standard display.
There’s a lot more space to also view images and attachments and, of course, there’s still BlackBerry Messenger there if you’re still a big user.
Composing on the Passport is a Marmite experience. I covered it earlier in the review when talking about the keyboard and it really comes down to the length of the message. I found that for longer emails, it was helpful to have the physical keys there.
However, my text messages are usually shorter and laced with shorthand and in these situations, the keyboard was more a hindrance than a simple on-screen offering.
The Passport comes running BlackBerry’s proprietary browser which defaults to a tiled screen of previously visited sites. The address bar is located at the bottom meaning you don’t have to reach up to the top of the screen if you’re using the phone in one hand.
There’s no Google Chrome browser available because Google’s apps can’t be accessed from the Amazon appstore but fear not, because BlackBerry’s effort does have some useful tricks. There’s tabbed browsing, and the ability to bookmark, for starters as well as the ability to copy the link or share the page to a social network.
Like Amazon’s Silk browser for Kindle and Safari for iOS, you can also engage a reader mode that strips away images and navigation bars, leaving you with just the content. It doesn’t work on all pages, but when it does it can be very useful.
As is the option to save the page for later reading offline – a feature I don’t use nearly as much as I should.
Just like with messaging, web browsing can benefit from the 1:1 aspect ratio of the 4.5-inch screen. In most cases, I found it better to load the desktop version of a website for no other reason than because I could view it all without having to scroll around.
As with reading and constructing emails, browsing the web is a really solid experience on the Passport and it actually benefits from the phone being shaped the way it is.
BlackBerry has equipped the Passport with a 13MP rear-facing camera with an LED flash and a couple of extra features like panorama, burst mode and time shift. There’s an LED flash as well as the option to take images at 16:9, 4.3 and the Passport’s own 1:1 aspect ratio.
Full HD 1080p video is supported, and you’ll be able to get 720p video calling from the Passport’s 2MP front-facing camera. Interacting with the camera is done via the touchscreen, as you pinch to zoom in and out and tap to set the focal point.
First impressions are that the camera is solid without really offering much of a challenge to the established smartphone titans. There’s built-in intelligence for suggesting the best shooting mode for the conditions you’re in and the Passport also boasts HDR for capturing light and dark contrasts.
Additionally, BlackBerry has built optical image stabilisation (OIS) into the Passport’s camera to eliminate judders. It’s a feature become adopted elsewhere (like the iPhone 6 Plus) and really helps when taking pictures quickly.
A nice touch is that you can use either the volume keys on the right hand side of the device, or the space bar on the keyboard, to take a picture. There’s also BlackBerry’s dedicated Pictures app for adding filters and effects to your shots after you’ve taken them.
There’s also a Story Mode that’ll stitch together your pictures and videos for an on-the-fly slideshow set to music.
Have a look below at some example shots taken with the Passport’s camera.
Media in general, doesn’t really hold up on the 1:1 screen. Movies are well reproduced on the 1440 x 1400 screen, chiefly because of the massive 453 pixel density. But there’s no getting away from the letterbox lines that appear on the top and bottom of the screen.
You can change the picture to full-screen, but you’re going to lose some of the action off each side. If you consume vast amounts of video on your phone, go someplace else.
The same is true for playing certain types of games. Although the 3GB of RAM and Snapdragon processor means that graphically intensive 3D games, like Sonic Racing, run smoothly, the effect is ruined by the aspect ratio on the screen.
I mentioned this in the previous section, but the shape of the device doesn’t work for gesture controlled gaming. Although more casual 2D games like Candy Crush translate better to the Passport’s square screen.
Music obviously fares a little better as you’ve got 32GB of storage and then a microSD card to use. If you prefer streaming your music, you’ll find Spotify and SoundCloud on the Amazon appstore, although Google Play Music isn’t available – as you might imagine.
BlackBerry also provides some decent in-ear headphones with the Passport. Music quality veers more towards the treble than the bass. You can’t use the physical keyboard to control the playback although BlackBerry has added a mute button on the right hand side between the volume rockers.
There’s not a whole lot more to say on the subject of media. BlackBerry doesn’t want you sitting back with the latest episode of Boardwalk Empire; it wants you hard at work on the office budget. And, given how intrinsic video consumption is to our modern day smartphone usage, the square design of the Passport just doesn’t work in this regard.
Comparing the Passport with any other handset in a like-for-like test isn’t easy because there’s nothing quite like it around. But if a physical keyboard trumps all else for you, then BlackBerry’s unassuming 2013 handset is your best bet.
We named it the best QWERTY handset on the market when we reviewed it and while that’s been usurped by the Passport they’re pretty much in a category all their own these days.
The Q10 is a winner in terms of price – you can get one SIM free for around the £200 mark, its specs can’t hold up against the Passport.
The elder BlackBerry boasts impressive connections: 4G, NFC and even microHDMI, but the power isn’t there. All the Q10 offers is 16GB of storage, an 8MP rear-facing camera and a 720p 3.1-inch display.
If cost and physical keys are the sole buying decisions you face then grab the Q10, but the Passport surpasses it in every other way.
Apple iPhone 6
The main contender for any top-tier smartphone is the latest iPhone. It might not have the “business credentials” of BlackBerry’s offering, but the nearly limitless apps means you can find just about any use for Cupertino’s current standard bearer.
Some specifications, on paper, aren’t as strong as what the Passport offers: dual-core processor with 1GB of RAM and an 8GB camera around back. But other parts of the handset, namely the choice of 128GB of storage and a 4.7-inch LED-backlit display, are far more appealing.
Apple, as ever, puts a high price on its handsets – so BlackBerry has affordability in the Passport’s corner (only just), but I’m not convinced it’s enough.
The BlackBerry faithful may argue that the iPhone isn’t a business device and that “power professionals” need something more attuned to office needs, but unfortunately, it’s irrelevant. Apple has supplanted BlackBerry as the brand to beat in the boardroom.
That being said, the Passport makes a great secondary device to an iPhone – combine the two and you’re set for work and play. If you’re a millionaire, of course. Or just love having two phones.
Nokia Lumia 930
The colourful Lumia 930 isn’t the first phone to associate with a sharp-suited business professional, but it has its benefits. Namely, the Windows Phone 8 operating system will work in beautiful harmony with any Windows PC you happen to be using at the office. Viewing and editing MS Office documents on the phone is a great experience.
Likewise, the 20MP camera that Nokia has fashioned with a PureView sensor and Carl Zeiss lens is very good indeed. There’s a range of extra camera apps as well for adding in effects while the tutorials generally just take your photography to another level.
Photography might not be a key feature for business users, but it’s an integral part of any smartphone and Nokia has BlackBerry beat in this category. As it does with the 5-inch OLED HD display.
However, there’s no way the 2,420mAh battery can compete with the 3,450mAh slab tucked inside the Passport. It’s one of BlackBerry’s strongest features on this phone and will last for a lot longer than what Nokia can offer. If you want to be editing documents at all hours of the day and night, the Passport will have you sorted power-wise.
The BlackBerry Passport is a phone that’ll receive interest and dismissal in equal measure. It’s a strange-looking beast that can’t help but draw the eye even though most people probably won’t want to use it – too enshrined are they with the 16:9 landscape touchscreen form factor.
Taking into account what BlackBerry is going for it can be a very useful device. Web pages and documents look good, and for keyboard junkies, the return of physical buttons will really appeal.
There’s also the fact that it’s got some decent specs on board – including impressive battery life – that’ll see it lasting well through a 24-month contract. But at best I feel this makes it the perfect secondary device rather than the all-encompassing primary smartphone every business user must own.
The battery life is fantastic on the Passport. I used it for a couple of weeks and found that it would easily manage up to a couple of days of fairly heavy usage and still have battery remaining.
Other phones are catching up in the battery department, the Sony Xperia Z3 for example, but BlackBerry’s Passport really does throw the gauntlet down in this department.
Aspects of BlackBerry’s OS have also really come forward and the BlackBerry Hub, I feel, was very useful in filtering the daily slew of emails, text messages and social media updates I get.
Other parts of the OS aren’t quite as exciting – BlackBerry Assistant is good, but doesn’t do anything that Siri or Google Now can’t. The Hub system though is a real winner.
I’ll also say that I liked the keyboard – and the fact it has touch functionality overlaid as well. Now that touchscreen keyboards are so ubiquitous and accurate, it’s not as big a feature as BlackBerry tries to make out. There are problems – it’s a bit cramped and can reduce speed, but I definitely felt I got used to it after a while and that sensation would only increase.
No matter how many full-screen websites and long, convoluted emails the Passports 1:1 4.5-inch screen lovingly displays, I still can’t say the form factor is a good one.
Using the Passport one-handed is practically impossible for anything other than scrolling and the placement of the buttons just doesn’t make much sense.
It’s heavy and awkward to carry around. Despite the best intentions of BlackBerry’s representative to persuade me otherwise, this is not a device you can easily stick into your jeans pocket and carry around.
Likewise, when it comes to video and, to a certain extent, gaming, this phone is awful. No-one puts out content in 4:3 anymore, let alone 1:1, so watching anything involves squinting at the screen or blowing it up and losing the edges of the picture.
Given that content providers like Sky, Netflix and Amazon are striving to make it easier for us to access video on-the-go, it’s a shame you’ll never want to do it on this piece of tech.
I’m confident in saying this is the best phone BlackBerry has yet produced, hands down. There’s serious processing power, copious amounts of storage, a decent camera, plenty of connectivity, useful software features and an HD screen.
What I’m also confident in saying is that there’s no way this is going to supplant a regular smartphone like the HTC One M8, Samsung Galaxy Alpha or iPhone 6 as your main device. At best, it’ll be a secondary, work-focused piece of tech that’ll be relegated to a specific set of tasks.
BlackBerry has succeeded in doing something different and producing a new device that sums up everything it is as a brand. That is a brilliant thing, and to those that feel this is aimed at them (medical professionals, entrepreneurs, the email-obsessed) then it should be up there as one of the first phones you consider.
But for everyone else, this is unashamedly a productivity-centric machine that’ll let you take your work around with you. What it’s not is the market’s best new smartphone.
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