BlackBerry knows how slippery the slope of consumer disinterest can be. Once one of the world’s favorite smartphones, king of every boardroom and found in the pocket of every professional, BlackBerry’s devices held a kind of utilitarian chic — they were tough, smart, a tool that could guarantee to make you work harder and smarter, but they were also a status symbol of sorts. If you held a BlackBerry, people knew you meant business.
That, however, is no longer the case. Now, the iPhone is the status symbol of choice for the “business professionals” BlackBerry used to cater to and Android smartphones rule the roost in terms of market share. BlackBerry, the company formerly known as RIM, watched as touchscreen devices rendered its physical keyboard-toting handsets obsolete — the Bolds and Curves of BlackBerry’s lineup were slow, dated and woefully lacking in comparison to the iPhones and Galaxy devices that consumers desired. BlackBerry tried — and failed — to make a comeback with BlackBerry 10, an operating system designed for touchscreen devices, and several touch-friendly smartphones, but it was too little and far too late. For the average consumer, BlackBerry is a name to which “They still make phones?” is a frequent response.
Finally, with CEO John Chen at the helm, BlackBerry seems to have accepted that they won’t recover their market dominance any time soon. Instead, the company is going after the people who still cling to their BlackBerrys, preferring a physical keyboard for typing out emails and editing documents, those who use their phone to work, not just to scroll through Facebook and flick disgruntled avians at smirking hogs. For them, BlackBerry decided to craft something unique, something extravagant, something guaranteed to generate an equal amount of column inches and device sales. The result was the Passport. BlackBerry was kind enough to send a Passport to review for a fortnight — plenty of time to determine if the other fruity company’s latest could also be its greatest.
Initial reactions to the Passport’s striking design can vary wildly. Personally, I think it’s captivating, the front dominated by the perfectly square display and BlackBerry’s signature physical keyboard. BlackBerry has crafted a premium device, with a metal frame sandwiched between the glass front and soft-touch polycarbonate rear. It has a reasonable heft — 6.84 ounces, to be precise — and is only 0.37-inches deep. The sharp corners and minimal branding, especially when combined with my review version’s black paint job, give the Passport a kind of executive cool. It looks expensive, which is what prospective buyers will want. (Just make sure to avoid the white version, which looks considerably less premium.)
When shown to others, though? Responses were mixed. Many people — particularly iPhone users — were shocked at the Passport’s overall size. A height of 5 inches is far from extreme, but the Passport measures 3.5 inches across — that’s over an inch wider than Apple’s 5S. There were questions as to whether it would fit in pockets and how it would feel in the hand. My answer? It really depends on your personal circumstances. I have fairly deep pockets, and had no issues sliding the Passport into my pants. Similarly, I have large hands, and could comfortably hold the Passport — though I use Nokia’s Lumia 1520, which is just under 3.5 inches wide, so the size of the Passport was less shocking to me. If you move from a smaller iPhone or one of Android’s sub-5 inch devices, you may struggle to adjust.
The Passport’s dimensions also completely rule out single-handed use. With a physical keyboard to reach over — which is laborious to use with one thumb — combined with the Passport’s width, this is a phone you’ll want to grip with two hands at all times in order to perform most functions with ease. Even then, that physical keyboard represents a rather steep learning curve. Whether you’re coming from a touchscreen or an older BlackBerry device, the Passport’s three-row keyboard will be a little jarring at first. The main issue is BlackBerry dropping the fourth row of keys and moving the spacebar into the middle of the third row. Gone are the function keys and any sign of punctuation — they now reside onscreen, and are contextually provided. Shift is always present, as is access to more symbols, but the buttons in-between vary. Typing an email? You’ll have quick access to punctuation and the @ symbol. Entering a phone number? The screen will bring up digits. Typing in a web address? You’ll find dot-com waiting to be tapped. It took me a day or two, but I was soon typing with minimal typos and reasonable speed on the keyboard — though I was slower than with touchscreen offerings, like Microsoft’s Word Flow or Google’s Android keyboard.
One feature BlackBerry should be lauded for is giving the keyboard touch-sensitivity. In essence, it turns the physical keys into a giant trackpad, similar to a laptop’s. While typing, word suggestions will appear, and if you want to highlight one, simply swipe up on the keyboard under one of the three words shown. It’s quick, works every time and was a feature I missed when I moved back to my regular device. Similarly, it solves the problem of reaching over the keyboard to scroll through webpages, documents and apps, as the keyboard can be swiped over to move in the desired direction. It also ties in neatly with the numerous gesture features in BlackBerry’s 10.3 OS, though it’s here that the Passport will really start to polarize people.
BlackBerry has long made their own software, and with BlackBerry 10.3, the company seeks to match the features and usability of its Android, iOS and Windows Phone rivals. Certainly, it’s an easy-to-use system. The main home screen will be empty unless you open an app — which you’ll find to the right of this screen, laid out in grid format. Once opened, an app becomes a card on the main screen, which offers information about the app, such as your latest tweet or friend request. To minimize a full screen app and move back to the home screen, swipe up from the bottom of the display. To close an app, tap the cross beneath its card. Simple, right? To access quick settings, such as toggles for WiFi and brightness, swipe down from the top of the display with one finger on the home screen, or two fingers when in an app — though this is one gesture that proved hit-or-miss, much like swiping up on the display to unlock the Passport, which also worked sporadically.
To the left of the home screen lies the main reason you’ll likely consider the Passport: the BlackBerry Hub. The Hub is everything, storing your app notifications, emails, texts, Facebook messages, tweets, WhatsApp messages and any other such apps that take advantage of it. If it sounds a little cluttered, that’s because it can be, but BlackBerry offers simple controls to alter what you see on screen and overall the Hub is a joy to use. Of course, BlackBerry hasn’t forgotten about the core need many of its customers have, and as such email is handled brilliantly in the Hub. My personal and work accounts were set up in just a couple of taps, and the Passport often pulled down emails faster than Gmail running on an Android device (though it merely matched Microsoft’s Email app on Windows Phone). I read and respond to multiple emails a day, and the Passport makes it a simple, fast, fluid pleasure.
Where the Passport starts to fall apart is when you move outside of the Hub. That square display, with its 1440×1440 resolution, is undeniably beautiful, offering crisp text, rich colors and great viewing angles. It’s also bright enough to be used outside, which is something many other smartphones still struggle with. It’s a shame, then, that it feels as though BlackBerry placed the novelty of having a square display before everything else. BlackBerry claims that its 1:1 ratio is best suited to reading emails and word documents — both of which are certainly easy to read, though large-screen, high-resolution rivals can also offer large amounts of text on screen — and for viewing items such as x-ray scans (as its advertising suggests) and spreadsheets, but it falters when browsing websites or using apps. On the Metro Weekly homepage, I could see the full width without having to zoom out, but I couldn’t read particularly far down the page — something that remained true for most other websites, where you’ll find yourself scrolling a lot more than on rivals’ portrait-oriented displays, regardless of whether the website was formatted for desktop or mobile. This carries through to apps, with the exception of BlackBerry’s own apps which have all been updated to better accommodate the Passport. Facebook, for instance, only displays one or two posts on screen, and a third-party Instagram client from BlackBerry’s app world would let me view half of a photo at a time — something which will likely become less of an issue as developers update their apps to accommodate the Passport, but the lack of height in the display will still render list-heavy apps at a disadvantage. There’s only so much that it can show, regardless of how wide the display is.
What’s more, the apps that are here aren’t much to write home about. BlackBerry’s native apps are well-designed and take advantage of the Passport’s square, dense display, but BlackBerry’s app world is worryingly empty — something the company tried to fix by providing support for running Android apps. That’s great, you may think, as Android has one million apps, but BlackBerry only offers the Amazon app store with the device, which contains just 300,000 and lacks many of the most-used ones. I instead had to download 1Mobile Market (other options are available), which added another 500,000 apps to that total and gave access to Instagram, Grindr, and Scruff amongst others, as well as games not present in Amazon’s store. Once these apps are open, though, they are entirely self-contained. Notifications won’t show in the Hub and the apps will only update if they’re open and have a card on the home screen. Similarly, though Android apps can intelligently shape themselves to fit a wide variety of displays, the Passport’s unique screen threw up a few graphical glitches and issues — though, this was thankfully the exception, not the rule, and most apps will work just fine. That being said, while having the ability to run Android apps is a useful — many would say necessary — addition to the standard BlackBerry roster, it’s far from a perfect experience. You can certainly use and enjoy Android apps, but having them locked into their individual walled gardens means that the experience will always be sub-par compared with a true blood Android device. That may seem rather obvious, but having restricted Android apps as a solution to a lack of native BlackBerry apps is the equivalent of using gunpowder to treat a wound. Yes, it may get the job done, but there are better solutions out there — in this case, buying an Android phone and enjoying your apps without restrictions.
Indeed, as my review period wore on, more frustrations started to bubble to the surface. The camera, which BlackBerry touts as the best ever fitted to a BlackBerry, is certainly good — but, it still lags behind other flagships devices. Autofocus is slow and often fails to lock on, especially while capturing video, while low light performance is okay, even with the inclusion of optical image stabilization to aid the Passport’s 13 MP sensor. Furthermore, the front camera struggles in anything other than perfect lighting, so don’t expect to capture any selfies you’d want to share. This sits at odds with the fact that the Passport really is capable of producing some great shots, and BlackBerry has given the camera software a few appreciated additions. HDR mode, for instance, automatically recommends itself when it detects an appropriate situation, helping balance out high-contrast images. This only makes the moments when the Passport’s camera falls flat on its face more evident, such as having to take two photos of the same object in broad daylight because the first image couldn’t focus properly and returned a blurry mess. There’s something not right here, though whether it’s a software or hardware issue will be determined by future updates to the device — hopefully it’s the former. At least moving images to a computer is simple, given BlackBerry’s Blend software which, once installed, will let you move files wirelessly from your phone, as well as answer messages sent to the device on your PC — except the software refused to find the Passport on my WiFi network, so I can’t confirm the efficacy of this method. Once connected via USB cable it worked perfectly, however.
Battery life — too often a weakness of some flagships (looking at you, iPhone) — is excellent, with a large, 3450mAh pack providing plenty of juice to last through a day of emails and work. Similarly, the quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM ensure that apps run smoothly and quickly — though, this only applies to BlackBerry apps, as some of my Android apps would face lengthy load times and frequent crashes. Also, several simply refused to work, as Google’s Play Services is required for some apps and the Passport doesn’t support it. Similarly, while Google offers excellent voice search, and Apple and Microsoft have wonderful assistants with Siri and Cortana, BlackBerry’s Assistant is a slow, easily-confused attempt at voice functionality that more often than not will simply open a web search than try to offer useful responses. Still, it can access your secure work calendar, which Siri can’t, so there’s that.
BlackBerry’s speakers are loud, among the loudest I’ve heard, though HTC’s BoomSound speakers offer better quality at similar volume. In calls, the Passport, despite touting impressive sound technology such as adapting the audio depending on the distance between the phone and your ear, didn’t seem remarkably different to other flagship devices. Signal strength, always a BlackBerry feature, was excellent — though I had frequent issues with the Passport disconnecting from my WiFi network. This could have been unique to my device, or an issue with my router, so it may be an isolated case.
As much as I enjoyed swiping my way through BlackBerry 10.3, I found myself frequently missing the notification drawer found on many rivals — particularly given the lack of integration with the Hub in Android apps. Similarly, though I loved the tactility of the physical keyboard, at the end of a day of texting and emailing my fingers were notably more tender than they would have been using a touchscreen. The Passport’s form factor also makes it somewhat awkward to use when lying down — it has a tendency to fall forward, given you’ll be gripping it at the bottom in order to type.
These are all minor gripes, certainly, but they add up to a frustrating whole. Though I was relatively enamored with the Passport when first using it, I was looking forward to handing it back by the end of the two weeks. It only served to raise numerous questions about BlackBerry’s decision making — in particular their use of BlackBerry OS which, while safe and stable, just cannot compete with its more established touchscreen rivals. Why BlackBerry doesn’t abandon its proprietary OS and instead build a shell containing the Hub and numerous security options onto a build of Android is anyone’s guess, as it would bring better integration with Android apps while maintaining the features BlackBerry users desire.
Ultimately, however, the Passport meets the criteria it was built for. As a work tool, it’s undeniably useful. I was able to write an entire article for this website using its keyboard, something I couldn’t say for a touchscreen device, and it makes email and messaging a breeze. Reading and editing documents was similarly easy and the battery life meant I didn’t have to worry about running between chargers. If you’re the sort who buys a device to get work done, the Passport should definitely be on your short list — it’s excellent at aiding your productivity. It’s once you leave work, however, that the Passport makes less sense. The camera is temperamental, there’s a scarcity of apps, Android integration is half-baked, and games and video are made harder to enjoy with the Passport’s square display — though it really is a lovely screen. As a smartphone for business professionals, the Passport will make work an easier thing to get done. Once the shirt and tie come off, the Passport is a rather boring place to be. It’s all work, no play — and for many, that will be reason enough to opt for one of BlackBerry’s rivals.
The BlackBerry Passport is available for $599 unlocked from BlackBerry and Amazon, and will come to AT&T later this year.
Image Credits: Rhuaridh Marr (main), BlackBerry
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