BlackBerry’s latest device is truly unique, but is that enough?
Unboxing the BlackBerry Passport was a genuinely shocking experience. Not technically in a bad way, but after four or more years of a fairly standard smartphone design and shape, nothing can quite prepare you for the actuality of a smartphone released in 2014 shaped like a passport.
Of course, this seems to be BlackBerry’s goal with its latest hardware, success through a bucking of the trend. At 196 grams, lifting the phone out of its box also came with a surprise, as it’s on the heavy side when it comes to comparing it with rivals such as the 145g Samsung Galaxy S5 and the 129g iPhone 6. But it didn’t feel too out of place once I noted the ‘premium’ construction and feel of the phone. Running down the side of the Passport are two ‘stainless steel’ beams, as BlackBerry itself terms them, supporting this architecture-worthy device that seems to exist in both a very modern technology landscape and an early 2000s office environment, with a three-tier physical QWERTY keyboard aiming straight for the heart of the business customers BlackBerry used to attract in hoardes.
Let’s get straight to the point, the 4.5-inch square screen. Initially, the concept of the screen seems to make perfect sense, and after only a few minutes of holding the Passport I found myself looking at the narrow confines of my Nexus 5 wondering how I manage to do work on it at all. Websites generally seems to me very mobile-friendly with the screen size and reading word documents and Excel spreadsheets was more akin to working on my Nexus 7 tablet than a phone.
Coming in at 128 x 90.3 x 9.3mm, the Passport was not the easiest device to operate with one hand, having to stretch quite far with the thumb a challenge. However, the weight is well balanced with the centre of gravity central, meaning with two index fingers wrapped around the back, it’s incredibly comfortable and easy to type with both thumbs.
It’s got a 1,440×1,440 pixel resolution, resulting in a pixel density of 453 ppi. Whilst not being the highest quality screen among its contemporaries, it’s still fantastically clear. One shortfall of the screen shape though did seem to be media such as videos and photos. Our eyes just aren’t used to consuming media in a square format (unless you’re Instagram dependent) and if a more regular aspect ratio than 1:1 is required then there some black borders to contend with.
All through this review I will reiterate that these potential downfalls are not really drawbacks at all, as the Passport just isn’t meant for your average iPhone user. It’s meant for the enterprise, and judging the phone by those merits really makes it outshine most others. No matter what you think, if you view your emails, work documents, spreadsheets or correspondence on the Passport’s screen you really will see why BlackBerry have made this daring move. It’s a productivity tool, and to that end, it’s very productive. Which leads me onto the next part of the phone I want to talk about – the physical QWERTY keyboard.
QWERTY. It’s good to have it back, but it did seem I had forgotten how to use it. But rather like riding a bike, a physical keyboard on a phone seems to be one of things that you never forget how to do, and within an hour my scribing speed was back up to almost that of my full-touchscreen Nexus 5. It’s three tier with no numbers, and the very right hand side containing a delete and a return/send key. Each letter is prominent enough under the thumb to know where you are and after a few days touch typing actually became a skill again for me, unlike the small tabs on touchscreen phones that always evade my giant thumbs.
But wait, there’s more to the QWERTY than meets the eye. The keyboard is also touch sensitive – allowing you to roll your finger gently up, down, left and right to navigate web pages or email threads or to even edit your text. For example, to delete words, just swipe gently from right to left on the keyboard and the last word you typed will be deleted. This intuitive design takes its time to adjust, but inevitably speeds up productivity in the long run.
Naturally, typing on Passport’s QWERTY will never quite be as fast as the one-handed swipe typing I am used to now on the Nexus 5’s native keyboard, but we have to remember again where this phone is aimed at.
It’s difficult to remove the word productivity in this review, but the features just keep on coming. Next up, the battery. The non-removable behemoth is a Li-Ion 3450 mAh battery, which, if those numbers mean nothing to you, is fairly long-lasting compared to rivals.
BlackBerry claims you can get almost 30 hours use out of the phone, but on one occasion I managed well over 35 hours on a single charge. Granted, I wasn’t spending my days editing documents or emailing colleagues (do I do that anyway?) but I was using it as a regular phone: making the odd text, browsing Twitter quickly every hour or so in the daytime, and checking emails.
That figure is massively impressive compared to rival smartphones out today. Even light usage on my Nexus 5 still brings the battery down enough for me to have to charge it every night, or at least a quick top up for an hour or so if I’m heading out in the evening.
Turning to the inside of the phone, the Passport is running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 CPU, alongside a quad-core Krait 400 processor which is clocked to 2.26 GHz. Coupled with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, makes this phone fast, fluid and worthy of completing all your standard office productivity tasks. There is also a SD card slot so the phone is capable of bumping up the phone’s storage by another 128GB.
The camera had all the bells and whistles one should expect in a late 2014 smartphone. The rear-facing camera is 13MP and supports autofocus, an LED flash, face detection and HDR. The different aspect ratios available to shoot in was a nice touch, and in some cases images taken looked to be on par with photos I have seen on a Samsung Galaxy S5 and an iPhone 6. The front facing camera, whilst only 2MP, does support 720p video making it great for video conference calls. Again, going to point out here that that the Passport is not aimed….yeah, you know where I’m going.
Standard vs HDR shooting modes
Having not used a BlackBerry phone for more than four years now, and not having ever touched BlackBerry 10, I had forgot how humdrum the operating system is compared to my now favourite, customisable Android. I quickly leapt to change the background image and to swap and delete apps and make everything look swish. That was until I realised you’re very limited to what you can do with the BlackBerry homescreen. Swipe right to get up your menu of applications, stay where you are to view your ‘homescreen’ where recently opened apps are minimised into little boxes, and go left for your BlackBerry Hub – an all-in-one PRODUCTIVITY centre where messages and alerts for all installed accounts appear, which for me, was just Twitter, SMS, and Gmail. Moving to this format as opposed to separate, containerised apps took some getting used to, but I can see the benefit in the long run for the intended users of this phone.
One of my first port of calls was the BlackBerry World app, where I’d hope to find some shiny new apps to play with. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to this end. But if you are an IT manager, CIO, CTO, office-extraordinaire – then you might well find yourself at home amongst the plethora of word and number crunching office apps showcased on the homepages of BlackBerry World. Logging into the Amazon Appstore I’m greeted with very much the same slim pickings, something that I thought wouldn’t be the case after I heard about the introduction of the store to BlackBerry 10.
The first page of the Passport’s apps
Pre-installed apps, whilst bland, certainly serve the purpose of the BlackBerry. Docs to Go is a wonderful addition to the office armoury, capable of viewing and editing many file types. Remember, the calendar, and BlackBerry’s virtual assistant (which is accessible though a shortcut by pressing the mute key on the side) all impressed. Where BlackBerry falls short, however, is where its rivals at Google, Apple, and Microsoft shine – social. I downloaded the Facebook app but had to immediately remove it because of its outdated feel and constant notifications. Twitter works to a point, but seems to be much clunkier than its Android counterpart. I tried to find a useful Instagram replacement but failed on that front too.
Measuring the BlackBerry against the metric of today’s average mobile consumer, it’s clear that the device will fall short of meeting many needs. Necessary two-handed use will put off many, as will the lack of consumer apps available on both Amazon and BlackBerry stores. Those not accustomed to BlackBerry 10 OS will also find the shift strange.
In the context of the Passport’s targeted demographic though, the phone excels its expectations. The quirky square screen and QWERTY physical keyboard make for an eye and thumb-pleasing productivity environment, and even think that the device could replace my 7-inch tablet to some extent. The Passport seems to take the best of a smartphone, phablet and tablet and turn them all into something truly useful and portable – it’s all too often I question my ownership of a 7-inch tablet when I get sick of touchscreen typing or not being able to make calls.
Security is also a massive bonus for BlackBerry on the Passport, as it always has been on the firm’s phones. IT departments across the globe should have no qualms accepting Passports into their workforce.
All in all, BlackBerry has pulled a trump card. If the Passport was just another smartphone, I think we may have been waving goodbye to BlackBerry devices altogether in the near future. But as it stands, BlackBerry has taken out of the bag such a trend-bucker that people have to take notice.
John Chen revealed that only after the first weekend, his company had shifted over 200,000 units, an impressive figure relative to previous BlackBerry models.
Blackberry says that it can offer device to application data security across any mobile operating system. But in the handset market, the real question is the one of how BlackBerry fits in with the iOS and Android operating systems. Going up against such perfected ecosystems, will the Passport and future BB phones running on BlackBerry 10 really be enough to attract those holding the enterprise purse strings?
Pros and cons
Screen shape good for reading documents
Long battery life
Two-handed operation is necessary
BlackBerry 10 not as exciting as Android or iOS
Not always pocket friendly
A little on the heavy side