Smartphone Reviews

Blackberry Passport: Australian Hands On

It’s not every day you see a smartphone with a square 1:1 display ratio, but that’s exactly what Blackberry is bringing to the table with the curiously retro Passport. We got own hands on the device during the official launch event in London. Here are our first impressions.

Chris Jager attended Blackberry’s press event in London as a guest of the company.

“Working wide.” That’s the opening gambit BlackBerry is using to sell the Passport: AKA the least conventional smartphone design it has ever proffered on the public. For better or worse, the Passport ditches the tried-and-tested mobile display for a blocky alternative that keeps the width and height on equal footing. The result is a 4.5-inch square screen that is quite unlike anything else on the market.

The Passport display has a native resolution of 1440×1440 pixels (453 dpi) and is protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3. The square screen is supposed to make day-to-day mobility tasks easier, such as reading and writing emails, web browsing and editing documents. This is due to the wider footprint which is capable of displaying 60 characters per line.

Here’s a side by side comparison of Twitter on the Passport and a Samsung Galaxy S5:

As you can see, the BlackBerry Passport manages to squeeze a couple of extra Tweets onscreen by having more words per line than a conventional smartphone. Decreasing Twitter’s font size on the Galaxy S5 didn’t change this.

We also found emails easier to read on the Passport; particularly Microsoft Outlook. Even busy newsletters designed for desktop viewing could be easily viewed without pinching-to-zoom. Based on our brief hands-on time, it would appear a square smartphone display isn’t as batshit crazy as it sounds; at least when it comes to business applications.

Unfortunately, media consumption isn’t quite so rosy. For all BlackBerry’s fanfare about going wider, the Passport’s screen has obvious limitations when it comes to media playback.

Because the vast majority of video is shot at 16:9, you’re left with two ugly back borders on the screen, as demonstrated in the above photo. It almost feels like you’re watching a letter-boxed movie in the 1980s; albeit at a better resolution.

Unlike conventional phone screens, you can’t flip the screen horizontally to get a better view of the action as all sides are the same length. Annoyingly, the display doesn’t even auto-rotate to point the right way up when you turn it. Tch.

We quizzed BlackBerry COO Marty Beard about this rather significant drawback at yesterday’s launch event. He acknowledged that the Passport’s screen was less than ideal for watching movies other than the odd YouTube clip.

However, he also noted that close to 70 per cent of mobile professionals currently own a tablet. In other words, BlackBerry is banking on its customers adopting a “right tool for the right job” approach (i.e. — if you want to watch the latest episode of Game Of Thrones, whip out your iPad.) On the plus side, the square screen is going to be fantastic for Instagram, which is expected to hit the Amazon BlackBerry store in the months to come.

The BlackBerry Passport also comes with a miniature touch-enabled QWERTY keyboard. According to the company, the keyboard has an error rate 74 per cent lower than BlackBerry 10 virtual keyboards. The physical keyboard is for letters only; numbers and punctuation are handled by a floating window on the touch screen.

We imagine that the smaller keyboard might take some getting used to for old-school BlackBerry users, although the gesture controls certainly help. Check out the below video to see a few of these navigation tricks in action:

Otherwise, the Passport sports a pretty typical design for a BlackBerry product: it’s sleek and black with lots of silver detailing. The back of the phone is actually vaguely reminiscent of a passport if you stand ten metres away and kind of squint a bit.

The Passport is slightly thicker than the average high-end smartphone, although it’s also surprisingly light. In terms of battery life, the Passport is packing a massive 3450 mAh battery which should be more than enough for a full day of use. If BlackBerry can be believed, the battery is capable of providing up to 30 hours of “mixed” use between charges.

Under the hood is a 2.2GHz quad-core processor, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage (expandable up to 128GB via microSD card). You also get a 13-megapixel camera. Curiously, the camera shoots square photos by default, although this can be adjusted to a more conventional image ratio by diving into the settings. The camera can also shoot 1080p HD video recording at 60 frames per second.

We were pretty impressed with the overall built quality with the exception of the SD/SIM cover which pulls off with a worrying snap. This feels a wee bit cheap and the fact it detaches completely means it runs the risk of getting lost.

The Passport runs on the new BlackBerry 10.3 and comes preloaded with BlackBerry Blend, the Siri-style BlackBerry Assistant, the BlackBerry World storefront and the new Amazon Appstore. We’ve yet to put these features through the wringer, but first impressions are pretty solid. The newly struck deal with Amazon’s Appstore is particularly alluring, as it means we should be getting a stack of decent third-party apps.

All in all, we’re not entirely convinced by the BlackBerry Passport after our brief playtime. But we’re also kind of excited by it. We’re currently filing it in the “so-crazy-it-might-just-work” category. If nothing else, the Passport is sure to be remembered as a smartphone that dared to be different.

The BlackBerry Passport is expected to launch in Australia sometime in 2014. You can currently buy it outright in the US for $US599, but how much it will cost over here is anyone’s guess. We’ll update with availability and pricing as soon as the information becomes available.


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