BlackBerry Passport Review: When The Best You've Got Isn't Good Enough

BlackBerry Passport Review: When the Best You've Got Isn't Good Enough

When you hear the word "smartphone," what image pops into your mind? Maybe it's the phone you own or the one you desperately want. Maybe it's even a favourite pocket companion from years past. Whatever it may be, one thing is likely certain: it looks nothing like the BlackBerry Passport.

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That's because almost no smartphone does. Instead of staying within comfortable dimensions, the Passport is a square. OK, to be geometrically accurate, let's call it square-ish. But being different just cuz is hardly (if ever) a good idea. Is the Passport's weird size more than just a marketing gimmick? Yes. In fact it's probably the best phone BlackBerry has ever made. But that doesn't mean you'll be buying one.

What is it?

BlackBerry Passport Review: When the Best You've Got Isn't Good Enough

The BlackBerry Passport is an oddly-shaped smartphone running the Canadian manufacturer's latest mobile software, BB10.3. It also comes with a blast from the past: a physical QWERTY keyboard designed to recall the company's storied history of selling the best portable email machines, while simultaneously erasing memories of the lackluster touch-centric BlackBerry Z10 and Z30 from last year.

Specifications
  • Processor: Quad-core 2.26GHz processor
  • RAM: 3GB
  • Screen: 4.5-inch 1440x1440 (453ppi)
  • Memory: 32GB internal, expandable up to 128GB
  • Camera: 13-megapixel
  • Connectivity: 4G Category 4, LTE-A, Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi

As its hybrid smartphone/tablet design suggests, the Passport is a phablet with a slight height deficiency. The reason is the name: the Passport's squareish dimensions match up nicely with an actual government-issued passport and could be a subtle reference to its intended customer — the on-the-go international prosumer who needs the productivity which BlackBerry had long been associated with.

Why does it matter?

It's square and that's weird! But there's more to it than that.

Once you move past the shape, the Passport is a series of firsts for BlackBerry. It's the first quad-core smartphone to ever wear the BB logo. The BlackBerry Assistant, a digital assistant similar to Siri, Google Now, and Cortana, makes its debut on this device. The Android-based Amazon App Store now comes pre-installed, fruits of a licensing deal made earlier this year, meaning you can access 250,000 Android apps. Finally, the new BlackBerry Blend software lets you see incoming calls, answer texts, and do other things with a PC or tablet as long as your phone is nearby.

So in some ways, it's a whole new BlackBerry from both a hardware and software perspective. After failing to impress with its touch-only smartphones, the Passport is another chance for BlackBerry to create something people will love and want to buy. But since the ecosystem now sits in a firm fourth place behind Windows Phone, it's a steep hill to climb.

Design

When I first unearthed the Passport from its foam-filled box, I immediately hated its bulky size. Spending a week with the phone hasn't tempered those first flames of animosity. Its 1440x1440 (453 PPI) IPS LCD screen is extremely bright, detailed, and vibrant, but it's encased in a metal-rimmed, soft plastic body that stretches more than 3.5 inches across. That makes the Passport a half-inch wider than the even the expansive new Galaxy Note 4 and the iPhone 6 Plus. The ultra-wide keyboard and its husky 7 ounce frame cry out for two hands whenever I pull it out of my pocket. Was that BlackBerry's plan from the beginning, I wonder?

BlackBerry Passport Review: When the Best You've Got Isn't Good Enough

Either way, it's a problem. In general, I wouldn't say I favour one hand over two-hand use or vice versa, but there are scenarios where using one hand is pretty damn necessary. When I'm on the subway and grasping a handrail for dear life, the Passport forces me to risk my safety (and that of anyone within a 5-foot radius) just to send an important text. Not to mention all the times I had to wedge a bag or box under my arm so I could use GPS or find a nearby restaurant via Yelp.

Another common concern with these phablet-sized behemoths is that they can't fit in pockets. With the skinniest of skinny jeans you have reason to worry, but for me, slipping the phone into my pants wasn't the problem. Getting the thing out of my pocket, on the other hand, felt like a disaster waiting to happen. Almost every time I tried to use the Passport, I had a momentary panic attack — an instantaneous vision of the phone shattered against the unforgiving pavement. For my modestly sized hands (and pockets) the Passport is just too big.

BlackBerry Passport Review: When the Best You've Got Isn't Good Enough

Even if it's cursed with some awkward dimensions, I wouldn't say the phone is ugly. BlackBerry sticks with its familiar black-and-silver colour scheme as well as metal trim and soft-touch plastic that curves at the edges. The Passport also has a couple horizontal stainless steel beams, which BlackBerry calls frets, to separate rows on the keyboard. They look quite pleasant. A similar fret design is on the back, marking where you can remove part of the phone's back cover to access the nano-SIM and microSD card (up to 128GB). Note that the 3,450 mAh battery is tucked away, unreachable.

Despite the move to giant touchscreen, some people still love physical keys. I am not one of those people. But if you believe in the multiverse theory of the cosmos, then at least one of my many selves is totally into it. Wherever he may be, I think he'd really like this keyboard. Not only do the physical keys feel durable, pleasantly clicky and comfortable to navigate, but there are loads of keyboard shortcuts that can make your life easier — such as tapping the "t" key to jump back to the top of a webpage. While holding down the physical shift key, you can quickly select text with your finger on the trackpad. I couldn't replicate the speed I can get with swipe keyboards on other platforms, but BB's keyboard is no slowpoke. Plus, you can use the whole keyboard as an extension of the touchscreen: there's an embedded capacitive sensor under the buttons that lets you scroll through web pages, apps, and emails by swiping along those black keys and silver frets. Just look at that magic.

BlackBerry Passport Review: When the Best You've Got Isn't Good Enough

Weirdly, there's also a fourth digital row of keys alongside the three physical ones to type special characters and numbers. The first few hours out of the box, I hated switching between the analogue and digital input with every sentence I typed, but like anything else, I got used to it.

Using it

Powering up the Passport, the operating system isn't immediately intuitive. It feels like a hacked together version of Android and iOS with a little BlackBerry flavour tossed in. BB10.3 does have a useful lock screen, granting you quick-glance access to your recent tweets, alerts, and emails. You can also long press the camera icon in the lower right corner if you need to snap a quick pic.

Once past the lock screen, you're greeted with the Active Frames page, which stores your last 8 apps in window grid format. A left swipe brings you to an iOS-like app drawer and a right swipe goes to the BlackBerry Hub, an app that funnels all your email accounts, social media, phone calls, text messages, and other information into one place. From the Hub, you can respond to and delete messages... and not much else. It's pretty limited. But if you need need to do something more advanced, such as favoriting a tweet, you can open up the native apps from the Hub.

At first, the Hub felt like endless stream of my digital consciousness assaulting my smartphone without end. But after week, I muzzled that madness and now it's one of my favourite features. What I learned to love about it is that with enough patience, you can make it exactly what you want. From the Hub's main page you can swipe right and switch to any account synced with the app, so if you just want to see your various @mentions or text messages, you can filter out all the peripheral clutter that's in your way.

BlackBerry Passport Review: When the Best You've Got Isn't Good Enough

The company's app store, BlackBerry World, is horrendously malnourished, but Amazon helps way more than I would have thought. Let's put it this way: before adding the Amazon App Store, you couldn't get Netflix, Twitch, or even Spotify, which for me would mean I'd have no access to the massive music library that I pay $10 a month for. There's just no universe (sorry, other dimension Darren) in which I'd buy a phone where that app wasn't present. But Amazon brings those must-have applications and they all seem to work well on the Passport's weird screen — although streaming movies doesn't look great when your screen is square.

It's not a perfect solution. Amazon only has 250,000 apps, which is 50,000 less than Windows Phone and is in turn one million less than iOS. It can becomes a nesting doll metaphor of smartphone despair. But even with a pitiful app game, BB users at least have some surprising indie cred with great games like Monument Valley and Five Nights at Freddy's. But you'll still feel the sting of app envy compared to your iOS and Android friends, when you crane your neck over their shoulder to see some new app or game that you can't download.

BlackBerry's other software additions are BlackBerry Assistant and Blend. The Assistant, which is regretfully not voice activated but does pick up your voice when launched, joins the ranks of other extremely capable mobile AIs such as Siri and Cortana. With a physical button on the side to summon the tool (which also doubles as a play/pause button), it mostly works like the others... except it's much slower. In comparison with Google Now, Assistant took 5 seconds longer to return results from my pretty simple "What is the weather like today?" query.

Blend launched the same day as the Passport, so I haven't had much time to spend with the service, but it lets you send and receive texts, see incoming calls, organise your calendar, transfer files and lots of other things straight on Android/iOS tablets and PCs, via Wi-Fi or cellular connection. At first glance, it doesn't seem as deeply integrated as Apple's upcoming Yosemite version, called Continuity, where you can also answer calls on your laptop as well, but it sounds like a neat little feature with support for multiple ecosystems.

Camera and Battery

The BlackBerry Passport comes with a 13 megapixel lens with video and image stabilisation, meaning less camera shake for better video, and 2 megapixel cam on the front. Once inside the app, the smartphone's space bar and volume buttons work as physical capture keys, so you can keep your hands away from the screen and actually see what you're shooting.

And don't worry, you're not forced to shoot only weird square-shaped photos all the time. The app lets you switch among a square 1:1 ratio as well as 4:3 and 16:9 options, but once again, the frustration of the Passport's square screen becomes a problem. Whether shooting 1080p video or taking photos in landscape, your viewfinder is forced into tiny confines with massive black bars on top and bottom.

As for the images themselves, the Passport feels like a capable camera. Compared to the Galaxy S5's 13 megapixel shooter, the Passport captures warmer images (See: The Red Door), but isn't disappointing by any means. It's also equally impressive in low-light situations, snatching even small details with little to no noise in the background.

BlackBerry Passport Review: When the Best You've Got Isn't Good Enough

BlackBerry Passport

BlackBerry Passport Review: When the Best You've Got Isn't Good Enough

Samsung Galaxy S5

BlackBerry Passport Review: When the Best You've Got Isn't Good Enough

All of this is powered by a whoppingly huge 3450 mAh battery. Despite its impressive size, all I can say is for certain is "results may vary." Some days the BB workhorse would chug along, easily powering my entire day. But there were a few outliers; one day the phone was off the charger by 8 a.m., put through reasonably light use (a few pictures, texting, Spotify) and was dead by 10 p.m. I'm still testing a few different things to discern what was obnoxiously nomming on my battery, and I'll provide an update after a few more days of use.

When taxing the device, the Passport heats up — not scorching but certainly noticeable. Unfortunately, the Snapdragon 801 processor is located near those upper right corner buttons, so when your device climbs upwards a few degrees, you'll physically feel it. You won't be receiving third-degree burns or anything, but your palm will get sweaty, which only feeds my fears of inevitable clumsiness.

BlackBerry Passport Review: When the Best You've Got Isn't Good Enough

Like

I may not like the Passport's peculiar shape, but it does bring occasional benefits. Cruising around the interwebs is great because you don't really need mobile-friendly websites. Sure, you can use them, but they look blown out and awkward. It's actually best to switch to "desktop mode" with BlackBerry's web browser and let pages load in their native form. Comparing Gizmodo's website side-by-side with a Nexus 5, I didn't have to go through nearly as many linebreaks. Reading feels more comfortable.

If you absolutely have to have a physical keyboard, make it this one. For me, it's in no way equal to the good ol' SwiftKey or Swype keyboards you can find on Android and iOS, but BlackBerry's built-in capacitive trackpad for easy scrolling and text selection makes physical keyboards more appealing. I certainly liked it.

And, I will not lie, I love the BlackBerry Hub. I spend much of my day dancing among Google accounts, checking Twitter, reading texts, adding calendar events etc. It's incredibly helpful to have an solid way to keep track of my hectic life. My favourite bit of programming is the swipe gesture to open up a side tray displaying all of my various online accounts. An easily navigable UI and deep integration into almost all my social accounts makes me wish I could port it over to Android.

No Like

The BlackBerry Passport's most distinguishing feature is also its worst. Holding this phone in your hand, stretching your thumb to reach far-flung keys, the constant feeling of a gravity-related disaster every time you pull it out of your pocket, it all added up to unneeded anxiety and frustration for me. Also, you won't be winning any coolness points for holding up this awkward monster up to your face.

For all the new (and much needed) additions BlackBerry did make to its operating system, they all seem second-rate. Whether it's the non-voice activated and slow digital assistant, the app selection, or smaller things like its Maps app (no walking or public transit directions?), you can't help but feel you're making one too many sacrifices by going with BlackBerry.

BlackBerry Passport Review: When the Best You've Got Isn't Good Enough

Should I Buy It

BlackBerry Passport

Price: $TBA

Like
  • Beautiful screen.
  • Huge battery.
  • A few nifty software ideas.
Don't Like
  • Still missing loads of apps.
  • Expensive.
  • Too big.

Not for $US600. Not a chance. The Australian price is still incoming, but I can't imagine it's going to be cheaper than the US.

The screen's strange size doesn't deliver enough convenience to justify its awkward bulkiness, the app selection won't satisfy a moderate power user, and in some places, BB feels like a shadow of more capable operating systems.

If you want to stand out, the Passport carries some "WTF is that?" appeal, but its usefulness is outweighed by its setbacks.

If you absolutely need a physical keyboard, and all you do is email and web, well... perhaps.


Comments

    If it was 6 inches at 4:3 aspect ration with no physical keyboard I would consider it. Using the iPhone 6 Plus at the moment and wish it was slightly wider having the same aspect ration as the iPad mini. Would even consider a 7 inch phone at 4:3 aspect ration. If the iPad min was slightly smaller and could make calls it would be my ultimate all in one device.

    If a reviewer can't have an open mind about a technology, please refrain from making a so called "review". This device can't be compared to iPhone or Android phones. This device might not be for you, but it will be for others. I just have enough of the negativities. This device belongs to a completely different category, where security is second to none, no hacking on iClouds involved. This device is not for anyone, especially who rather not use their so called 'smartphones' as a toy.

      This device is not for anyone

      Well that's... odd.

        Only for people with sense, people who use phone for work, not as a toy...hope that's a tiny bit clearer.

          Agree, head over to WSJ for a proper review. In the same way you don't compare a Server box to a laptop (like comparing price and apps), you don't compare BB with iPhone and Android. It's glaring obvious. Imagine a review of a server box that said the limitations is that it doesn't have a lithium ion battery and it costs more to get the server RAMs than the normal ones...

      Absolutely agree.
      This isn't a device for the masses.

      Try and approach it from an open mind.

      Hello
      Every thing is fine with this device..
      But I got first one which is getting over heat during browsing or video recording or even using calls.
      Now AXIOM care replace device with new one and new one also with same.
      Plz suggest ...

    it still reminds me of my beloved Nokia X5....but that was a free hand me down....I couldn't justifiable buy this but would probably happily use it if given to me just to have physical buttons again.
    I now have a Lumia 1520 just so I could have the 'buttons' as big as possible for my fumbling hands in this smartphone world and I still struggle.

    If they're going to go after a niche market they may as well do it properly, it's not for everyone but it's not supposed to be. They're soon launching the classic which is targeting roughly the same market but for people who need to work one handed & the Passport for those who can spare both.

    Another typical Apple fan boi so called reviewer. Too bad it seems like more people like it than you think since is sold out everywhere I look. LOL

    I think blackberry needs to realise that they are not going to ever have a significant market share again and stop making weird handsets that honestly feel like a last ditch effort to beat everyone else. I think they should focus on making their original style handsets on the Android platform, updating every 12 months with faster processors and better screen specs. They will sell them as plenty of old timers still like the physical keyboard. They should also still be working on their z10 model and incorporate dual sims, that coupled with Android and the ability to use that Business/personal segregation feature they had would be cool!

    It's disappointing to see no Band 28 in the LTE specs. This band is rolling out across Asia & Europe (and here) as a result of reused analogue TV spectrum.

    For the spec heads it covers:
    LTE 700/800/850/900/1700/1800/1900/2100/2600
    (Being Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 20)

    Therefore it's not ideal if you want LTE coverage on Telstra or Optus, especially in regional areas.

    On the upside, if your a Vodafone customer and travel to the Americas a lot, this is perfect! It covers vodafone's low-band 850MHz spectrum, and all the low band spectrum in the Americas.

    Having said all that though, the target market this is aimed at probably has a 2nd (or 3rd) device to make use of very high speed LTE networks in their location should they need to.

    Last edited 08/10/14 4:21 pm

    I doubt anyone is going to "buy" this personally. It's for the corporate world - you'll be assigned one from your place of work. So applying the "should I buy this" question isn't really relevant for BB these days.

    I don't necessarily disagree with your analysis of the form factor; after all, I haven't yet had a chance to play with one. However this seems to be yet another review that focuses on a small subset of features: App availability, Camera, Form Factor, Screen, Battery Life. Yet there are so many factors that make a phone like the BlackBerry great without falling into one of these broad categories.

    Where is the analysis and discussion of:
    - Efficacy of inbuilt productivity apps
    - Call quality and reception
    - Notification Light
    - Proper file management built into the OS without requiring a kludgy, third-party, advertising-riddled app. DropBox and OneDrive are integrated right into the file manager.
    - BBM integrated into the OS - which uses considerably less power in my experience than competing products from WhatsApp et al on Android/iOS
    - Extremely fast and capable browser. Seriously, I used my Q10 at a quiz night recently (where we were told we were allowed to use phones, because we only had 5 seconds to register an answer). In every case we had the answer on my Q10 within the allotted time).
    - Inclusion of a Micro SD card slot - how does that compare to iOS?
    - Ability to easily side-load apps in a supported fashion - including apps from Google Play. I can develop an app and load it onto as many devices as I want without having to seek permission or involvement from Google/Microsoft/Apple.
    - Sandboxing of Android apps for security
    - Fine Grained Permission Control - not only can a user see what permissions an app requires, but can toggle these on and off as desired.
    - Overall security of the OS
    - Ability to monitor battery usage etc on an app-by-app basis built into the OS
    - Shortcut actions
    - Whole device search - this is miles ahead of what Android, iOS and Windows Phone offer, and is one of the most used features on my BlackBerry.
    - Ability to seamlessly sync with a majority of services without artificial limitation - BlackBerry don't have a vested interest in a particular cloud platform, unlike Microsoft/Apple/Google, so it's more platform neutral.

    If you want to base your review on only features that Apple devices excel at, then it's no surprise that iOS is going to come out on top. I'm surprised one of your review criteria wasn't "Prominence of an Apple logo".

    Last edited 08/10/14 6:27 pm

      Excellent review! I'm tired of people whose only interest in phones is the 'toy' features of a great selfie camera, and endless entertainment options, for many who use a phone for business, BlackBerry produce an excellent product.

        yes, tiredness comes along with such braindead reviews from 'IT-Cracks' that never ever before the iphone heard about the existence of Smartphones. But it is a must to fight against their dumbness.
        Look at this deadhorse comparing Blend to a upcoming apple service which will be fully integrated in apple. cool comparison. I wouldn't want to hear his praising on the word predict of BlackBerry or the touch keyboard if the would be apple inventions. my wife uses a iPhone, sorry, not uses. most of the 08/15 consumers have no clue what the phone can and what not. Mr. Reviewer, send your iphone through a Html5 check or check Safari on Ringmark.org. while the actual 10.2 browser from BlackBerry reaches 491 of 555 and is therefore best html5 browser, newest Safari sucks with lousy 412. Why is this important? Responsive Webdesign Mr. Reviewer. Apps are not really needed, just a few ones. the rest a good website can deliver you the same result. stop, even better, it will not ask for accessing your contacts, mails, pics, .... but this might be to complicate for someone like you. and in the end, websites do not really generate that much money as apps do, so your cash might be in danger. I could go on for hours, but I don't want to waste more of my time.

      Lol I like your list of topics, obviously you're looking for a review of the Passport, which the above clearly is not. I mean, there's the stupid complaints about a removable battery ? I can't remember the iPhone model which did have one and they didn't complain. Anyways, I hold that fan bois on both sides are annoyed at the fact that BlackBerry has refused to play the catch crappy consumer game and has sought out their original reason for their excistance: The Enterprise.

    It's strange to think that the web was invented predominantly as a means of moving away from dedicated thick-client applications. Twenty years on, we seem to be repeating the mistakes of the past, where every website has an "app" which basically replicates the website. Apps absolutely can be useful tools - but they are not the be-all and end-all of a mobile phone's utility. The only app I've found I've needed on my BlackBerry is Spotify - everything is handled elegantly through either a mobile web site or inbuilt functionality.

    I fancy the gold one, it reminds me of the John Player Special ads with the black and gold formula 1 racer in it.

    For the old fart business men who always wear suits, this would be a great for them. They don't care about most apps and games, they want it for productivity and would suit them down to a T. Hardware looks good, styling not bad, seems capable, think it will sell well for the intended demographic. Good thinking BB.

      I'm one of the business men to whom you refer and whilst I wouldn't characterize myself in the same colorful manner you have I do agree with you assessment.

        Sorry if I offended you but I'm glad you got my gist.

    I wanna buy passport, i like it. This reviewer is suck

    For those that aren't enamoured by the form factor, the Blackberry Z10, Z30 and Q10 all offer nice alternatives. I believe the Z30 and Q10 are both receiving the 10.3 update with Blend in the near future.

    There's also the Blackberry classic coming soon, which is the one I'm waiting for.

    I have to laugh at one thing. Its too expensive at $600US? An iPhone 6 outright (16mb vs passport 32MB with SD expansion) is $850AU (=$738US). Now THAT is expensive! The 6plus is nearing $1200. If you like what an iPhone does, buy an iPhone - the passport is not for you. If this was a review for an iCustomer thinking of changing, then hey, spot on. It would be difficult for someone entrenched in the apple way (no disrespect, its just what happens) to migrate. Minor rant over :)

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