BlackBerry hopes its latest device can help it to soar again, but will the Passport’s odd design ground this flight of fancy before it’s even taken off?
The importance of the BlackBerry Passport cannot be downplayed. It comes at a tumultuous time for the Canadian manufacturer, which currently faces an uncertain future as its profits dwindle and its position in the smartphone market continues to decline.
A year after the release of the underwhelming BlackBerry Z30, the Passport sees it treading new ground aesthetically, while also attempting to retain its core user base.
The result is a premium device with a perfectly square display and the best specs ever seen on a BlackBerry handset. As usual, productivity features come first, but can the Passport appeal to users beyond the boardroom?
The first thing that most onlookers will be struck by is the Passport’s square display and large dimensions – approximately the size of an actual passport. This makes it heavy and virtually impossible to navigate with one hand. Although BlackBerry envisions it for office use, we are still in the camp that believes a mobile phone should offer mobility. After all, productivity-oriented tablets are also available if you need something bigger than a mobile.
The Passport’s screen is 4.5 inches square, making it 0.5 inches bigger than that of the iPhone 5s in both width and height. Underneath it you will find a classic and compact QWERTY keyboard. It might stand out from the crowd, but its form factor just looks odd – like a resizing exercise gone horribly wrong.
However, if it’s a premium device you want, then the Passport delivers. Its stainless steel frame and matte black finish not only mean it looks professional, but combine that with its bulky dimensions and you have a durable device.
The Passport looks tough; we wouldn’t be surprised if it survived the hands of even the clumsiest of users. Comparatively speaking, that sets it apart from some of its rivals; we certainly couldn’t say the same about the iPhone 6 Plus, especially in light of the recent “bendgate” controversy, which saw Apple on the back foot for once as consumers took to online forums and social media to deride its easily bendable phablet.
At 194g, the Passport won’t appeal to fans of lightweight handsets. It is heavier than every major flagship smartphone on the market.
Despite containing a classic physical keyboard, which is easy and perfectly satisfying to use, you have to resort to touch controls when entering symbols and numbers. Additionally, users must also navigate the user interface via touch controls on the screen.
However, you can also swipe up and down on the keyboard to scroll through web pages and selected apps. This may sound problematic on paper but it works relatively well on the device. Scrolling via the keyboard in particular is sensitive and easy to use. Once you get the hang of it, switching back and forth is not a hassle either.
Screen & specs
The Passport’s defining – and divisive – factor is its display. Depending on how you use the handset, you’ll either love or hate it. Although it offers a solid resolution of 1,440 x 1,440 pixels, it is more useful for viewing documents than video.
The latter, such as YouTube clips, suffer at the hands of the screen’s odd aspect ratio; video appears in a widescreen format with large black blocks on the top and bottom cutting off the extra space.
The likes of Twitter and Facebook, on the other hand, have been optimised for the handset and benefit from the larger display. As, too, does web browsing. The display also offers a stunning 453 pixels per inch.
Apps inevitably perform well considering the premium specs BlackBerry brings to the table. These include a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, 3GB of RAM and a 13-megapixel camera. The non-removable battery is extremely powerful and can last for up to 30 hours on a single charge. All of these specs are a first for BlackBerry and outdo every other device in its line-up.
The Passport comes with an updated operating system: BlackBerry 10.3. This finds the company playing catch-up with the likes of Apple, Google and Windows by introducing its own voice-operated BlackBerry Assistant – think of it as a simple Siri or casual Cortana – which is nonetheless a useful feature on a bigger device like the Passport.
To its credit, the BlackBerry Passport manages to cram in a lot of information on its display – and it’s obsessed with notifications. The lock screen contains icons for email, events, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. It also displays your most recent alert. The larger display means that despite this information overload, the screen avoids looking even remotely cluttered.
The BlackBerry Hub is your one-stop shop for all your notifications. Simply swipe to the centre of the display from the right to access it. There, you will find your emails, BBM messages and social network notifications all arranged in a single timeline.
For those looking for some order to the chaos, it also allows you to archive messages in custom folders, search through the timeline for specific entries and filter results according to the type of notification you wish to view.
You can also preview the calendar and upcoming events by swiping down from the top of the screen when in the Hub. Think of it as a more comprehensive version of the iOS Notification Center.
Taking that one step further, BlackBerry has also introduced a new standout feature called BlackBerry Blend, which allows you to access your notifications across devices and platforms. Blend is the bridge between your Blackberry, laptop, PC and tablet.
Once installed on one or more of those systems, Blend lets you get BBM messages, texts, and emails on that device, while also allowing you to access files, calendars and contacts on that platform.
Furthermore, it works across operating systems including Mac OS X, Windows, and Android and iOS tablets. Apple has aimed for this type of synchronicity on its own devices and Android users can achieve it via third-party apps such as PushBullet, but BlackBerry has outdone them both with the scale and breadth of Blend. We wouldn’t be surprised if the Passport is remembered for this feature alone.
Aside from the innovative keyboard, the feature that casual users will appreciate most is the Amazon Appstore. Although the BlackBerry World store is still intact, users now have access to an additional 200,000 apps, thanks to the inclusion of Amazon’s app library. As a result, popular apps and games such as Pinterest, Candy Crush Saga and Minecraft have made it onto BlackBerry devices for the first time.
The option to access two stores rather than one is definitely a plus, but even with the combined libraries, it still does not offer the staggering amount of content available on the Google Play store and iOS App Store, which boast around 1.3 million apps respectively.
The BlackBerry Passport’s width means it is impractical to use on the go. Unless you have huge fingers, you will have a hard time navigating its large frame single-handed. This is a bulky device is better suited to the boardroom or office, as though BlackBerry forgot the definition of “mobile”.
We expect even ardent BlackBerry fans will be bemused by its appearance. But once you begin using the device, it does grow on you – mainly due to its functionality.
Perhaps when you overcome the initial learning, and handling curve, you will never want to go back to rectangular phones again. If the risk pays off, BlackBerry could build upon the Passport to create a better device – and maybe even a square range – or, if it is a hit, it may stick with and improve the device. Either way, we remain cautiously optimistic about its future. For now, we’ll take the likes of the HTC One (M8) and iPhone 6 over the Passport any day.
If you can overlook its odd design, the Passport is a premium device by anyone’s standards. It has the best specs the manufacturer has ever delivered and top-of-the-range materials make up its metallic aesthetic. We’re not the biggest fans of its operating system from a design perspective, but there’s so much on offer here, and the Passport handles every task so well, that even we were won over.
The focus on productivity is less progressive and more of a bid toward its core enterprise crowd, which was under threat, seeing as productivity apps and features are now available on Android devices and iPhones, not to mention superior tablets such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 3.
While it could have potentially been great, when faced with the final product – a weirdly distorted device – the result is a little baffling.