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.
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 because 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?
The BlackBerry Passport is a £529 off-contract 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 lacklustre touch-centric BlackBerry Z10 and Z30 from last year.
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.
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 1440x1400 (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 198-gram frame cry out for two hands whenever I pull it out of my pocket. Was that BlackBerry's plan from the beginning, I wonder?
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 tube, grasping a handrail for dear life, the Passport forces me to risk my safety (and that of anyone within a five-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.
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 of 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 128 GB). 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. I couldn't quite 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.
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.
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 eight 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 favouriting 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.
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 monthly 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 five 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 optical image stabilisation, meaning less camera shake for better video and low-light images, and two-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.
Samsung Galaxy S5
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 8am, put through reasonably light use (a few pictures, texting, Spotify) and was dead by 10pm. 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.
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.
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.
Should I Buy It
Not for £529. Not a chance. For £10 more you can get an iPhone 6 off-contract, for instance. 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.