BlackBerry Passport, I tried. But I don’t think we’re right for each other.

I’ve been hanging onto the Passport for the past few months, ever since I got my hands on one in September. Just a few months before that, I bought a Nexus 5, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t open to change. Still, a few months after I’ve had the chance to use both, I’ve decided I’m sticking with my Nexus 5 and potentially giving the Passport to my father, who will appreciate the bigger screen.

I’ll preface this piece by saying the Passport is a great device, strong in the specs department and adequately user-friendly with the BlackBerry 10.3 operating system. It’s really a matter of choice as to whether it’s a good fit. There will definitely be users who find the wide, squarish shape too off-putting, and I am one of them – but then there are others who seem pretty thrilled with it, like this newly converted devotee, who happily turfed his Nexus (no word on which one) for the Passport, and Jonathan Kay from the National Post.

 

BlackBerry Passport
(Image: Alex Davies).

 

BLACKBERRY PASSPORT SPECIFICATIONS
Screen 4.5-inch @ 1440 x 1440 resolution (453 PPI)
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 with 2.2 GHz quad-core CPUs
RAM 3 GB
Storage 32 GB flash storage, plus microSD expansion of up to 128 GB
Battery 3,450 mAh (non-removable)
Rear Camera 13 megapixel auto-focus camera, optical image stabilization (OIS), 5-element f2.0 lensLED flash, continuous and touch to focus, image stabilisation5x digital zoom1080p HD video recording at 60fps
Front Camera 2MP fixed-focus, 3x digital zoom, 720p HD video recording
LTE Bands FD-LTE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 20
(2100/1900/1800/1700/850/2600/900/700/700/800 MHz)
HSPA+ 1, 2, 4, 5/6, 8 (2100/1900/1700/850/900 MHz)
Quad band GSM/GPRS/EDGE (850/900/1800/1900 MHz)
Connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n/ac, 4G Mobile Hotspot, Wi-Fi Direct, Miracast
Build Materials & Colour Stainless steel, Corning Gorilla Glass 3, black, white (arrives in November)
Element Protection None
Dimensions & Weight 128 x 90.3 x 9.3 mm (5.04 x 3.56 x 0.36 in),
196 g (6.91 oz)
OS BlackBerry OS 10 (phone tested running 10.3)
Carriers Telus, Rogers, Bell, Sasktel, MTS
Pricing (2-year term/outright or unlocked model) $299.95 / $749.95

Hardware and design

When I first gripped the Passport in my hand, my first thought was ‘Oh, this is really different.’ Inevitably, this phone is going to attract some attention, given its wide, square shape, with a display resolution of 1440 by 1440 pixels and a 4.5-inch screen. However, it’s worlds away from the rectangular, chocolate bar-shaped phones that most smartphone users have gotten used to at this point, and it’s definitely a distinctive design choice.

That being said, BlackBerry promised its wider device would still fit comfortably in a jacket pocket. Like its namesake suggests, it is indeed about the same size as a passport, so it’s not ridiculously huge. But it’s too wide for someone with small hands to be able to type on it with just one hand. Even my colleagues, who have bigger hands, struggled to be able to reach across the entire phone with just one hand.

BlackBerry Passport
(Image: Alex Davies).

Well, who cares if I’m able to type one-handed? The thing is, the key highlight of the Passport is supposed to be productivity, and I’m the kind of person who wants to be able to tap out a quick email or tweet while walking. That’s just not possible with the Passport – it’s the kind of device you use while seated at a desk, or while you’re standing around in a hallway, no coffee in hand.

Still, the keyboard is pretty nifty. I actually missed having a keyboard with physical keys, and the Passport has a handy feature where it’s quickly adapted to my lexicon, as well as built up a repository of words I’m likely to use in sequence.

BlackBerry Passport, keyboard
(Image: Alex Davies).

For example, if I tweet “going,” the next most likely word would probably be “to,” which will come up as one of three options on the bottom of the phone’s display. By swiping upwards on the keyboard under one of those three options, the phone will select those and help complete my phrase, so I don’t have to type everything out myself. This arguably makes typing quite a bit faster, though I wouldn’t say it made me an email machine.

Still, just as BlackBerry has promised, reading and looking at documents on the Passport’s wider screen has been great. Most mobile-responsive sites seem to fit just fine across the screen, and it’s easier to see an entire chart without needing to flip the phone to landscape mode.

What doesn’t work so well? Videos. If you’re keen on watching a lot of video, you’ll have to get used to watching clips that won’t fill up the entire screen – instead, they show up as a small, narrow strip of video across the display.

 

Design and audio quality

I’ve already explored a bit of the design above, explaining how the display really changes the way users interact with the Passport. So while the Passport’s most unique features are its display and its physical keyboard, what’s also worth noting is it’s quite thin, coming in at just 9.3 millimetres thick and weighing about 196 grams. Considering the size of this phone, that’s definitely on the heavy side.

Wrapping the outside of the Passport’s Gorilla Glass 3 display is a stainless steel frame, with a smooth, plastic backing that feels a little rubbery to the touch. About halfway down is the BlackBerry logo etched in steel, with the camera mounted at the top between another line of steel. The Passport’s right edge houses its volume rocker, with the power button placed next to the top right hand corner of the phone.

BlackBerry Passport
(Image: Alex Davies).

All in all, it makes for a serious-looking device, hefty and business-like – which I guess is what BlackBerry was going for.

Under the hood, the Passport packs a 3,450 mAh non-removable battery. It’d be nice to be able to remove it, but it’s not really that important – that’s because this device can go all day and then some. Even after a full day of typical use, I managed to still have a little bit of battery life left by the time I headed to bed – which is a lot more than can be said for my Nexus 5.

When it comes to making phone calls, the audio quality was pretty good. The people I called were clear, and the people who called me also sounded pretty crisp from their end – so no complaints from me there. The speakers on the device are also fairly loud, filling up a room even though the sound quality is a bit tinny.

 

Camera

Using the Passport’s camera was a pretty good experience, with most pictures coming out relatively well. While it doesn’t have a ton of features, it does offer flash, as well as some funky shooting settings like normal, time shift, burst, and panorama.

The camera also adjusts reasonably well to low light, and it shoots in a 1:1 ratio, 4.3, and 16:9, as well as in HDR and full HD video in 1080p. What’s also nice is that the software behind the camera is relatively fast, meaning there isn’t a ton of delay when I want to quickly focus on something and snap a quick shot of it. It’s slightly slower in low light, but then that’s to be expected.

BlackBerry Passport, camera
(Image: Alex Davies).

However, the device’s camera doesn’t necessarily stand up compared to other high-end smartphone cameras on the market. That’s not entirely a bad thing – it doesn’t appear as though BlackBerry is necessarily trying to compete on the strength of the Passport’s camera, choosing instead to focus on other features to grab users’ attention.

 

User interface and general software

Using BlackBerry 10.3 was a bit new to me – I’ve used both iPhones and now Android, but never had the chance to use a BlackBerry. However, in using 10.3, what I noticed right away is how fast the phone can perform, and that it can open multiple tasks at once and run all of them simultaneously without crashing or freezing up. In this respect, BlackBerry definitely delivers on its promise to be a business-slash-productivity tool.

I also liked the BlackBerry Hub feature, which can either show every notification – or, if you revert to the Priority Hub view, you can see only the ones you care about. By picking certain messages, tapping on them and holding, you can mark certain ones as priorities, teaching your device which notifications matter to you and which you want to appear in your Priority Hub.

However, there will be a learning curve for anyone who isn’t accustomed to BlackBerry 10.3. Even my father, who has used a number of BlackBerry devices in the past, picked up the Passport and mumbled a bit in irritation as he tried to get used to some of the gestures, like swiping upwards and to the right to return to a past screen.

BlackBerry Passport
(Image: Alex Davies).

The other caveat with the Passport is the lack of apps. As a company, BlackBerry has been widely panned for not jumping on the app wagon sooner, and that’s a bit of a shame, with a lot of the apps I was looking for not being in the Amazon App Store or BlackBerry World.

If you’re not a heavy app user, it’s not the worst thing ever. Being a habitual Android user, I can still get some Android apps loaded onto the Passport – with the exception of Google standbys like Gmail and Google Hangouts.

 

Security and business software features
One of the big draws with the BlackBerry Passport has been BlackBerry Blend, which allows users to connect their desktops, laptops, and devices. It’s OS-agnostic, meaning it works for Apple MacBooks, iOS, Windows, and Android, allowing you to see emails, text messages, and BBM messages as they come in.

What’s more important, though, is the ability to grab files, content, work emails, and access to your calendar without needing to switch back and forth between devices – and without needing to use a secure way to transfer those files. While there are probably other ways to get this done, this has to be one of the most convenient while balancing security – though for now, Blend only works for the Passport and the Porsche Design P’9983 model, limiting it to very specific users. However, it’s safe to say the upcoming BlackBerry Classic, set to come out later this week, will probably also get access to Blend.

Of course, for Passport business users whose employers require them to use BlackBerry Enterprise or other security tools, they’d probably get more security-related benefits out of their Passport device. I didn’t get to test these out myself, but even with BlackBerry Blend for both productivity and security, I felt there was definitely a lot to be gained from the feature.

 

Conclusion

There’s no denying the Passport is a great device. But as other reviewers have noted, this is a smartphone designed for a very specific type of business user. That won’t be everyone though, which is why BlackBerry touted the Passport as a productivity tool for users in finance, healthcare, and other industries where the need to edit and review documents on the go is often paramount.

However, that’s not one of my needs – and I have to admit, while I was using the Passport, I missed the convenience of being able to type one-handed while walking and clutching a coffee. And as a fan of the Android 5.0 (Lollipop) operating system, using BlackBerry 10.3 wasn’t really for me.

Still, even though I’m not getting rid of my Nexus 5 anytime soon, if you’re shopping for a productivity gadget, the Passport is a device worth considering. BlackBerry made a bold choice in unveiling the Passport, aiming to set it apart from the iPhones and Samsungs of the world through its size and shape – so while I wasn’t compatible with the Passport, it’s a device that can make other users very happy.

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