Review by Sunetra Chakravati,10/7/2014 3:36:58 PM
Look and feel
Ease of use
Sharp screen | Good battery life | Very high build quality
On-screen keyboard is a mess | BB10 app store is spartan | Big, heavy and impossible to type with one hand
By all accounts, BlackBerry had a tough 2013; it failed to relaunch itself with the BlackBerry 10 software update, along with the Z10 and Q5 handsets, then later in the year it failed to find anyone wanting to buy the company outright. We assumed the Canadian company had breathed its last, doomed to a life of launching BBM on any platform that would take it, before exiting the consumer market entirely.
But no, the company is back with this, the Passport, a curious handset which blends a touch screen and physical keyboard into a device which is, unsurprisingly, about the same size as a passport. It’s wide, heavy, impossible to use with one hand, and certainly one of the most unusual phones of the last decade. It even looks like it’s wearing a suit.
But should you buy one? Should you shun your iPhone or Android, and part with £500 for the BlackBerry Passport instead? Should anyone really give this curiosity a second look?
The BlackBerry Passport is really big. Not like an iPhone 6 Plus or Samsung Galaxy Note; they’re big, but at least they are shaped like a conventional phone, so they slip into your jeans pocket with ease and can be held in relative comfort. No, the Passport is big in a whole different way - it’s *really* wide. So wide that using the touchscreen in one hand is difficult, while typing on the physical keyboard one-handed is completely impossible.
But I suppose that isn’t the point of the Passport. This isn’t a device for right-swiping your way through Tinder, reading tweets about last night’s X Factor or flicking through Instagram. The Passport is for getting things done; it’s for working on spreadsheets, creating graphs, sending lengthy emails.
Sticking to that script, the Passport is the most businesslike phone I’ve ever used. It has a premium feel to it thanks to chunky metal edges and a black rubberised back, which can be partially removed, revealing access to the SIM and microSD card slots. At 196 grams it’s a bit of a brute to carry around, but that only adds to the feeling of purpose here; this isn’t a phone to mess with, to toss into your bag and forget about - it’s a phone to hold next to your Moleskine notebook all day long, to leave on your desk in meetings and to be a crucial part of your work life.
The Passport is 90.3mm wide - for context an iPhone 6 is 67mm - and 128mm tall, shorter than the 138mm iPhone. It’s a big square slab, it doesn’t fit in your hand or your pocket particularly well - but, as a piece of technology, it feels good. It feels purposeful and looks like it means business, which is exactly how it should be.
Briefly ignoring the downsides of carrying around such a wide and heavy phone, the idea of blending a large touch screen with a physical keyboard is a sound one, and at first glance the keyboard looks similar to those which made BlackBerry such a desirable brand just a few short years ago.
Add this to the fact the entire keyboard also acts as a trackpad, letting you swipe across it to navigate up and down websites, and left and right across text, and you’d be forgiven for thinking BlackBerry is on to a (rather unique) winner.
But there are problems. Firstly, you can flick through Twitter or Facebook by swiping up on the screen or keyboard, but swipe from the keyboard, accidentally touch the screen, and that gesture closes the app you were looking at, kicking you out to the home screen.
Worse is how the keyboard only offers letters, delete, enter and a small space bar wedged between the bottom row of character. There are no punctuation marks or numbers, so to type these you need to use the on-screen keyboard; this puts the comma, full stop, numbers, question mark and more *above* the QWERTY row, which for many keys feels unnatural and clunky.
BlackBerry could have made the Passport taller - tall enough for one or even two more rows of tactile keys - but it didn’t, and the compromise of reaching above and to the left for the comma key, when on every other keyboard it’s in the lower right, is just plain wrong. The physical keyboard is meant to make typing faster and more accurate for those who want it, but putting on-screen keys in completely unfamiliar places has undermined the entire experience. A double-press of the space bar adds a full stop and capitalises the next letter, but for everything else you’ll need to hunt around for the right key.
Yes, with time you will get used to it, but making such fundamental changes leaves a sour taste in your mouth, and that’s something BlackBerry absolutely cannot afford to do.
The 4.5-inch display has a resolution of 1440 x 1440, producing a pixel density of 453 pixels per inch. Those numbers mean icons are pin-sharp and text is beautifully rounded and smooth; it’s very bright, responsive and has excellent viewing angles. Although colour reproduction is generally very good, the Passport tends to shift to the warm end of the spectrum where whites have a yellow tinge to them; by comparison, Samsung handsets offer a cooler, blue tinge.
It’s a good screen, but I was disappointed to find the BlackBerry 10 software doesn’t allow you to quickly adjust brightness without closing the app you’re in and returning to the home screen first. This move is required to access the drag-down menu, which is home for settings such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, brightness, Flight Mode and more.
Speaking of software, the most interesting part of BlackBerry 10 is the hub. Swipe left to right from the home screen (or up and then right if in an open app) and you find the hub, which is a unified inbox for everything from email and texts, to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and more. It’s a handy way to keep track of all your notifications, but marking all as read - such as tweets which you’ve seen and replied to elsewhere - takes far too many steps. I ended up with 50-odd ‘unread’ tweets because I couldn’t be bothered tapping every single one of them to say I’d read them.
Otherwise the BlackBerry 10 software is decent enough - once you get used to the swiping gestures - and performs well thanks to the Passport’s quad-core 2.26GHz processor with 3GB of RAM. But a major problem is the lackluster app selection in the BlackBerry World store. There are fake and knock-off games like ‘Temple Runner’ and numerous apps which merely provide ‘information’ on popular apps like Angry Birds; these apps cost money to download and I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would do so.
With so few people now using BlackBerries there is little incentive for major developers to spend time creating apps for the platform - and even less so for a phone with a uniquely square screen.
Thankfully, the Amazon Appstore is now available on BlackBerry 10, improving the app selection for the Passport. However, using it is a fairly clunky experience with numerous warnings flagged up before installing each app, but at least it works. Games like Angry Birds Go play well enough, although with some occasional lag to remind you the game was never really intended to be played in this environment.
In better news, battery life is truly excellent. The huge 3,450mAh capacity means the Passport is good for two full days of normal use, and can even be stretched to three days of light use, making it the perfect phone for someone who lives in their email inbox.
Here is a phone which is very well built, with an attractive and purposeful design that is unique and genuinely eye-catching - but one which struggles to deliver on its promises of being the perfect work machine.
Some power users will love the physical keyboard, but we fear many will also baulk at the bodge job that is the additional rows of on-screen keys. It is impossible to type with one hand, the software is mostly fine but lacks the vast app stores of iOS and Android; the screen quality is great, if slightly warm, and battery life is among the best we’ve seen this year.
The company’s unique selling point of offering unrivalled security is no longer a valid reason to buy a BlackBerry - at least for the general public, and even many larger corporations are more welcoming to iOS and Android tan just a couple of years ago. For this reason you have to wonder why anyone would consider a BlackBerry, let alone one as unusual as the Passport.
I can see hardcore BlackBerry fans buying the Passport simply to be different, but I really fail to see how BlackBerry can shift enough units to turn a profit.
I wanted to like the BlackBerry Passport. I really wanted to prove the naysayers wrong and discover a phone which is successfully different, but beneath the bold new suit live the same old problems. Problems endured by a company which had the world kicked out from under its feet by more desirable alternatives.