After a stint of silence whilst the company collected itself over the past year, the new BlackBerry Passport is here to serve as the new top dog, but what exactly does it offer?
After the haze of Android, iOS and Windows Phone devices we’ve sent through Recombu’s review gauntlet lately, an odd silhouette appeared on the horizon; a squat, squared slab of a phone that on closer inspection made itself known as the best and brightest new BlackBerry, the Passport.
BlackBerry Passport review – Design: An ergonomic nightmare
It’s fair to say the Passport adopts an unorthodox design, even for BlackBerry, who has toyed with various ways to cram a display and a hardware keyboard onto a device’s front over the years.
It features a squared touchscreen sitting atop the characteristic BlackBerry hardware keyboard, although you might notice that it’s significantly wider than any previous ‘Berry. There are just three rows of broad keys as opposed to the four that the company’s phones normally feature. Alongside a spacebar, backspace and enter key, you’re presented with a to z keys and nothing more. The numbers and special characters all appear on-screen, giving the typing experience an awkward duality between touch and physical key presses.
With the broad body and the low placement of the physical keyboard, there’s little in the way of purchase as the device rests between your two palms, and it has to be two. The width of the Passport paired with the pressure needed to press the hardware keys makes comfortable one-handed use nearly impossible, unless of course you’re blessed with giant’s hands. The rest of the bodywork is a mixed bag; a matt black plastic back with an unusually large camera surround is the weakest element of the aesthetic. However, dual stereo speaker grilles built into the base of the phone and the exposed aluminium frame actually showcase a nice level of build quality overall.
As a result of the awkward switch between the various methods of interaction, irrespective of the productivity chops the Passport may offer, for some this device will prove to be somewhat of an ergonomic nightmare. The one saving grace is the capacitive capability of the physical keyboard.
Whilst the space taken up by the hardware keys pushes the screen into its 1:1 aspect ratio, they respond to swipes and gestures (such as BlackBerry’s flick typing) almost as if they were still part of the touch screen. This feature can be used to scroll around an email or a web page, swiping over the keys like a trackpad, meaning your content is left unobscured.
BlackBerry Passport review – Screen: Square-eyed beauty
There’s an expansive 4.5-inch square display, bounded by a thin bezel taking up most of the phone’s front. As it’s unlike any other device on the market, it looks unquestionably odd, but the quality of the panel in use is actually very good.
The Passport features a 1440×1440 (that means 453ppi) IPS LCD that offers excellent clarity on even the smallest text, not to mention it boasts impressive brightness and (despite a little reflectivity) decent viewing angles too. That said calibration felt a little off and it can sometimes miss the a swipe or tap, which although inconvenient is only really an issue during gaming.
BlackBerry Passport review – OS: Hey there, Amazon!
With regards to the latest BlackBerry 10.3 experience, which debuts on the Passport, there’s little to differentiate it over the previous build, except for one key addition.
As before the interface adopts clean, tidy iconography and calls on swiping left and right for navigation as well as swipes up from the bezel to exit applications or go back a step, and down from the top for additional options when in an app. It feels smooth and surprisingly natural, but like we said, this is nothing new. BlackBerry Hub also makes an appearance, keeping messages and notifications from every type of account that you plug into the Passport in one place. Whether it’s a new email or a part of a chat thread from Facebook, it all goes into the Hub and we like its focused approach to message management.
A swipe to the apps screen and you’ll notice the Passport comes pre-installed with the Amazon Appstore. Herein lies one of the smartest moves BlackBerry has made in recent years. For some, you may look upon this as adding another crippled app store to the already poor BlackBerry App World, and it is, but Amazon’s offering is in a better position than BlackBerry’s and gives users a one free app a day as well as greater choice.
BlackBerry Blend is another intriguing new offering not unlike the webtop experiences of old, as found on the Motorola Atrix or with Samsung’s Kies Air. It gives you greater control over BlackBerry hub content, media, your calendar and your address book. You can organise your files or update your diary using a more power-user centric interface on a tablet or via a computer using the companion software.
Whilst watching videos inevitably means content is either pillarboxed or letterboxed on that square display, we were impressed that many of the apps we tried from the Amazon Appstore were able to take advantage of the broader display dimensions, meaning things like full-screen gaming was possible. This level of optimisation isn’t assured, but the fact it’s there at all is at least a small comfort.
BlackBerry Passport review – Performance: Bringing out the big guns
Alongside many of the early 2014 Android handsets and top Nokias, BlackBerry has endowed the Passport with a responsive 2.26GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 and a generous 3GB or RAM.
This ensures fast performance, particularly when swiping around the user interface and while using most apps. That said dropped frames when multitasking and gaming did appear from time to time alongside a noticeable amount of heat build up during more intensive processes, something we’ve seen from other phones using this particular chipset.
Storage-wise you’re more than covered. Just under 8GB is taken up by the OS and any pre-installed apps out the box, but with 32GB of internal space in total and the option of microSD support by up to an extra 128GB, you shouldn’t have to worry about running out of physical storage anytime soon. BlackBerry has also partnered with Box and there’s a third-party Dropbox app on offer too.
The sizable frame of the Passport doesn’t just feature a big display and a broad keyboard, it also packs a massive 3450mAh battery, one of the largest of the current flagship crop. With the various accounts syncing, games played, websites browsed and videos streamed, we were still managing a snip under two days of use between charges, making the Passport a surprisingly good workhorse in this department.
BlackBerry Passport review – Camera: The best BlackBerry has to offer
The Passport features the best camera BlackBerry has ever put into a phone, and for the first time it feels like it has what it takes to tango with the likes of the new iPhone, Sony’s Z3 twins and Nokia’s mighty PureView family.
In practice the imaging experience is loaded with a nice selection of tools and it’s not over complicated either, if you’re already a Lumia 930 owner it won’t give you cause for concern, but it’s a capable camera nonetheless and we’re mightly impressed.
By default the camera is set to capture pictures and video in a 1:1 aspect ratio, which is great for Instagram or Vine, two apps that aren’t available on BBOS 10.3 (without sideloading). Instead, switch to 4:3 or 16:9 immediately to capture content in a more universally recognised format. This also highlights that fact that the sensor actually crops in when set to 1:1 and in fact takes higher fidelity images after this tweak.
The inclusion of (slow to take, but effective) HDR, a panorama mode and BlackBerry’s own smart time-shift face detection are all welcome inclusions too, as is the camera’s ability to shoot Full HD video at up to 60fps, which on playback looks wondrously smooth.
Thanks to the 13-megapixel OIS-laden (optical image stabilisation) sensor, stills look crisp, well balanced and, although a little oversaturated, pleasing to the eye. It deals well with high contrast environments (and automatically suggests the option for HDR when it detects them) as well as nice, stable macro photography and usable low light snaps too.
BlackBerry Passport review – Verdict: Off-target market
The BlackBerry Passport is a very good phone. All the staples the company is known for are rock solid: tools for productivity, call quality, message management and battery longevity. The 10.3 update has also helped alleviate (although certainly not eradicate) the issue of flexibility with regards to app selection. The camera is significantly better too. In fact everything that long-time BlackBerry users knew the company needed to work on, have been worked on.
Whilst its best features are predominantly iterative, where BlackBerry has tried to do something new has been the biggest misstep and that falls squarely on the design. From the awkward keyboard placement to the disjointed typing experience, to the letterboxed video playback, the Passport’s form factor just doesn’t work as Blackberry had hoped, it’s not a deal breaker, but then you need to consider whether it’s worth living with it when there are rival options that simply don’t suffer the problem at all.
If the company had used the same hardware in a more conventional layout it may have been a different story, but in its current form it’s not clear who the Passport would really suit. Businesses will likely pick up the BlackBerry 9720 as one of the last BES 5-supporting ‘Berry’s and for everybody else looking for a productivity machine, the iOS, Android and Windows Phone camps have a great selection of new devices to choose from. We want to like the offering made by the Passport, BlackBerry just hasn’t made that easy to do.
Updated 13/10/14 – Made mention of BlackBerry Blend, updated camera section and tweaked verdict.