BlackBerry Passport Review: Don't Believe The Haters

Reviews Richard Goodwin 12:38, 10 Nov 2015

BlackBerry is BACK with one of the most unique and quirky handsets we’ve EVER tested

Rating: 
4.5
Typical Price: 
£529.00
Pros: 
Excellent battery; Best in-class QWERTY keyboard; Gorgeous display; Decent Camera; The ability install and run Android applications via SNAP; BB Hub is awesome for notifications; SD-support; Premium design and finish
Cons: 
BB10 –– even with Amazon Apps –– is still officially app and content-light compared to Android and iOS (Thank god, then, for SNAP); Design of handset won't suit all tastes
Verdict: 
The Passport is a weird looking piece of tech, yes, and the keyboard does take a bit of getting used to, but, like all new ideas, once you’ve accustomed yourself to its ways you feel right at home banging out emails, editing documents and tweeting. Good work, BlackBerry!

Remember when BlackBerry was one of the dominant forces in the mobile industry? It seems like such a long time ago now. Well despite doomsayers prophesising the death of the company for years it has managed to keep going regardless. And just as well too, because BlackBerry's efforts have produced some very interesting and compelling developments; the new BlackBerry OS, and an array of quirky devices which run it. Most bizarre, divisive and ultimately noteworthy amongst these being the BlackBerry Passport.

Possibly one of the oddest looking smartphones in recent history. But as Samsung will tell you of the reaction to its first Galaxy Note device, a skeptical press put off by novelty isn't necessarily a reflection of what the consumer will think. And you really do want to convince the people who vote with their wallets more than anything else.

BlackBerry has now released its first ever Android-powered smartphone. It’s called the BlackBerry PRIV and it is perhaps the most powerful handset BlackBerry has ever produced with specs and hardware that’d get even the most hardcore Android fan’s pulse racing. You’re looking at a gorgeously designed handset, complete with a large QHD panel and awesome 18MP camera. It runs near-stock Android software and ships with a bunch of bespoke BlackBerry applications. Check out our BlackBerry PRIV Review for the low-down on the handset and whether it was worth the wait.

The BlackBerry Passport doesn’t really need any introductions whatsoever –– it’s THAT square phone you’ve been hearing so much about in the run-up to its launch. But is the Passport any good? That depends. KYM has long been a fan of BB10 and what it stands for, but for the longest time we’ve also felt a little let down by the hardware it shipped inside. Can the BlackBerry Passport change this? We aim to find out.

BlackBerry Announces Passport Silver Edition: Up For UK Pre-Order Now

On August 4 2015, BlackBerry announced a new version of its Passport handset; the Passport Silver Edtion. Unsurprisingly, the key difference between the regular black edition and this new one is the silver colour used throughout its design. But this isn't just a colour choice, no, the bodywork is actually made from stainless steel. The spec line-up, however, remains the same as the existing model.

Pre-order details have now emerged for UK fans (it's already out in the US). The phone will be available towards the end of August, but retailer Clove has posted a pre-order price tag of £399.

BlackBerry Passport Review: Design 

If you want to get people talking, give them something interesting to talk about. And in a world of rectangular slabs dominated by two platforms, it’s good to see something a little more eccentric with regards to design. Yes, the iPhone 6 is gorgeous. And, yes, the LG G3 and HTC One M8 are beautifully designed smartphones with excellent operating systems, but variety (at least, outside the mobile space) is considered the spice of life, and for the longest time nothing of note has really happened in the arena of phone design.

They just seem to be getting bigger –– A LOT bigger. Hell, even Apple’s getting in on the act with the iPhone 6 Plus, which is now one of the largest handsets money can buy, save for the newly released Google Nexus 6. Beyond this trend, however, not much else has happened with respect to design; tech brands still worship the thinner, faster, lighter mantra. And that’s fine –– I like svelte, lightweight gizmos. And yet, at the same time, I still often find myself hoping for something truly leftfield from OEMs… it just never happens. 

UNTIL NOW.

The BlackBerry Passport is big –– very BIG –– it’s square AND it has a physical keyboard, which also doubles as a trackpad for scrolling around menus, apps and webpages. And all of that has caused a lot of people to write the handset off as nothing more than a mobile version of a bearded lady, labelling it a freak that’s kind of interesting but hardly convenient in normal, everyday life. But here’s the thing: this sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Measuring in at 128 x 90.3 x 9.3 mm, the BlackBerry Passport, like all good things, is more than a handful. You can’t really use it comfortably with one hand, but so what? I can’t use my Nexus 5 with one hand all that well. Ditto the iPhone 6 Plus. The Passport weighs in at 196g and is heavier than anything the company has ever produced. It is also more premium than anything BlackBerry has turned out in living memory, with a gorgeous metal frame, high-grade polycarbonate backing, pitch-perfect keyboard, and an ultra-high-resolution 4.5in display.

As I see it there are two talking points regarding the Passport’s design: it’s keyboard and the display. The former is a full QWERTY setup arranged over three rows with the space bar housed centrally on the bottom line of keys. BlackBerry says this is the best keyboard it has ever produced, and it really is –– it surpasses the Q10’s setup in everyway. And the main reason for this is because it is A LOT smarter. On top of that it is more fully integrated with BB10 and the overall experience of using the phone. 

I’ll admit, ahead of using the BlackBerry Passport I had plenty of reservations about this device. The shape didn’t really appeal to me, and the idea of using a QWERTY keyboard, while always an interesting prospect, struck me as a bit antiquated. I really liked the BlackBerry Q10 and used it as my daily driver for a good six months, but in the end I still ended up going back to Android. The Passport is better than the Q10 because it takes the principles that made it great (an excellent QWERTY combined with a decent OS) and evolves it into a handset that feels like a proper, full-on 2014 flagship – something that can and will (in some instances) replace an iPhone or Android handset. 

The design is definitely controversial and it certainly won’t suit all tastes. But that’s OK. If you want an iPhone, chances are you already own one. Ditto for Android. The Passport handles pretty much as you’d expect. It does feel incredibly wide compared to standard-issue handsets from LG, Google, HTC and Apple, and it does take some getting used to… but, AGAIN, so what? You could say the exact same thing about the original Samsung Galaxy Note or the iPhone 6 Plus for that matter.  

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which is to say different folks find different things attractive (just look at Benedict Cumberbatch), so rather than taking my word for it –– even though I do like the way it looks, and find Mr Cumberbatch very handsome  –– the best possible route for you, dear reader, is to ask yourself whether you could see yourself using a handset that looks like this? If your the gut answer is no, fine, move along. But if you’re intrigued by its odd proportions and find yourself musing about what it would feel like in your hand, or how its keys work in practice, then I’d advise you to go and check one out in a phone shop because there is a certain je nais sais quois about the Passport that I think A LOT of people will really enjoy. 

Initial sales seemed to indicate this too –– BlackBerry confirmed it sold 200,000 units in the handset’s first two days on sale. The company has remained quiet on exact figures since then, but John Chen recently confirmed the company is experiencing shortages of the handset due to higher-than-expected demand.

Speaking to The Globe and Mail, Chen said: “I’m glad to have inventory issues. It shows that people want the phone. We took a very conservative approach and didn’t order too many.”

Incidentally, the Passport also sold on Amazon within hours of going on sale. Guess there is quite a bit of love out their for BlackBerry after all… 

Red BlackBerry Passport Now AVAILABLE In UK 

The BlackBerry Passport (in sexy red) is now available SIM-free in the UK from retailer Clove. The handset costs £525 with VAT and, as you can see in the image below, it really does look rather snazzy with its red QWERTY keyboard. 

Clove sells all three versions of the Passport, so if red’s not your thing you can also get it in white and bog-standard black. Personally, we’re all about the red on –– it looks fantastic. 

“The BlackBerry Passport introduces a great deal of innovation. Firstly you will notice the fact that the device has a square design. BlackBerry has designed the Passport to move away from the traditional dimensions associated with smartphones. They have done this to increase the width of the screen making it easier to read emails and view information,” reads Clove’s product description.

BlackBerry Passport Review: Display 

The Passport’s display is a 4.5in 1440 x 1440 pixel IPS LCD setup and is the best display I’ve ever seen inside a BlackBerry handset – bar none. BlackBerry chose this resolution and aspect ratio (1:1) for a very specific reason: normal mobile phones display 40 characters across their screens, but with the Passport’s extra width you get 60 characters, which makes reading things like eBooks, webpages and - BlackBerry’s favourite - spreadsheets, A LOT easier. Or, if you prefer, better, by showing you more of what you’re looking at. Either way, it’s a good thing, as you can see below:

With regards to clarity and colour production, the HD-grade panel also delivers the goods. Colours look fantastic with excellent contrast and lots of detail. Text appears crisp and there’s no hint of pixilation anywhere, whether on the web, in an app, or when reading an eBook. Viewing angles are great too, and the Passport also performs well in direct sunlight –– unlike my current Nexus 5. But this was always going to be the case, as what you’re looking at is an HD IPS LCD panel.

The only real downside of this setup is to do with video, which is affected by boxing on account of the Passport’s 1:1 aspect ratio. This isn’t ideal by any stretch of the imagination and makes TV shows and Films a bit of a no-go on the Passport. Quick YouTube sessions are fine, but the Passport does lose out to other more traditional 16:9 aspect ratio handsets in this regard. 

BlackBerry Passport Review: Hardware & Specs

Inside the Passport you’ll find Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801 chipset running alongside 3GB of RAM and an Adreno 330 GPU. That’s a pretty ferocious setup even by Android standards and makes for one hell of an experience in the day to day. Even more so when you factor in that BlackBerry, like Apple, has complete control over the software and hardware inside its handsets, which always translates in to a smoother, more power-efficient experience for the end-user. And the Passport is no exception to this rule.

Back in the day a phone’s performance used to be a BIG talking point. Apple’s iPhone 4, with its seamless, judder-free scrolling, for instance, springs to mind. Nowadays though people take things like that for granted, and the real battles are fought and won on how a handset handles multi-tasking, how it manages power, and how its features (things like Apple Pay, for instance) benefit you, the end user. The Passport delivers solid performance across the board, and nothing you can throw it at will phase it. But this isn’t all that interesting because every modern flagship is the same in this regard, and the Passport, like the iPhone and LG G3, delivers solid, reliable performance across the board.

The Passport is the first instance where BlackBerry has released a handset that could give any iPhone or Android handset a run for its money in terms of gross hardware and specs, however, and that is pretty interesting in itself. What’s even more interesting is why BlackBerry ramped the specs and hardware up so high? Could it be because the company has some BIG plans relating to BB10 updates in the coming months? 

BlackBerry Passport Review: BB10.3 Software

BlackBerry 10 is perhaps one of the most under-rated mobile platforms on the planet. A lot of this is to do with BlackBerry’s previous hardware (the Z10 and Q10 weren’t all that desirable), but most is to do with the fact that the vast majority of people these days go for either Android, meaning Samsung, or Apple’s iPhones. People do buy Windows Phone, sure. But when I say “most” I’m talking in a macro, hundreds-of-millions-type sense. And in this context there really is only Apple and Samsung, and this is a real shame because both Windows Phone and BB10 now have a lot to offer.

Since I last used BB10 –– around 12 months –– BlackBerry has pumped out a fair few updates. We’re now to BB10.3 and the UX, I’m pleased to report, is in much better shape with improved iconography, better multitasking, and new features like BlackBerry Assistant. BlackBerry says BB10 is all about getting stuff done and is designed, from the ground up, for professional users with professional needs. This means it does things like email very well. But so does iOS and Android, so this can hardly be considered a USP for BlackBerry alone. Where things start to differ is how you do email and the like on BB10. Take the BlackBerry Hub, for instance, which is essentially a place where all your IM, email, and social feeds live. It’s always a swipe away from anywhere in the BB10 UX, meaning quick, easy access to stuff like emails and notifications as soon as they happen.

 

Universal Search is now A LOT better too. Just start typing and BB10 will open up a search dialogue with everything related to your query that is on your phone –– contacts, emails, videos, notes, and pictures –– as well as links to things like BlackBerry World, Twitter, Google and Bing. Then there are things like Advanced Interaction, whereby the phone’s sensors can do wonderful stuff like switch profiles, to silent, for instance, when placed face down, as well as a built-in power management tool that relays information to you about what’s eating up all your juice at any given moment. 

BlackBerry Blend lets you pick up texts and emails from your BlackBerry on a PC or Mac and, amazingly, it works over Wi-Fi, Mobile Data and via USB, meaning you can be on the other side of the world and, providing you BlackBerry is switched on, pick up emails and texts from your phone on a PC with Blend installed. Again, this is a HUGE feature – and one I missed out in the original review, so thanks to the guys in the comments for this one. 

BlackBerry Assistant (BB10’s answer to Siri) is a digital personal assistant and, like Google Now and Siri, it opens up a myriad of hands-free interaction options. I don’t use these Assistant things all that much in my day-to-day, but while testing Assistant I found it to be just as good as Siri. It can set reminders, add appointments, reply to emails and texts, and read aloud emails if you’re driving, for instance. So if voice control is your thing, well, you’re good to go. But if like me you see these types of features as more latent-type-me-too things, you’ll probably forget all about it after using it once. 

Another new feature inside BB10.3 is Endless Folders, whereby you can simply chuck hundreds of pointless applications –– i.e. the majority of the stock BlackBerry ones, which cannot be deleted –– inside and never have to look or think about them again. You can also merge two folders into one, although you cannot yet have folders within folders. But the big take-home feature for me as a returning BB10 user is the aesthetic changes, because previously BB10 looked a bit clunky and rough around the edges when compared to its peers. Nowadays, though, it is a gorgeous little setup, packed full of useful features. In fact there’s a bit TOO much to go into here so for the sake of brevity I decided to do a separate piece on BB10.3, which we’ll be uploading next week.

But before we move on there are a few points I’d like to make regarding BlackBerry 10’s application situation. The first is Amazon Apps, which is now available on the platform, giving you access to tens of thousands of Android applications usually reserved for Kindle-only products like the Fire HDX. This is a HUGE boon for BlackBerry users and a great score for BlackBerry too, as it goes a long way to remedying the still grossly under-stocked BlackBerry World. Amazon’s App Store isn’t perfect by any stretch and still lacks many applications you’ll find inside Apple’s App Store, Google Play and, in some instances, BlackBerry World. It’s not a saving grace, but it represents progress towards a goal and that is what BB10.3 is all about. 

The second is to do with porting Android applications over onto your device using .BAR files. Previously, this feature was bloody amazing inside BB10, because if you couldn't find what you were looking for inside BlackBerry World or Amazon Apps –– say, Google Chrome, for instance –– you still had plenty of options. All you had to do was Google, “Chrome .BAR file” and you’ll be pointed towards an absolute plethora of websites and resources that’ll help you install Android applications directly to your BlackBerry Passport. 

With BlackBerry 10.3, however, it is EVEN easier because all the .BAR converting is done on device, saving you oodles of time. This is a brand new feature of BB10.3 and one I sadly neglected to mention first time around –– as noted above, there are A LOT of new features inside this update. But the long and short of this new ability is this –– access to Google Play. I know, amazing! All you need to do is download SNAP and you’re away. That’s it. Simple –– and it also pretty much solves the whole app-gap problem, too. 

If you’re new to BlackBerry 10.3 and BlackBerry in general, you might want to check out our piece on BlackBerry 10.3 Tips and Tricks. In it you’ll find tons of information about handy information about keyboard shortcuts, advanced UX settings, how to setup and use BlackBerry Blend, how to install Android applications, best practices for Active Frames, setting up lockscreen notifications and a whole load of other stuff too. Also, we’re adding new bits and bobs to it all the time, so if you pop back regularly you’re likely to find something new. 

BlackBerry 10.3.1 Update Lands With Features A’Plenty

BB10.3.1 is here and it brings with it quite a few updates, including changes to the look and feel of BB10 as well as dual-app stores, meaning easy access to literally thousands of applications. BlackBerry 10 OS 10.3.1 offers a fresh look that incorporates updated icons and an instant action bar so that each user's most commonly accessed functions are in the centre of their screen. With this operating system update, users gain access to powerful features, including:

  • BlackBerry Blend - BlackBerry Blend brings messaging and content that is on your BlackBerry smartphone to your computer and tablet. Get instant message notifications, read and respond to your work and personal email, BBM™ and text messages, and access your documents, calendar, contacts and media in real time on whatever device you are on, powered by your BlackBerry. BlackBerry Blend works across multiple operating systems including Mac, Windows, iOS and Android.
  • Dual app storefronts, offering hundreds of thousands of apps: BlackBerry World - BlackBerry World showcases essential business and productivity apps for professionals looking to drive efficient communications and collaboration. Amazon Appstore - The Amazon Appstore is the place to download popular Android apps and games including favourites like Candy Crush Saga, Pinterest, Kindle and Cut the Rope 2.
  • BlackBerry Assistant - The BlackBerry Assistant is BlackBerry's first digital assistant and can be used with voice and text commands to help users manage work and personal email, contacts, calendar and other native BlackBerry 10 applications. It's the only smartphone assistant on the market today that can access both personal and work content in your work perimeter. BlackBerry Assistant intelligently determines how to respond to you based on how you interact with it - if you type, it responds silently, if you speak, it speaks back and if you activate over Bluetooth, it speaks back with additional context because it assumes you might not have access to the screen.
  • BlackBerry Hub with Instant Actions - The one place to manage all your conversations - email, texts, BBM, phone calls, social media and more - just got better. The new instant actions feature allows you to quickly organise and action your inbox without having to go into each individual message or calendar invite. Toggle the read status and file, flag or delete an email message with a single tap. When you're composing an email, you can now transfer the conversation to a voice call, SMS or meeting invite.
  • Time Saving Keyboard Shortcuts - Keyboard shortcuts are back for BlackBerry 10 smartphones with a physical QWERTY keyboard including the BlackBerry Q5, Q10, Passport and the Porsche Design P'9983 smartphone from BlackBerry. As you once could on your beloved BlackBerry Bold and as you can on the recently launched BlackBerry Classic, you can now make use of nearly every letter in the physical keyboard and give it an action like Speed Dial for a contact, or use them to launch your most-used apps. For example, from the Hub press "T" to get to the top of your inbox or "B" to get to the bottom to make short work of getting through your messages.
  • More Battery Power - You can now boost your battery life by up to 15 percent by customising your Power Saving Profile. Quickly select the applications and functions you would like to restrict or remain active to conserve power.
  • New Camera Functions - The upgraded camera software automatically recommends modes and settings, including HDR when sharp contrast is detected and an enhanced Time Shift mode when faces are detected. Now you have the option to store your Time Shift captures and edit them into the perfect photo whenever you want. Get the whole picture by capturing a panorama. Our new camera also brings your most common modes and actions to the forefront - you'll never need to switch between your camera and video recorder again. You can even record video and take pictures at the same time.
  • More Ways to Edit, Create, Sort and Listen to Media - Enjoy your media the way it was meant to sound, with 17 preset equaliser options for both music and video. With 10.3.1, you now have the ability to "Favourite" songs, photos or videos so they are always at your fingertips. With the new slow motion video edit feature and built in Story Maker, it's never been easier to master your media and share it with the world. A Calendar that Works for You - The new Meeting Mode option will automatically set your phone to quiet mode for the duration of your meeting, and then turn notifications back on when it's over. Plus, a new weekly agenda view allows you to see your events and tasks for the selected week or month.
  • BBM Meetings - BBM Meetings offers business users a new way to work smarter and be more productive from any Android, iPhone, BlackBerry 10 smartphone or Windows PC or Mac. It combines a mobile-optimized user experience that allows on-the-go professionals to schedule, host and participate in meetings anywhere you have an internet connection. All at a fraction of the cost of other leading collaboration solutions.

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