What is the BlackBerry Passport?

The BlackBerry Passport is a square smartphone aimed at what the Canadian company is calling ‘serious business professionals’. That’s the type of person who spends the majority of the time on their _phone_ churning out emails, jumping into conference calls and loudly arranging power lunches. At least that’s our take on it.
 
Aside from its most obvious design quirk, the Passport has a physical keyboard to appeal to loyal BlackBerry _phone_ fans, a huge battery to keep you working longer and it runs on the new BlackBerry 10.3, which now includes support for Android apps via the Amazon Appstore. But, sadly, the Passport is a phone of almosts. It almost makes working on the move great, but there are serious flaws you'll find it hard to ignore.

BlackBerry Passport: Design

That quirk we mentioned is that this is an (almost) square phone. Rightfully, it sounds ridiculous but BlackBerry believes there’s method to the madness. The Passport has the same profile as an actual passport, although at 9.3mm thick it’s noticeably chunkier.
 
The extra width is aimed to give you more room to work on spreadsheets or documents without having to zoom in and out of the page. We can’t say we’ve had great difficulty reading emails and doing some work on the Galaxy S5 or a iPhone 6 (even less on the huge iPhone 6 Plus), but there’s some value in BlackBerry adopting this approach. It doesn’t, however, make up for the fact that a wide phone makes for a supremely cumbersome and awkward phone to use, especially in one hand.
 
Going for a more angular look over something that curves like the Q5 means it’s a real stretch to hold. Weighing in at 190g, it’s not light either and there’s always the fear you could drop it if you don’t grip it in two hands. The square design means putting it in your trouser pocket or inside suit jacket pocket doesn’t leave room for much else.

The combination of the stainless steel frame and soft touch matte plastic gives it a serious, albeit stuffy look. Nothing looks quick like it. It doesn’t match the HTC One M8 or the iPhone 6 for sleekness, but it’s very much in line with previous BlackBerry phones. It’s not flashy, but it is solid and well made.
 
The quirks, however, do not end with the square body. While the on/off button, headphone jack and volume buttons all seem reasonably positioned, there’s a button in between the volume controls that would make more sense being used as the standby button. Instead it actually controls activating BlackBerry Assistant and muting music.

If you want to find the microSD card and Nano SIM card slot, these can be found behind a securely fastened compartment at the top of the phone. Completing the layout is a micro USB charging port at the bottom of the phone.
 

BlackBerry Passport: Keyboard

If there was one thing we thought BlackBerry would get right, it would be the keyboard. This is what has made BlackBerry phones in the past a great place to hammer out emails, BBM messages and texts. With the Passport, BlackBerry has made the odd decision to drop the usual four row physical keyboard layout in favour of just the three rows plus a capacitive row just above. It doesn't work.

The on-screen row can adjust depending on what’s on the screen, displaying numbers, grammar and additional characters. Swiping down on the capacitive row can also quickly adjust layout, but it can be fiddly.

BlackBerry claims you'll make fewer mistakes on this keyboard than rival phone keyboards. While that may well be the case, it’s not going to be quicker. Moving away from a full physical keyboard breaks the fluidity of typing and even after more than a week with it, we’ve struggled to up the pace.



Typing position makes it difficult as well. It’s near impossible not to rest your little finger underneath the bottom edge of the phone when typing in two hands and that can quickly become uncomfortable.

It’s such a shame because the keys have that nice, clicky responsive feel and the touch enabled functionality means you can slide your fingers across the keys to effortlessly scroll through web pages.

We would have happily sacrificed some of the screen space to have another row of physical keys and typing on the Passport would have been so much better as a result.


BlackBerry Passport: Screen

The Passport has a unique 1,400 x 1,400, square screen with an impressive 453ppi pixel density. That means it squeezes in more pixels than the iPhone 6 and as a result web pages and documents are clear and easy to read. It's not the brightest display we've seen, but it works well in bright light. Contrast and colours are strong, too, so photos and videos look rich and lifelike.

There’s some basic display adjustments you can make with colour saturation and white balance, too, the latter of which definitely needs to be played with out of the box because whites are not as good as they can be.

Another positive is that the Passport uses Gorilla Glass, the same protective coating you can find on Android phones like the Moto G and the Samsung Galaxy S5. It's another feature than ensures this is a touch phone that's unlikely to suffer from the occasional drop.

This square aspect works well for work, but as soon as you start thinking about using the screen for more fun things like watching YouTube videos, it becomes a problem. A 16:9 ratio video is clearly not a good fit, which means you have to contend with big black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. You do have a screen rotation option, but that hardly fixes matters. If you stick to work as opposed to play, this is a good screen, but it has obvious limitations.

BlackBerry Passport:  Software and Apps

BlackBerry 10, which is now 10.3.1, is in a better state than it was when it first launched. It clearly borrows some ideas from Android and iOS, but it adds plenty of its own, too.

There’s multiple homescreens just like there is on Android and when you swipe left, you’ll see all of your apps. Swipe right and you’ll find the BlackBerry Hub, a place where all of your messages, emails, BBM chats, social network interactions live. If you don’t want to have this information unified, there are filters to break it down though. You can swipe down from the homescreen to see an Android-style notification panel and swiping up while in any program takes you back to the homescreen.
 
Our favourite feature is the 'Recent' apps-style homescreen where you can quickly resume using apps -- it makes accessing recent apps quicker than on rival systems. Even the Siri-rival BlackBerry Assistant is very responsive and accurate. BlackBerry 10 doesn't do anything hugely innovative, but the basic operating system is solid. The larger problem is apps and here BlackBerry attempts to piggy-back on Android.

One of the biggest changes in BlackBerry 10.3 is the introduction of Android app support via the Amazon Appstore. It’s no surprise to see that it’s the Amazon Appstore as opposed to Google Play Store. While it doesn’t have as many apps as the Play Store, it’s a more regulated store front and should provide a more secure solution to giving users access to more apps.

Unfortunately, it does require jumping through a few more hoops to get those apps onto your phone. It takes three or four more steps of authorizing and accepting before you can actually use them. The problems don’t end there, either. Many of the apps are not optimized for the Passport and some games simply don’t seem to work properly. It’s a bit of a mess really, which doesn't do much to mask the lack of native third-party apps.

This is a phone for work, of course, and BlackBerry wants the Passport to play nice with all of your other productivity devices like laptops and tablets. To do this, you need to download and install something called BlackBerry Blend. It’s free to download as an app on Android, iOS and Windows devices as well as offering a desktop application for Mac and Windows use.

Once you’ve installed it, logged in with your BlackBerry ID and paired over Wi-Fi or using the supplied charging cable, you’ll be presented with a Hub where you can view the same information as you can in the BlackBerry Hub on your phone. It also makes it easier to drag and drop files between the phone and laptop, which is useful when you need to grab something to tinker with on the way home. It’s not revolutionary, but it works well and the Passport is better off for it.


BlackBerry Passport: Performance

Powering the Passport are some very impressive specs. There’s a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor with a hefty 3GB of RAM. To put that into perspective, the Galaxy S5 runs on a Snapdragon 801 processor clocked slightly higher but with 2GB RAM.

There’s no signs of struggle for basic navigation and launching applications, although it did take a substantial amount of time before we could get into the initial setup. This aside, the extra RAM clearly helps manage multiple tasks and you’ll have no problem jumping from one app to the next.

For gaming, there’s an Adreno 330 GPU, although it doesn’t deliver entirely lag-free gaming. Android games show more signs of a struggle, likely because they're being emulated rather than running natively.

We couldn’t run the benchmark tests as the ones available on the Amazon App Store were not compatible. What we can say is that it’s well equipped for typical work tasks, but this is not something you want to be gaming on.

BlackBerry Passport: Camera

On paper the camera specs for the Passport sound pretty decent. There’s a 13-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization to aid low-light shooting, an LED flash and a 5-element f2.0 lens. You can also shoot a maximum 1080p HD video. Up front there’s a 2-megapixel camera sensor that supports 720p HD video recording.
 
In practice, you can take some good pictures but there are elements, like the slow autofocus and a disappointing HDR mode, that leave it falling short. Having to press and hold on the camera shortcut to launch means you can’t quickly jump into camera mode as quick as we’d like as well.
 
Shooting photos is set up in a 4:3 ratio although you can change to shoot in 16:9 or 1:1 in the camera app. It’s a pretty simple app to use, except you can’t comfortably use it in one hand. It’s simply too much of a stretch to reach over to the settings where you can adjust flash, turn on HDR mode and set-up a timer. There’s also additional time shift, burst and panorama shooting modes plus the ability to add face detection, display grid lines, add video stabilization and continuous video focus.



Close up shots really struggle and that’s down to the sluggish autofocus and shutter speeds. We rarely managed to capture any really good examples. It took us several attempts before getting something as sharp as the image below as we often found the subject was soft and out of focus.

passport samples 3


Move further back and with bright enough conditions, things get better. There’s a good amount of detail and sharpness in the image below, and there's not a great deal of noise to contend with here.

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passport samples 5

Here's another good example where with the good light you can get some decent photos

It's not great for night-time shooting, however. There’s still a considerable amount of noise and it really struggles to resolve the dark sky against the bright street lighting.

passport samples 6


HDR mode is normally the saviour for bad-performing cameras, although with the Passport it doesn’t really work out like that. As the photos below show, the pick up in light is good but not fantastic when HDR is turned on. Additionally, it takes a few more seconds to capture in HDR and you need to keep that phone steady.
 
passport samples 9

HDR mode off

passport samples 8

HDR mode on

For video recording, it’s set to 720p quality as default, so you’ll need to adjust in the settings to shoot in Full HD. There’s video stabilization to prevent footage from looking a juddery mess and a torch mode to aid low-light shooting. Images are nice and sharp and there’s good audio capture plus the video stabilization comes in handy when you are quickly swinging the phone from one place to the next.

BlackBerry Passport: Battery Life

The Passport has a 3,450mAh non-removable battery, which is actually bigger than the one inside the Note 4 and if you don’t crank up the brightness and have numerous tasks you can get close to the 30 hours BlackBerry claims.
 
The problem is that there’s no adaptive display modes or power management apps that you can find on the S5 or the Xperia Z3 to better monitor the most power-sapping features. In more general use, taking no precautions, you will get a day’s use, but you are going to be hard pushed to get more than that. Using it in more general terms, and leaving it uncharged overnight, you are going to be down to around 10%.
 
In more intense testing, once we managed to transfer over a 720p HD video and run on loop with 50% brightness, you can get 7-8 hours of battery life.  That’s in the same ballpark as top-end Android smartphones including the Note 3, which packs a slightly smaller 3,200mAh.


BlackBerry Passport: Call and Sound Quality

One of the features BlackBerry is championing with the Passport is call quality. It’s a feature that’s often neglected so to address this, BlackBerry has included four microphones to adapt audio volume levels depending on environments and how close the phone is to your ear. While we couldn’t really detect whether the Passport excels here, we did fine calls were clear and and very little exterior noise crept in from the background.

As for speaker quality, BlackBerry claims the Passport’s stereo speakers placed at the bottom edge of the phone are louder than the ones on the One M8 and the Galaxy S5. While that might be true, they are more suitable for speakerphone use than listening to music, where they struggle to match the warmth and richness of HTC’s Boomsound speakers.


Should I buy the BlackBerry Passport?

No. There are far too many problems to recommend the Passport. While we can see the appeal of a wider screen, a work phone needs to be comfortable and this definitely isn’t. Using it one hand is impossible and that’s a pretty major problem.

That’s before you factor in the mess of a keyboard that BlackBerry has come up with for the Passport. Sticking to a full physical keyboard would have made much more sense, but in trying to please loyal BlackBerry users and embracing the gesture-based operating system, it satisfies no one.

It’s a disappointing because there are some positives here, but the Passport feels stuck between BlackBerry in the past and BlackBerry trying to play catch up. Ultimately, what you are left with is an awkward phone that poses more problems than solutions.

Verdict

The BlackBerry Passport tries to be different but doesn’t quite get it right. As a result this is not the smartphone serious business professionals should consider.

Thanks to EE for providing the nano SIM card to test the BB Passport