Hands on: BlackBerry Passport review

BlackBerry's square-shaped new flagship is here, and it's just as weird in real life as it looks in the promotional pictures. It's a square, boxy little device with a metallic trim and a dumpy physical keyboard attached to the bottom. Ergonomics? Screw 'em.

BlackBerry Passport review
Squaring up to the competition

And yet, dig a little deeper and there might just be something there after all. The little 4.5-inch slab boasts a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM. There's 32GB of storage, a microSD slot and a rear-facing 13MP camera.

BlackBerry's also confident that the new form factor best suits those business customers that are the unabashed target of this device. The company says the screen will incorporate 60 characters in a line, compared to the 40 on an average rectangular smartphone.

The former phone heavyweight has a long way to go to recapture past glories and previous handsets like the BlackBerry Z10 and BlackBerry Q10 failed to impress. This seems different though; it's not a case of following the crowd, it's a case of genuinely trying something different.

Blackberry Passport review
The Passport rocks a Gorilla Glass display

Design

The biggest talking point about the BlackBerry Passport comes from its, ahem, unconventional appearance. People will notice it, and they'll ask about it. The design is based around the 4.5-inch square screen that, with a 1:1 aspect ratio, is unlike any other smartphone on the market.

There's no portrait or landscape mode to be had here – it's a perfect square. This begets the obvious question of why... why has BlackBerry done this? Well, it ties in to the type of customer the company is focusing its efforts on.

BlackBerry is betting that you'll be using the Passport for checking spreadsheets, office documents, ebooks, presentations and full-scale websites.

All of which, it says, are reproduced better on the square, 1440 x 1440 pixel Gorilla Glass 3 screen. It's an undeniably weird-looking phone, but BlackBerry tried to follow the crowd with the BlackBerry Z10 and it didn't work. So props to the company for attempting something a little bit different.

The second big design point is the return of the keyboard – which was always BlackBerry's calling card. It's attached to the bottom of the screen with a somewhat squat appearance – due to dropping from four rows of keys to three.

This means common punctuation marks, as well as numbers, appear as on-screen keys directly above the physical buttons.

BlackBerry Passport review
Behold! A physical keyboard

Once you get past the...interesting...form factor, the Passport is an attractive handset. There's a stainless steel trim that runs along the edges of the phone while the back is a soft rubberised plastic that's comfortable to grip while you fire out emails from the keyboard.

BlackBerry Passport review
The soft matte back keeps the phone from slipping

You'll find three physical buttons on the right hand side, used to control volume as well as pause music or video playback. The power switch meanwhile is on top of the handset (as is the 3.5mm headphone jack) and placed slightly right-of-centre.

Given the width of the phone, it's pretty tricky to hit this when you're operating it one handed. I found it easier to slide upwards on the capacitive screen to unlock the phone.

BlackBerry Passport review
Up top is the power switch at 3.5mm headphone jack

There's a slight heft to the 194g BlackBerry Passport; but the Canadian company has kept the chassis to a fairly standard 9.3mm thickness. It's a device that needs to be held to be really appreciated and while I was using it, it reminded me of the original PalmPilot PDA from the mid-90s. Take from that what you will.

BlackBerry Passport review
The Passport is edged with stainless steel

It's clear the design of the BlackBerry Passport is more suited to the inside jacket pocket than the one on the sides of your jeans.

And the size means it's much easier to use with two hands than one. In fact, it's very tricky to use one-handed. This is a phone meant for prolonged productivity rather than a quick bout of social media browsing.