BlackBerry Passport full review
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BlackBerry Passport review: the most BlackBerry BlackBerry... ever
Right out of the gate let me say this: the BlackBerry Passport is not for everyone. On looks alone many users will eschew its charms. It is a niche product built for what remains of BlackBerry's core userbase. It is the most BlackBerry BlackBerry I have ever used.
The Passport is designed to be used as a productivity tool, in the workplace. As such it is powerful and versatile, and for those who want a portable productivity device with a hardware keyboard it will be a perfect companion. For many others it may be a hopelessly hobbled enterainment device.
Suffice to say that putting a star rating on the BlackBerry Passport is difficult, if not impossible. I have scored it for the general populace, but if that isn't you (and you are outraged by my scores) by all means let me know in the comments below. The Passport is an intriguing and unique device, and for that I give BlackBerry kudos.
BlackBerry Passport review: UK price and availability
The BlackBerry Passport retails at £529 inc VAT in the UK. It's not the most widely available phone: a quick online search shows that you can buy it outright at Selfridges and on contract at Carphone Warehouse, while various eBay, Amazon and web-retailers are listing the Passport. Expect it to become more widely available quickly.
But as will hopefully become clear throughout this review the Passport is at least principally aimed at business users, so it is entirely possible that the main mode of purchase will be via business-level contract from enterprise supplier.
That price puts the Passport in the upder echelons of UK smartphone prices, but that is fair. It is a flagship phone with a very high-end spec. You won't buy this device as a bargain money saver.
BlackBerry Passport review: design and build
So here's the thing: I both like and admire, and strongly dislike the BlackBerry Passport's design. I'm certainly not cold to it - it's a strikingly different device, and for that I commend BlackBerry.
Before I even started reviewing the Passport I took it for a tour around the sales floor here at PC Advisor Towers, to garner first blush reaction from non-techie people. The results were clear, and interesting. Out of every four people to whom I showed the Passport, three would hate it and one would love it. That may not sound great, but compare that reaction with the response to virtually every other phone we review. Most handsets are met with 'one-more' cold indifference. BlackBerry would be beyond delighted if one in four people love the Passport enough to purchase it.
So what makes this handset so different? In short, it is short. An almost square, thick slab of shiny black tech. Thicker than the average high-end handset at 9.3mm it is also much wider, and a little shorter. Compare its 128 x 90.3 x 9.3 mm stats with those of the 138.1 x 67 x 6.9 mm iPhone 6. That 4.7in phone is longer, but much slimmer and thinner than is the Passport. Indeed, compared to all other touchscreen smartphones the BlackBerry Passport really is another category of device. It is the same size and shape as a US passport (geddit). And that means it will appeal only to a certain type of user.
Part of the reason for this is that the BlackBerry Passport is not a touchscreen smartphone. Or, rather, it is not *just* a touchscreen smartphone. Beneath its display is a slim, hardware, qwerty keyboard. And the display itself is perfectly square (more details on which in the section below). Overall the effect is weirdly old-fashioned, but not unsmart. It's a formal looking device, and that makes sense.
One thing we can say about the Passport is that at 196g it is heavy for a modern smartphone. Current mega-sized smartphones the iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy Note 4 weigh 172 g and 176 g respectively. You really notice the difference when holding the Passport. Weight isn't necessarily a problem, of course. Carrying around the Passport was no problem in our tests: it fit perfectly into my suit jacket- and trouser pockets. That short fat shape fits better than more traditionally shaped smartphones. (It's harder to bend a square, after all.) And there's a certain pleasing heft when generally handling the Passport. It feels like it could withstand a few drops - as indeed it has in my use.
Whilst we are defending the BlackBerry Passport's design against the slings and arrows of thoughtless reviewers, I've read a lot of reviews complaining that the Passport is difficult to use with one hand. Well yes. Yes it is, but it is a pointless complaint. The keyboard, indeed the whole device, is built for two thumbs and last I checked that meant two hands. Let me be clear about this: the BlackBerry Passport is built to be used in portrait mode, in two hands. The screen doesn't autorotate. Complaining about the difficulity of using it with one hand is aking to moaning about not being able to type with your feet.
Which is not say that it's all gravy. There's something about the way that the Passport balances in two-handed use that feels uncomfortable. It's perfectly usable, but feels uncomfortable - like the phone is going to topple forward out of your hands. I also have a problem using the hardware keyboard, the same problem I have with all similar BlackBerry keyboards. In my view and onscreen keyboard makes much more sense as it can intelligently make letters larger to make hitting them easier. I'll talk more about typing on the Passport when we get into software, but I found it a physically frustrating- and error-ridden process. Like trying to wear skinny jeans.
Overall then? A well-built and robust device, with a certain understated style and all the benefits of standing out from the crowd. We've used more ergonomic devices but there is nothing terrible about the BlackBerry Passport's design and build.
BlackBerry Passport review: display
The shape and design of the BlackBerry Passport is largely dictated by its display - so let's take a look at this window into the soul of the Passport. It is a 4.5-inch display with a 1,440x1,440-pixel resolution, meaning a pixel density of 453 pixels per inch. So far so high-end and conventional, but wait: look at the aspect ratio - 1:1. Yes, it is perfectly square.
Once you get over the initial surprise at seeing something different this is great for some things, and poor for others. And those things give us a clue into the purpose of this device.
That squre screen is brilliant for reading- and responding to email, amazing for browsing websites and - yes - a pretty good experience when reading and editing spreadsheets. Just don't watch movies, play games, or look at photos. Not if you have an aversion to seeing two thirds of the screen taken up by black borders, anyway. In terms of consumer entertainment we live in a widescreen world.
But again that is the point: the BlackBerry Passport is a producivity tool and as such its display is brilliant. At the most banal level, if you want to read or amend a big chunk of text it is the perfect display. The term 'phablet' is generally used for any large-screen smartphone. But in all honesty the BlackBerry Passport is the first smartphone I have used that feels like a workable compromise between phone and tablet. Compromised is compromised, but if you want a smartphone for work this display is fit for purpose.
BlackBerry Passport review: software
And while we are thinking with our business brains let's look at the software on which the BlackBerry Passport runs: in this case BlackBerry 10.3. The traditional review of BlackBerry 10 is to say it has unusual swipe navigation, no apps, and great server side support for system admins. Well the first element is true: it takes a bit of getting used to but in time it feels intuitive to swipe from the sides, or the top and bottom, to get to the home page or the BlackBerry Hub. And despite pressure from Windows Phone, BlackBerry remains the gold standard for running a fleet of devices for a business. Data can be secured and deleted, software updates pushed out remotely. Your system admin will always thank you for choosing a BlackBerry.
The apps thing has definitely improved since BlackBerry started including the Amazon App Store. Spotify is there, for instance, as are native apps for all the major social networks. We could even install GeekBench and benchmark the Passport. But you will find odd misses - I couldn't see a YouTube app that was made by Google, for example. If you are purchasing a phone for app support BlackBerry is not the way to go. In general, however, BlackBerry 10.3 is good to look at and easy to use. It is very similar to recent Android and iOS.
Things we like about BlackBerry 10.3 - in-window email notifications let you read and either dismiss or click to respond to messages as they come in, regardless of what you are looking at. True multitasking is possible because of that big screen and the fact that a simple swipe lets you see all open apps in an array of nine windows. Indeed swipe gestures that work on the touchscreen and keyboard are pretty cool, and the typing issues we had with the hardware keyboard are mitigated to an extent by the fact that if you attempt to move the cursor via touch you get a little circle with arrows that you can nudge to get the correct spot between two characters.
And then there is 'BlackBerry Blend'. This is a software app you are encouraged to install on your PC or laptop, with which to interact with you BlackBerry Parrport. Initially this irritated me as I wanted simply to mount the Passport as USB storage to which I could transfer files. And, reader, it was a faff to install.
But it does allow you to pair your handset with a desktop or laptop and view and respond to emails, as well as viewing and editing files, from your desktop. So you could use BBM from your desktop. Perhaps of more interest to a business user, it means that any PC which has BlackBerry Blend installs could immediately become a connected business terminal for any user who can physically attach their BlackBerry Passport. It is old school, but controlled and scalable. The sort of thing the CIO of an enterprise might love.
BlackBerry Passport review: specs, battery life, connectivity
The BlackBerry Passport is a powerful and well-specified device. It runs on a Qualcomm MSM8974AA Snapdragon 801 CPU, a quad-core Krait 400 processor timed at 2.26 GHz. This includes an Adreno 330 and is paired with 3GB RAM. In terms of storage we find a nominal 32GB onboard storage, which in our case meant 27.8GB of usable space. And you can add another 128GB with an SD card.
A non-removable Li-Ion 3450 mAh battery provides the juice. Battery life is a difficult one to judge - we found we could get two or even three days on a charge, but unlike and iPhone or Android we weren't watching movies or playing games. The Passport charges and connnects via USB 2.0. Other connectivity options include HSDPA, HSUPA, and LTE - it's a 4G phone. Wi-Fi is the full 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, Wi-Fi hotspot range, and you get Bluetooth 4.0, A2DP, LE.
The camera isn't much to write home about. It's not terrible, and we like the front-facing 2Mp, 720p camera for conference calling. The main rear-facing camera is a 13Mp camera with autofocus, optical image stabilization, LED flash, geo-tagging, face detection and HDR. It can capture video at 1080p/60fps. This is not a compact camera for shutterbugs, but it is a more than adequate smartphone camera. The best camera is the camera to hand, after all.
BlackBerry Passport review: performance, benchmarks
(Incidentally, we couldn't get our usual graphics benchmark to run. There is nothing sinister in this although with the Passport's spec we wouldn't expect it to be a great gaming device. Probably just as well given the display.)
See also: Samsung Galaxy Note 4 review
BlackBerry Passport: Specs
- Qualcomm MSM8974AA Snapdragon 801 CPU, 2.26 GHz, Adreno 330, 3GB RAM, 32GB onboard storage, 128GB SD card slot, non-removable Li-Ion 3450 mAh battery, USB 2.0, HSDPA, HSUPA, LTE, 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, dual-band, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, Wi-Fi hotspot, Bluetooth 4.0, A2DP, LE, front-facing 2Mp, 720p camera, rear-facing 13Mp camera with autofocus, optical image stabilization, LED flash, geo-tagging, face detection and HDR, 128 x 90.3 x 9.3 mm, 196g