The BlackBerry Passport is, without a shadow of doubt, the strangest phone I’ve ever used. A huge square screen? A three-row, gesture-sensitive physical keyboard? This device is bonkers. So when it came out, I absolutely had to give it a go. Let’s see how well the new form factor fares in the real world.
The Idea Behind the Passport
The Passport is designed around an idea BlackBerry calls “Work Wide.” The company believes a wider screen is better for getting things done, and the Passport’s 4.5-inch square display is one of the widest in the industry. It makes the phone about half an inch wider than both the iPhone 6 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. It also results in dimensions that are very similar to that of a typical passport, hence the phone’s name.
Does the size make this a problematic device? That depends entirely on the user. Pocketing the phone hasn’t been an issue for me, but could be if you happen to have narrow pockets. Shallow pockets shouldn’t be a big deal, as it’s only slightly taller than an iPhone 5S.
If one-handed usage is of importance to you, you’re probably not going to like the Passport. However, basic reading, navigation, and gaming can be accomplished with one hand, and the device is generally quite comfortable in these scenarios. Those with really small hands may struggle, but so long as you’re willing to resort to two-handed usage often, I don’t think the size is as troubling as you would expect it to be.
Look and Feel
With such odd dimensions, the Passport certainly has the most unique smartphone design we’ve seen in a long while. The large square screen sits right above an unusual three-row physical keyboard. This bizarre look attracts plenty of attention. Some of my friends have called it ugly, others think it’s beautiful, but one thing always remains the same – it never fails to evoke a reaction.
The Passport is as equally strange as it is well-built. The display is protected by a sheet of Gorilla Glass, while a stainless steel frame wraps around the sides of the phone. The back end is covered in a soft-touch, rubber-like material, and the keyboard is built as well as you’d expect from a company that’s spent years trying to perfect typing. It all feels very robust. You can have a closer look for yourself in our unboxing video.
My only complaint? The material at the back seems to be wearing ever-so slightly where my fingers rest on it while typing. Other reviews have also mentioned this. It’s very difficult to notice right now, but I do wonder how it’ll hold up over time.
Normally, there’s only so much one can write about the display on a smartphone without getting very technical. But since the screen is exactly what makes the Passport so distinctive, we have plenty to talk about.
What we’re looking at here is a 4.5-inch display with a 1:1 aspect ratio – in other words, an awfully big square. It uses IPS LCD technology, as previously seen on the Z10 and Q5. This tech uses a little more power than the OLED panels found on the Q10 and Z30. However, the colours feel more natural than they did on the Z30. It’s a lot brighter as well – a Passport on full-brightness wouldn’t look out of place on top of a Christmas tree.
With a 1440×1440 resolution, the Passport also has the sharpest display ever seen on a BlackBery. You get an impressive pixel density of 453 pixels per inch. That’s more than the iPhone 6 Plus (401 ppi), though shy of the Galaxy Note 4 (515 ppi).
BlackBerry says the Passport’s wide screen allows it to display 60 characters per line – just six short of the standard set out by the print industry. And indeed, I found consuming most content on the Passport to be much easier than your typical smartphone. It feels a bit like having the width of a computer screen at your disposal, encouraging you to do more intensive work straight from your phone.
The only problem with having a square screen is video content, which is typically shot using a rectangular 16:9 aspect ratio. This forces the Passport to resort to letterboxing. But because the display is so large, you still end up with a sizable image – roughly 3.6-inches diagonally, according to my measurements. Think of it as viewing video on an iPhone 4S. It certainly isn’t ideal if you watch a lot of videos on your phone, but such is the compromise of this type of screen.
The Typing Experience
The Passport comes with a new take on the idea of a smartphone keyboard. BlackBerry has done plenty of physical keyboards in the past, but none like this. The backlit, three-row keyboard has no shift nor alt keys, and the spacebar is in-line with the bottom row of letters – most likely done to leave space for the display. Those shift/alt functions have instead moved to a virtual fourth row that appears at the bottom of the screen when you start typing. A few commonly-used symbols will display automatically, while more can be accessed by hitting a button on the right of the screen. A shift button is available on the left side, or you can press and hold a letter to capitalize it.
The coolest thing about the entire phone, however, is that the physical keyboard is gesture-sensitive. Instead of hitting the virtual button to access more symbols, you can swipe down on the keyboard to see them. Instead of holding the backspace to remove a word, you can swipe leftwards to get rid of it. And word suggestions that appear on-screen can be used by swiping up below them. It’s all very similar to the way BlackBerry 10’s virtual keyboard works, but with physical keys. This was demonstrated to us by Don Halliwell at the launch event. BlackBerry hasn’t publicly explained how the technology works, so I’m just going to assume there’s some wizardry at play here.
The keyboard can also be used as a trackpad of sorts. By holding shift and swiping left or right, you can select text on the screen for editing. You can also scroll up and down, or side-to-side, through apps such as the Hub and Adobe Reader. You can even rotate the screen sideways to use it like a typical scrollbar. Unfortunately, the situation with apps supporting scrolling is a little patchy right now – it works in some apps, but inexplicably doesn’t in others. This will hopefully change as developers update their apps for the Passport.
But what’s the keyboard actually like to use? Well, it’s different. It took me a couple days to get the hang of the unusual width and the virtual fourth-row. The strange position of the spacebar also made touch-typing difficult, as my mind often assumed it was below the letters. But with a bit of practice, I adjusted. Some might need a little more time, some a little less, but it will definitely be a change from whatever device you’re using right now.
Once you get a feel for it, it’s a joy to use. I’ve been typing slower than on my Z30, but the physical keys feel great, and they’re typically more accurate than a virtual keyboard. BlackBerry goes so far as to claim users of the Passport are up to four times more accurate with it, though that seems like a stretch to me.
The Passport’s target audience, business professionals, don’t seem like the type of people to tolerate their phone running out of juice before the day’s end. Fortunately, big phones have plenty of room for a big battery – BlackBerry has crammed 3450mAh worth of power into the phone. In fact, that’s bigger than the Galaxy Note 4’s 3220mAh battery, or the 2915mAh unit found in the iPhone 6 Plus.
As such, I’ve never had a problem getting through the day with the Passport. Even after a day of heavy usage, I could still get home with power to spare. If you’re always around WiFi, it’ll easily last 2-3 days, depending on what your usage is like.
The Passport also comes with a 1.3A charging block out of the box – the fastest BlackBerry charger I’ve seen since the PlayBook. So even if you do end up needing a charge, it should be a quick one.
BlackBerrys have never been known for good cameras – even recent devices had shooters that were nothing more than acceptable. With the Passport, BlackBerry aims to change that. Though the front-facing camera is a simple 2-megapixel unit capable of 720p video, the one at the rear is a step up from devices of the past. It packs a 13-megapixel sensor, optical image stabilization, and the ability to record 1080p video at 60FPS – on paper, quite a capable piece of kit. This camera is nearly identical to the one found in the LG G2, but the Passport’s f2.0 lens allows more light in.
As a result, this is a BlackBerry that can produce some genuinely lovely photos. The flash is somewhat harsh in darker conditions, but it’s not as bad as BlackBerrys I’ve used before. You won’t have to use the flash as often either, thanks to the image stabilization. Colours are generally reproduced quite accurately, though they do err ever-so slightly on the side of exaggeration. Have a look at some of the sample photos below (click for full-size).
Video is also done quite well. It’s always recorded in a rectangular 16:9 aspect ratio, seeing as nobody this side of Instagram wants a square video. The optical image stabilization helps avoid any shakiness as well. You can even take photos during the video with the tap of an on-screen button or the spacebar, a feature that’s new to OS 10.3. I’ve uploaded a quick sample video below, shot in 1080p.
Another feature new to OS 10.3 is the ability to create panoramas, and it’s been implemented very nicely. You start by taking one photo, then move the camera left or right using on-screen squares as guidance – the phone automatically captures a photo when you line up with one of the squares. Once you’re done, it stitches all the photos together automatically. I found it to work pretty well in general, as you can see in the sample below (click for full size).
Other new camera functions include a timer and automatic suggestions for capture settings. You can also now save Time Shifts (a feature that records a couple seconds of footage before and after a photo), allowing you to choose the moment you want as a photo later. Put everything together, and you end up with the first BlackBerry to have a truly powerful camera.
Sound & Call Quality
Though BlackBerry has never struggled with call quality on their phones, they’ve tried to improve the experience even further in the Passport. The phone comes with a feature they refer to as Natural Sound Technology. Using a quad microphone system similar to the Z30, it gets rid of background noise with the aim of making it feel as if you’re in the same room with the person at the other end.
The Passport does a few things differently than the Z30 did. Firstly, the technology now applies to regular phone calls – it used to only work when using BBM Voice and Video. But perhaps more interestingly, the Passport also adjusts the volume and tone of a phone call depending on the distance between your ear and the earpiece. As a result, I’ve found call quality on the Passport to be absolutely impeccable, regardless of the situation.
The speakers on the phone also got some attention. The Passport has a stereo setup at the bottom of the phone, which I found to be pretty loud and clear in general. BlackBerry claims the device is 18% louder than this year’s HTC One, and 350% louder than the Samsung Galaxy S5 – not as outlandish as it sounds when you consider that the S5 only has a single speaker at the back.
I never found performance to be a problem on the Passport, and there’s a very good reason for that – this is the fastest BlackBerry to-date. It’s powered by a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 CPU, Adreno 330 GPU, and 3GB of RAM. This isn’t bleeding-edge hardware, but it can hold its own with at least a few of this year’s flagships – the latest HTC One uses a 2.3GHz version of the same CPU, an identical GPU, and 2GB of RAM.
If you’re coming from any previous BlackBerry device, this will be a leap forwards. Though lag was never a major issue on BlackBerry 10 devices I’ve used in the past, everything the Passport does feels quicker – especially in Android apps. If you want to put some numbers to the performance boost, here are some Geekbench 3 results from my Z30, running OS 10.2.1.3337.
And here’s what the Passport managed, on 10.3.0.1154, in near-identical conditions.
You can attribute some of it to OS improvements, but that’s quite a big jump nonetheless.
Speaking of OS improvements, the Passport comes with a significant update to BlackBerry 10 – OS 10.3. This update includes a visual overhaul for the OS, adopting a more simplistic flat design. It also introduces BlackBerry Blend, allowing you to use your phone from a tablet or computer. We had a detailed look at Blend in an earlier article here.
10.3 includes a new voice assistant as well, simply named BlackBerry Assistant. This is a huge improvement over Voice Control, found in earlier versions of the OS, and is much more comparable to Siri and Google Now. Searches for places integrate with Maps and Yelp, factual questions integrate with Wolfram|Alpha, and it will even search for sports information from most major leagues in North America and Europe. However, with BlackBerry’s focus on enterprise, Assistant’s ability to include your secure workspace in searches is what sets it apart from the competition – both Siri and Google Now are unable to do this.
There are plenty of smaller features and improvements scattered around the OS. Something called Advanced Interaction has been added, allowing you to lift the phone to wake it, flip it facedown to silence it, and flip to save power. The Hub now includes a feature called Instant Actions, which allows you to hit a button and then file, flag, or delete several messages with a single tap each. It will also offer up these actions for a few brief seconds after you exit a message. An option to resize emails to fit the screen automatically has also been added to the Hub.
As far as bugs go, I’ve only ran into one – my device seized up while switching between the camera and viewing a photo I took earlier. After being frozen for about 30 seconds, it rebooted on its own. This seems to have been a rare fluke however, as I’ve not heard of anything similar happening to others, and I have not been able to recreate it since. There have also been some reports of random reboots floating around Twitter, but this not something I’ve experienced personally.
The App Gap
The app gap has been the pain spot of every single BlackBerry 10 device I’ve reviewed so far. OS 10.3 attempts to alleviate this in a few ways. Firstly, the Android runtime has been updated from 4.2.2 to 4.3. This should improve compatibility, especially with apps requiring Bluetooth 4.0 LE, but I do wonder why BlackBerry didn’t go straight to Android 4.4. In any case, Android apps definitely run better than ever, though that might be in part thanks to the Passport’s improved hardware.
The biggest change is the addition of the Amazon Appstore, bringing over 240,000 additional apps to BlackBerry 10. This includes big names such as Minecraft, Spotify, Candy Crush Saga, and Temple Run. It’s definitely helped the situation, but it’s not perfect. For starters, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and other major apps are still nowhere to be found. There are some third-party counterparts in BlackBerry World, but they tend to be behind on features. Even official apps in the Amazon store are sometimes behind their Google Play counterparts – WordPress, for instance, doesn’t seem to have been updated in ages.
With the Passport, another issue also exists – that strange screen. Even native BlackBerry 10 apps, such as Blaq, SoundHound and iGrann, need updating to fix their user interface. In Android apps, BlackBerry has added the option to zoom out to try and address any such issues. However, certain apps will crash when you use this. Some apps also lack support for scrolling with the keyboard, as I mentioned earlier on. It appears that a number of apps on the Amazon Appstore aren’t even available for the Passport as a result of this.
The good news is that the Passport seems to be selling relatively well, giving developers more incentive to update their apps. BlackBerry also says they’re working together with Amazon and developers to get apps updated. But even that aside, there’s still work to be done. The Amazon Appstore is definitely progress, but we’re not there yet.
When I first got the Passport, I was rather worried everything that made it so unique would work against it. For the most part, I was wrong. I’ve only had the Passport for so long, but other phones already feel strange. Video aside, content is just better on the wide screen – there’s a reason laptops and desktops are typically wider than they are tall. And the keyboard has been really great now that I’ve adjusted to it. I’m certain they could have made it even better by sacrificing screen real estate, but then you’d lose the entire premise of the Passport.
Of course, not everyone will agree with me. Some people may never get used to the keyboard, and if you consume a lot of video, you probably want a device that won’t letterbox. Then there’s that dreaded app gap. Despite BlackBerry’s best efforts, it’s going to be around for a little while. Those of us with a bit of time and technical expertise can always try sideloading Android apps, or installing Snap to access Google Play, but most users won’t do that. And with the Passport’s unusual screen, even that might not work very well.
Nevertheless, BlackBerry seems to have achieved what they wanted here – a device that, at its core, is better for work. Coupled with high-end hardware, this is definitely the most capable BlackBerry I’ve ever used. Apps may still be an issue for some, but that aside, it’s absolutely a device worth considering.
If you want to read more about the Passport, check out our Passport section here and on the forums. And if you’re looking to get one of your own, it can be found on Amazon, ShopBlackBerry and our BlackBerry Empire store.