The BlackBerry Passport: a phone as strange as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and almost as massive.
It's a hand-stretchingly wide rectangle with a three-decker physical keyboard and a square screen. It's a design that willfully ignores the existing smartphone consensus; if you're using one, nobody will mistake it for any other phone on the market right now.
Another way the Passport cheerfully ignores the prevailing wisdom is that it's aimed — squarely — at a specific, limited user base. In contrast to the rest of the market, which aims first at the consumer and then shovels up the business market afterwards, BlackBerry has targeted this bulky bullet straight at the heart of the business audience.
This is not a phone to be shoved into skinny jeans (it would barely fit anyway), this is a phone destined for the executive suit jacket (or, the less kind would say, an office desk drawer).
Of course this gleeful defiance of the standard way of doing things is more a reflection of BlackBerry's weakness than its strength, as for most consumers BlackBerry and its devices are an irrelevance — the company that once ruled the smartphone roost now has a tiny share of the consumer market.
The most striking thing about the Passport is the shape: the designers have made much of the 'H'-shaped metal frame which holds the two halves of the chassis together, likening it to the steel bar holding up an office building; just as the makers have decided not to bend to the contemporary design mores, this is not a phone that is going to bend in your pocket either. It's an angular statement of intent — this is a phone that's ready for business. Still, at 128mm by 90.3mm wide by 9.3mm with a sharp cornered frame, I didn't warm to the Passport's shape, plus I found the keyboard and the thick silver frets made the phone feel rather unbalanced.
One of the first things you have to do when using the Passport is work out how to hold it. I found it too broad and too heavy at 196g to use one-handed for any length of time, unless I was leaning my hand on the desk, for example. Still, that width is what makes room for the 1,440-by-1,440, 4.5-inch screen, which is good quality and excels at displaying web pages and documents, which is what most Passport owners will be using it for.
Again, the Passport is defiantly business-focused, which means that square 1:1 aspect ratio screen isn't especially friendly for watching video, most of which appears on the device in a much smaller letterbox format. Then again, why are you on YouTube when that spreadsheet hasn't been finished yet?
I struggled with the keyboard — I found it hard work to type on for any period of time and prefer the easier going of a virtual keyboard (especially when there are so many good third party virtual keyboards to choose from now). Those of you who are hardcore hard Qwerty fans will find it easier to use perhaps, but I found that even while the predictive text options helped a little bit they also tended to break up my writing rhythm. Blackberry has actually touted writers as one of the groups at whom the phone is aimed, but I found it difficult to use for anything longer than a few lines.
But as well as a reminder of a more genteel age (like an executive fountain pen or a quill), this Qwerty keyboard is also capacitive, which comes in handy when browsing documents or websites, allowing you to scroll easily through them without having to obscure the screen.
It also enables some other time-saving tricks too: swiping one finger back across the keyboard deletes a word, double tap brings up 'fine cursor control' which might look like a cartoon lightbulb but helps with the fiddly job of getting the cursor exactly where it's needed, and which can be guided by sliding across the keyboard. It's a useful little feature but did not — for me, at least — outweigh the reduced screen size that is the inevitable trade-off of having a physical keyboard.
One huge benefit of the Passport's scale is that there is room for an enormous battery, and Blackberry hasn't disappointed here: the 3,450mAh battery offers 14 hours of talk time and two weeks on standby. In practice, it's easy enough to go two days of light usage without fumbling for the charger which is going to be a very attractive feature for anyone on the move.
The 13-megapixel camera I found to take surprisingly good, crisp images, even if it isn't likely to be used for much more than taking pictures of reciepts for filing expenses and the 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor kept everything moving fluidly, while the expandable-to-128GB memory ought to be enough storage for most people.
The BlackBerry 10 operating system (this Passport runs 10.3) continues to get better. As you'd expect considering the company's heritage, the BlackBerry Hub handles email, texts and other communications incredibly well — so well that I actually got to the point where I avoided doing email on any other device because the Hub made managing email a satisfying-to-actually-enjoyable experience rather than a chore. Yes, really.
BlackBerry knows that most workers will already have a smartphone and the Passport is going to be a secondary, most likely office-issued, device. From that point of view, you could argue that it doesn't even need to be able to make phone calls but it does, and very well, even if I got a few odd looks for holding it to my ear as I walked down the street.
As with other BlackBerry devices, the built in browser works well, and the Reader option, which strips out all the irritating bits of web pages, remains a firm favourite of mine, especially when reading longer content. Other essential elements such as Documents to Go also worked very well.
BlackBerry has tried to deal with the app ecosystem issue by teaming up with Amazon. The Amazon app store is bundled with the Passport which potentially offers a wider choice than BlackBerry could otherwise offer, but it's still not a hugely comprehensive list (plus Blackberry's security warning that pops up when you do try to download something from the Amazon app store is likely to scare off many, too). Again, for the average Passport user this may not be a big deal; LinkedIn, Evernote and Twitter are already onboard so there may be little need to go app hunting, and why are you playing Candy Crush Saga when that presentation isn't finished yet anyhow?
The right phone for your pocket?
There's a lot to admire about the BlackBerry Passport, most all of its unremitting focus on the needs of a particular audience, and BlackBerry's willingness to try some new things. I like that the Passport is different, but that doesn't necessarily make it better, and I don't think that even the nice ideas embodied in that capacitive physical keyboard will herald the return of Qwerty.
Still, if you're part of the specific audience targeted by the Passport and already a fan of BlackBerry, then you'll find a lot to love in this handset. But despite some standout features in the massive battery life and the elegant messaging hub, the weight, size and shape will make it a step too far for most.