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BlackBerry Passport review: World's best QWERTY in a uniquely functional form factor

BlackBerry needed to go back to its hardware QWERTY roots. With the Passport they did just that and a whole lot more.
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By Matthew Miller, Contributor on
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1 of 56 Matthew Miller/ZDNet

BlackBerry Passport

In a world of black slabs, one company dared to be different. The design seemed rather ridiculous at first, but after a week with the new BlackBerry Passport I am convinced BlackBerry is serious about competing for the enterprise customer.

BlackBerry has always been known for its hardware QWERTY keyboards and when the company moved to the BlackBerry 10 OS, consumer-focused all touchscreen devices were launched first, with the coming a few months later. Enterprise and government BlackBerry users continued to use older QWERTY devices. (I still see many government employees using BB 7 devices.) Now they can jump to the Passport and stop carrying around an iPhone to satisfy their modern smartphone needs.

Specifications

  • Processors: Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 2.2 GHz quad-core CPU and Adreno 330, 450MHz GPU
  • Display: 4.5-inch square Gorilla Glass 3 LCD display with 1440 x 1440 pixel resolution (453 pixels-per-inch)
  • RAM: 3GB, the iPhone 6/6 Plus have just 1 GB
  • Storage capacity: 32 GB internal with microSD card slot
  • Cameras: 13-megapixel rear with optical image stabilization (OIS), and 2 megapixel front facing
  • Radios: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, near-field communications (NFC), GPS, FM radio
  • Battery capacity: 3,450 mAh with advertised 24 hour UMTS talk time and 91 hours of audio playback
  • Dimensions: 128 x 90.3 x 9.3mm, and 196 grams (6.91 ounces)

Look again at the list of specifications above. The BlackBerry Passport is not lacking in any single area and the only other smartphone we have seen with such industry-leading specifications in a single handset is the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

On the hardware

The display and keyboard are unlike anything you have ever seen before; and it turns out they work together to provide an experience unlike anything else out there.

I was skeptical when I first saw the rumors and thought it was all some kind of joke. It turns out that the BlackBerry design team was able to deliver one of the first modern smartphones targeted primarily to the business user — while everyone else focuses on the consumer.

Square 4.5-inch display: The display is advertised as being 30 percent wider than average 5-inch slabs with the capacity to show 60 characters across. Most devices show 40 characters across the display. It's a joy to use spreadsheets, read eBooks, browse web pages, manage communications in the Hub, and more with the wide display.

QWERTY keyboard: BlackBerry has always had the best hardware QWERTY keyboards. BlackBerry took it to the next level with the Passport and it is easily the finest hardware keyboard ever created for a mobile device.

When I first saw that the Passport only had three rows of keys, I thought it was destined to fail. Once again BlackBerry showed me the error in my initial impressions: Additional characters show up in one to four rows above the hardware keyboard, based upon the context of the text entry field. This behavior is absolutely brilliant and I was able to figure out how to enter text quickly in no time.

BlackBerry's Passport from every angle: Browse my gallery.

 

The Passport is clearly a two-handed device, but the era of single-handed smartphone use is over so that is not something to worry about. The width allows BlackBerry to provide you with ample key sizes, angled to perfectly support thumb typing. The space bar is a bit small — the width of two typical keys — but I haven't had a problem missing it or anything.

There are some awesome shortcuts to make the keyboard useful and efficient; look for my follow-up post covering these in a day or two. The keyboard also has touch-sensitive functionality to make predictive selection simple and provide you with a way to scroll quickly through web pages and lists without ever touching the display. It's simply a brilliant approach to hardware QWERTY keyboards.

Battery: I used to be satisfied with devices that could get me through most of the day, like my original Moto X, but am not buying another phone that requires me to charge up a device to get through a full long day. Long battery life is a major reason I bought the iPhone 6 Plus over the iPhone 6 and is why I put up with the size of the Nokia Lumia 1520.

The BlackBerry Passport has been able to carry me through each of my long days, 4:30 am to 10:30 pm, without a problem. I typically still have 30 percent or more left to carry me into the next morning before I have to worry about topping off.

BlackBerry users are used to having removable batteries, but with such a massive capacity and solid performance I think they will be satisfied with the Passport.

Design: BlackBerry is known for solid hardware and the Passport continues that legacy. The Passport currently retails for $599 as a GSM SIM-unlocked device and exceeded my expectations for quality.

The glass display curves into the edges and down into the keyboard. The keyboard is rock solid with excellent tactile feedback and angular design so that the keys are easy to press. Two substantial metal rails line each side with thin strips of metal connecting the two halves.

The back is covered in black soft-touch material to make it a joy to handle the Passport. The top eighth of the back is removable to provide access to the microSD card slot and SIM card. Centered on the back is a 13 megapixel camera with flash centered above the lens.

Stereo speakers are positioned along the bottom and sound great. They are not as good as the HTC M8 speakers, but good enough for typical usage.

The power button and 3.5mm headset jack are positioned at the top with the microUSB/microHDMI port centered on the bottom.

Metal volume buttons and a center BlackBerry Assistant button are found near the top right side with nothing on the left metal rail.

Camera: BlackBerrys are not known for capturing great photos, but in good lighting most smartphones do just fine. BlackBerry did put some effort into the Passport camera and it comes with a 13 megapixel shooter with optical image stabilization.

Some readers commented that my Passport sample photos impressed them in my and so far I have been pleased with the results. I like the way the camera software checks conditions and prompts me to change the shooting mode, for example to include HDR, for optimal shots.

Pros Cons
High quality design, fit, and finish Missing native BB10 apps
Best hardware QWERTY keyboard ever released No water resistant rating
Functional and gorgeous wide display Wide design may not suit everyone
Long battery life  
Outstanding communicator thanks to BlackBerry Hub  
Useful BlackBerry Blend desktop connectivity  

Look at the software, conclusions, and rating

 

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BlackBerry Passport in hand

On the software

The BlackBerry Passport is powered by OS 10.3 and if you want to learn everything about the features and functions of this newest version of the OS, I recommend you go read all about it on N4BB.com. There are a few key features I would like to point out that were new to me and make the Passport an interesting device.

BlackBerry Hub: This has always been my favorite feature on BlackBerry 10 as I find my communications productivity jump through the roof compared to using different email and social networking apps on other platforms. BlackBerry significantly improved my Hub experience with instant actions. Tapping the top right icon gives you a couple of columns to the right of your items that lets you quickly delete, flag, mark as read, move, and more. I can also now move to the next or previous item in my Hub using the N or P key on the keyboard.

Active Frames: The BB 10.3 multi-tasking page is called Active Frames and lets you view up to eight applications that you have running. The first four appear as large thumbnails with the next four split into two blocks two small thumbnails each in height. You can actually have even more apps running in the background that do not appear on the Active Frames page.

BlackBerry Assistant: BlackBerry's new voice system lets you perform many of the same functions as Siri, Cortana, and Google Now. It is easy to launch with the button between the volume buttons and includes the following functions:

  • Set and alarm and change alarm properties
  • Change settings and open apps
  • Communicate through BBM, email, text, and social networks
  • Search the internet for answers to questions
  • Find local movie times
  • Search for and play music
  • Make calls
  • Check sports scores and schedules
  • Check the weather

I personally still find Cortana to be the best assistant with excellent location and person-based reminders, as well as pushing information related to my preferences.

Amazon App Store is preinstalled: While you can download and install thousands of apps from BlackBerry World, BlackBerry also gives you the ability to install apps from Amazon's Android store front. In addition, it is easy to install Snap and get apps from the Google Play Store. Follow the detailed instructions here on CrackBerry.com to get Snap loaded on your Passport. There is a limitation on Google Play Services apps, but so far I am rocking 95 percent of the apps I have on Android and iOS on the Passport.

Some apps, such as ESPN Fantasy Football actually give me a Google Play Services error at launch, but I just tap the display and the app continues loading. After loading it works just fine so even though some Android apps may make calls to Google Play Services, that doesn't mean they won't work on the Passport.

I checked my various devices and find I am able to have more apps I need on the Passport than I can get on Windows Phone. I was actually stunned to get Pebble and my Jawbone UP24 working well on the Passport via a Bluetooth Low Energy connection. There are a few limitations, but 90 percent of the functionality is there and I am satisfied with the experiences.

BlackBerry Blend: One reason I used my original Moto X for so long was the Motorola Connect service that lets me send and receive text messages from my desktop computer. BlackBerry Blend takes that experience to an entire new level and reminds me of what Ford Davidson did with Dashwire a few years ago.

BlackBerry Blend is one of those functions aimed at making the entire BlackBerry experience better than what others offer just on a smartphone. With BlackBerry Blend you can communicate via BBM, email, and text from your PC through your connected Passport. You can access files on connected devices, view and manage your calendar, and more. It is available on PCs and Macs, as well as iOS and Android tablets. While I have tried other solutions, such as Samsung's SideSync, nothing has been as stable and functional as BlackBerry Blend.

BlackBerry Balance: You might be asking why I didn't try out one of the flagship enterprise features of the BlackBerry Passport. My small business doesn't have a BES and thus I connect to my office via Exchange ActiveSync. BlackBerry Balance looks like a fantastic way to separate your work and personal life, but my BYOD work policy doesn't give me the opportunity to test it out.

Pricing and availability

The BlackBerry Passport is available for $599 from the BlackBerry store and Amazon.com. BlackBerry reported that 200,000 units were pre-ordered in the first 48 hours and it remains difficult to find.

The Passport continues to be out of stock with infrequent availability. I bought my device from Handtec and it ended up only costing me about $15 more with tax and shipping considered. I see it is now out of stock there too though.

The competition

There is no direct competition for the BlackBerry Passport. There are still a couple of lower end Android devices with QWERTY keyboards, but you won't find any kind of flagship still using a hardware keyboard. That said, people who might consider the BlackBerry Passport may also be looking at the iPhone 6/6 Plus, Samsung Galaxy Note 4, LG G3, HTC One M8, Nokia Lumia 1520, or other high end smartphone. All of the competition offers a similar large touchscreen experience while the Passport offers something uniquely different. It is a great conversation starter and I enjoy showing it off to curious folks.

Conclusion

I was going to skip testing out the BlackBerry Passport, but my curiosity got the best of me and I am thankful that it did. The BlackBerry 10 OS has always interested me with the fantastic BlackBerry Hub, swiping interface, and app expansion through Android.

Unlike other smartphone operating systems, BlackBerry continues to focus on communications and using your device to be productive. Most of the people working for government agencies I work with as a professional engineer use BlackBerry devices and the Passport gives them the ability to leave the iPhone behind and slap one smartphone on their belt.

BlackBerry took a gamble with the Passport, but going back to their QWERTY roots and innovating is what I think they needed to generate excitement for BlackBerry again. It is probably a niche market for the Passport, but I think it was the best option for them and may turn out to be the device that makes people ask for a new BlackBerry at work.

Contributor's rating: 9.5 out of 10

Browse the gallery: BlackBerry Passport from every angle 

 

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My BlackBerry Passport is behind my real passport

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The BlackBerry Passport is a bit thicker than a real passport

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Back of the BlackBerry Passport

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13 megapixel camera with OIS

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Removable top back piece to access cards

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Left side of the QWERTY

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Right side of the QWERTY

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Right volume and Assistant buttons

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microUSB/microHDMI port on the bottom

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Upper right side of the Passport

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Top of the Passport and the 3.5mm headset jack

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Back of the Passport and Q10 QWERTY devices

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Passport and Q10 QWERTY devices

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Q10 on the Passport

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HTC One M8, Lumis 1520, BlackBerry Passport, iPhone 6 Plus, and Moto X

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Back of the HTC One M8, Lumis 1520, BlackBerry Passport, iPhone 6 Plus, and Moto X

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Manage files in BlackBerry Blend

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BlackBerry Blend dashboard view

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Manage messaging with the BlackBerry Blend service

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Halloween cat shot with the Passport

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Captain America cake shot with the Passport

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Movie theater BoxTrolls shot with the Passport

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Active Frames showing eight apps in action

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Tap and hold to move your Active Frames

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Amazon Appstore is preloaded on the Passport

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Marine salvage spreadsheet on the Passport

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Editing a spreadsheet cell on the Passport

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Entering text on the Passport, note the software keys

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You can enter characters and numbers right on the hardware QWERTY in this mode

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Checking out the BlackBerry Hub

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Manage messages with the instant actions on the right

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Hub menu options

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Viewing more of the Hub

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Quick actions available from a top swipe down

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Manage the Quick Settings you wish to use

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Manage your accounts on the Passport

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Manage security and privacy settings

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System settings

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Handy advanced interactions

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Screen reader accessibility options

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Manage BlackBerry Assistant

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More BlackBerry Assistant settings

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Battery usage monitor

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Applications on the Passport

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More Passport applications

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Get a peek of your notifications

Also note that sliding up from just below the display onto the display changes the battery meter from an icon to a percent value. Just another cool efficiency trick from BlackBerry.

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Camera settings

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Normal camera mode options

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Camera menu options

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Filter editing

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Frame editing

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Photo enhancements

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Crop options

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Scene options

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