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BlackBerry Passport review: Aimed squarely at business

BlackBerry's Passport is a striking business-focused handset with plenty of plus points, including a 4.5-inch, 1:1 aspect-ratio screen, a clever QWERTY keyboard and superb battery life.
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Written by Sandra Vogel on
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8.0

BlackBerry Passport

Excellent
$429 at Amazon
Like
  • Large, square 4.5-inch screen
  • Innovative touch-enabled QWERTY keyboard
  • Superb battery life
  • Enterprise-focused ecosystem
Don't Like
  • Bulky handset that's difficult to pocket
  • One-handed use is out of the question
  • Truncated Android app support
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

BlackBerry (previously known as RIM) once dominated the enterprise smartphone market. And thanks to the free BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), the Canadian company also scored a hit with younger cash-strapped consumers. But Microsoft, Apple, Android vendors, and even the now-defunct Palm, took bites out of BlackBerry's market share, while competing free messaging apps and solutions, as well as the proliferation of consumer handsets, eroded the company's grip on the youth market. BlackBerry failed to respond, and went into a well-documented freefall from which it's still struggling to emerge.

Recent BlackBerry handsets have met with mixed receptions, but the new Passport is an attempt to bring something different to the table.

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A square 4.5-inch screen and a QWERTY keyboard make the Passport stand out from other smartphones. Image: BlackBerry

Design

The Passport's business credentials are evident in software features like BlackBerry Blend, BlackBerry Balance and of course continued support for BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES), and in the way BlackBerry is marketing its unique hardware format.

The Passport design centers on two unusual elements: a square 4.5-inch screen, and BlackBerry's signature physical keyboard.

This is a vast handset, whose 9.3mm thickness is the only unremarkable dimension. It measures 128mm tall by 90.3mm wide, which is far too big for many users (including this one) to cope with one-handed. It's heavy too, at 196g — even if you find a pocket that can accommodate it (and I struggled to do that every day), you'll notice its weight.

For comparison, consider these handsets:

Samsung Galaxy Note 4
153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5mm • 176g • 5.7 inches • 2,560 x 1,440 pixels (515ppi)
Sony Xperia Z3
146 x 72 x 7.3mm • 152g • 5.2 inches • 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (424ppi)
iPhone 6 Plus
158.1 x 77.8 x 7.1mm • 172g • 5.5 inches • 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (401ppi)

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Unlike those handsets, and other current smartphones, the Passport's 4.5-inch screen is square, measuring 81mm by 81mm. It does rotate in some apps, but given its 1:1 aspect ratio the only reason you'd want to do that is to use the very clever touch feature built into the keyboard that lets you sweep around to scroll — when browsing websites, for example. It's very efficient, but of course the screen is also touch-sensitive, so you can tap that to scroll around if you wish.

With a resolution of 1,440 by 1,440 pixels the Passport's screen delivers an impressive pixel density of 453ppi, which makes text wonderfully sharp and clear. Only a few handsets, like the HTC One (469ppi), the new Google/Motorola Nexus 6 (493ppi), the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (515ppi) and LG's G3 (534ppi) deliver a higher pixel density. The IPS LCD panel is bright and viewing angles are great. BlackBerry is upbeat about the screen's capabilities for viewing spreadsheets, editing documents and viewing maps in particular, and rightly so.

There are only three rows of physical keys on the QWERTY keyboard — no number row, no secondary characters, no shift key. These become available as soft buttons, along with predictive text, depending on the app you open. Using soft keys and physical keys together is straightforward enough, but we had one major issue: we couldn't type one-handed on the Passport, which makes tapping out a quick 'running late' SMS tricky if you're straphanging on the bus, for example.

That constraint extends to checking messages in the unified BlackBerry Hub, which can bring your email, twitter, Linkedin, Facebook, Evernote and third-party notifications together in one place. The message list can be revealed, and messages selected, one-handed. But as soon as you get to responding, two hands are needed. It's a good stab at a unified communications centre, but the Hub doesn't quite do enough: it seems to support just one Twitter account, for example, while many business people require access more than one.

Although the Passport is aimed primarily at business users, Blackberry caters for their home lives via BlackBerry Balance, which is part of the updated BlackBerry 10 OS 10.3. This allows enterprises to create secure workspaces while also allowing for the installation and use of personal apps and content.

You also get access to the Amazon Appstore, for those who want to take advantage of the support offered in BlackBerry OS for third-party Android apps and who find the native BlackBerry World inadequate. Although Amazon's offering is only a subset of the full Google Play store, it's good to see it included out of the box.

You also get the BlackBerry Assistant, a virtual assistant in the mould of Apple's Siri, Google Now and Microsoft's Cortana. BlackBerry Assistant is smart enough to respond to spoken queries with speech and to written queries with text, so you can use it in meetings without upsetting people. It searches on and off the device, and is a convenient way to find apps and documents. It can be a real time-saver, and caters for one-handed use too: you just hit the right-hand side button to activate it, and then say (for example) "Tweet having a great time, wish you were here", whereupon the tweet will be prepared for you to send, edit or cancel — again via a voice command. It's very effective.

Office workers will probably also appreciate BlackBerry Blend, a service that makes BlackBerry content such as documents, calendar entries, plus SMS and email messages available to other devices in the Blend 'ecosystem'. It supports devices running Mac OS X 10.7, Windows 7, iOS 7 and Android 4.4 or later, and should make for seamless interactions without the need to access the Passport, unless you really want to.

Features

The BlackBerry Passport's technical specifications are in line with what we'd expect from a high-end smartphone (it's priced almost identically to a SIM-free 16GB Apple iPhone 6). Powered by a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor supported by 3GB of RAM, it's somewhat slow to start up (something we remember from BlackBerry devices of old), but once up and running is smoothly responsive.

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The Passport's Nano-SIM and MicroSD card slots are under a small removable panel at the top of the handset. Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

There is 32GB of internal storage, of which 24.8GB is accessible to the user out of the box. You can add more storage via MicroSD cards — the slot, which accepts cards up to 128GB in capacity, is under a small removable panel on the backplate next to the Nano-SIM card slot.

There is a 13-megapixel back facing camera that can shoot stills in three aspect ratios — 4:3, 16:9 and the screen's native 1:1. Shots seem to be a bit washed-out at times, but on the whole the image quality is acceptable. Features include HDR (with an option to save both the original and HDR versions of a shot), face detection, geotagging and self timer. There are panorama and burst modes, and also time shift, which captures a rapid burst of shots from which you can select one to save. There are a few scene modes — auto, action, night, beach or snow, and whiteboard. The 2-megapixel front camera shares access to all of these settings.

Performance & battery life

On the cross-platform Geekbench 3 CPU benchmark, the 3GB Snapdragon 801-powered Passport more or less holds its own with current high-end smartphones like Samsung's Galaxy S5 and the iPhone 6:

bb-passport-geekbench

However, its JavaScript performance (running on the native BlackBerry 10 OS browser) lags behind the Android and iOS handsets:

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Battery life is superb and a real plus point for the Passport. BlackBerry says you'll get up to 24 hours of 3G talk time from the Passport's 3,450mAh battery, 14.5 days on standby, 91 hours of audio playback and 11 hours video playback.

During the test period, our review sample regularly went for two days between charges, losing very little when on standby.On low-usage days we barely drained a quarter of the battery's power.

Conclusion

BlackBerry hopes to revive its fortunes with the Passport, and has come up with an innovative business-focused handset. We've seen the Passport ridiculed on size grounds, but this is unfair in our view. Yes it's large and difficult to use one-handed, and it lacks 'blingy' consumer features, but there are plenty of plus points: its 4.5-inch, 1:1 aspect ratio screen provides space to do real work; the touch-enabled QWERTY keyboard is usable and functional; services like Blend, Balance and Hub have obvious appeal to business users; Assistant lets you accomplish some tasks very quickly; the BES back end is a very capable enterprise mobile management system; and battery life is superb.

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