The idea that a keyboard makes you more productive has been an underlying ethos for BlackBerry devices for a while now. The thought being that you spend most of the day bashing buttons on a laptop or desktop keyboard so why not do it on your phone. Previous generations of BlackBerry phones have been a little small and when compared to other modern day smartphones the addition of a hardware keyboard did little to negate the inferior overall experience.
With the announcement of the BlackBerry Passport they created something new, a bigger BlackBerry, with a bigger display, a wider keyboard and specs to rival the other modern day phones floating around. One could say the BlackBerry Passport is the BlackBerry for the modern smartphone user. Which is why I was intrigued to try one out, I have been using the Passport for about a month now and it’s time to bring you my review. Starting of course with my good and bad points.
Good and Bad Points
- Decent battery life from the 3450 mAh battery.
- Glorious colourful screen that’s easily readable outdoors.
- Installing Android apps is easier than ever.
- Really solid build with a reassuring weight.
- Decent keyboard with integral trackpad.
- Great camera.
- BB10 is maturing into a nice solid gesture based OS.
- It just feels a little bit too wide, meaning one handed use is virtually impossible.
- Finding nice native BlackBerry apps is proving harder with each new device.
- The BlackBerry hub takes a bit of work to get it the way you want.
- Front facing a bit poor
The BlackBerry Passport is one of those devices, that you’ve seen pictures of and you weren’t truly ready to see with your own eyes. When I received the Passport I was pretty much shocked, it just seemed huge. Not at all like something I was going to be able to use as my main device for the next few weeks. However once I had dared get it back out of the box I realised that it was actually a pretty great looking bit of kit.
The keyboard is the first thing your eyes are drawn to, three rows of keys, no punctuation keys, no number keys, no alternative functions, just a load of letters oh and the delete, spacebar and enter buttons. The keyboard is split by three metal strips which run from one side of the device to the other, they are the same as on the BlackBerry Q10 and they give the Passport a torsional strength, as in there is no twist to the device at all. The keyboard is nice and you soon pickup how to type at speed on it each button is solid and not connected to the others like on the Q5, when pressed each button has a nice tiny bit of travel to it and a reassuring click, it just feels great to type on, special characters, punctuation and numbers are dealt with via a onscreen row of additional characters that appear at the bottom of the screen when typing, again you soon get used to this mix of input methods. There are also a few keyboard shortcuts you’ll pickup, such as double tapping the space inserts a full stop and pressing enter at the end of a message sends it on its way. The other trick up the keyboards sleeve is that there is a trackpad built into the keyboard, meaning you can scroll up and down through messages or websites with ease, you can also scroll back through text to correct a typo.
Also on the front of the display is the 4.5″ square display, which has great viewing angles, great colour and is easy to read outdoors. The edges of the display are also slightly curved, which really makes interacting with the display a tactile experience, you really just feel inclined to swipe in from the edges, which is good as you find yourself doing that a lot with BB10.
The earpiece, front facing camera and the sensors also live on the front of the Passport.
Running around the perimeter of the Passport is a metal strip, which obviously forms part of the sub-frame and joins to the keyboard strips, this abundance of metal strips really gives the Passport an incredibly solid feel to it and as I mentioned earlier a reassuring weight too. The left and right hand edges have a much wider strip of metal and this strangely feels great in the hands, I say hands as this is NOT a one handed device, I tried umpteen times to send a message one handed and it was a near fatal experiment each time. At 90.3 mm wide this is a wide phone, my Honor 6+ is 75 mm wide and my Lumia 1520 is 85 mm wide. Having the keyboard almost full width means your poor fingers will be stretched out a lot, hence the need for a second hand.
The right hand edge of the phone has the volume rocker and audio control button, personally I wish the power button was on the side too. However the power button is on the top edge, which is a bit of a stretch, luckily you can swipe up on the screen or press the “U” key to unlock. The top also has the headphone socket and a fingernail hole ready for you to access the Micro SD slot and the Nano SIM slot. Lastly the bottom edge has the Micro USB port for charging and syncing along with the primary microphone. Oh and one more thing those slots on the bottom beneath the metal strip are the speakers.
The back of the phone part of the reason the Passport feels so good in your hand, it is made of that soft rubbery stuff that firms often use these days, it just feels great, the entire area beneath the metal strip is non removable. The area above the strip however is removable and this gives you access to the SIM and Memory card. The back also houses the rather nice 13 MP OIS camera and flash, the camera does sit ever so slightly proud of the back so ensure you watch what you place it down on. In fact the box actually comes with a soft touch shell for the Passport which protects the camera. The back as nice as it may be though does attract finger grease and will need wiping now and again.
Overall I liked the design, the wide aspect to it was overrode somewhat by the solid build, the soft touch back, the ever so slightly curved edge to the display and the quirky looks. If you have not seen enough of the Passport check out my hands on video for more details on the design.
The BlackBerry Passport is a well spec’d, here’s what you get:
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 with 2.2GHz Quad-Core CPUs (MSM8974-AA).
- GPU: Adreno 330, 450MHz.
- Internal Memory: 32 GB.
- RAM: 3 GB.
- Display: 4.5″ diagonal 1440 x 1440 resolution, 453 PPI, 1:1 aspect ratio.
- Rear Camera: 13 megapixel auto-focus, Optical image stabilization (OIS), 5-element f2.0 lens, Back Side Illumination, 1080p HD video recording at 60fps.
- Front Camera: 2MP fixed-focus, Image and video stabilization, 3x digital zoom, 720p HD video recording.
- Battery: 3450mAH integrated non-removable battery.
- Dimensions: Height 128 mm Width 90.3 mm Depth 9.3 mm.
- Weight: 196g.
- Extras: Touch-enabled keyboard, BlackBerry 10 OS, Removable microSD memory card—slot located under back cover (Up to 128 GB), On-screen or LED indicator, Miracast, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, NFC.
- Network bands: FD-LTE 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 20 (2100/1900/1800/1700/850/2600/900/700/700/800 MHz), HSPA+ 1, 2, 4, 5/6, 8 (2100/1900/1700/850/900 MHz), Quad band GSM/GPRS/EDGE (850/900/1800/1900 MHz).
- Wi-Fi: 802.11 b/g/n for 2.4GHz, 802.11 a/n for 5GHz, 802.11 ac for 5GHz.
- Sensors: Accelerometer, Magnetometer, Gyroscope, Time of Flight (ToF), Ambient light.
- BlackBerry® Tag with NFC technology enables communication between BlackBerry smartphones and other NFC-enabled devices with a tap.
For me the spec is top notch, the 32 GB + Micro SD slot make this such a flexible device, allowing you to install lots of apps and store lots of documents and media on the card. The inclusion of 4G LTE was nice to have as well, on the UK EE network I had decent 4G connection almost everywhere I went. The Snapdragon 801 CPU did an admirable job, with no lag or slow down at any point during my time using it.
Out of the box you get about 25 GB free out of the initial 32 GB.
Battery life from the non removable 3450 mAh battery was great, in light use I got three or four days out of it. Under heavy use I killed this in a day, the joys of half a dozen different email accounts and Social Media doing their thing.
Sound quality was good all round, calls sounded great, music with headphones in sounded great with a decent bass response and lastly the dual speakers on the bottom edge sounded good too.
The display deserves a special mention here, it’s glorious. At 1440 X 1440 pixels resolution I thought it’d be weird. But no it made everything so much easier. Browsing the web was a joy on the square display. Visibility outdoors was great too.
The software situation in the BlackBerry world is a story of two tales, the Android side of things and the BlackBerry side of things. Basically with the latest versions of BlackBerry 10 you can install Android apps as easily as you can on a real Android device, admittedly this is via the Amazon Appstore, but nonetheless it’s a whole lot easier than on the Z10 when it was released. You can also install apps from the BlackBerry Store, but guess what? Most of those are ported Android apps, finding bona fide BlackBerry apps is something of a rare thing, call me crazy but I love to see apps that really show of a mobile OS, be it a nicely designed Material app on Android, a glorious Metro app on Windows Phone or a nice gesture based BB10 app that doesn’t have that back button bar along the bottom of the screen. The whole situation left me feeling a little confused about BB10 as a whole.
The core UI is made up of three elements, the BlackBerry Hub, the Widget/Multi Tasking panel and the Icon/Folder space. When you unlock the Passport you arrive at the Widget/Multitasking panel, which houses recently closed apps, some of which turn themselves into widgets. This panel allows you to jump back and forth between apps and also shows key info like storage space or the weather, depending on which app you have on the panel.
There isn’t an app drawer on BB10 so all of the apps you install will appear on the app panels, which you can then group into folders much like how you can on Android or iOS.
The main focus with a BlackBerry is messaging, be it emails, SMS, Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter or something else rather obscure. By default all of these apps end up in the BlackBerry Hub, which is a messaging black hole, every messaging app you install adds itself to the BlackBerry Hub, you then get a long amalgamated list of messages, which you can drill down into the settings to separate the apps, which I prefer. For me I prefer seeing at a glance where the message is from.
If BlackBerry were to become an Android device manufacturer, with official Google Play Access and a range of BlackBerry apps and services pre-installed along with a secure and encrypted email system I think they’d be a whole lot more successful.
The keyboard on the Passport has a few software tricks up its sleeve, when you are typing a few rows of items appear at the bottom of the display. Which is actually kind of useful and saves using alternative function buttons like on previous models.
Overall the software is quite intuitive, you soon get used to the keyboard and the software combination. As I’ve mentioned once the Black Hub has been configured to your liking it’s quite useful having all messages in one place.
The camera on the BlackBerry Passport really caught me off guard, I didn’t for a moment imagine that a camera on a business orientated smartphone to be good. The specs themselves give you an idea. It’s a 13 MP OIS F2.0 camera. It was good, the camera app suggests when to turn on HDR mode, the app also let’s you swap from 16:9 to 4:3 to 1:1 to suit where you’re going to use the pictures. The 2MP front facing camera wasn’t as good, the resulting selfies were a little noisy, even in decent light outdoors.
Check out this sample video at 1080p taken with the Passport.
Overall the BlackBerry Passport is a really great smartphone. For the modern day tech-savy business user this would be a perfect device, for the average smartphone owner with a little adjustment of their expectations it could again be the perfect device.
The combination of decent hardware, a great camera and intuitive software really make for a great overall package. The only slight issues are the size of the Passport and the slightly hit and miss nature of the app situation. Currently you can buy the Passport for about £375 over at Clove or about £499 at BlackBerry.