B lackBerry has tried everything to get out of its sales slump: sticking with what it knows (the classic Q10), ditching the keyboard for a touchscreen (Z10), and even targeting emerging markets (Z3).
With the BlackBerry Passport, it has returned to the physical keyboard that first made it famous – and also ditched the touchscreen rectangle common to pretty much every other smartphone, and gone square instead.
That odd shape is the Passport’s main selling point – although the OS has had a welcome update too – but it’s also the reason many will find it hard to hold and use: this isn’t a smartphone for the masses, but for a specific selection of users. If you’re one of them, you may find the Passport a revelation that makes working on the move easy; if you’re not, you may wonder what mind-altering substances BlackBerry’s engineers have been indulging in.
Size and design
Although the screen is a square, measuring 4.5in across the diagonal, the device itself is more of a stubby rectangle. It’s 128mm tall and 90mm across, with the “chin” of the device taken up by the physical keyboard at the bottom and a thick black bezel at the top giving room for the 2-megapixel, 720p front-facing camera and a rather large BlackBerry logo. As if anyone will have to ask who manufactured this oddity.
The keyboard isn’t a full five-row affair, as in times past. Instead, there are just three rows of physical keys in the Qwerty layout, plus Backspace, Enter and spacebar keys. A one-line virtual keyboard for numbers and symbols pops up when you type, or you can open a larger version by swiping up on the physical keyboard.
That’s right: the keyboard itself is touch-sensitive, a feature that opens up a selection of intriguing gesture controls. You can use it to scroll through web pages by sliding your finger down across the keys, or pan left or right on a page with a swipe. While you type, words are suggested along the top of the keyboard, and you can swipe up underneath one to select it. It’s a clever system and it’s a wonder no-one else has thought of it.
Those who have never got on with virtual keyboards will love the Passport’s keyboard. Its keys feel sturdy and have a slight angle to make it easy to grab the right key with the tip of your thumb. However, as you’re holding the device to type, it can be difficult to get your finger into the bottom corners. If you’re used to a virtual keyboard, it will take time to get up to full speed, and it feels odd to push the keys rather than just graze them with a fingertip. We were never able to type quite as fast with this keypad as we have with the Swype app installed.
Keyboard aside, the Passport is a chunkier, thicker design than most flagship handsets, at 9.3mm and 196g, and it feels rock-solid; we don’t expect to hear reports of Passports bending in pockets any time soon. The rear is black plastic and there’s a metal rim around the edge, which has a slight curve to make it more comfortable to hold; most of the time, though, you’ll be grasping it in both mitts. On the bottom edge, there’s a pair of speakers and a micro-USB port for charging; on the right side is a pair of metallic volume buttons, and at the top is the headphone jack and power button.
The microSD slot and the SIM slot are accessible via a small clip-off panel at the back of the device.
Display, performance and camera
BlackBerry says it went with a square display to make reading easier, and the 1,440 x 1,440-resolution screen (453ppi) is a joy for viewing documents and websites on. It’s especially good outside, even in the sunshine: our tests show it has an impressive maximum brightness of 707cd/m2, and a solid contrast ratio of 790:1, with a good spread of colours and decent accuracy. It covers 90% of the sRGB colour gamut with an average Delta E of 1.65.
The camera is unremarkable and can’t compare with the quality of the Apple iPhone 6 or the Samsung Galaxy S5. Detail in images looks smudged thanks to over-compression, and poor auto white balance spoils some images with a pinkish tone, although flipping on the HDR setting improves the situation. The autofocus can be slow. In short, the camera is perfectly fine for a quick snapshot or nabbing a business card’s details before you lose it, but if you’re a smartphone photography devotee, you’ll want a different handset.
The Passport does come with a nice selection of photo apps, however. There are built-in editing and filter tools – handy, since Instagram isn’t available – and the camera app is reasonably intelligent. It recognises when a scene has extremes of light and dark, and suggests you capture using HDR.
When it recognises a face, it will nudge you in the direction of its Time Shift tool, which takes a burst of photos, so you can avoid the one where your subject’s eyes are shut tight. If you’re looking to set a background photo on your square Passport display, you can also capture at a 1:1 ratio.
One area where the Passport shines is battery life. The large chassis gives BlackBerry room to cram in a massive 3,450mAh battery, and it lasts well. In our tests, it drained at a rate of 7.3% per hour while playing a 720p video.
That’s pretty good considering the size and resolution of the display, but more impressively, it consumed only 2% per hour while streaming audio over 3G with the display switched off. That puts it on a par with the iPhone 6.
One caveat: when we first set up our social networking and email accounts, the initial synchronisation drained the battery flat in no time. Once it settled in the Passport easily lasted a weekend of light use without a trip to the power outlet, although that was without playing any video or graphics-intensive games.
The BlackBerry Passport has genuine innovations: the touch keyboard, the intriguing shape and the messaging hub are all clever ideas, showing that the Canadian smartphone maker shouldn’t be counted out completely.
However, what makes the Passport special also makes it a niche device. While phones are getting bigger, most people still want a smartphone that fits in a pocket, and for all but a few users a virtual keyboard is sufficient and a square display an unnecessary oddity.
That said, if you’re irritated by reading on rectangular displays, long for the days of physical keyboards, and are more likely to email than Instagram, the Passport may well be ideal for you.
It is most let down by the lack of supported apps; BlackBerry must find a way to get key apps on to its platform. Still, this creative take on mobile working must be applauded, even if we don’t expect the Passport to sell in the millions. At the $849 price, it’s competing with flagship phones, making this truly a case of try-before-you-buy. Use it for a week: some will send it back frustrated, but others might just fall in love.