BlackBerry Passport deep-dive review: Qwerty meets quirky

Qwerty fans will welcome the unit's keyboard, big battery and voice assistant, but its square shape and hefty weight may give others pause

Let's give it this: BlackBerry's new Passport makes a big impact when you first hold it, thanks to its unusual square shape, its heft and the physical keyboard aimed at keeping its legion of qwerty loyalists happy.

BlackBerry no longer discloses how large its installed base of smartphone users remains, but it's probably still in the tens of millions worldwide simply because many older users love having a familiar qwerty keyboard. BlackBerry's first touchscreen phone, the Z10, was introduced in January 2013 and didn't sell well for various reasons, but the absence of a physical keyboard was considered one major factor.

BlackBerry officials believe that young professionals also can also be lured to a qwerty device, even though they're the prime market for touchscreen smartphones. How likely is that to happen? After spending a few days putting Passport through its paces, I'd say the folks at BlackBerry have their work cut out for them.

Hardware highlights

Overall, the Passport feels unusually heavy at 6.9 oz., and its size and sharp corners take some getting used to.

At 5 in. long by 3.5 in. wide, the Passport's body is not as long as the new 6.2-in. iPhone 6 Plus, but the Passport is almost half an inch wider. It's also thicker, at 0.36 in., compared to the 0.28 in. of the Plus. The Plus is also nearly an ounce lighter than the Passport.

While the Passport's size and weight should seem manageable, it took me an unusually long time to figure out how to hold it properly to type with my two thumbs. When I first held the Passport in two hands to type with both thumbs on the keyboard, I didn't balance it properly and nearly dropped it. You need to have your fingers stretched pretty far up the backside of the phone to keep it from falling away as your thumbs hit the keys.

Some people claim they like a qwerty keyboard to be able to type blind, which can be useful when typing under a table during a meeting or when crossing a street to avoid getting hitting by a car. Unfortunately, I have never gotten that good at thumb-typing -- surely one my life's greatest failings. I will have to trust that this Passport can work for the superior thumb-typists among us, while I continue to toil in the trenches holding the phone in my left hand and picking out characters with my right forefinger. (But the tortoise won. Just sayin'.)

Once you get used to balancing the device, the three rows of qwerty keys at the bottom of the phone's front side are easy to push and use. The touchpad technology atop the keys sounds exotic -- you can use the physical keys to swipe up and down to browse a website or to swipe left and right in an email to define text and edit it.

But really, the feature wasn't all that valuable, or at least not to me. The technology allowing it to happen is interesting, I admit, but that's about the end of it. BlackBerry says the purpose of the keyboard's responsive touch surface is to keep your fingers out of the way of what's on the display, but that problem has never bothered me, and it doesn't with the Passport's touchscreen either.

The three rows of physical keys only allow you to see letters, but the Passport lets you view a row of numbers and related characters in added virtual rows on the screen just above the keyboard. It's a little distracting at first, though some will surely find it useful.

Overall, the design of the unit is attractive, with my all-black model highlighted by a polished stainless steel edge wrapped around all four sides. The metal is not only decorative; it is part of a forged stainless steel plate that extends inside the phone to add strength. The steel adds a professional look and looks good set against the black keyboard and the black of the rear case.

While the shape is intended to be distinct -- it mimics the shape of a travel passport -- the phone's sharp corners felt almost treacherous; they're a clear departure from the round corners in the Samsung Galaxy and iPhone lines.

The Passport's display is remarkably clear at 453 pixels per inch with a perfectly square 1440 x 1440 pixel resolution. The LCD display is very readable -- maybe one of the best on the market -- even outside in sunlight.

With the square display, the width is 30% greater than a typical 5-in. display of a rectangular smartphone. That extra room allows a display of 60 characters across, which compares favorably to the 40 characters on most phones and is close to the 66 characters in standard printed documents.

The two cameras in the Passport are top rate, although I didn't do much experimenting with either. A 13-megapixel rear camera comes with image and video stabilization and 1080p HD video recording at up to 60 frames per second, putting it on par from a specs perspective with almost any rear camera on the market. The front camera is rated at 2 megapixels and also has video and image stabilization, with 720p HD video recording. Both cameras are far above the 8-megapixel rear and 1.2-megapixel front camera in the new iPhone 6 Plus.

Two other hardware items jump out: The processor is a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801, which is BlackBerry's first use of quad-core technology. Whether opening apps, loading websites or playing video, the Passport's processor performance was remarkably nimble. There's also 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of flash storage that's hot-swappable with a microSD slot that allows adding another 128GB.

The other outstanding hardware feature is a battery rated at 3,450 mAh, which is almost 50% more than smartphone batteries from a year ago, and rates nearly 20% higher than the battery in the iPhone 6 Plus. While Passport's battery is admirably capacious, it irks me that BlackBerry has decided users won't be able to remove it. BlackBerry seems to be telling us: 'OK, you asked for a bigger battery and we gave you one, but don't expect to replace it.' BlackBerry markets the battery as supporting up to 30 hours of mixed use, but I was able to go up to 40 hours per charge when browsing, playing videos and reading messages and emails several hours each day.

BlackBerry also enhanced audio in incoming phone calls with the Passport, which supposedly will allow the earpiece volume to increase automatically when a Passport user is in a loud environment, when the person on the other end is speaking softly or even when the phone simply isn't pressed close to the ear. I tried to detect this improvement, but wouldn't say it was all that noticeable. Perhaps I should blame the cellular AT&T network, and not the phone.

The Passport also includes an NFC chip for mobile payments and file exchange, as well as support for Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy, Wi-Fi Direct, Miracast, and 2.4GHz 802.11 b/g/n. Also supported is FD-LTE, allowing global roaming capabilities.

Next page: Software specifics

Software specifics

The Passport runs the BlackBerry 10.3 OS; chief among its new features is BlackBerry Blend for sharing messages and content from the phone to many desktop computers and tablets.

Blend is what all the smartphone platforms hope to become; it could be the most exciting development from BlackBerry in months. From the Passport, you can share texts and documents and see your calendar and contacts, among other functions, on many other devices. So far, Blend sharing is supported from the BlackBerry 10.3 Passport to Mac OS X 10.7 and later and Windows 7 and later, as well as to iPads running iOS 7 and later and Android tablets running Android 4.4 and later via cellular, USB or Wi-Fi connections.

While I wasn't able to test it out extensively prior to the public release of the Passport, Blend, which must be downloaded separately, sounds very helpful for professionals traveling and using different computers or for grabbing a document on a work computer from a device at home.

Another software feature new to 10.3 is BlackBerry Assistant, which marks the first time that BlackBerry has enabled a digital assistant that can be activated with voice and text commands for all kind of things like finding contacts, creating notes and emails, and browsing the Web.

Assistant is akin to Cortana on Windows Phone, Google Now on the Android platform and Apple's Siri. From my tests, Assistant was as good as or better than the competition in understanding my voice queries and then quickly locating information. When I said, "Go to," the website quickly launched. When I asked Assistant to "remind me to buy milk," I was asked when I'd like be reminded. When the appointed time arrived, I received a text to get milk. (Curiously, Assistant suggested I reserve an hour to do so, even though it should take far less time.)

I was also able to dictate memos and emails with almost 100% accuracy -- truly, recent advancements in voice-command technology are amazing. That said, one area in which Assistant seems to be wanting is search accuracy. For example, when I asked Assistant to "find the nearest food store," a long list of all kinds of stores came up, including fast food, clothing and more. After repeated tries, Assistant did find the closest food store, a Costco, but then on a subsequent try came up with a long list of stores that have the proper name "FoodStore" in their names; many of those were hundreds of miles away from me.

By comparison, Microsoft's Cortana was especially good in similar broad questions when I tested it on a Lumia 635 device in the summer, possibly because Bing is a comprehensive search engine that BlackBerry may not be able to compete against.

Also in 10.3, BlackBerry has enhanced its previously available BlackBerry Hub, a unified view of messages, phone calls and emails. The enhancement presents "instant actions" right next to each item received, allowing a quick response such as "talk to you later" to a BBM instant message, or the ability to quickly delete the message, call or email, instead of having to open the email or message or phone container to do so.

When it comes to software and apps, BlackBerry has loaded quick access to BlackBerry World and the Amazon Appstore on the Passport. BlackBerry won't say how many apps it now has in its World store, merely noting that it has shifted World to business and productivity apps, but Passport users will have access to 200,000 or more apps in the Amazon Appstore that seem designed to please the general consuming public.

Many smartphone users judge a platform by the number of apps available, and by that standard BlackBerry is almost certainly lagging. I'm less concerned about having access to many apps than I am about how well a few critical apps and other features in a phone perform. Many Passport users are likely to connect to proprietary work-related apps through a BlackBerry Balance partitioning arranged by their IT shops. That will give them separate spaces for work and personal uses for added security.

Bloomberg Professional seems to be a particularly useful app for financial professionals. Due in late October, it will allow all kinds of searches for financial information. During one demonstration, a user was able to find the top banks by revenue in Canada with a simple voice command, with the list popping up quickly on the display.

Other apps are coming for a variety of uses including a medical imaging technology app from Claron Technology, which allows viewing of detailed medical images on the high-resolution Passport display.

Bottom line

While BlackBerry has a number of great improvements in the Passport, I'm not sure how much they matter. Yes, it is nice to have a fast processor, a clear display and long battery life, but the added width of the square display means very little to me. Various rectangular phones I've tried show me all I need to see while on websites or typing emails. I'm not one to regularly compose or edit Excel spreadsheets, so the added width to do that is also meaningless to me. Admittedly, I'm not the target user of this device.

I'm also pretty sure that anybody under age 35 is not going to care a whit about Passport's qwerty keyboard, including the ability to swipe with the physical keys. Getting all this questionable technological capability inside a heavy-to-the-feel smartphone doesn't seem like an effective way to grow BlackBerry or expand its future beyond its existing user base.

BlackBerry does deserve credit for trying new things and for working cross-platform with its BlackBerry Enterprise Server functions. Kudos go also to the 10.3 OS's BlackBerry Blend sharing technology and for Assistant. That very capable -- possibly superior -- voice-controlled digital assistant tool could help BlackBerry shine, especially when used in conjunction with its professional-grade BBM messaging service. That applies to coming BlackBerry devices as well.

When trying to describe the Passport, the persistent word that jumps out is quirky. As I was holding the Passport while waiting in a line recently, people asked me what it was. I couldn't tell if they were impressed by it or just perplexed. Me? I'm perplexed.

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