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BlackBerry Passport Review

How does BlackBerry's new form factor shape up?

BlackBerry_Passport_Hands_On (2)

This is our review of the BlackBerry Passport.

BlackBerry are a household name when it comes to smartphones. The business users will know the appeal of their email system and teens will know all about BBM; but BlackBerry is a name that many have fallen out of love with over the last few years.

A few questionable commercial decisions let the competition convert users.

However, the Canadian firm are at the start of a new and more focused era and they return with the BlackBerry Passport and aim to win back the hearts of many. The corporate/business user is at the heart of their current plans, but does the Passport have something for all, and is it a sign of things to come?

Hardware Specifications

The Passport is an out and out powerhouse and is designed to impress. Key hardware features include:

  • BlackBerry 10.3 OS
  • 2.2 GHz Quad-core processor
  • 4.5” extra wide LCD display
  • 3 row QWERTY keyboard
  • Use the keyboard as a touchpad
  • BlackBerry Assistant
  • 32GB internal storage
  • 4G LTE connectivity
  • 13MP camera with OIS
  • 3450mAh battery
  • Video out via slimport

I will talk about the design shortly but it is clear from this hardware that it has what it takes to compete with Android or iOS equivalents.

There has always been a lot of talk about BlackBerry and how they compare to the Apple and Samsung devices but the Passport is proof that they are not as behind as some may think. The hardware is different, as is the software, but there is a lot on offer and you should not write it off until you have heard and seen more.

Design/Build

Whether you are new to smartphones or not, the Passport stands out. Not just because of its name but the design.

So the relevance to the Passport name is that the device is the width and height of a paper passport. On first thought, you think not too bad, but it is of course thicker and in hand that transitions to something quite big.

Now I have quite small hands and two handed use is a must but those with bigger hands may find it usable in one, but for comfort and practicality you will need to use two hands to, it just feels too precarious in one.

Big and beautiful I believe is an appropriate phrase here.

Like a paper passport, the device fits in most pockets including jackets and shirts and even trouser pockets. The problem is it is ever so noticeable, more so if you are not used to the size of such devices, not only large but heavy.

Of course it is virtually square too which is odd but weirdly appealing.

Lay it on a desktop and the Passport looks a classy slam of technical engineering. The deep blacks with the silver accents scream use me.

Face on of course you have the 4.5” display, under which is a 3 row backlit QWERTY keyboard. Extra characters and numbers are accessed via the touchscreen.

At the top, generally located is the earpiece wit the BlackBerry logo beneath it. To the upper right corner is the front facing camera, which is 2 megapixels.

Just to the left of the camera is an LED notification light and to the left of the earpiece the light sensor.

On the bottom of the device is a microUSB port for charging and connectivity to a computer and for fast wired data transfer. This port also offers video out using a SlimPort adapter. BlackBerry_Passport_Hands_On (7)

The bottom is too home to stereo speakers and a microphone.

Around the whole phone is a metal band, most prominent on the right and left side. On the right are individual volume up and down keys in between which sits the BlackBerry Assist button.

BlackBerry_Passport_Hands_On (5)

On the top is the power button and 3.5mm headphone jack.

The left side is flush.

On the rear is the BlackBerry logo centrally placed, with the 13 megapixel camera with LED flash sat above this. The camera has a framing around it and a stylish silver band runs across the upper quarter.

It is above the metal band that the back cover or a portion of it can be removed to reveal the nano SIM card slot and MicroSD memory card slot.

The battery is built in and is not user removable.

The rear of the phone is where the NFC chip is located too.

There is no denying the Passport feels solid in hand but perhaps a little top heavy and this is not all that surprising when this weighs in at 194g, a good 30g heavier than most phones, but we will see why soon.

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Keyboard

Past premium BlackBerry’s have been built to be productive and last. The Passport is no exception, but the keyboard that made BlackBerry’s so popular has been reinstated in an odd fashion on the Passport. Stretched across the device for bigger keys, this great for an easier and more tactile typing experience, only if it gave you such. The size hampers the experience.

Numerics and popular characters amongst others are accessed via the touchscreen.

BlackBerry_Passport_Hands_On (4)

The whole point of the keyboard is to remove the software keyboard to free up more screen space no? Thus a 4.5” display on the Passport is a ture 4.5” whereas a 4.5” on a Samsung is only 4” because the keyboard takes up the rest?!

There is plenty of real estate on screen, but I cannot help but think some should have been added to the keyboard. Either add in an extra line of keys (the Passport is big enough already) or add a function key to give each button 2 uses.

The integrated touch element of the keyboard is really clever and has a purpose and works quite well. You just need to teach yourself to use it. The size and weight also makes it difficult to get used to holding and doing this in use, especially if you try to use it one handed.

I like the keyboard a lot, I am just not as convinced as I feel I should be. The Bold 9900 was better, even if it had smaller keys.

Display

This is probably the main element of the device that screams look at me and see how I am different and it is also the reason that the Passport is generally more geared to the ‘business’ user.

The big screen has been engineered to make the things you need to do on screen ever more possible.

It has a 1:1 ratio as opposed to the 16:9 ratio found on most other smartphones. This is why the 4.5” display is wide and makes the whole phone a little cumbersome in hand.

Load up a word document and you get around 60 characters per line as opposed to the 40 or so on many other phones. Rotate the device and the situation is the same.

This wider vision works well with spreadsheets and web pages too. It means less scrolling, pinching and zooming giving you more information and detail at first glance.

This is best demonstrated in the examples below.

BlackBerry_Passport_Screenshot (81)

Z1 Compact

When you are working with longer and larger documents there are some rather impressive software and hardware features that make the Passport stand out.

This is all well and good, but play a video or want to play a game and things get a bit complicated. The size makes it very difficult and the screen ratio means black bars around video content, which kind of defeats the object of the increased size.

With a resolution of 1440 x1440 and 453 pixels per inch the screen is bright and rich in colour and depth. It has what it takes to compete with the best.

It boasts good viewing angles and does well in direct sunlight too in my mind.

You do get a bit of reflection from the glass but this is common.

Talking of glass, the Passport has Corning Gorilla Glass to make it resistant to scratching.

Software BlackBerry_Passport_Screenshot (5)The Passport runs BlackBerry 10.3 OS which has received many improvements.

There are many strengths to the OS and this is one of the compelling reasons businesses and large corporates like it. The way it handles email, the way it can be managed and the enterprise security it offers is superb.

However this is only one side of the coin, remote management is only so good if the user gets to grip with the device itself.

The OS is functional, it can do all you want and need of it, just lots of it is not particularly logical.

There are a lot of gestures you need to learn for the screen and the keyboard. There are helpful tutorials available on first setup and post setup but some are not so logical like the swipe up to activate the screen.

The home screen and apps tray have been improved with icons to show you where you are and quick access icons for the camera and phone.

You can reorganise the app layout, add folders and change the wallpaper too.

There is quick settings shade. Pull down from the top of the screen and get quick access to key settings (which you can change) with less clicks. Hit the main settings icon and be taken into the full settings menu.

Here is where it gets complicated. Not that you need to go here all the time, not all that much is logical.

For instance, finding out about battery usage Settings> App Manager> Device Monitor>Battery - In my mind that is not that logical. I am looking for ‘power’ or ‘battery’ within the settings. BlackBerry_Passport_Screenshot (1)

The open apps screen is useful, as the tiles are updating and can be moved about, but they just feel a bit odd. You can reorganise them, but the whole process is a bit slow and you can not resize these open app quick toggles unless you close other apps down. 8 of the most recent apps will show here.

Lift to wake up, flip to mute and save power are all nice touches and take this very professional feeling device and make it feel a bit more practical for the everyday.

I might be being a little harsh on the OS, but it lacks the fluidity of Android or iOS even after a couple of weeks with it.

BlackBerry Hub keeps all your messages in one place and I think with a bit of learning can be very powerful but it does feel overly complicated at times with more clicks and buttons than are perhaps necessary and I think this transitions through a lot of what BlackBerry have in the OS. It is not that it does not work. The OS is just not as graphically and intuitively refined as others and what should be logical and a clean layout is not quite so.

Siri, Google Voice and Cortana are competitors equivalents to the new BlackBerry Assistant on the Passport. A long press on the right mounted button launches the the listening element. Know what you are saying and the whole concept works. It is just slower and not as capable as the alternatives. Ask a relatively simple question and it is thinking about it whilst Google has delivered the answer already. Nice touches include getting it to read messages to you or creating a note such as ‘buy milk’. Handy when driving.

On a positive it does handle documents and ‘work’ related content well and the keyboard comes into its own when replying to lengthy messages, or writing that document and of course the touchscreen aids in the versatility. Want to add your favourite apps, here lies a potential problems.

BlackBerry World remains the key place to access apps designed for the device. There is a broad selection but some of the more popular titles like ‘Instagram’ are missing.

To combat this BlackBerry have teamed up with Amazon. Thanks to the system on which BlackBerry OS is built is is possible for them to install Amazon’s App store, that has a database of Android Apps that can run on the Passport.

This essentially means more apps for you and I. Many of which are not available from BlackBerry world. Great. The problem is that some of these apps are still missing, ‘Instagram’ again.

This reaffirms the ‘work’ ethic in this device. BlackBerry_Passport_Hands_On (10)

Now for many, all the apps you need or equivalents are present. For me I was still missing many key apps that I use on a regular basis. Whilst many apps will work one or two I tried did not appear to work appropriately with the Passport screen meaning some advantage gained was soon lost.

Whilst the Amazon App store does away with many of the app hurdles, the app store in itself is quite clunky and is by no means as fluid as even BlackBerry App world. It needs more improvement to become more popular and functional.

Few still connect via physical cable to a PC, it is sometimes still required and a frustration is you need to install software to make it work and BlackBerry Link is not the ‘best’ software. It works, it is just another hurdle in the learning process. Within a few minutes you can be connected and up and running.

An immensely powerful feature, again aimed more at the business user is BlackBerry Blend.

Essentially speaking, after an initial pairing process you can remotely access and use features of the Passport on another PC via a USB cable connection or WiFi. It offers access to things like email, SMS, BBM, contacts, calendar and file manager.

What is important to note here is that all content remains on the Passport. All the processing is done by the Passport and no trace is on the PC other than the Blend application.

If you had a particularly long email to write or wanted to organise things in your calendar, but you wanted to do it from the comfort of a desk and big screen you can do so.

Providing the Passport was charged and connected to WiFi you could access content on it from home, even if you had left it at work. This feature is not for everyone but handy for some.

Therefore all told the Passport is capable, the software has most of what you need. You just need to become familiar and be prepared to learn.

Connectivity

Built to get things done, the Passport has all the connections you need.

MicroUSB for connection to a mains charger or computer.

There is video out via the microUSB using a SlimPort adapter, which is a bonus for some.

3.5mm headphone jack, Bluetooth, WiFi, GPS, NFC, Miracast, 3G and 4G.

Whether navigating from the office to a client. Sending photos of a site to a colleague or capturing video whilst on holiday, it's all possible.

What more could you ask of it? Wireless charging perhaps? Regretfully this is not possible, not even with an aftermarket accessory, but with a battery that lasts 2 days, plugging it in should not be too much of a hassle.

BlackBerry_Passport_Hands_On (11)

Audio

Once Nokia were the ones to beat in terms of audio quality. Of course things have improved across the board and the Passport can meet any Nokia or other device.

The call quality is superb as is the audio recording and audio playback.

A selection of microphones, 4 to be precise, intelligently pick up sounds and use amplification technology in real time and in relation to the environment and position of the phone to the ear to provide a dynamic and clear audio experience for both parties on a phone call.

The principle behind this is to make is as close to an face to face audio experience as possible.

Stereo speakers on the base of the device also pack quite a punch and do not distort too much at higher volumes and provide a clear and well balanced sound with almost all music types.

Audio has become a more important thing for all of us. There can be plenty of gimmicky features but at the core the audio experience still needs to be good. The Passport offers this, which is not always something you would expect form a more work oriented device.

I could see benefit in using the Passport to record audio in a meeting as I am confident it would pick up all vocals.

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Camera

Packing a high resolution camera into a phone is not always the answer to capture great images. It is a mix of the camera lens, sensor, software and more.

The Passport sports a 13 megapixel camera with optical image stablisation and the results are really very good.

The results I believe are better than many Samsung phones, with more realistic balance to colours and less saturated and over processed final result.

I would also say the camera module gives Sony’s 20.7 megapixel camera a run for its money.

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BlackBerry in the past always did well with camera results, given they tended to use lower resolution cameras and the Passport keeps up that positive trend. Not everything is perfect but it is a smartphone camera after all.

Some colours and warmth was lost in some images and often the images had a darker tone than was the case at the point of capture.

Whites were not blown out like they are on most camera’s with a darker tone which actually works in favour rather than the brighter more saturated effect.

Zoom in on the image and the quality does degrade but at an acceptable rate. The video results were equally as good and the audio in my mind particularly pleasing, helped by thoe 4 microphones. The rear camera captures shots at 13 megapixels whilst the front facing camera is set to 2 megapixels. BlackBerry_Passport_Screenshot (78)

Both these and the video recording option offer 5x digital zoom. You need to use a pinch and zoom technique on screen to take advantage of this. This can be a bit fiddly when holding the oversized device too and trying to keep it steady.

There is the option to capture normal photos, timeshift, burst and panorama and the option to change the image ratio (1:1, 4:3 and 16:9). Timeshift takes a series of photos in quick succession and allows you to review the images afterwards and select the one you want or the ‘best one’. HDR and timer options are available as well as are different scene modes.

During video recording, which is possible at 1080p at 60 frames per second (no 4K) you can too capture still images and easily switch the video light on and off. Delve into the settings and you can change more settings such as continuous video focus, grid lines and more.

The camera is not the most expansive in terms of options but I do believe there is a really good balance of functionality and practicality. Editing is also possible with ‘instagram’ like filters and tools available to tweak the images captures.

Battery

3450mAh of battery power is built into the Passport.

The Note 4 from Samsung has 3220mAh and Sony’s Z3, 3100mAh.

This ‘extra’ battery explains the additional weight and bulk of the Passport but for those who are always on the go and attached to a mobile then you can rely on the Passport.

The Passport WILL last well beyond a day. You will most likely get 2 full days out of it. In fact I was able to get more than this. with lighter use.

Here lies a little quandary though. For the more demanding it will last you well over a day and likely 2 days but it might power down late afternoon on your second day depending how hard you have been working on it.

There are not the same ‘power saving’ software options like there are on many Android devices, but careful management of connections and power draining apps will allow you to conserve the battery, there just isn’t that button that shuts it all down for you.

Thus it will be up to you how to find a charging cycle that works for you, but I think it is pretty safe to say you will need not worry about a charger or spare battery like you once did if opting for the Passport.

The Passport has stolen the crown for battery life.

Price

At the time of writing the Passport will cost you a pretty penny. It comes in at £485 including taxes when purchased from Clove or £530 from BlackBerry directly.

Depending on your view of mobile technology you will see the Passport to be worth every single one or well overpriced.

Take this cost over 24 months, consider how many hours a day you use it and how productive this helps you be and I am convinced the cost will be more justifiable. It has not been designed to compete with the £150-200 Motorola’s or Samsungs.

The Passport offers a lot more. All be it for a potentially more niche user.

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Conclusion

A traditional paper passport has more power than we give it credit for. It is the tool that lets us cross borders and discover new worlds.

The BlackBerry equivalent can do just the same for the business user, thanks to the broad range of global connectivity options, the sheer processing power, capability and management tools it offers for large corporations.

Personal preference will always play a part in whether the OS here is for you, whether you have all the apps and whether the Passport has the interface you can work with.

æIn parts it is massively clever, in others it is complicated and almost daunting, particularly when delving into settings.

Spend a little time with it, learn its pros and cons and there is every chance it will change the way you see the device.

The Passport is for those who just want to get stuff done. Whilst we all wish to do this at times, many of us like to play games and embrace videos and more.

If I was on a business trip or conference, I would take the Passport.

If I used a work phone and a personal phone, the Passport could easily become my work phone, if I could get over the size issue.

However, I use one phone for both and for me, the Passport does not blend well into the two lifestlyes.

The size, slightly complicated OS and the app availability all play their part.

That said, I have been impressed and warmed to BlackBerry again. BlackBerry Blend, the camera and battery life are all very compelling, but not enough to switch.

If you need a business device, are about getting stuff done and think you can cope with the unusual size then the Passport may make you more productive.

A not quite so wide version of the Passport with the ‘classic’ BlackBerry keyboard is what I think it needs to win more of power and consumer users back, but at the moment, the size and uniqueness of it makes this a bit of a marmite phone. You will likely love or hate it.

If you think the Passport is for you, order yours today from Clove here.

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