Who would have thought that one of the most interesting smartphones to be launched in 2014 would come from BlackBerry, Canadian smartphone manufacturer that many people had until recently written off as dead?
The BlackBerry Passport is the first radically different device to be released under CEO John Chen, who took the reins from Thorsten Heins late last year.
Chen is known for his skills in turning around failing businesses and most notably the work he did to save business software and services company Sybase, now part of SAP.
The BlackBerry Passport, with its square-like design and three-row Qwerty keyboard, went on sale worldwide this week. TechCentral has been using it for the past week and, although sceptical initially, we’ve quickly warmed to its quirky looks. Turns out it’s hip to be square.
The Passport is not the lightest phone around, weighing in at a chunky 196g, but it’s about as thin as most modern smartphones at just 9,3mm.
Screen resolution is 1 440 x1 440 pixels for a very respectable pixel density of 453ppi. Indeed, it’s a higher rating than the pixel densities on top-end phones such as the HTC One M8 and the Nokia Lumia 930. The display is about a third wider than the average 5-inch smartphone, making it more suited for reading and viewing pictures.
The first time you use the Passport, it feels unlike any smartphone you’ve held. It can be a little awkward to hold at first as you allow your fingers to become familiar with the wider layout.
The design is gorgeous — still classic Blackberry, but there’s a brushed metal frame around the edges, a design style that is also carried through to the keyboard. The back of the phone is a made of a soft, matte-like plastic.
The keyboard will keep hardened BlackBerry users happy but it’s the support for touch gestures that steal the show here. By swiping your finger over the keyboard, you can scroll through any app or web page just as you would by swiping across a touch screen. It’s a small but genuinely handy feature that proves a real time saver when your fingers are glued to the keyboard while you type. Bravo!
The Passport’s keys take a little getting used to because the screen is used to display other characters and functions not available as keys on the physical keyboard. It’s a system that works well enough once you get used the shortcut keys and gestures. The on-screen virtual keys are all within thumb reach and complement what already makes for a great typing experience. The keys are backlit, making replying to an e-mail at two in the morning easier.
Having said that, the width of the device does not make it easy for one-handed operation. Unless you play in the Springbok back line or in America’s NBA league, you’ll probably need two hands to hold the Passport comfortably. There is also no tap-to-wake function on the screen, making the decision to place the power button at the top of device a design flaw. BlackBerry should have side-mounted the power button to make it easier to reach.
The Passport is the first BlackBerry to feature a quad-core processor. The phone comes with more memory and flash storage than any BlackBerry before it: 3GB of RAM and 32GB respectively.
It has a 2,2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, and there is a hot-swappable microSD. Unsurprisingly, the user interface is snappy and we had no speed issues when running multiple apps.
Although it’s a workhorse, the Passport won’t let you down if you want to take photos or video. Its 13-megapixel rear camera shoots video at 1080p at 60fps, while the front of the phone has a 2-megapixel camera that can take video at the lesser 720p resolution. Both cameras feature video and image stabilisation technology.
BlackBerry has made sure all the latest technologies are built in. There is support for Bluetooth 4.0 and near-field communication. Its Wi-Fi works at 2,4GHz for 802.11b/g/n and at 5GHz for the a/n/ac variant. The popular 4G/LTE bands are supported, but not Telkom’s 2,3GHz. MTN and Vodacom subscribers won’t have an issue accessing 4G services.
Battery life on the Passport is excellent, and we got just over a day’s worth of heavy usage on a single charge. The non-removable, well-endowed 3 450mAh battery is rated for talk time of about 18 hours and Blackberry says the phone has 18 days of standby time.
The micro USB charging port at the bottom of the Passport also doubles as a display port to connect it to an HDMI enabled TV or projector using a SlimPort cable that can be purchased separately.
The Passport runs the latest Blackberry 10.3 operating system, which has a refreshed user interface and a great new feature called BlackBerry Blend. Blend gives users access to many of the phone’s features remotely, via a PC or tablet. It supports Windows, iOS, Android and Mac OS X. This means you can access apps and answer e-mails without having your phone by your side. The only thing you won’t be able to do is answer calls.
For security-conscious users (and we all should be), BlackBerry Protect allows users to lock and wipe the smartphone remotely should it be lost or stolen.
App support on the Passport is pretty comprehensive thanks to support for native BlackBerry apps in BlackBerry World and also HTML-based apps. The platform supports Android apps via Amazon’s app store, which greatly enhances the value proposition for users. The Amazon store comes pre-installed, but third-party app stores can also be downloaded to the phone. Amazon’s app store offers better security for downloaded apps as those apps are scanned for malware by BlackBerry Guardian.
The BlackBerry Passport is certainly an interesting device at a time when smartphones are all starting to look remarkably similar. Its unconventional design works well, but it won’t be a hit with all sectors of the smartphone market. As a business device, the Passport is destined for great things, and heavy e-mail users will love it for its screen and comfortable keyboard.
Local pricing and availability has not yet been announced, but it is expected to go on sale before the end of the year. US pricing has been confirmed at $599 without a contract.