BlackBerry are a household name when it comes to smartphones, but 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 Passport is an out and out powerhouse and is designed to impress. 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 Passport stands out. Not just because of its name but the design. The relevance to the Passport name is that the device is the width and height of a paper passport. 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, the problem is it is ever so noticeable. 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. Just to the left of the front facing camera is an LED notification light. On the bottom of the device is a microUSB 3.0 port. This port also offers video out using a SlimPort adapter. A nano SIM card and mircoSD card slot are hidden behind a removable section of the rear cover. 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. The keyboard that made BlackBerry’s so popular, has been reinstated in an odd fashion on the Passport. 3 rows, 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. 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 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. 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. When you are working with longer and larger documents there are some rather impressive software and hardware features that make the Passport stand out. These are 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 to handle 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 x 1440 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. The Passport does to have Corning Gorilla Glass to make it resistant to scratching. 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. 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 to help. 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 all that much is logical. For instance, finding out about battery usage. Settings> App Manager> Device Monitor>Battery. 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 tiles unless you close other apps down. Up to 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. 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. Nice touches include getting it to read messages to you or creating a note such as ‘buy milk’; which is 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 problem. 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. Pre-installed is 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. The problem is that some of these apps are still missing, ‘Instagram’ again. I was unable to download apps I use on a regular basis. 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. Built to get things done, the Passport has all the connections you need. 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, its all possible. What more could you ask of it? Wireless charging perhaps? But with 2 days battery life is this necessary? 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. 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. 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. But judge for yourself. The rear camera captures shots at 13 megapixels whilst the front facing camera is set to 2 megapixels. 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. There is the option to capture normal photos, timeshift, burst and panorama. 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 you can too capture still images and easily switch the video light on and off. 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 you capture. 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. 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. At the time of recording the Passport will cost £485 including taxes when purchased from Clove. 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. Thanks to the broad range of global connectivity options, the sheer processing power, capability and management tools, the Passport offers a lot for business users and large corporations. Personal preference will always play a part in whether the OS is for you, whether you have all the apps and whether the Passport has the interface you can work with. In parts it is massively clever, in others it is complicated and almost daunting. Spend a little time with it, learn the 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. 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 lifestyles. 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.