We had written earlier on how the Passport was the first device from BlackBerry in ages (perhaps even the first ever) to elicit curiosity from passers by. And there is no doubt that if one were to line up all handsets in its price point, the BlackBerry Passport would stick out. Quite simply because there has never ever been anything quite like this. There have been devices with QWERTY keyboard before, but not with such a large, high-resolution display above them – at least not in candy bar form factor. The closest we can come to a device that attracted similar attention is the Nokia E90, the box-like Communicator that opened along the sides to reveal a larger display and a full QWERTY keyboard in a mini-laptop-like layout.
The Passport has been unfairly square-shaped in some quarters. It is definitely not that (the length and width are distinctly differently), but that said, at 90.3 mm, it certainly is one of the widest handsets out there (the Note 4, which seems big, is a mere 78.6 mm!), giving it a slightly slabbish appearance. Whether it looks good or bad, however, is going to be a matter of taste. Those addicted to large touchscreens with sliver like thickness will find it ghastly. However, we can see a lot of people falling in love with it too, simply because BlackBerry has done a decent design job. The front has the 4.5 inch display and a three row (not four rows as seen in conventional BlackBerry devices) QWERTY keyboard. Yes, it looks wide and a bit bulky but there are three rows of metal running along the keyboard, adding a subtle touch of class to the device, the sides are metal too, with volume buttons and the voice command key on the right and the display/power key on the top. The micro USB port has been planted bang in the middle of the base, and there is no mini HDMI port in this device. The back is relatively plain, except for the 13.0-megapixel camera with a LED flash, with a metal line right through the middle of it, and a large BlackBerry logo. It is a plain, relatively minimalistic affair in all, built on very solid lines (we wager that when it falls, it will simply get up, dust itself and carry on). It takes some getting used to holding it – it is designed for two-handed use, really – and while it will slip into a trouser pocket easily, there won’t be room left for much else, we fear.
So yes, there is no doubt that the Passport is big and unusual. But we really think that its strange form factor is going to be one of its strengths. We have not seen a phone that sticks out in a crowd as much since the E90. And just like that worthy, this one seems to have been designed for the corporate boardroom rather than the college campus.
Throwing the spec kitchen sink!
In terms of the spec sheet, BlackBerry has pretty much thrown everything it has at the Passport. The display is the show stealer for sure – a 4.5 inch display with 1440 x 1440 resolution is staggering to even think of as is its pixel density of 453 ppi. Beneath that is a quad core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor clocked at 2.26 Ghz, with 3GB RAM and 32 GB storage, with support for expandable memory up to 128 GB.
Connectivity options include 3G, LTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and NFC. And even the camera has been given a fair bit of muscle – not only is it a 13.0-megapixel affair, but comes with optical image stabilisation. And running on top of all this is an updated version of the BlackBerry 10 OS – 10.3, which comes with the Amazon App Store pre-installed. Whatever you can accuse BlackBerry of as regards the Passport, it is certainly not of restraint in the hardware and software department. The kitchen sink hath been well and truly thrown at this gent.
You gotta learn the ropes…
But how does all this come together in terms of experience? Ah, the answer is a complex one. Let us make one thing absolutely clear at the outset – if you are one of those who has been spoiled silly by the ease of Android and iOS, you are going to find yourself snarling at this handset initially. In fact, even traditional BlackBerry users will find a few challenges here.
The size of course is awkward. When a correspondent had asked at its launch whether the device was not too big to be used one-handed, BlackBerry’s spokesperson had answered “we never said it is a one-handed device.” And that is really where the biggest challenge of using the Passport – the fact that you will almost always need both hands to really use it properly. Try using it one handed, and you will end up with a sore thumb and a palm (unless you happen to be The Hulk, of course). Even taking it out of your trouser pocket with one hand will seem difficult initially (it is easier in the case of a coat pocket, though).
The QWERTY keyboard, as we mentioned, is only a three row affair, and there are no dedicated buttons for calls and shortcuts. Yes, a panel of icons and numbers keeps appearing onscreen as you type, but basically you have to keep reaching up to touch them, which makes the whole experience a bit odd. BlackBerry has added a touchpad like functionality to the keyboard, so you can actually scroll up and down by swiping on it, and you can also choose options suggested by the superb text prediction system by swiping upwards towards the relevant word. It however, takes some getting used to, just as using an onscreen keypad to dial numbers does – you will actually need two hands to even dial numbers at times. And if you have never used BlackBerry 10 OS, there is also the whole business of swipe up to unlock a screen and to minimise an app to get the hang of as well. There’s no getting around it – the Passport comes with a steep learning curve by modern OS and UI standards, especially if you have never used a BlackBerry 10 device before.
…and then let rip!
But once you DO get the hang of it (it took us close to two days in the course of which we cursed the keyboard, the location of the spacebar, the size of the spacebar, the absence of numeric keys, the width of the device and so on), you can be assured of a rather unique experience. For, the Passport is perhaps the only phone out there that has been tailormade for reading and writing. That extremely high resolution display lets you see almost as much text at one go as you can on a regular desktop, with stunning clarity. It becomes particularly impressive while working on spreadsheets as you can see several columns without having to switch the phone to landscape mode (in fact, we have never had to switch the phone to that mode). The device comes with the Documents to Go office suite pre-installed, which is a very handy addition indeed, as it lets you create, edit and view documents and spreadsheets and view and edit presentations on the device itself. The keys seem a bit stiff initially but are responsive and make for some very comfortable typing, once you work out your grip on the device (we found cradling it between our two palms working best), while not quite in the league of the Q10. BlackBerry’s predictive text remains one of the best we have seen and after a stage, we were answering messages and mails by simply a series of upward swipes rather than key presses.
All that hardware muscle means we could multi-task with ease, minimising several apps to run in the background, while we pounded away at our app of choice. And the inclusion of the Amazon App Store does open a whole new vista of Android apps for the device (especially when it comes to newly released games), and saves one from the pain of searching for Android APKs – no, not all of them run perfectly: we had to be content with playing PES 2012 with blank spaces above and below the main screen, but the viewing experience is by and large, quite good. Android APKs can be installed on the device too, although the odd resolution of the device can make apps appear a bit odd, as in the case of Instagram and Flipboard. Apps remain a bit of an Achilles Heel for BlackBerry users, although the device comes with a super browser, office suite, and very good apps for LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
BlackBerry has also included a new application called Blend which lets you access your BBM, SMS, Calendar, Contacts on your BlackBerry from a tablet or a computer, so you can actually carry out a number of phone functions from another device, as well as share files between them. It’s a neat application, although given the fact that the Passport sports a good keyboard (once one gets the hang of it) and a terrific display, some might find it a tad superfluous. We bet it will be more handy for other BB devices like the all touch Z30 and Z3 or the Q10 and Q5 which have good keyboards but smaller displays. BlackBerry has retained the Hub, which integrates all new messages and notifications, and is just a swipe from your home screen – a concept we have a soft corner for, simply because it lets you handle mails, messages and social network interactions from a single, well-organised interface.
Oh, and need we mention that the Passport is very adept at handling all sorts of e-mail, enterprise and personal – this is a BlackBerry, after all (saying a BlackBerry handles e-mail very well is like saying puppies and kittens are cute). And BBM remains one of our favourite messaging services. BlackBerry Assistant, the double B’s version of digital virtual assistants like Siri and Cortana is, however, way too sluggish – perhaps an update will fix matters.
A camera surprise!
What is very unBlackBerry-like about the Passport, however, is its camera. BlackBerry’s relationship with cameras has been odd, to say the least. We saw some very decent shooters on devices like the Q10 and the Z30 and relatively mediocre ones on the Q5 and Z3, but with the Passport, BlackBerry has put itself very squarely in the upper echelon of phone shooters. No, we are not going to say that it is going to give the likes of the iPhone or the Lumias a run for their money all the time, but it is well above average and is certainly good enough to meet the needs of most casual photographers, especially in terms of detail (colours can sometimes seem a trifle dull, though).
Sound quality overall was good (stereo speakers help), and call quality was superb. Battery life was very good indeed – we comfortably saw through a day and a half of hectic use with social networks and mails on push mode, time and again. And unlike in other BlackBerry devices, we took lots of pictures with this one.
It looks different. It takes some getting used to. And it is quite a performer, once you get the hang of it. So does that make the BlackBerry Passport a worthy investment? One worth Rs.49,999/$599 (a price that drew groans from some of the media attending its launch)? Well, one thing that needs to be made abundantly clear is that unlike the iPhones, Ones, Xperias and Galaxies of various alphanumerical combinations, this is a device that will not appeal to the mainstream user who chases apps, games, social networking and wants to take endless pictures. Yes, the Passport can do those tasks well too, but its real strength lies in two areas: reading and writing. That screen is awesome for viewing content, be it annual reports, websites, e-books or (as demonstrated at the launch) X-Rays. That keyboard, allied with BlackBerry’s superb predictive text system, will let you write articles on the device itself. And then there is the general enterprise friendliness of the device, in matters of mail, messaging (BBM remains a very secure platform) and security.
Unlike some of our brethren, we are not going to complain about the price of the device. For, let’s face it, unlike the spate of Android and iOS devices which seem slightly enlarged clones of their predecessors, this one actually offers something very different in terms of UI and design. We took a while getting to grips (and it has to be ‘grips’ because this phone is as two handed as a Rafael Nadal backhand) with it but once we did, letting go was difficult. Our email and messages kept getting longer and we found ourselves less inclined to reach out for our tablets and notebooks. And it certainly turned more heads than any phone we have used in the recent past.
So, to revert to the original question: should you invest in a Passport? Well, the answer depends on just how much you value being able to read and write comfortably – not adequately, but comfortably – on a handheld device. If the answer is “a lot,” then we would recommend you grab a Passport. It is really as simple as that – forget the specs, forget the enterprise rigmarole, just focus on reading and writing. For in essence, that is the forte of BlackBerry’s latest flagship. It can do everything else too, but then so can other smartphones, but yes, when it comes to ease of viewing and ease of writing, it is right now in a league of its own.
Just remember to be patient with it. It will repay your faith.