In a world of same-old handsets, the BlackBerry Passport is designed to polarize opinion. It might be just what BlackBerry needs to keep building its comeback.
- Follow The Globe's Shane Dingman and Jacquie McNish as they cover the BlackBerry Passport launch event
Passport rejects the prevailing paradigm of featureless, rectangular slabs of glass by chunking a three-row physical keyboard under a huge, square 4.5-inch (114 millimeters) screen. It is designed to stop you in your tracks, to look different than everything else in the wireless store’s showroom. Sitting next to the new iPhone 6 Plus it looks enormous, partly because it is so wide. It challenges you to try to fit it in your pocket (it works fine in most, but perhaps not in your shirt pocket). Everyone who spotted me with it during the review period – at my desk, on the street – wanted to pick it up, marvel at it and remark on its dimensions.
Passport: The ideal phone for two-handed typists
The shape immediately brought to mind some of the first Research In Motion devices I ever encountered, like the similarly bulky 6710, which back in 2003 looked like you could stick a handle on it and paddle a canoe down a river. A week ago, BlackBerry announced its latest ultra-pricey Porsche-designed P’9983 handset, built with a traditional BlackBerry profile but with angular and compact German engineering. In contrast, the Passport looks and feels like it comes from Detroit. It’s like a Cadillac Escalade: big, wide, heavy, solid and trimmed with silvery steel accents. Its black rubberized back reminds me of that old salesman’s warhorse, the IBM (now Lenovo) ThinkPad laptop. The Passport also comes in white, with a “porcelain feel” back, but I didn’t test that one. The whole package screams business class, management and productivity. You feel like a fool taking a selfie with this phone (I know, I tried).
BlackBerry product designers told us they user-tested and tweaked the Passport concept for years. As company industrial designer Alison Phillips says, everything about it was intentional, from the strong square corners to the slightly curved edges of the Gorilla Glass screen and the I-beam-shaped stainless steel chassis (the outside edge of which is exposed). She calls it a “baby of ours,” even if other ex-BlackBerry folks have called it an ugly duckling. CEO John Chen killed other products in the pipeline to make way for it, and says he uses it as his primary device now, and doesn’t even carry a secondary tablet to meetings.
The dominant feature here is the capacitive keyboard, which embeds some new gesture/touch controls in the plastic keys. For instance, you can swipe from right to left to delete a word, or you can swipe up and down on the keys to scroll through a long document or Web page. BlackBerry filed a patent on this technology back in 2007, as a way to replace the trackball/touchpad feature, but this is the first time they’ve tried to sell consumers on the idea. I’d call it a mixed success as there is a learning curve to get the right amount of pressure to activate swiping intentionally. One benefit is that you can select text on screen without blocking it with your fat fingers, but the accuracy was a little loose, making copying and pasting more awkward than it needs to be.
What’s missing from the physical keyboard are numbers, special characters or punctuation; all of those keys are in the virtual bar that appears on screen just above the buttons when you’re working in a text field. Again, I have mixed feelings about the ease of use, partly because the automatic text suggestion feature (that guesses what the next word you want to type is) sits above that virtual row, and swiping up or tapping to select from the three suggested words sometimes means accidentally typing a different character. And make no mistake, this is a two-handed device. I found typing effectively with one hand requires more dexterity than I possess, and I have large hands to help reach the keys.
Outside of its unique shape and commitment to a physical keyboard, the rest of the upgrades and innovations in Passport try to fill in what mobile technology analyst Horace Dediu of Asymco calls “Hygiene features, meaning if you don’t have them, you are excluded from the market, but to have a better one is only marginally useful.” To keep pace with the market, Passport got a great new camera, better battery life, a Siri-like digital assistant, a high-resolution screen and many more apps than before.
The camera is a beast, a 13 megapixel sensor that competes with the best in the Android ecosystem. By default it takes square images, to fit the screen, but aspect ratio is easy to select and it comes with BlackBerry’s timelapse mode (which lets you scrub through a few seconds of an image to create a still photo that avoids your subject’s blinks or grimaces). Burst mode, panorama mode, the ability to record video in 1080p HD are all here, just like they are in all the top Android phones.
The square screen is one of the biggest and highest resolution BlackBerry has ever shipped. The Z30’s 5-inch rectangular screen is technically bigger, with 1,280 by 720 pixel depth, but the Passport’s perfectly square 1450 by 1450 pixel display feels more expansive (it spits out 450 digital pixels per inch, excellent among modern smartphones).
The brain of the device is the 2.2 GHz Quad Core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801. This is an older ARM-based system on a chip, but according to testers who looked at it back in 2013, it competed well with Apple’s A7 and the Nvidia Tegra 4. It performs admirably when loading messaging and other key BB10 features, but third party apps seemed slightly pokey compared with the bleeding edge performance of some rival devices.
On the plus side, it packs a 3,450 mAh battery (bigger than the power pack than the Galaxy Note 3 phablet). On the negative side, it’s not removable so you can’t carry a spare. BlackBerry claims 36 hours of battery life, and while that’s probably achievable on standby mode, I found it more like 18-plus hours of moderate and occasional use. By the way that is still excellent, this isn’t a phone you need to charge before dinner.
BB10.3 has a control scheme I still have trouble getting used to. The lack of a home button, the swipe motions – up and to the left or right – aren’t natural to me, and a bunch of those mysterious keyboard shortcuts I never mastered surprise me sometimes. I’ve never liked how few active apps BB10 lets you run at once: When multitasking it only shows eight or 10 active apps at a time and then you have to restart anything that’s been forced to close. And the Hub messaging centre is great in theory, but requires some curation to avoid being overwhelmed by all the notifications you get from modern social media apps. There is a tutorial app pre-loaded on the Passport, to walk you through some of its more hidden features.
The apps The addition of Amazon’s App Store lets you purchase and run a lot of popular Android apps on a BlackBerry. You can finally get Netflix’s official app, such popular consumer apps as Pinterest and Shazam and many of the top Android games. The BlackBerry World app store will increasingly be focused on productivity and work software from the likes of Bloomberg, Cisco and Symantec.
We asked Mr. Chen why BlackBerry doesn’t just switch to Android, the most popular mobile software platform in the world. “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I don’t consider all possibilities,” he said in an interview. “If I could make Android secure it’s something of interest to us ... there’s a huge market we could serve.” However, he did speculate about what the world would look like today if BlackBerry had partnered with Google to create a secure version back when it was first making a splash in 2010.
The ‘digital assistant’
The new Siri-like BlackBerry Digital Assistant (accessed from the app screen or from a physical button between the volume rockers) doesn’t have a cute name, but it does provide answers to queries from Wolfram Alpha or the Web, live sports scores, access to such apps as Facebook and BBM, set calendar notifications and bring up directions or navigation, among the other usual features. Perhaps the best part about it is the ability to type in your requests, which is a nice advantage over the talk-heavy interfaces built by Apple, or Google’s Now and Microsoft’s Cortana. Despite loading some Android apps, BB10 doesn’t use Google Maps data, so all navigation is powered by the open source OpenStreetMap service.
The bottom line
When reviewing a new device I apply a very simple test suggested by my techie chums: Do I want to keep using this thing? As in, when the review period is over will I keep going? The answer surprised me in this case: If I can ever fully re-acclimatize to the physical keyboard and BB10, I just might make this my primary work phone. I don’t mind the size, it lets me work on text and Web just fine, and I don’t always care if I can’t get the latest iPhone-first social media app.
That said, despite the timing of Passport’s launch, mere weeks after Apple’s iPhone 6 extravaganza, it’s not fair (and it hasn’t been fair for years) to compare a BlackBerry to an iPhone. Apple Inc.’s latest set of devices are bigger than ever, and they have just hit the market with rave reviews calling the new units the best smartphones yet. Further, they connect to an ecosystem of other computing products and services in a way that the pride of Waterloo, Ont., simply cannot match.
A better comparison is with the vast array of Android devices. Most of the Sony, HTC, Samsung, LG, Huawei, Motorola and Google-branded flagship phones have some strong unique features. Some have premium prices, and some have flaws that doom them. But Passport does have one thing going for it that almost none of the Android crowd has: A loyal group of keyboard and platform fans who cry out to be catered to. This device combines many of the useful features of a smartphone and a tablet, in a way no one in industry has done before. In a commodity business, BlackBerry hopes that difference is going to inspire some users to switch or upgrade.
In Canada, the BlackBerry Passport will sell for $699 without subsidy, and $250 with a two-year contract (available on the Rogers, Telus and Bell). BlackBerry says it will sell the phone immediately in Canada and the U.S., and intends to be in 30 countries by the end of 2014.