You don’t need to be told there is something different about the BlackBerry Passport. For a start there’s a retro qwerty keyboard. Then there’s the shape, different to any other smartphone. It is also big — as big as an Apple iPhone 6 Plus.
Passport is BlackBerry’s business class smartphone. BlackBerry built the Passport with productivity in mind. Although BlackBerry tailored the smartphone to meet enterprise customers’ needs, it can work for smaller organisations operating in the corporate world.
Like the iPhone 6 Plus, the Passport is as much tablet as smartphone. Phablet is an ugly term, but it applies to the BlackBerry Passport more than any other device. You can work in ways that would seem strange on other smartphones.
When square is cool
The Passport’s 4.5 inch square screen — 80mm by 80mm — lends itself to applications that don’t work well on conventional smartphones.
If the Passport fails and BlackBerry exits the smartphone market some observers may blame the square screen. That would be a pity, because it turns out to be a great idea.
I found reading .PDFs easier on the Passport than on an iPhone 6 Plus. It works well with eBooks and is terrific for maps. Overall I liked the screen. Although you can turn a normal smartphone on its side to read documents, the Passport format feels better.
Spreadsheets are us
Passport does spreadsheets better than any other smartphone. The wide-screen helps when composing written documents if you need to check the way readers will see the finished product.
The screen is not the only difference when it comes to writing on the Passport.
Qwerty keyboards were BlackBerry’s smartphone signature before anyone saw an iPhone. Using the physical keyboard on the Passport feels almost nostalgic. Those of you who miss those days will feel instantly at home.
BlackBerry Passport keyboard, touchpad
BlackBerry has updated the keyboard. It now doubles as a touch pad, you control the cursor and screen by sweeping up and down or across the keys. At first I struggled to make this work, it quickly becomes a natural action.
The BlackBerry 10 operating system learns how you type, so over time it anticipates where you are heading. This improves accuracy and increases your typing efficiency.
In practice I struggle to write much using the Passport keyboard. It is only slightly larger than a smartphone on-screen keyboard. Like an on-screen keyboard it seems to cope with pudgy fingers almost by magic. Make that thumbs. I found myself hitting the keys with just my thumbs.
The Passport has tiny, sculpted keys. The ones on the left lean one way. Those on the right lean in the other direction. They have a positive action, you know when you’ve pushed one down enough.
You need to reach your thumb up to the screen to type numbers. There’s nothing unusual about this, it feels as natural as typing ever does. Reaching up to the screen space to find the capitals key feels strange. Often the software guesses when you want to type a capital and does this for you.
When the operating system thinks it knows what you’re attempting to type, it offers the word as a guess for you to flick up in the text screen. I never mastered that.
We can put my failure down to practice — reviewers only get these devices for a short time. I’m sure with time I could speed up.
Docs to Go
BlackBerry now owns Docs to Go — I remember the app from when I owned a Palm Pilot. Docs to Go is a mobile office suite with a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation manager.
Docs to Go is compatible with Microsoft Office so you can move documents easily between the Passport and a personal computer. It works with cloud services to make that easier.
I attempted to write this review on the Passport using Docs to Go. After a short time I gave up, returning to a full-size keyboard. To be fair to BlackBerry, that’s partly because I’m a touch typist — my fingers do the thinking on a full size keyboard in ways they don’t on a phone.
Writing on a Passport
Writing on the Passport was slow, but not painfully slow. Nor was it hard work. It is roughly comparable with writing on any smartphone, although I suspect with time and practice, I could speed up.
BlackBerry is weak when it comes to apps. Things have improved since a deal to put Amazon’s Android apps store on BlackBerry 10 devices, but it is far from perfect.
The Passport comes with 38 apps as standard including Docs to Go and BlackBerry’s own BBM. Most of the standard fare is included. The quality of BlackBerry’s own apps is solid, you won’t find a better set of communications tools and the BlackBerry Hub pulls it all together.
There’s a great Maps app, Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin are all there from the moment you start the phone. The list also includes a YouTube app, Adobe Reader, Evernote and links to Box and Dropbox.
Life gets messy beyond the built-in apps. Amazon’s Android apps run in an emulator. The Passport’s processor is fast enough to do the grunt work, but emulators are rarely as smooth as native apps.
And Amazon’s Android app store is not as complete as Google Play or iTunes. You won’t find everything here. Nor will you find the best experience when it comes to Google’s apps.
So where does that leave the Passport? Frankly Blackberry could make the best phone in history and most of the world would take no notice. You probably won’t pick up many geek credibility or hipster points if you whip one of these out in your local craft beer outlet.
There’s more to technology than fashion. Blackberry deserves kudos for, er, thinking outside the square.
I like the Passport far more than I expected. It’s a good choice for companies that need BlackBerry’s security and can use the great communications apps. It works well as a writing tool — the square screen is anything but a gimmick and the keyboard is better in use than most on-screen alternatives.
The main market for the Passport will be people who already live in BlackBerry’s world. It should be enough to stop some of them exiting for Android-land or Apple-ville.
I suspect many Passport users will carry other phones. Maybe they’ll use the BlackBerry for work and an alternative for personal use. That’s not a bad idea, the Passport is clearly there for serious business, not fun. Think of it as a phone for people working in places where the men still wear ties.