The Blackberry Z10 was supposed to be the company’s come-back phone. It’s solid and capable. There’s much to like. But not enough to revive the BlackBerry’s fortunes.

Let’s break the laws of reviewing and start with a history lesson to explain the opening paragraph.

Until Steve Jobs decloaked the first iPhone, Blackberry was the smartphone superpower. A range of qwerty-keyboard equipped handsets and its back-end messaging services meant Research in Motion, Blackberry’s former name, dominated the business mobile phone sector.

Momentum, a strong brand and those rock-solid back-end services saw BlackBerry ride out the first iPhone waves. Complacency set in. By the time Apple was on its third generation iPhone things looked bleak for BlackBerry. Apple showed you could type messages without a physical keyboard and safely send mail without heavy-duty, expensive background systems. That BlackBerry physical keyboard suddenly looked less essential.

Blackberry responds to iPhone

The Z10 is Blackberry’s late response to six years of iPhone and the rise of Android. BlackBerry learnt much from its rivals, just not enough to steal the lead it so desperately needs. Keep in mind the Blackberry Z10 isn’t priced as a premium smartphone.

At around $800 in New Zealand it belongs to the second tier. Carriers will give you one for nothing upfront it you commit to $100 a month.

Unused Z10s sell on TradeMe for less than $500. It doesn’t come out badly when compared with other phones in the same price range.

Physically the Blackberry Z10 is an iPhone-like touch-screen phone. There is also the keyboard-equipped Q10 for die-hard Blackberry fanatics.

The display is as good as any other phone I’ve seen in the price range. The phone feels good in my hands. It has a rubbery back cover which makes it comfortable and easy to grip most of the time. Unlike the more sleek models, it won’t slide out of your hand.

The Z10 is roughly the same size as an iPhone 5. You can do most phone tasks using one hand and your thumb. It weighs a fraction more than the iPhone 5 – but you don’t notice the difference in practice.

Camera weakness

On paper the Z10’s 8 megapixel camera looks good, in practice it can’t take pictures as good as you’ll get from top of the line rivals. Pictures are often grainy. The Blackberry Z10 struggles with poor light conditions – the real test of a phone camera.

Taking pictures is easy enough and for most of the time the picture quality is acceptable, even if they lack crispness and clarity. If picture-taking is important to, spend more money and buy a Nokia 920 or an iPhone.

Hubba Hubba

Blackberry’s software innovation is the Hub, this is a central point pulling together all your mail, Twitter, notifications, calendar reminders and other incoming services. Think of it as a unified inbox. It’s a good idea: perhaps the place where you can expect to spend most of your time.

A little red LED lights up when something arrives in the Hub. If you’re like me there’s a constant stream of incoming stuff. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. A tip for new players, don’t enable the Twitter feed, it will ping all day long and you’ll never do any work.

Swipe-based user interface

You control the Hub, and most other phone features with a simple set of swipe gestures. They tend to be unfamiliar at first, once you’ve tuned in, they work fine.

One thing the swipe gestures replace is the traditional hardware home button for that matter there isn’t an obvious home screen.

When you swipe the screen to open the display the phone takes you to a grid of open apps. You can easily move between them, close them and see what’s going on, but I don’t find this as good as the live tiles on the Windows Phone 8 home screen or even the messy Android home display on phones like the Galaxy S4.

Some of the gestures are good. I like being able to slide up the screen to see if there are incoming messages waiting for me. I prefer this to the Android notification bar. A simple swipe up and right will take you to the Hub from any other application.

Blackberry fans expect nothing less than the best software keyboard on a screen-only smartphone. The Z10 delivers this in spades, although it takes getting used to. The keyboard even learns your behaviour.

So is the BlackBerry Z10 for you?

You won’t like it if you’re a geek. There’s relatively small app store and the BlackBerry Z10 doesn’t hook directly into an ecosystem the way iPhones, Androids and Windows Phones do. There’s less scope to tinker and customise.

And you probably won’t like it if you’re mainly concerned about social media – although it does a good job notifying you of incoming tweets and Facebook messages. Nobody would describe it is a ‘fun phone’.

On the other hand if you’re more concerned with owning a business-class phone simply to get a few basic tasks done, it will appeal. It’s relatively straightforward with little to distract you from productivity. The phone will connect with your existing email service and comes with Microsoft Office compatible software. All the most important smartphone apps are there.

 

Blackberry can’t sell phones using its own operating system. What makes it think moving to Android will change that?

Overseas media are gushing about a new phone from BlackBerry. That’s something that hasn’t happened for a decade.

The excitement is about the Priv. It’s an Android phone, but not another me-too device aiming to knock Samsung off its perch.

Priv is different. It has a touch-sensitive QWERTY keyboard that slides down from the case. It also uses BlackBerry’s enterprise-grade software, security and the clever unified messaging hub.

These are features that once made BlackBerry the darling of business phone buyers everywhere.

Top-end smartphone specs

Otherwise the Priv boasts the usual top-end smart phone specs along with a 5.4 inch display that curves on both sides. Screen resolution is 1440 by 2560 pixels which means more than 500 pixels per inch resolution. The rear camera has an 18 megapixel sensor.

Priv also has a top-end price. The Carphone Warehouse in the UK is advertising the Priv for £580. That would make it around NZ$1275 at today’s exchange rate.

BlackBerry hopes overlaying BlackBerryness on top of an official Google supported version of Android is the secret sauce corporate phone buyers have waited for.

You say you want a revolution

Stand by for more disappointment. Although there is a loyal BlackBerry underground, it isn’t about to start a revolution. The BlackBerry train left the station a long time ago.

It is possible — that’s the strongest available adjective — BlackBerry would have sold phones by the million if it had gone with Android two years ago.

That was when the phone maker rebooted after being humiliated by Apple. A decade earlier it dominated smartphone sales. The iPhone swept it aside like a mosquito before a storm front.

Instead of picking Android, the phone maker pinned its hopes on the BlackBerry 10 operating system. It was an idiosyncratic approach, having little in common with the user interface on iOS, Android or Windows Phone.

Idiosyncratic but practical

BlackBerry 10 was more secure than other smartphone operating systems and revolved around a message hub. It was streamlined for dealing with incoming calls, messages, mail and social media.

It also came with a full suite of enterprise software including tools for company techs to remote manage users phones. BlackBerry also had VPN authentication, a virtual Sim service and great tools for creating and securely managing documents.

Many CIOs and managers loved the business-oriented thinking behind the OS. Yet users never warmed to BB10. Part of the reason was that idiosyncratic user interface, switching from another phone OS was more jarring than usual.

Post-iPhone, the phone market is all about consumer satisfaction. If any user cares about productivity it comes a distant second behind photos, social media updates, music and entertainment.

The bring-your-own-device trend accelerated the drift away. Organisations might fleet-purchase BlackBerry phones, but left to their own devices, workers would choose Apple or Samsung.

Blackberry? Meh

Nobody spending their own money seems to give a toss about the powerful business features packaged in a BlackBerry phone.

Conventional wisdom says the phone was unpopular with everyday users because of the lack of native apps. Many of the most popular apps never made it to Blackberry, nor did most of the less popular but essential niche apps. Your NZ bank doesn’t have a BlackBerry app, nor will your favourite retailer or taxi company.

Blackberry came up with a clever workaround: Users can download and run Android apps on BB10. Many apps run thanks to clever patching, but compatibility is hit and miss. Moreover, some apps that once ran fine stopped running after later OS updates.

All the way

Now BlackBerry has gone all the way. Instead of a BlackBerry phone with BlackBerry software and the ability to run Google software, the Priv is a BlackBerry phone with Google software and BlackBerry extensions.

If you think BlackBerry’s failure to capture user imagination is down to apps, then there’s a logic to making a phone able to run Android apps.

If only it were that simple.

Android bloodbath

The Android phone market is crowded and competitive. There are NZ$800 Android phones that look great and do 95 percent of what $1400 Android phones can do.

As a result almost no-one makes money from making Android phones. Android accounts for around 80 percent of all smartphone sales but less than 20 percent of smartphone profits.

The biggest and most successful Android phone maker is Samsung. It’s the brand BlackBerry will come up against most often as it tries to sell Android hardware to company accounts.

Yet Samsung licences some the technology BlackBerry says sets it apart from rivals in this market sector.

Deep pockets needed

Samsung, LG, HTC, Huawei and other Android phone makers spend a fortune on marketing. You need deep pockets to play that game. There is not much money left to spend on advertising.

There are two possibilities here. One is dipping a toe in the Android pool to test wider acceptance of its technology for a different project.

The other possibility is that the company now has such low expectations that even selling a modest number of phones will feel like success.

BlackBerry has already dipped its software toe in the Android pool. Some of its software, messaging and enterprise tools are available as apps.

Showcasing its technology with the Priv may help with its already announced option of morphing into a phone software business. It may also package things nicely for a sale. No doubt owners would be delighted if it became an acquisition target.

There were reports in the US press the phone maker sold just 800,000 in the first quarter of this year. That’s a tiny number by 2015 standards. If the Priv manages to double or triple sales volumes, the brand may stumble on for a while longer.

According to a report in The Verge the company aims to sell five million handsets a year. While that would be a start, it isn’t going to revive BlackBerry, at best it buys a little more time.

Nokia Android phones

Nokia and Blackberry showed new phones this week at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The familiar, but faded brands pin their hopes on cheap novelty phones and Android.

Nokia played the retro card with a revamped 3310. It’s an expensive novelty for indulgent spendthrifts. There are also three ho-hum conventional Android models.

A Finnish start-up made the phones under license.

Low-cost

Nostalgia aside, the only remarkable feature is that they all cost well under €299. That implies they could land in New Zealand for less than NZ$500.

BlackBerry’s once prestigious brand and signature qwerty keyboard turned up on the Keyone phone.

Both phone makers are recent converts to Android. That is not going to save them. Gimmicks aside they are ordinary phones drowning in a sea of Android handsets.

At least half a dozen brands are now ahead of Nokia and Blackberry in the Android queue.

BlackBerry Classic
BlackBerry Classic

BlackBerry knows about disruption.

It was the top smartphone brand when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007.

The phone maker continued to grow for the next three years. Customer numbers didn’t peak until 2011.

It’s been downhill ever since

Last month BlackBerry finally threw in the towel. The company said it is shutting its phone business although it plans to live on as phone software and services business.

The decision to quit making phones came after the company failed to find any takers for its ill-conceived mid-range DTEK50 Android handset.

BlackBerry launched the DTEK50 in July. It was the last roll of the dice for the firm’s phone ambitions. And frankly, a very ordinary phone; not much of a swan song for a one-time champion.

The writing was on the wall a two or three years ago, but the end was clearly in sight by the time of the 2015 launch of the BlackBerry Priv. It had the classic hardware keyboard and some of the firm’s security features but used the Android operating system.

Android was never going to work

Turning to Android was always an act of desperation although it’s hard to see what else BlackBerry could do. Nothing else it tried had worked.

In 2013 the company launched the BlackBerry 10 phone operating system. That was an attempt to reboot its hardware business while there was still a sizeable installed base of users.

The market did not bite.

BlackBerry 10 out on its own

BB 10 is unlike any other phone operating system. Instead of presenting users with an Apple, Android or Windows Phone-style home screen, everything revolved around the phone’s messaging features.

On one level that is smart — messaging is a core phone function. Most people spend a lot of their working day using communication tools such as voice calls, SMS messages, mail and so on. Putting this all in one hub along with social media notifications makes sense.

Except that work is only part of a phone’s job. People also use them for entertainment.

Too much like work

The BlackBerry 10 operating system always makes you feel like you’re at work. That might endear it to slave-driving company bosses that buy phones to give to staff. It’s no way to win friends among the masses. Almost no-one spends their own money on a BlackBerry.

The other odd thing about BB 10 is that it is all gesture-based. The gestures aren’t hard to learn and use, but it doesn’t remotely resemble any other phone operating system.

Another thing BlackBerry 10 got right from the company phone buyer perspective was the baked-in security. You could set boundaries between personal and work phone use.

Again, this is hardly likely to be popular with ordinary folk. They would see this as a barrier between them and the fun aspects of owning a phone.

Software deficit

BlackBerry could probably have got away with all of this if only it could have persuaded the makers of popular phone apps to write software for its devices. They didn’t. Even when they did, the apps were second-rate or not updated.

The latest IDC smartphone figures measure market share for Android, iOS, Windows and others. BlackBerry 10 is not the only ‘other’ but all of them added together only make up 0.3 percent of the market. That’s a rounding error.

Lots of wise commentators offer theories and analysis on where BlackBerry stumbled

The die was cast the day the iPhone launched. Among other things, BlackBerry wasn’t looking at the threat. Apple’s iPhone was seen as a consumer phone, BlackBerry made business phones.

Poor iPhone clone

When BlackBerry finally got around to responding to Apple, it made a poor iPhone clone with a weird OS. Perhaps if it had at that point extended the classic BlackBerry keyboard phone range into the consumer space it might have won repeat business from its own customers.

Instead, they picked up Apples and Androids instead. BlackBerry’s 2013 reboot was at least 18 months too late and the phones were lacklustre.

For the last three years BlackBerry has talked about playing to its clear strengths. It knows how to make phones secure and it knows how to help company technology departments integrate phones into enterprise IT. There is a future in that.

BlackBerry Classic qwerty phoneAt the New York Times, Ian Austin writes about Blackberry’s qwerty phone:

…struggling Canadian smartphone maker BlackBerry made a sharp detour from its history on Tuesday when it announced it was discontinuing the last phone to have the traditional version of the company’s iconic physical keyboard and trackpad.

BlackBerry qwerty keyboard phones were essential business tools back when most other so-called smartphones were toys.

A tiny, chiclet-style qwerty keyboard meant you could handle mail while on the move, write memos and short notes.

While a few journalists typed news reports using the tiny keys, it definitely happened. It was hard work. Still, the ergonomics bordered on criminal.

As everyone knows, BlackBerry fell from favour as Apple’s iPhone and Android climbed to success. It’s amazing the business has lasted this long, Nokia did not.

When, last year, BlackBerry returned to the qwerty keyboard design with the BlackBerry Classic phone, it was so retro I described it as a Steampunk phone.

BlackBerry claimed typing on a tiny keyboard was more productive than using a screen keyboard. My testing found that wasn’t true. While it was satisfying to feel keys move, it did nothing for my writing speed. In fact, the tiny screen made me less productive.

That said, modern screen keyboards are far better than they were when the first Blackberry models appeared. And they are bigger. At the time the ergonomics of both were poor.

Today, bigger screens, better detection and innovative software means glass keyboards are the best option. And if you really need a keyboard, you can buy an add-on.

Blackberry Priv
Blackberry Priv

BlackBerry‘s Android model, the Priv, failed to revive the company’s phone sales. Juniper Research, say BlackBerry only sold 734,000 phones in the last quarter of 2015 — a total of 3.7 million for the full year.

If anyone is interested, the phone went on sale in Australia today.

Microsoft‘s Windows Phone fared little better than BlackBerry with just 4.5 million sold during 2015. Market share dropped 57 percent. If there was a new Microsoft phone launched during the year, no-one told us about it in New Zealand.

BlackBerry and Microsoft are just two victims of a wider malaise. Worldwide phone sales have stalled, if not peaked. The total number of phones sold in 2015 from all brands was 1.4 billion and, for now, no-one is predicting more than a percent or two increase in sales for 2016.

Samsung still sells more phones that any other company. It saw a one percent increase in 2015 to a total of 317 million sales. Even evergreen Apple warned of slowing sales.

Elsewhere it’s a bloodbath. Sony and HTC both saw huge drops of 36 percent year-on-year despite interesting new launches.

A number of readers have commented that moving to Android would save BlackBerry or Microsoft’s phone business. It was never going to happen. Even the companies that have stuck to Android for years struggle to earn money from making phones.

A better strategy for Microsoft and BlackBerry would be to focus on phone software, both have key apps that large companies — read that as deep pockets — need.

BlackBerry Classic TV3 Firstline was on TV3 Firstline talking about a man who used virtual reality to watch his baby being born, the BlackBerry Classic phone and the Asus Transformer T300 Chi.

Both products benefit from being shown on TV. The Blackberry Classic is another attempt to revive interest in the phone brand that once led the pack. Today the company is on its last legs.

I’ll have more on the Asus device soon.

The new BlackBerry a classic reborn?

Blackberry leap

You have to admire BlackBerry’s never-say-die pluck. This week the phone maker announced two new models and says to expect a total of four new phones this year.

There is remarkable in two ways:

First, troubled BlackBerry is throwing out daring, original phone designs at a time when other phone makers work off the same flat glass template1.

BlackBerry may as well experiment2 because…

Second, today BlackBerry accounts for just 0.4 percent of global phone sales. That’s down from 0.6 percent last year. Seven years ago it was the leading smartphone brand3.

Leap

The Leap phone announced this week has a five-inch screen and is all-touch. It’ll sell for about half the price of today’s premium phones. A lower-than-premium screen resolution will help keep the price down. Leap will be the only rectangular big-screen phone running the BlackBerry 10 software.

There’s also a phone with a slide-out keyboard. BlackBerry promises another with both a slide-out keyboard and a Samsung Galaxy S6-style curved screen.

BlackBerry’s sales pitch continues to push the extra level of security that it says other phone makers can’t match.

Security, privacy

Until now that message has mainly been for companies who see business benefits in keeping data from prying eyes. The latest pitch seems to target people worried about who can get at their private data.

If making and selling phones doesn’t work out, the company has a Plan B. There’s a wealth of software that it can sell to business users for whatever phones and tablets they use.

Waiting in the wings is the BlackBerry Experience Suite. This is a set of integrated apps that users and companies can buy either piece-by-piece or in bundles. The software runs on Android and iOS. BlackBerry Experience includes tools for communications, encryption and collaboration.

blackberry experience
Blackberry Experience

The BlackBerry Experience Suite will go on sale later this year. There are three main suites:

  • Productivity, mainly about email and document management.
  • Communication, real-time collaboration software.
  • Security, tools to protect that data.

It’s a sensible strategy, pull out the parts of its offering that big companies still like and offer it to them in ways that may or may not include hardware.

Elsewhere there’s a cloud version of BlackBerry’s mobile device management software on the horizon.


  1. It is a good design template and, yes, the Samsung Galaxy S6 does look a lot like an iPhone.  ↩
  2. Who knows? One of these designs could take off.  ↩
  3. Despite everything, BlackBerry made a profit last quarter, so there are reasons for optimism.  ↩

BlackBerry ClassicBlackBerry Classic takes the company’s designs back to a time when the brand was still a name to conjure with.

It arrived in New Zealand last week. New Zealanders can buy the BlackBerry Classic from Vodafone for NZ$650.

Externally the BlackBerry Classic looks like the 2011 Bold 9900 series — arguably BlackBerry’s last successful phone.

Steampunk phone

Four years is a long time in the phone business. It’s beyond retro.

These days physical phone keyboards have a whiff of Steampunk about them. The, by today’s standards, tiny 3.5-inch screen with only 294 pixels per inch only underlines that old school feel.

BlackBerry has almost dropped out of sight since the Bold 9900 first appeared.

It’s not that the company stopped making phones. Far from it.

BlackBerry 10

In 2013 there was the Z10. The first phone to sport the company’s BlackBerry 10 operating system. It had a touchscreen instead of a keyboard.

BlackBerry Classic: Steampunk phone
BlackBerry Z10

 

The Z10 wasn’t well received. Nor was the BlackBerry Q10, a squat version of the Z10 with a Qwerty keyboard.

There was also the BlackBerry Z30. It had a bigger touch screen than the Z10 and plenty of smartphone grunt.

More recently the square BlackBerry Passport had a more mixed reception but still failed to fire.

A long time between drinks

Let’s be blunt, it’s been a while since BlackBerry had a hit phone.

Given that the BlackBerry Bold 9900 was last successful model, there’s a logic in reviving its physical design with the Classic.

BlackBerry fans loved owning a smartphone with a tiny physical Qwerty keyboard.

Readers with long memories will recall a time when BlackBerry was a prestige brand, especially with the suits.

That little Qwerty keyboard told the world the person stabbing at the tiny buttons meant business.

A tool in a time of toys

While other smartphones were, let’s face it, essentially toys, BlackBerry owners could do important work things like check email or manipulate financial portfolios while on the move.

You still see the BlackBerry Bold out in the wild.

There’s a personality type that still loves the Classic BlackBerry format. There are also companies which have yet to move on from using old-school BlackBerries as their work-horse phone. They like the security features and the back-end management tools.

It’s not clear whether reviving the classic BlackBerry format is a smart business move or yet another in a line of missteps.

Perhaps if BlackBerry had served the Classic up in 2013 instead of the all-touchscreen BlackBerry Z10, it would have lost fewer customers to Apple or Android. Maybe large corporations and government departments would have stayed with BlackBerry.

Or maybe not.

BlackBerry Classic keyboard

 

A phone with a keyboard

BlackBerry’s marketing says a physical keyboard makes users more productive than touch screens. Apparently we can type fast and with more accuracy.

One claim is that you can type four times as fast on a physical keyboard as on a touchscreen.

After a few days with the Classic, I’m not sure that’s true. At least not for me. I don’t find I can type faster than on an iPhone 6 Plus. If there’s a productivity boost I haven’t found it yet.

That four times productivity claim sounds spurious to me. And I’ve been touch typing on real keyboards since Olivetti typewriter days.

Productive? Your mileage may differ

Maybe the extra productivity comes with familiarity. I’m told long-time BlackBerry users can type at speed on the keyboard.

Despite not getting a productivity boost, I find I like using the physical keyboard. Getting used to the position of numbers, knowing when to shift or use the alt-key takes time, but overall it feels good.

There’s something satisfying about feeling a button click down as you type.

Small screen

The BlackBerry Classic has a small 720-by– 720-pixel display. In practice, this isn’t a problem.

You may not get the screen real estate of, say, an iPhone 6 Plus or a Galaxy S5, but it is sharp and bright. You can read the Classic display outdoors on a sunny day.

Text works well, even in small sizes. Small pictures display OK and things like maps are perfectly readable. You rub up against limits when viewing video, but no-one is going to buy a BlackBerry Classic for the multimedia experience.

Beautifully made

At almost 180g, the Classic is a little heavy by 2015 standards when you consider its size.

Part of this is down to solid construction. The phone is as well made as an iPhone, it feels better than the Samsung Galaxy S5.

These days making calls is low on the priority list for most phone buyers. If you need to get a decent sound quality, you’ll warm to the Classic. I found this is better for making and receiving voice calls than most smartphones.

Software

Despite what the marketing says BlackBerry’s software is for business users. The minimal phone OS is a little jarring after iOS 9 or recent Android versions.

That’s because everything centres on the messaging hub. BlackBerry optimised the phone for communications and notifications. It’s precisely what people used smartphones before they replaced most other aspects of personal computing.

If you want lots of apps you’ll be disappointed. If you want the tools you need to get work done, you might find there are minor gaps. Being able to run Android 4.3 apps is not that helpful without Google services.

Even the built-in BlackBerry apps are sluggish. Normally I can’t be bothered worrying too much about smartphone processors, they generally deliver all the necessary power, this one doesn’t.

For the record the BlackBerry Classic has a Snapdragon S4 Plus. That’s a chip that first showed up in phones in 2012 making it almost as retro as the BlackBerry Bold 9900.

BlackBerry Classic verdict

At core the BlackBerry Classic is a great smartphone for people who value voice calls and dealing with messages above the ability to run apps. It’s still a good business phone.

It’s a perfect choice for old-school BlackBerry fans who miss the Qwerty keyboard. You’ll get secure messaging as part of the deal. If that’s important, you should also consider this phone.

BlackBerry Passport Apple iPhone 6 Plus
BlackBerry Passport Apple iPhone 6 Plus

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. It’s different to any other phone. It is also big — as big as an Apple iPhone 6 Plus.

Passport is BlackBerry’s business class phone. BlackBerry built the Passport with productivity in mind. Although BlackBerry tailored the Passport for enterprise customers, it can work for smaller organisations operating in the corporate world.

Like the iPhone 6 Plus, the Passport is as much tablet as phone. 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 phones.

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 phones.

If the Passport fails and BlackBerry exits the phone market some observers may blame the square screen. That would be a pity, because it’s a great idea.

Reading .PDFs is easier on the Passport than on an iPhone 6 Plus. It works well with eBooks and is terrific for maps. The screen is a plus point. Although you can turn a normal phone on its side to read documents, the Passport format feels better.

Spreadsheets are us

Passport does spreadsheets better than any other phone. 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 phone 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. This is hard work at first, yet 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 the Passport keyboard is not great. 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.

Thumbing it

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 — the app has been around since the 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 phone, 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.

Standard apps

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.

Verdict

So where does that leave the Passport? 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 BlackBerry Passport 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.