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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 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. It was a strange phone.

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.

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.

Surface Pro 2 start menu

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 launch triggered a discussion about the nature of tablets, laptops and whatever spaces exist between these categories.

It’s a discussion worth having. We need to think more about why we make certain decisions about the technologies we buy and use.

Technically a Surface is a tablet. That’s how Microsoft pitches them in its marketing. Yet most Surfaces leave a shop or online store along with a keyboard. Usually the official Microsoft Surface keyboard. At this point, they become something else. That something is closer to a laptop than a tablet.

Has anyone seen a Surface Pro without a keyboard?

If you have any numbers on this I’d be interested to hear what proportion sells with or without a keyboard.

When I got my first iPad, I ordered a keyboard within days of receiving the tablet. At the time I saw a keyboard as the route to productivity. Since then my iPad keyboard has sat in a cupboard gathering dust. It still gets used, but rarely with the iPad and not in the last six months.

I’m writing this on my iPad while sitting on the sofa. I often write stories on the iPad in cafés. The on-screen keyboard isn’t perfect, but that’s not important. What I lose from not being able to touch type, I gain in portability and mobility from working with a pure tablet. It has become natural.

On the other hand, working on a Surface Pro 3 without a keyboard is unnatural. As unnatural as working on a laptop without using a keyboard.

Of course, that may change over time, just as the way I work with an iPad has changed. But I don’t think so, I think the Surface belongs in a different category to the iPad. The distinction between the two may be slight, but it’s real.

Apple’s iPad Air is thinner, smaller, lighter and more powerful than earlier iPads.

Smaller means third-party add-on makers like Logitech either have to rework existing keyboard cover designs, come up with something new or miss out on potential business.

Logitech chose the first option. The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad Air is suitably slim and lightweight. It is less than 10mm thick and a little over 400 grams.

The keyboard fits snugly as an iPad Air cover and protects the screen but not the rear of the tablet.

Like a laptop

At NZ$129 it seems expensive yet it turns the iPad Air into a powerful device. The pair can do 90 percent of the work a laptop does yet in a smaller, elegant package.

Together an iPad Air plus Ultra-thin Keyboard weigh a rounding error under 800g. If you want a comparison, for what it’s worth that’s about 120g less than a Microsoft Surface 2 coupled with the Type Cover 2.

When used as a cover, the keyboard attaches to the iPad with magnets like a conventional Apple cover. In keyboard mode, you sit the iPad in a groove just above the keys and then connect the two with Bluetooth.

Bluetooth pairing is simple, you just press a button then change the settings in your iPad’s settings.

Cramped typing, but that’s not too bad

My only criticism is that the tiny keys feel a little cramped. That’s mainly a function of the size and in practice, I can type away with only the odd miss-key.

Logitech says the battery lasts for six months. I’ve only had the keyboard three months and it still chugs away so we’re not near testing that limit yet.

Overall, Logitech has come up with an elegant pairing. Its close to what I’d imagine Apple would come up with if it created its own keyboard for the device.

How much do I like it? Immediately after testing this model, I went out and bought another Logitech Ultra-thin Keyboard for my other half’s iPad.

Microsoft’s second stab at making a tablet is a step up from the first time around. It is hard to find fault with the beautifully engineered hardware.

At least it’s hard to find fault with the tablet hardware. I mentioned problems with the keyboard which is just a little too small and the keys a little too close together for comfortable typing.

The experience reminded me why I never got on well with netbooks and find 11-inch laptops cramped.

After finishing the earlier story, I had aches in my arms and lower back. I still do. They could be from sitting cramped over the small keyboard for two or three hours.

Another possible explanation is that the discomfort is a result of controlling things by moving my hands from the keyboard to the touch screen. Or it could be to do with the low-profile no-travel keyboard.

My fault?

Now you could argue the Surface 2 wasn’t built for professional journalists to sit hunched over typing at the keyboard for hour after hour.

I hear you. On the other hand whatever the designer’s purpose, that’s exactly what some people are going to do with a device like this.

To be fair to Microsoft, I have to report I went through something similar when I first began using my iPad as a typewriter. It could just be an adjustment thing.

And I’m partly to blame. Sitting a desk doing nothing by typing for a couple of hours isn’t healthy no matter what equipment you use. Even so, this is something I’m going to need to keep a close eye on.

While we’re on the subject of the keyboard, I found I hit wrong keys more often than normal. I touch type so hitting the odd wrong key is normal.

Hitting the wrong keys can slow down writing as you go back to make corrections, so there’s a small productivity hit. When I’ve done this in the past I’ve found I quickly adjust to the new keyboard and things get back to normal.