The Blackberry Passport has great specs, a display of fantastic quality and solid build quality but it feels like a novelty device and not one for mainstream consumption. The Passport is uncomfortable to use and not meant for anyone apart from hardcore Blackberry fans.
It will be very difficult to find someone who’s envious of Blackberry’s current state in the market. The former mobility giant is a shadow of its former self and has seen its market share erode almost continuously since the advent of touchscreen smartphones. However, one thing you can’t blame Blackberry of being is complacent. The Canadian phone manufacturer has constantly tried to innovate and experiment with device types, form factors and operating systems that try their very best to marry the best of the productivity world with the touchscreen world.
The Blackberry Passport is emblematic of the ‘new’ Blackberry’s strategy to pivot back to focusing on productivity users and to be ‘unconventional’ and ‘disruptive’. The Passport ignores what is now considered standard for smartphones- a candy bar design, a large 16:9 screen and no physical keyboard. As a result, the Passport is unlike any smartphone in the market both in terms of looks and usability.
Let’s see if the changes make sense.
The Design and Build
In an ocean of similar looking touchscreen smartphones, the Blackberry Passport stands out. As is evident from its photos, the Passport is not shaped like a candy bar but instead is almost a perfect square and emulates a real-world Passport. Blackberry’s explanation for this unorthodox design is that most business users are happy placing their phones and passports in their front jacket/blazer/coat pocket, so the Passport is perfectly suited for that. On that count, Blackberry is correct. The Passport fits snugly in the front pocket of both my jacket and shirt. The fit is very snug and there’s no way you’ll be able to ignore the phone as it sits against your chest but at least it’s comfortable. That comfort level drops when you put the Passport in your pants pocket, especially if you’re wearing trousers or jeans that themselves are a little tight.
The Passport is not slim and measures 9.3 mm in thickness which would be manageable if it wasn’t such a broad phone to begin with (3.56 inches across). In comparison, the Sony Xperia Z3 is 7.3 mm thick and 2.83 inches wide, the massive Samsung Galaxy Note 4 is 8.5 mm thick and 3.09 inches wide while the iPhone 6 Plus is a mere 7.1 mm thick and just over 3-inches wide. As a result, the Passport immediately culls a large portion of the prospective buyers market. While older Blackberry smartphones, still meant for business users, didn’t outright turn off non-business users, the Passport appears like it was built with the express intent to do so. The Passport also tilts the scales at 196 grams which is on the higher side when compared to modern high-end smartphones.
On the other hand, as we’ve come to expect from Blackberry, the Passport’s build quality is uniformly excellent. The smartphone is very solid and the materials used in its construction are very premium. The front of the phone is encased in glass and the bottom 1/4th has the plastic keyboard (which I’ll talk about below). The sides sport solid metal bands while the back is made up of a soft touch rubberized material with a matte finish.
Overall, the Passport is a very well built device but in terms of aesthetics, it will please only a few.
What is a Blackberry phone without a keyboard? In the smartphone world that almost qualifies as a theological question and the Passport reaffirms Blackberry’s belief in the physical keyboard. The Passport’s three row keyboard, not exactly a classic smartphone keyboard, is very wide and doesn’t have any keys for numbers or symbols. For those keys, the Blackberry exploits its 4.5-in touchscreen to add virtual rows. This immediately becomes a problem especially if you’re used to typing at hypersonic speeds on a Blackberry keyboard because moving between virtual keys and physical ones is not a seamless affair and hampers speed. Also, I felt that the vertical space occupied by the physical keyboard was too little to afford typing comfortably. Whenever I used the Passport’s keyboard, my fingers felt too cramped and I ended up missing a taller touchscreen keyboard. To type comfortably, the Passport forces you to hold it closer to the bottom edge than near the middle which again does not let you do things quickly if you want to use the touchscreen.
The Passport’s keyboard is unique in the sense that it recognizes gestures. You can scroll through pages by swiping up or down on the keyboard, you can close any app by swiping up from the keyboard to the touchscreen and you can also select any word that the phone’s auto-correct dictionary suggests by swiping up on the keyboard under the word. However, chances are that the only reason you will use the gestures on the keyboard is because it’s a hassle to shift your grip to make the touchscreen accessible, and not because the keyboard gestures actually improve usability.
I realise that usability is a highly subjective matter and that others may have a different experience with the way Passport has been designed and can be used. However, in my opinion, ergonomics on the Passport is a big miss and the device does not make it comfortable for me to use either the touchscreen or the physical keyboard. I shudder to think how uncomfortable the phone will be for users with smaller hands than mine.
Moving on to sunnier climes, the Passport’s 4.5-inch IPS display is very sharp and boasts of a resolution of 1440 x 1440 pixels and pixel density of 453 ppi. The display has excellent viewing angles and accurate colour reproduction. Outdoor visibility is also very good and at full brightness you will have no problems using the phone under bright sunlight. The sharpness also means that the Passport excels (no pun intended) at reproducing spreadsheets and word documents.
Unfortunately, the Passport’s unorthodox form factor again attempts to play spoilsport here. The screen’s 1:1 aspect ratio (something we saw in Blackberry’s Q5 and Q10 as well) means that black bars take up real estate when playing videos. This is particularly frustrating in the case of HD or full HD videos, both of which are in 16:9 aspect ratio. If you like watching videos and movies on your phone, you will feel disappointed by the fact that you can’t make optimal use of the Passport’s hi-res display.
Overall, the Passport’s screen is ideal for working on office docs and spreadsheets or browsing the Web but not so much for watching videos.
The Passport runs on Blackberry 10.3 OS which brings in some changes to BB10 but nothing that can be categorized as revolutionary. BB 10.3 still uses a combination of swipes and gestures to navigate the interface and includes the very useful Blackberry Hub, which is a central repository of all ‘communication’ on your phone including messages, social media updates, chats and emails. To get a better idea of how BB10 works, head on over to my Blackberry Z30 review.
The Blackberry Hub
With BB 10.3, BB OS is now able to run Android 4.3 apps. The Amazon App Store comes pre-installed and you can also install some third party app stores like SlideME or AppBrain to get access to a larger collection of Android apps. While it’s great that you can install apps from both the Blackberry World App Store and Android stores, you should keep in mind that the Passport doesn’t get access to all Android apps. Popular games like Dead Trigger 2 are unavailable on the Passport. However, not finding a popular app to download is relatively rare and even if you don’t, there are quality alternatives available.
BB OS 10.3 also comes with some UI tweaks including the ability to pull down the quick settings menu from any screen (swipe down from the top of the screen with two fingers) and the presence of a permanent homescreen, which is essentially the multitasking window. The entire interface also features a flatter design which is in line with modern UI design principles.
Then there’s Blackberry Blend, a feature that lets you work on and access documents, emails, messages, notes and calendar entries synced to your Blackberry account on your PC. Once you install Blend on your PC you can reply to emails or continue drafting one from your phone on your PC and you will also get notifications on your PC. Blend is a handy feature especially if you get a lot of emails and don’t want to constantly check your phone. The Passport also comes pre-installed with the Docs to Go app.
Although the Passport can run Android benchmarks, the fact that it runs them in a runtime environment means that the numbers don’t really represent accurate performance. However, just for comparison sake, take a look below at how the Passport did in some standard Android benchmarks:
In terms of real world performance, the Passport gave me nothing to complain about. Performance was smooth and lag-free and apps opened quickly. Browsing was also a good experience thanks to both the phone’s speed and the sharp screen.
Gaming on the Passport is a less than ideal experience mainly because of the display’s unorthodox aspect ratio. As a result, I saw parts of a game’s HUD getting cut off, or the entire game being stretched to fit the screen. Also, there was a clear performance difference between games downloaded from the Blackberry App World store and the Android games. Finally, the metal elements on the Passport (the sides, the BB logo at the back) heat up substantially after only a few minutes of gaming which is alarming.
Call quality on the Passport is undeniably fantastic. Voices during a call sounded crisp and clear without any static or echoing. The loudspeaker lives up to its name and delivers good volume without distortion.
The Passport has one of the most powerful batteries we’ve seen in a smartphone. In our test we played a full HD video on the phone with Wi-Fi on and brightness at max and the battery just dropped by 6% in an hour. This means that the phone will easily last more than a day of normal use on a single charge, which is exceptional.
The Passport is great at playing both music and video. Audio playback over earphones and the loudspeaker was very good and the quality was at par with any top of the line smartphone. Video playback was also really good and the Passport played all our 1080p and 720p test videos including popular formats such as MP4 and MKV. Of course, the 1:1 aspect ratio means that almost any new movie or TV show or Internet video will run with big black bars running on both the top and bottom of the screen.
The Passport entered our labs with a reputation as the best Blackberry with respect to camera quality. I’m happy to report that the Passport lived up to the reputation. Unfortunately, since Blackberry phones haven’t exactly set the world on fire in the past with their imaging prowess, the Passport doesn’t need to do all that much to jump to top of the pile.
The Passport’s 13MP camera is good at shooting photos under good light both indoors and outdoors and the photos have decent sharpness and good colour levels. However, even under good lighting, the resulting photos have more than average noise. The Passport’s camera takes a good amount of time to focus as well and when shooting photos under poor light it was just unable to hold proper focus. The photos also showed overexposure issues especially in the white areas in scenes.
Click on the gear icon in the top right corner to view photos in full resolution
Videos shot with the Passport also exhibited the overexposure issues but on the whole, the videos looked good. The ‘Continuous Focus’ mode worked well and the sound recording was also up to the mark.
So, the Passport may be the best Blackberry yet for shooting photos but if you look at the universe outside Blackberry smartphones, it doesn’t really stand out.
The Blackberry Passport has great specs, a display of fantastic quality and solid build quality but it feels like a novelty device and not one for mainstream consumption. The Passport’s design and size puts it alongside the many ‘Porsche’ branded smartphones or those made by Vertu as a device that’s too caught up with its own ‘uniqueness’ to actually want to please mainstream users.
It’s clear that Blackberry wants business users to buy the Passport but gone are the days when phone manufacturers could put consumers into neat little buckets like that. Chances are even if you like to wear a suit to work, you will change into more comfortable clothing at the end of the day but the Passport is a device that’s not made to follow your example. Instead it feels like it wants to only cater to you for only half of the day and in this day and age, and for a price of Rs. 49,990, that’s simply not enough.
23 May 2020
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