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BlackBerry Passport REVIEW – Enough to Keep Fans Hanging On?

I remember, as a kid, my father would drive the car and hand me a small electronic device and ask me what the weather looked like for the week. That was probably the year I started to become intoxicated with mobile technology. To this day I don’t know what type of pager that was, but it was a pocketable item capable of showing sports scores, stock quotes and whether or not I needed to wear a jacket to school. As time moved on, my dad was issued newer and newer devices, and he eventually started carrying a BlackBerry. As a kid, I couldn’t wait until I was able to carry one myself. Now I have the fortune of doing so and reviewing the firm’s latest devices.

I’ve followed BlackBerry and used its devices for years and, because of the time with my father; it has a special place in my heart. I carried one during BlackBerry’s hay-day around 2007 when it seemed like everyone owned one. The company’s fortunes changed since then, as the introduction of the iPhone and advanced Android devices started to woo consumers and even the enterprise away from Research in Motion. The company rebranded itself BlackBerry and introduced the Q10 and Z10 under the tutelage of Thorsten Heins, the now former CEO. Those are largely considered flops and now we have the brand new BlackBerry Passport, one of the first major flagships to launch under the guidance of CEO John Chen.

BlackBerry returned to its more premium roots. The BlackBerry Passport has a bizarre design, though it’s one that I am fascinated with, and offers a three-row QWERTY keyboard, a super sharp display and a metal frame. It feels solid and looks admittedly corporate, which is fine for a device targeted at the enterprise, but how does it function? I’ve been using the BlackBerry Passport for the past couple of weeks and am ready to share my opinions.

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Hardware

BlackBerry has caught a lot of flack in the press for the design of the BlackBerry Passport that, as it turns out, is pretty much the same size as a passport. Folks have complained that it’s weird looking, huge and bizarre. I didn’t really feel the same way when I saw it. Instead, my reaction was that BlackBerry had finally created another premium smartphone that actually looks good, albeit corporate – like it needs to sit in a suit jacket at all times. Sure, it’s definitely an awkwardly shaped phone – there’s a 4.5-inch square screen and a 3-row QWERTY below it, but it’s wide and tall, which makes it hard to hold and type with one hand. That’s not exactly a deal-breaker, it seems like I see BlackBerry users frequently typing with two hands, but it is worth noting.

The hardware is up to snuff with other high-end flagships these days. That 4.5-inch screen has a stunning 1440 x 1440-pixel resolution, which means everything is super sharp and it’s easy to view full web sites. BlackBerry chose this shape and resolution so that you can view more text per line across the screen, which can be particularly useful for viewing spreadsheets, presentations and text documents. That means less scrolling side-to-side and top-to-bottom.

There’s 3GB of RAM on board, a Snapdragon 801 processor clocked at 2.26GHz, 32GB of onboard storage that can be expanded with up to a 128GB microSD card a 13-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization and a 2-megapixel camera for video chat. Everything should run BlackBerry 10.3 OS smooth on paper, but that wasn’t necessarily my experience with the phone, and I’ll address those issues in the software section.

I love the metal frame around the BlackBerry Passport, which is complemented by metal volume buttons and BlackBerry’s famous third button that can be used as a shortcut to launch an app of your choice, though it defaults to BlackBerry Assistant, which is BlackBerry’s version of Siri, Cortana and Google Now. There’s a 3.5mm headphone jack up top, which rests near a plastic component that can be removed to swap SIMs or add in a microSD card. The bottom is home to a microUSB charging port, a microphone and two speakers.

One gripe with the hardware: you can’t remove the battery. That might not seem like a big deal since the BlackBerry Passport includes a beefy 3,450mAh battery, but if you’ve used a BlackBerry before you know the problem here. One of the easiest ways to soft reset a BlackBerry when it hits a bug is to pull the battery, and you can’t do that here. I ran into at least three situations where I needed to reset the phone, and I usually had to manually plug it into my computer to do so.

With most of the hardware covered now, let’s talk about that keyboard.

Keyboard

BlackBerry has long been known for its beloved keyboards, but this one didn’t blow me away. I found I still wasn’t adjusted to typing on the three-row format even after several days of use. The spacebar is small and awkwardly positioned between the V and B buttons, which led to frequent typos.

The fourth row is a smart piece of software that can be used to access numbers and symbols, as well as auto-completed words. The keyboard also doubles as a trackpad, so you can swipe up anywhere to choose a completed word, or use it to navigate websites and documents with a swipe across, instead of touching the screen and blocking what it is you’re trying to read. That’s a clever trick, but I still wish BlackBerry had gone with a full four-row keyboard.

Still, I don’t think the keyboard is so awful that folks who are already using BlackBerry are going to be turned off. My brother has a work issued BlackBerry Bold and I’m sure the trade-offs in design and power are more than a fair trade for the mediocre keyboard.

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Software

BlackBerry 10.3 OS still doesn’t meet my demands. Even with 3GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 801 processor it’s buggy and sluggish. Take this for example: I loaded the phone with my standard 64GB microSD card that’s full of pictures and videos and is frequently used in my review units. The BlackBerry Passport had a hard time displaying all of the pictures on the card quickly, and often crashed with all of that data piping in. There were weird bugs with the camera, too, where pictures wouldn’t show up in my camera roll at all. I’m not sure what was to blame.

The app gap is still pretty terrible, too. Android and iOS have more applications than ever before, and the BlackBerry App World is still home to the worst selection of applications you’ll find on any mobile platform. Even Foursquare hasn’t updated its app. BlackBerry tries to offset this with the Amazon App Store.

That selection is much better, but none of the apps were actually designed to run on the BlackBerry – it’s just a sort of convenient workaround and if the app works, great. If not, then you can’t use it. Spotify worked fine, but Twitch crashed every time I tried to load it. Netflix wasn’t available so I downloaded an .APK from a third party site. Don’t do that. I think the one I found was infected with something, as it quickly consumed all of the space on the BlackBerry Passport’s storage until the phone crashed and I had to factory reset it. That’s the sort of problems you might face, though. Sure, you can find and install third-party .APK files, but you run a big risk in installing them.

The homescreen is still rather bland. You can organize apps and place them in folders in a similar fashion that you would on iOS. That’s fine, if not a bit boring. As always, you can swipe down in an app to access settings, or swipe up to minimize it and close it out. BlackBerry Hub is a great spot to find all of your e-mail, BBMs, text messages, Twitter alerts and more, and I did like how easy it is to find everything in one place. It’s a feature that would be welcomed if mimicked on other platforms. It also shows active apps, like Spotify, for example, and the song that’s currently playing.

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BlackBerry Assistant

I don’t use voice apps often, and I told BlackBerry that in my meeting with them, but BlackBerry Assistant is a decent app for using voice commands to setup meetings, check the weather and sports scores and more. It’s not as smart as Cortana or Google Now, so it won’t tell you any changes during a game in real-time, and it doesn’t offer other features like package tracking, which is something an enterprise customer might actually find pretty valuable. You can also use your voice to post things to Facebook, Twitter, check in on Foursquare, to LinkedIn or find restaurants.

I tried using it to “Find a sushi restaurant,” but it said the voice request wasn’t understood. It was able to simply bring up a bunch of general eateries nearby, however, but that wasn’t very useful. On the other hand it was able to deliver the answer to “What was the New York Jets Score last week” but didn’t read out the results to me, which would have been useful if I was driving.

Overall, BlackBerry Assistant is better than not having an assistant at all, but it’s far from the best option out there.

BlackBerry Blend

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The BlackBerry Passport is being targeted at the enterprise, and BlackBerry has a brilliant piece of software called BlackBerry Blend that can be installed on Macs, PCs, Android and iOS devices. It provides a secure environment so you can access data on your BlackBerry, like when you’re on your couch chilling with an iPad and watching a movie. BlackBerry told TechnoBuffalo in a meeting that it’s fully aware some of its customers carry two devices at once, and that’s fine, but it wants to allow enterprise customers who have strict IT departments to still tap into secure data.

Case in point: my brother works at a bank and would get dinged if he tried to move secure work documents from his BlackBerry to another device that isn’t approved by the IT department. He has sensitive material and that’s pretty common. With BlackBerry Blend, my brother could access this data from his home PC without fear of repercussion from the IT managers on high.

I installed BlackBerry Blend on my PC to give it a whirl. You can connect to your phone using either Wi-Fi or a cable, and you’ll need to login with your existing BlackBerry password and ID. It’s an awesome piece of software that lets you see your calendar, BlackBerry Hub, BBMs, SMS, contacts and even access files stored on your BlackBerry. Folks in the mobile industry are raving about Continuity and Handoff in iOS, and this is actually really just as compelling to me, if not better for some use cases. No, it’s not as elegant, but since when is enterprise software actually pretty to look at?

New alerts also pop up at the bottom of your screen, so it’s a pretty seamless experience to interact with your BlackBerry right on your computer. Overall, BlackBerry Blend is a really awesome piece of software that I think a lot of folks are really going to enjoy. I’m just not sure why more people aren’t talking about it.

Camera

I took the BlackBerry Passport out with me while pumpkin picking on a beautiful fall day, and I think the shots came out really, really well. The fall foliage looked crisp, colors popped in my photos, and auto-focus was quick enough.

My only problem was what I mentioned earlier: there were some storage issues that prevented some photos from showing up in my photo roll immediately, and I’m still not sure why. I didn’t lose them entirely, they just didn’t populate for a while. ┬áThe front-facing 2-megapixel camera wasn’t anything to call home about, but it wasn’t bad, either. It’s satisfactory for the occasional selfie or video chat over BBM.

You can also use the 13-megapixel rear camera with OIS to record 1080p video at 60 frames per second, and that OIS seemed to work pretty well in a brief test. I don’t think people are going out of their way to buy BlackBerry devices for their cameras, but this one did a nice job and definitely adds to the experience.

Call Quality and Data

Calls on the BlackBerry Passport were excellent using AT&T’s network, which is what our unit was built for though it’s still not available there. I didn’t have any problem hearing the people I was talking to and I found it was generally a really pleasant experience. Data was OK, but I noticed that the signal was frequently lower in the same place as my iPhone 6. Also, the BlackBerry Passport supports 802.11 ac in the 5GHz frequency, so if you have a router that supports that standard you’ll notice much quicker data transfers speeds at home.

The speakerphone also gets loud enough during calls to easily hear the other caller. It was satisfactory for playing music from Spotify, too, though not nearly as good as other phones on the market like the HTC One (M8). The audio is tinny and hollow at best, but it does the trick if you want to listen to some light tunes at your desk.

Battery Life

The BlackBerry Passport packs a huge 3,450mAh battery that’s good for getting you through at least a full day of life. On only one occasion, under heavy usage all day long, did I run out of battery before I went to bed. In general you’ll find that it will easily get you from 7:00 a.m. in the morning into the next day without issue. As with all phones, this is going to depend on your signal strength – if it’s trying to find a tower the radio is going to suck you dry. Again, my biggest problem with the battery situation on the BlackBerry Passport is that I couldn’t pull it out for a soft reset.

BUY/DON’T BUY

It’s not perfect, but it’s far better than BlackBerry’s last crop of phones.

I’ll be perfectly honest: I don’t think this is the phone for me, and I know there are plenty of other phones on the market that offer a much better experience in terms of apps, software, design and more. That said, BlackBerry also told me that this phone is for the enterprise market, where folks might already have their own phone, an Android, Windows Phone or iOS device, perhaps, and this is for the IT departments that still issue BlackBerry smartphones. Unfortunately for BlackBerry, BYOD is more popular than ever, and the number of departments still actually issuing BlackBerrys are dwindling. But they remain.

Here’s how I think about it: if I needed to carry a BlackBerry for work, this is the BlackBerry I’d want. It’s not perfect, but it’s far better than BlackBerry’s last crop of phones. BlackBerry Blend offers an awesome experience that lets you tap into secure documents you might not otherwise be able to access on your computer. The camera is pretty solid, the battery life is great, and the screen is sharp. I wish BlackBerry tossed the BlackBerry Bold keyboard on this device, but I do like the touch functionality built-in for swiping around Web sites and documents.

I’m not the only one that thinks this is a pretty decent device, either. It’s frequently out of stock on BlackBerry’s site and on Amazon, where it’s selling for $200 above retail and has about a 4.5-star rating. Contrary to popular belief, there are still plenty of folks who want to buy a new BlackBerry and, for them, this is definitely the top choice. We can all argue day-in and day-out about which platform is better, but ultimately it comes down to the one you want to use. If you want a BlackBerry, the BlackBerry Passport is a solid choice.

BlackBerry provided TechnoBuffalo with two AT&T review units, one for filming and photography in Irvine and one for a written review on TechnoBuffalo and for a news appearance with Fox Business. Todd Haselton has had the BlackBerry since Sept. 23 and Jon Rettinger has had it since Sept. 17. Haselton used it for a week as his primary smartphone before writing this review.

PROS

  • Great battery life
  • Solid Camera
  • BlackBerry Blend is Awesome
  • Sharp screen

CONS

  • Bizarre form factor
  • Three Row QWERTY Not as Good as a Four Row
  • Software Bugs
  • Still a poor selection of apps

Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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