Review Absent for almost a year, BlackBerry has returned to the fray with the striking Passport, an updated OS and Blend – a secure desktop companion for the phone.
Daring to be different: BlackBerry's Passport
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There are two distinguishing features in this device: first, its display is square and very wide. Secondly, it has a capacitive physical keyboard. The questions are: is the square form factor more than a novelty? Does the new keyboard really improve the typing experience? Is a wide heavy device comfortable in practice, and if not, is it worth it? Or will it be remembered as piss-take fodder?
When I first glimpsed a photo of the BlackBerry Passport, I assumed it was a mock-up from a deranged BlackBerry fanboi (the web is full of such wacky Photoshop renders). BlackBerry had purportedly revisited the iconic keyboard that gave its devices (and eventually the company) its name. But this image had to be a fake: why only three rows with 31 keys? The Bold had four rows of 35 keys, plus the four making up the "toolbelt".
Word quickly got out that it was no mock-up – but even more unusual is it being the first QWERTY device with a hybrid capacitive touch/physical design, allowing multitouch gestures across those physical keys. And it is this feature, rather than its striking shape, which is the most interesting thing about the Passport.
The idea is that your hands don't leave the physical keyboard when editing or manipulating text, and they shouldn't stray far from that keyboard when performing common tasks. So you can swipe to scroll and edit: swipe left to delete a word, double-tap the keyboard area to bring up a "edit bubble", and then swipe the QWERTY to move it around. You should also be able to swipe through long emails or web pages without your finger leaving the keyboard.
Three rows and just 31 keys – so where's Shift and Fn?
A QWERTY keyboard isn't going to increase raw character input – today's glass keyboards squirt the letters into the device faster than almost anyone can type on physical keys. But those aren't always accurate, and the typo tree still needs to be fixed; the idea is that you gain on accuracy and post-entry processing what you lose on raw QWERTY speed.
But do you? We'll see. First we need to talk about the width.
In my initial hands-on, I described the Passport as "weirdly larger and smaller than you think". With a 4.5-inch diagonal display, it's shorter than today's Android flagships, such as the Motorola X (2014) (5.54 inches/140.8mm tall), the Galaxy S5 (5.59 inches/142mm tall) and the Sony Xperia Z3 (5.75 inches/146mm tall). This is a shorty, at 5.04 inches – or to put it another way, it measures up at 128mm x 90mm x 9mm.
However, the BlackBerry Passport is almost 2cm or 25 per cent wider, and it's also heavier than these flagships, at 196g. Still these comparisons don't tell the full story, because the Passport is distributing its mass over an outstretched hand. In one-handed use, that hand is trying not to drop it on the floor, so it feels far heavier than the raw numbers suggest.
A clenched hand conducts the weight down through the wrist far more comfortably than an open hand which is struggling to grip and balance a heavy, wide and flat object. So while a phablet (take the 306g Galaxy Tab 3) is half as heavy again, nobody tries to balance and use one like a phone – they're invariably gripping it like an iPad with one hand holding and the other swiping.
Short and light but a bit of a wide boy
There's no getting away from it – even though the Passport is 33 per cent lighter and two inches shorter than a typical 7-inch phablet – this new BlackBerry is a really cumbersome beast. In the hand, it's far more assertive than those numbers suggest. Although you can wrap your fingers round it and reach the power key and volume keys, you can't do much more than scroll one-handed, as a thumb barely reaches halfway across the screen.
In my view, future Passport designs should go both narrower and wider – make a true two-handed device and also make one lighter and narrower, more like a classic Bold. Indeed, BlackBerry is about to launch Classic, a Bold-style QWERTY, but this doesn't have the Passport's full touch-capacitive QWERTY keyboard.
Framed in aluminium
For two-handed use, the weight isn't a problem – and most of the time you'll be using it two-handed, except in one vital use case: phone calls. Over a week, I came to dread receiving or making calls on the Passport. It's just a massive pain to use as a phone. If it's just a PDA, I wondered, why include a cellular chipset at all?
In terms of build quality, BlackBerry has done a job worthy of a premium phone, with no cost-cutting evident. There's no bend here, or even a hint of a creak – if anything, this is over-engineered. A strong aluminium frame dominates the design, while the back is a subtle, rubber-textured plastic.
A top cover about the width of a thumbnail can be prised off to insert the nanoSIM and microSD cards, but it's otherwise a sealed unit. Passport incorporates a striking, bright, wide 1:1 ratio 1440 x 1440-pixel display. It uses a SlimPort adapter (combo USB and HDMI) to connect to external displays – there's even a VGA option.
The keyboard requires you to visit a context-sensitive "soft" keyboard at the foot of the display. This takes some getting used to in practice, as the spacebar is too narrow, but much less than I thought. What I missed more than a fourth row was modifier keys such as Shift or Fn. It was more the positioning of the keyboard, at the very foot of a heavy, wide device, that inhibited typing as fast as on BlackBerrys of yore.
2Mp front facing camera and a hearty 13Mp shooter on the back
The specifications aren't too shabby. The screen is stunning, at 453ppi. BlackBerry packs in 3GB of RAM and 32GB of onboard storage. The non-removable 3450mAh battery kept the phone chugging along happily for two days or more (with email set to push). BlackBerry claims 23 hours of 3G talk time and 444 hours of 3G standby for the unit. This is an enduring beast, even with the additional burden, on which BlackBerry now depends, of running an interpreted Android environment.
The camera is a 13MP sensor with software OIS (optical image stabilisation) and a f2.0 aperture. Lower is usually better – it lets in more light – and this aperture is wider than some premium rivals such as the Galaxy S5. It's also capable of shooting 1080HD video at 60fps quite nicely.
In use, it was slow to fire up, suggesting a few more optimisations are needed. The front camera is a more modest 2MP fixed focus job. Nobody is going to purchase the Passport for photos, but once the startup tweaks have been applied, you shouldn't regret buying it.
I found calls a little quiet, perhaps because I am used to the superb sound (and reception) of the BlackBerry Z30, and I expected more of the same. The Z30 uses an unusual Paratek antenna, which improves signal reception in poor conditions.
The capacious 3430mAh battery comfortably gives two days use
The right graph shows CPU usage over the same period [click to enlarge]
The BlackBerry Passport uses a quad core 2.26GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801. It zips along, rendering web pages quickly, but in other places your pace becomes glacial due to slow and unnecessary animations. So opening a message seems to take longer than rival devices, though it shouldn't. This is a running theme, I found. Rough edges to the software compromised some of the clever hardware design. So how's that software coming along?
The Passport introduces a new version of the QNX/Neutrino-based BB10, a venerable and proven real-time Unix. Out of the limelight, this has been matured nicely in the 20 months since it was launched. It's full of thoughtful and useful features. BlackBerry offers enterprises a strong secure alternative to Android and iOS as well as the richest out-of-the-box email and messaging.
The Hub message aggregator is an app that never closes and is always accessible with one gesture. For example, "message triage" gives you two quick options after you've checked a message, and you can perform these at any time on multiple items. The BB10 lock screen with subtle notifications is the nicest I've seen, although you can't tap the display or the keyboard to wake the device.
Recent apps are displayed with a simple swipe up. At least this solves the problem of presenting endless lists of apps to the user, as Android does, or an endlessly horizontally scrolling list, as iOS does – but switching could be clearer and simpler by making the app icon bolder and more prominent. From a cold boot the device will remember "ghost" thumbnails of recent apps (see illustration).
I found the Hub's configurable "pinch to filter" useful, and appreciated how the share menu learns from what you do, instead of presenting a long and unsortable list of destinations, many of which you never use, à la Android.
There are one or two rough edges, not least in the Hub. You can't swipe rapidly through messages sequentially in the Hub (although you can use N and P shortcuts, Next and Previous), and doing this invokes the most spectacularly pointless animation. For a productivity device, this is plain weird.
BlackBerry Assistant was just a humble search tool – now it does all kinds of clever things
Here it's showing off instant actions
BB10 has been given a cosmetic makeover with a new fashionable flat 2D look, but it's skin deep: it remains a fairly workmanlike and gimmick-free environment with no support for fancy widgets or look-at-me skins and themes. I don't mind this at all.
BB7 and its successor BB10 featured excellent device-wide search – called Assistant in the latter. It has a unique "instant actions" trick for keyboard users. Type a "verb" such as "sms" or "tweet" and the Passport constructs a little macro on the fly, prompting you for input, then executing it. "SMS Fred are the accounts ready?? and it completes the instruction, opening the Messaging client and only one further click is needed to send the message. To invoke these, you just start typing from the Active Frames pane or the icons panes.
Assistant has now expanded into a fully capable voice assistant, keeping up with Siri, Google Now and Cortana. "Remind me to call Fred in an hour" drops you into a Reminder app, which integrates in turn with Evernote or Exchange, if you use either. I found this much more useful than Cortana, which maintains an invisible Reminder app of its own.
Also supported are intelligent queries ("Read me last Twitter direct message from Fred"), system commands ("Turn off Bluetooth"), local transport and movie databases, and it also integrates with Wolfram Alpha.
Existing BB10 owners won't get the 10.3 update, but should be updated straight to 10.3.1, which incorporates several welcome features from vintage BlackBerrys, such as profiles and configurable LED alert colours.
Passport introduces a very interesting and potentially useful software called Blend. This complements the wretched Link device manager, which alas has not yet been taken out the back and shot. The Blend client runs on PC, Mac and tablets and BB10 "projects" key functions into a minimalist secure app (around 120MB to download on Macs, and 150MB on PCs).
Blend allows you to see and respond to SMS, BBM messages and email from the client device, once they're authenticated. Your device may be in the next room, or on the other side of the world. It doesn't yet support initiating cellular phone calls or BBM video calls, but apparently BlackBerry is working on the latter, so you'll be able to BBM or eBBM (the secure enterprise version), then initiate a voice session.
Blend on laptop, tablet and, of course, Passport
It can also open a secure Chrome session to access the corporate back end to access files, and this access is controlled by IT policy. It makes a useful complement to a bloated heavyweight like Exchange, and also brings the enterprise into a neat iPad or Android tablet app, without having to rummage for your phone. BlackBerry has a good white paper on Blend here [PDF].
BlackBerry remains unique in partitioning its device securely, and fairly nicely, between secure Work and non-Work applications and data. There's no need to containerise your staff devices.
Having arrived late and with minimal impact in January 2013, BlackBerry relies heavily on Android for its ecosystem. Android apps take two forms: they can be certified and obtained through the BlackBerry World store, as "native" or BB10 compatible ".bar" files. Key apps like LastPass and eBay are .bar files. And BB10 can now execute .apk format Android apps with native Linux ARM binary extensions in place, giving the platform far greater compatibility than the .bar route.
Compatibility is now remarkably good, and if it was not for the toolbar (there to provide a back button) I couldn't really tell the difference most of the time. Smash Hit dropped very few frames, the Virgin Media TiVo app ran fine, as did Google Maps, but weirdly, the main Amazon shopping App did not. Incidentally, Google Play store apps require a one-time installation of a sideloader app called Snap.
The 1:1 ratio, 1440x1440 screen shows information you'd otherwise miss – but much activity involves scrolling vertically, where the wide screen offers no advantage.
On the Passport, you can zoom in (to 2x - there are just two resolutions). And BlackBerry formally includes the Amazon Android app store. Installation is a two-step procedure, which could be streamlined. Of course, Android apps steamroller through the careful case-by-case permissions framework that can deny intrusive native apps, and not everyone will want to pay that price.
How does all this come together – is the capacitive keyboard a time saver?
The big question is whether the clever, multitouch QWERTY keyboard really saves you any time. I think it's fascinating, but in this first iteration, it's fairly frustrating. In some places, it's nice to have. You can swipe up from the keyboard to autocomplete words, and after a while this seems like the only way to do it.
It's quite handy to tip the device 45 degrees when reading a web page, and use the QWERTY area for scrolling. But in basic operations it becomes apparent that the BB10 UI isn't really optimised for the new keyboard. Much of the time the workflow requires you to reach awkwardly to the top of the display – thus negating the whole point of the design, which is to keep your hands from moving.
The Edit bubble can be bit fiddly
The sequence to send an email may go like this: Type C to compose an email (down on the keyboard); select the recipient (reach up to the top); start type their name (down again); and if it's in the address book, autocomplete it (up again). Type the message (down again)... then reach the Send button at the top of the screen (up again). That's a lot of hand movement.
I also found the Edit bubble was a little too sensitive to vertical movement when what you really want to do is position it horizontally, along a line of text – it should be "stickier" here. And I missed the Shift modifier for selecting text quite badly. Really, all the parts are in place for BlackBerry to deliver a quite superb experience, but it needs more work.
The promise is certainly there, and it's good for the business marketplace to have a strong contender to iOS, Android and Windows Phone. I'm already looking forward to a "son of Passport" and more QWERTY designs with the multitouch keyboard.
Passport control: the capacitive keyboard promises, but integration lets it down
The Reg Verdict
BlackBerry returns with an highly unusual design that's uncompromisingly aimed at two groups: enterprise users and those looking for powerful complementary "second phone". The Passport showcases one great innovation – a capacitive multitouch physical keyboard. While this holds great promise – and BB10 is maturing into a strong platform for business and power users – in reality, the Passport doesn't integrate the UI and the keyboard well. Indeed, its assertive shape and bulk will repel all but the determined. ®