Once upon a time–and it wasn’t that long ago–over half of the smartphones sold in the United States were BlackBerrys. Then along came the iPhone and Android, and BlackBerry became a case study in how not to respond to grave competitive threats. By the time the company finally replaced its archaic operating system with a modern one called BlackBerry 10, it was too late. Today, its market share has dipped so far below one percent that research firms don’t bother to report it.
At times–such as when it named Alicia Keys as its global creative director, an appointment which lasted a year–BlackBerry seemed to be living out an identity crisis in public.
However, under its latest CEO, John Chen, the company has a coherent vision, one that’s suspiciously similar to the one which made it successful in the first place. It’s going to focus on pleasing busy professionals and the companies that employ them.
The BlackBerry Passport, the first model from the new-new BlackBerry, goes on sale today, for a contract-free price of $599. (BlackBerry loaned me a unit for this review.) With its physical keyboard–a smartphone feature nearly extinct outside of BlackBerryland–and businessy software, it is indeed a productivity-centric machine rather than a would-be iPhone slayer. But it also happens to be inventive in a way that few phones, BlackBerry or otherwise, have been in eons.
Even when judged by the well-defined standards it sets for itself, the Passport has issues. Many potential buyers, including BlackBerry fans, will reject it based purely on its aggressively idiosyncratic, pocket-straining dimensions. I also found that many of the third-party apps I tried will need fixing before they’ll run properly on the phone. Still, after all those years of denial and confusion, BlackBerry finally has a little of its swagger back.
The name “BlackBerry Passport” isn’t purely metaphorical: This phone’s proportions really are roughly similar to those of a passport. The key measurement is its width, which is an expansive 3.56 inches. That’s almost an inch wider than BlackBerry’s more conventional Q10 phone, and a half-inch wider than even the notoriously oversized iPhone 6 Plus.
BlackBerry made the case–which has steel edges and a soft-touch plastic backside–so wide so it accommodate a huge, square screen. It measures 4.5 inches diagonally and has a resolution of 1440-by-1440 pixels, giving it a higher pixels-per-inch count than either of the new iPhones. The idea, the company says, is to comfortably accommodate more characters on each line than a typical portrait-orientation smartphone screen can, making it more pleasant to read emails, spreadsheets, and other work documents.
The screen is indeed very easy on the eyes. And for tasks which don’t involve inputting text–like reading webpages, checking my calendar, and making phone calls–I found I was able to use the 6.84-oz. Passport in one-handed mode, despite its bulk. Rather than try to extend my fingertips all the way around its backside, I braced its bottom edge with my pinky, a maneuver I also find myself performing with big-screen phones such as the iPhone 6 Plus. Those with smaller hands, however, will likely find the phone to be too much of a handful to use this way.
When it comes to entering text, the Passport revels in its own two-handedness. As with the iconic BlackBerrys of yore, you’re meant to cradle this one with the fingers of both hands, then tap away at the physical keyboard with your thumbs.
Which is not to say that this keyboard is anything like that of earlier BlackBerrys, or any other phone you’ve ever seen. There are only three rows, with a total of 29 keys–one for each letter of the alphabet, plus the spacebar, backspace, and enter. Every key is roomy and dedicated to a single function, with a sculpted top and a satisfyingly clicky feel. Additional rows with numbers, punctuation, and even the shift key pop up on the touchscreen only when needed, making for a keyboard that’s part physical, part virtual, and which sometimes expands to a total of seven rows. It sounds bizarre, but it works.
That’s not the only unique thing about this keyboard. Its entire surface also doubles as a touchpad, letting you whip through some tasks without ever touching the screen. When typing, you can swipe to the left to back up a word, or swipe up to have the Passport autocomplete the word you’re typing with one of three suggestions it displays. In apps such as the Documents to Go word processor, you can swipe up and down to scroll, or tap and then scroll to select text. I quickly got addicted to these gestures.
Many people who are (or once were) devoted to the classic BlackBerry keyboard are probably going to find this one too wide. As you type, your thumbs must traverse over more horizontal real estate, which may slow your input speed. What I liked most about it is the accuracy: It’s about as typo-free an experience as I’ve ever encountered on a mobile device.
If you’re able to get your head around the Passport’s convention-defying design at all, you should find its hardware to be good-to-excellent in most respects that matter. Some of the photos I took with the 13-megapixel camera were a tad washed out, but it focuses quickly and has extras like a well-done panorama mode. The phone has four microphones for better call quality, and its speaker is so loud that the chime signifying incoming messages startled me until I ratcheted down the volume.
The battery is a plus, too. It’s sealed into the case, but at 3450 MaH, its capacity is far larger than that of garden-variety smartphones. I gorged on apps of all sorts and got well into the second day before I needed to fret about recharging.
BlackBerry 10, the company’s all-new operating system, was packed with interesting features but mighty rough around the edges when it debuted on the Z10 phone last year. Version 10.3, which ships on the Passport, is occasionally sluggish, but far smoother overall.
As before, BlackBerry 10 melds email, instant messaging, Facebook, and Twitter into a one-stop communications portal called BlackBerry Hub that’s always one swipe away. And in recognition of the fact that nobody lives in a purely BlackBerry-centric world anymore, it’s now accompanied by a service called BlackBerry Blend, which lets you securely access its email and BlackBerry Messenger on devices such as PCs, iPads, and Android tablets, without leaving any data behind when you’re done.
There are certainly spots where BlackBerry 10.3 falls short of iOS and Android, such as BlackBerry Assistant, which, though ambitious, has little of the polish of Siri or Google Now. But the biggest festering software issue which the Passport fails to address adequately is third-party apps.
It’s not that BlackBerry isn’t trying. In June, it acknowledged the weakness of its own BlackBerry World store by striking a deal to supplement it with Amazon’s Appstore, leveraging the fact that BlackBerry 10 is capable of running Android apps. That got it more than 200,000 additional titles, including biggies such as Candy Crush Saga, Minecraft, Mint, Netflix, Pandora, Photoshop Express, Pinterest, and Spotify.
Even with Android compatibility and the Amazon store onboard, however, many major apps are missing, including Flipboard, Hulu, Instagram, TuneIn, and all of Google’s programs. What’s worse: In my time with the phone, much of what is there worked poorly, or not at all.
Every time you download an app from Amazon, you get a screenful of legalese warning that there could be problems. No joke. Many of the apps I tried from the Amazon store crashed, spawned cryptic error messages, or simply didn’t know how to deal with a square screen.
At times, BlackBerry World and the Amazon AppStore seemed less complementary than they did at odds with each other. I downloaded the Expensify app from Amazon, but it wouldn’t run. Then I discovered that it was also available in BlackBerry World. That version worked–after I uninstalled the Amazon one.
In 2014, no smartphone owner should be required to juggle two app stores, or wonder whether the software they contain are compatible with the phone in question. This stuff should just work. On iPhones and Android models, it generally does.
BlackBerry says that it’s working with developers to work out the kinks. That could help, but it would be a mistake to buy this phone based on the assumption that every company responsible for an app you care about will find the time to make its wares Passport-friendly.
In the end, the Passport stands no chance of being a blockbuster; at best, it will appeal to a cult audience. But by being a phone with a particular point of view, it’s far superior to numerous other BlackBerrys of the iPhone/Android era, which have tried to please everybody and therefore pleased almost nobody. And it sure stands out in an industry that’s mostly a sea of sameness.