BlackBerry Passport review: A powerful, cumbersome love letter to physical keyboard fans

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CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
  • Overall: 7.3
  • Design: 6.0
  • Features: 8.0
  • Performance: 8.0

Average User Rating

5 stars 1 user review
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good The BlackBerry Passport offers powerful hardware and a clever keyboard that makes for a great reading and editing experience.

The Bad That squat, square shape makes it awkward to use. Amazon's app store lacks some key apps found on Google Play.

The Bottom Line The BlackBerry Passport's bullish focus on productivity spawns a fantastic keyboard, but its blocky shape makes one-handed use difficult.

Don't Miss

The BlackBerry Passport is a pure productivity machine, and emblematic of the company's professional, business-focused mindset. It's packing powerful hardware, a slew of clever features, and a great foundation in BlackBerry OS 10.3, which is poised to give iOS and Android a run for their money -- if there are enough apps.

The phone will be available unlocked later this week for $599 in the US, and later in 2014 for €649 in France and Germany, $699 in Canada, and £529 in the UK. In Australia, Optus is currently the only carrier offering the Passport -- it's AU$899 outright or available on a few different business plans. BlackBerry has announced that AT&T will carry the device in the US, but more information on carrier availability, the phone's price on contract, and specific release dates haven't been announced at time of publication.

I approached this phone with reservations, and came away as something of a fan -- it's really nice! But the Passport has a critical flaw, and you're looking at it. The squat, square chassis that makes the device great for reading and editing documents is the reason for its distinct shape. But it makes for a cumbersome user experience, and one that'll give pause to even those of us cursed with giant hands.

Design and specs

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The BlackBerry Passport and a passport Josh Miller/CNET

The 4.5-inch BlackBerry Passport is about the same size and shape as a US passport. That squat, distinctive square shape will certainly grab everyone's attention while you're tapping out missives or holding it up against your face. And at 6.9 ounces (just under half a pound or 196 grams) the phone is light, but still feels solid. But it's also 3.5 inches (89mm) wide, which makes it wider than phablets like the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus -- both of which offer larger displays.

Keep in mind that these are completely different phones targeting fundamentally different audiences: the average consumer versus that nebulous "professional" BlackBerry has courted for so long. And if you fall into the latter camp of hard-core BlackBerry devotees or can't do without a physical keyboard, this is the phone for you.

In May, BlackBerry CEO John Chen remarked that BlackBerry had been "distracted" by consumer devices: "We cast our nets a little too broadly...The bigger play is in enterprise." Lackluster devices like the BlackBerry Playbook needed to give way to BlackBerry's longtime focus on productivity and messaging -- we'd see some of that in the keyboard-toting BlackBerry Q10. It's no surprise that BlackBerry's latest foray into the smartphone space would emphasize getting things done above all else, but this phone may have taken the idea a step too far.

It is an odd-looking phone, sporting a shape we haven't seen in some time -- the HTC ChaCha and Acer BeTouch E210 are two devices that attempted the full-QWERTY, square-display look, to ill effect. But the Passport, by contrast, looks really sharp. It feels like a premium item, with a sturdy stainless-steel frame that screams "jet-setter." And yes, it fits in my pocket.

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The massive Galaxy Note 3 feels more comfortable to hold. Josh Miller/CNET

The square 4.5-inch display has a 1,440x1,440-pixel resolution, with a pixel density of 453 pixels per inch. It's a gorgeous screen but the width is key here, as the Passport can show about 60 characters on every line. BlackBerry points to the print industry as a guide, where the optimal standard is considered to be about 66 characters per line.

I've personally found that responsive, mobile-friendly websites have generally eased any issue I've had with reading lots of text on modern smartphones, but there's no denying that reading on the Passport is a great experience. Text is crisp, and you can comfortably fit a lot of it on the screen without flipping over to a wider landscape mode or zooming in on a site.

Images and videos look great too, with colors that are reproduced faithfully and don't shift no matter how you hold the display. And if things look a little off, you can just dive into the display color settings and tune the white balance and color saturation to your liking. The glossy IPS LCD holds up well enough in office and outdoor lighting, though (as expected) it becomes less visible if the sun is beaming directly down on it.

If you've used a phablet then you're likely already aware of some of the benefits of a bigger, wider phone. BlackBerry is banking on the unique design to help its phone stand out from the nigh-endless parade of rectangles out there, thanks largely to the compact physical keyboard running underneath the display. And that keyboard is the real story here, as it represents an attempt to bridge what BlackBerry perceives as the gulf between your average smartphone and devices built for those who want to get things done.

The keyboard

BlackBerry and physical keyboards have gone hand in hand since time immemorial, but the company is switching things up a tad on the Passport. The four-row physical keyboard that might be familiar to fans of the BlackBerry Q10 (or the BlackBerry Bold) has been replaced with a three-row model. The end result is a mashup of physical and virtual keyboard, with a context-sensitive row sitting on the bottom edge of the display.

Reaching up to the screen to insert numbers and punctuation or capitalize letters took some getting used to, and the spacebar is a little narrow for my taste, but it didn't take very long to get acclimated. And BlackBerry has built in quite a few really smart features and gestures to give its keyboard an edge.

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The excellent, full-size QWERTY keyboard. Josh Miller/CNET

The keyboard is touch-enabled, and it works fairly well. Consider predictive text: as you type, three suggested words appear above the keyboard -- swipe a finger upward underneath any of those options and the word will drop into place. It took me some practice to get the motion just right (it's more of a flick than a swipe), which isn't ideal, but once I'd mastered it my typing sped up dramatically. If you make a mistake, just slide to the left on the keyboard and the last word you typed will be deleted -- that gesture works flawlessly.

Things get even better when it's time to edit documents. Double-tap lightly on the keyboard and a magnifying glass will appear over your text. You can then use the keyboard as a sort of touchpad to scroll about with, dropping the cursor exactly where you need it. It's really precise, and makes editing long documents (like this one) a manageable experience on a smartphone. I'd personally still turn to a proper keyboard and monitor to get heavy lifting done, but if you want to carry only one device and you spend a lot of time wrangling text, the Passport's keyboard will be helpful.

Note that while the phone's abnormal width makes for a spacious typing experience, you'll need to use both of your hands to get things done. Time and again I had to drop what I was doing (or holding) to hammer out a quick response to an email or text, knowing that one hand would suffice on a narrower phone like my Nexus 5, or even the gargantuan Samsung Galaxy Note 3. And I have really big hands -- smaller palms will find this phone more unwieldy.

This is a bigger problem than it may sound. Tall, comparatively narrow phones like the iPhone 6 Plus already are overtaking head size for some people, and the Passport is a full half-inch wider. I suspect that unless you're clamoring for a tactile typing experience and are willing to compromise, you'll be unable or unwilling to juggle this phone.

Software and features

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The Amazon Appstore lacks much of what you'd find on Google Play. Josh Miller/CNET

The BlackBerry Passport runs BlackBerry OS 10.3. App selection remains the phone's Achilles' heel, but there is a silver lining: you can run quite a few Android apps. The Amazon Appstore comes preinstalled, and you can just fire it up and download apps as you would on any Android device.

But this is no Google Play Store -- you're limited to apps that are available from Amazon's marketplace, which is a weird subset of the Android experience. That said, I readily found most of my favorites, like Spotify, Pocket and Reddit is Fun. You won't find everything -- most of my favorite Android games are missing -- though if you have the APK file for an app you'd like to run, you can drop that onto the phone and install it at your leisure.

You won't find Google's official apps, either. The native BlackBerry mail and calendar apps are great, but Google Talk is the best the Amazon Appstore has to offer, as Google Hangouts isn't available. That service hasn't aged well, and lacks many of the features Hangouts has introduced, such as free voice calls and SMS. BlackBerry's BBM is of course readily available -- and your friends can join in on the fun whether they're on iOS, Android, or Windows Phone.

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Angry Birds Stella feels rather cramped. Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

Apps that aren't optimized for the square display can also look a little odd. Consider a game like Angry Birds: the Passport's generous resolution means it has no problem displaying all of the content, but the game is really meant to be played in a landscape orientation, where you can see an entire level at a glance to plan your strategy. On the Passport I generally need to zoom out or pan across the screen to get that crucial birds-eye view of the action.

BlackBerry 10.3

If you're primarily interested in staying in BlackBerry's ecosystem, you won't be disappointed. Email and messaging has long been BlackBerry's strong suit, and the device does great job of juggling disparate accounts and giving you a single "hub" to view everything in.

A sidebar called Instant Actions sits on the right side of the hub, and will allow you to quickly respond to text messages or file and delete emails en masse. There's also a Priority Hub that works just like Gmail's priority inbox -- messages that are identified as being "important" are funneled here, so you can quickly access them. The priority hub is supposed to learn your habits as you go, though you can flag messages as important. In my case, emails and text messages I was actively replying to tended to end up in the priority hub.

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BlackBerry Passport

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