BlackBerry Passport: Fat, weird, but CrackBerry addicts might love it

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Well, it's certainly different.

That was my first thought as I finally got my hands on the BlackBerry Passport, which has a squat, squarish look thanks to the mash-up of a compact physical keyboard with a 4.5-inch-by-4.5-inch (11.4 cmx11.4 cm) display.

OK, I didn't exactly get my hands fully around the Passport -- the BlackBerry rep insisted on holding it at all times -- but I got to touch it, test out the keyboard, and in one awkward moment, have the rep shove the phone down my front jeans pocket.

The Passport is BlackBerry's attempt to veer away from the norm with a peculiar design that instantly stands out. Imagine a phablet -- one of those oversized smartphones with jumbo displays -- squished so it almost looks like a square. It's wider than most phablets, and is nearly twice as wide as the iPhone 5S.

The smartphone won't be for everyone. BlackBerry's head of global enterprise services said the device will find its use in certain industries, such as healthcare or finance. You can see someone who types emails all day at least consider the Passport. For fans of the old-school BlackBerry look, there's the BlackBerry Classic (formerly known as the Q20).

If you can get beyond the funny shape, it does offer a decent compromise between a larger display and a physical keyboard. I had long looked forward to using the BlackBerry Q10 and its traditional keyboard, but found the display real estate lacking. Conversely, I was lukewarm on the all touchscreen Z10. On paper, the Passport seems to address my concerns, but there were questions about the device that I wouldn't be able to answer without further testing.

The Passport did fit in my jeans pocket, but it barely fit and made for an unsightly bulge. Still, that's an issue with all phablets, although the width of the Passport was more noticeable.

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Roger Cheng/CNET

The keyboard

If we're talking about BlackBerrys, we're ultimately talking about how it feels to tap on those physical keys. I had a chance to type on the keyboard, which is assembled in three rows, rather than the standard four rows of normal BlackBerry keyboards.

That new configuration made it difficult to adjust and the experience wasn't particularly easy. It was actually pretty awkward to peck out my name and BlackBerry. The rep said there was a bit of a learning curve, and that it took him about 15 minutes.

Unfortunately, I didn't have much time to focus solely on the keyboard.

One nifty feature is the incorporation of touchpad capabilities on the keyboard itself. You could actually lightly swipe on the keyboard to auto-insert a recommended word.

On the display, you're given three word options. You have to imagine the keyboard being split into three columns, and you swipe up the corresponding column to choose your word. It works pretty well. It's interesting enough, but longtime users of either older BlackBerrys or BB10 devices will have to retrain their brains.

blackberry-passport21.jpg
Roger Cheng/CNET

Look and feel

The Passport is designed for high-end professionals and executives, and it looks that way. The edges around the Passport had a metallic feel, although it was unclear whether it was actually metal. Either way, it feels rock solid. From an aesthetic point of view, it looked like it had a metallic sheen to the device.

The back of the Passport felt smooth, although I was warned that it may not be the same texture as the production model.

Internally, the Passport will have a high-capacity 3,450mAh battery, larger than even the big battery that's included in the Z30.

Overall, it felt like BlackBerry stepped it up in terms of the quality of the device. One of the knocks on the original BB10 devices was the cheap, plastic feel to them. While the company steadily improved the look and feel of the devices, the Passport appears to be a big improvement.

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Roger Cheng/CNET

Software

The Passport was running on BlackBerry 10.3, an upcoming version of its software. There weren't any noticeable differences on how it performed relative to the older devices. The switch between applications continues to be smooth, and there's still the standard hub that represents your communications portal.

Another company representative said there would be more to show once BlackBerry 10.3 is ready for launch. A release time hasn't been specified.

The Passport is a risky bet that could either be a colossal failure or a win over the BlackBerry faithful. But it fits with the company's renewed focus on heavily regulated industries and professionals in government agencies or large corporations where security is a priority. For consumers, the same issues that plagued the previous BlackBerry 10 devices -- the lack of native app support, a fading brand, heavy competition, and seemingly unenthusiastic carrier partners -- remain.

Or it could just be weird enough to work. Remember, people ridiculed the Samsung Galaxy Note when it first came out.

BlackBerry said the Passport will be released in September. There's no word yet on the price, specific launch date, or carrier availability.

Updated at 2:09 p.m. PT: To include additional details on the battery.

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Where to Buy

BlackBerry Passport

Part Number: CNETBLACKBERRYPASSPORT

Typical Price: £410.00

See manufacturer website for availability.