X

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

The squat 4.5-inch BlackBerry Passport has a phenomenal keyboard, but it makes phablets look comfortable.

nateralph.jpg
Nate Ralph
nateralph.jpg

Nate Ralph

Associate Editor

Associate Editor Nate Ralph is an aspiring wordsmith, covering mobile software and hardware for CNET Reviews. His hobbies include dismantling gadgets, waxing poetic about obscure ASCII games, and wandering through airports.

See full bio
14 min read

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.

blackberry-passport-4932-002.jpg
7.3

BlackBerry Passport

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.

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.

As of August 5, 2015 Blackberry has released a new version of the Passport -- the Silver Edition. While broadly the same in terms of specifications, it has a silver finish with rounded corners, a reinforced stainless steel frame and a diamond-patterned back that offers improved grip. Blackberry also says it has tweaked the keyboard to "improve typing," although it's not exactly clear what's different.

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

blackberry-passport-4993-009.jpg

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.

Get a closer look at the BlackBerry Passport (pictures)

See all photos

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.

blackberry-passport-4980-008.jpg

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.

blackberry-passport-4945-005.jpg

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

blackberry-passport-5027-011.jpg

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 .

angry-birds-square.png

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.

Getting about on the phone is easy, thanks to a streamlined interface (and beefy hardware, which we'll discuss in a bit). If you ever need to access an app's settings, just swipe down from the top of the screen with one finger; for general phone settings, swipe down from the top of the screen with two fingers. If you want to minimize an app, swipe up from the bottom of the display and you'll be taken to the multitasking screen. Up to eight apps can be open at a time -- minimize any more than that, and apps will start to close automatically.

BlackBerry Assistant

blackberry-passport-5016-010.jpg

BlackBerry's take on the virtual assistant.

Josh Miller/CNET

The BlackBerry Passport gets a taste of Siri, Google Now, and Cortana with BlackBerry Assistant. If you've used a modern smartphone you're likely familiar with how it works: just press the dedicated voice assist button and start talking. You can dictate notes, create calendar events or send emails to friends, as well as have the phone send text messages.

Ask for baseball scores, for example, and Assistant gives you a rundown of games in progress, and upcoming games. Ask it about a celebrity, and it'll trawl Wolfram Alpha for answers. You can even activate hardware functions: tell it to turn on the flashlight and it'll do exactly that. And if you're in a meeting or feel awkward talking to gadgets in public, you can also press the Assistant button and just type your query instead. It'll relay results to you by text instead of speaking them aloud, so you needn't worry about your phone blurting out movie times while you're paying rapt attention to a colleague's presentation.

The Assistant does take a fairly long time to get things done, however -- sometimes, as much as 10 seconds would pass before a result for fairly simple queries would show up. That's disappointing, but not exactly a deal breaker and something that will likely improve with time (or connectivity).

BlackBerry Blend

BlackBerry Blend is a sort of command center for BlackBerry users. Once you've downloaded the app on to a PC, Mac, or mobile device running iOS or Android, you'll have near full control over your BlackBerry phone -- just connect it to your computer with a USB cable or with any of your devices over Wi-Fi. The software can also maintain connectivity over a cellular network, which is handy if you need to grab a file but you left your phone at home. More importantly, if your company is on BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10, you'll be able to hop onto the corporate network without fussing about with VPNs and the like.

Blend's dashboard offers you a quick glance at emails, BBM messages, and SMS messages that are sitting in your inboxes, as well as a look at your agenda for the rest of the day. You can compose and respond to all of your messages right through the app, and check out the calendars and contacts synced with your device -- no data is stored on the PC or tablet you're connecting to with Blend, so you don't necessarily have to worry about leaving sensitive documents on a computer you don't necessarily trust.

Granted, if you're sitting in front of a computer you'll likely have access to all of this information already. But it could prove to be a real time-saver for those moments when you lack connectivity, like a cross-country flight: hammer out a bunch of emails while you're in the air, and they'll be ready to go the moment you've turned your phone back on -- no need to wait for Wi-Fi.

But Blend's most compelling feature is file management. The app gives you access to just about everything on the device: all of the documents you've been writing and editing, any photos and videos you may have shot, and even any files you've downloaded. You can also add files to your BlackBerry device right through Blend, turning the Passport into something like a giant USB key.

And there's plenty more besides. I was pleasantly surprised by Story Maker, which will automatically arrange photos and videos you've taken on particular days or in particular locations and create a mini-montage. Business types who are already using BlackBerry 10 will recognize BlackBerry Balance, which keeps separate personal and work profiles for security's sake, but still lets you interact with everything you need. If you want to learn more, be sure to read our full review of BlackBerry 10 .

Performance

blackberry-passport-4966-007.jpg

Pry off the backplate to get to the SIM and microSD card slots.

Josh Miller/CNET

BlackBerry did not skimp on the Passport's hardware. It's running on a 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 CPU coupled with 3GB of RAM, and absolutely flies through most operations. Our normal benchmark tests failed to work on BlackBerry OS 10.3, but the CPU is the same model as the one you'll find in the powerful Samsung Galaxy S5, so you can expect similar performance. There was nary a hint of lag or stutter as I bounced around the phone, and while my preferred hardware-intensive games like Dead Trigger 2 are unavailable from the Amazon Appstore, all of the games and apps I did try worked without a hitch.

BlackBerry Passport performance times

Average 4G LTE download speed 11Mbps
Average 4G LTE upload speed 6.5Mbps
Temple Run 2 app download (46.2MB) 25 seconds
CNET mobile site load 3 seconds
CNET desktop site load 4 seconds
Restart time 53 seconds
Camera boot time 1.52 seconds

The phone offers 32GB of storage space, and supports up to 128GB microSD cards, so feel free to bring all of your files along. You'll get at the microSD and nano-SIM card slot by prying off a the top lip of the phone's backplate.

Podcast

Call quality, on AT&T's LTE network, was great. Everyone I spoke to could hear me clearly, and I didn't have issues with static while traveling about the San Francisco Bay area -- except for in areas where AT&T's network is known to be spotty, of course. The phone also sports all of the expected premium-phone trimmings, including Bluetooth 4.0LE, NFC and 802.11 b/g/n+ac Wi-Fi. It also supports Miracast and Wi-Fi direct.

The Passport is actually doing a load of clever things to enhance the conversation experience, and it starts with a microphone in the phone's earpiece. BlackBerry says that this microphone "measures the sound pressure in your ear" and dynamically adjusts the volume.

The simplest test was to have a conversation and rock the phone along the side of my head, simulating pressing it between my ear and shoulder while filing important paperwork. It worked as advertised: as the earpiece moved to an awkward angle on my head, the call became louder to compensate, maintaining a neat equilibrium. It's a subtle effect, but the sort of minute, quality-of-life improvement that I'd expect from a high-end phone. The Passport's speakerphone is also pretty good. I wouldn't recommend using it for music as it's rather light on bass, but conversations came through loud and clear.

The Passport is rated at up to about 18 hours of talk time, and 12 hours of video playback time. My usage generally involved lots of Web browsing and messaging, shooting quite a few photos, and making the occasional phone call. I easily made it through the weekend before the phone's notification light started flashing an angry orange instructing me to find an outlet. For more concrete results, we put the Passport through our battery drain test for continuous talk time -- it lasted for an impressive 26 hours and 41 minutes.

Much of that uptime be attributed to the phone's capacious 3,450mAh battery, but there are a number of software tricks that can help you squeeze a little more life out of the phone. There's also a device monitor that serves up details on how apps are affecting your battery's uptime.

Camera

test-shot.jpg

Everything is clearly visible in our standard test shot, though the details are a bit soft.

Josh Miller/CNET

I wasn't necessarily expecting a good camera, but the Passport left me pleasantly surprised: these photos aren't bad. The autofocus isn't too sluggish, and it will attempt to offer suggestions to improve your shots.

cat.jpg

Fine details like individual hairs are all softened in this shot.

Nate Ralph/CNET

If the camera detects a face, for example, it'll suggest you switch to "Time Shift" mode (and offer a handy prompt you can click), which takes burst shots of faces so you can capture the right one.

flowers.jpg

The colors on the flowers in the foreground here are reproduced faithfully.

Nate Ralph/CNET

During my testing the camera also seemed to have trouble deciding whether or not I should be using HDR, giving me prompts to turn it on and off at varying intervals as I tried to photograph a flower. I blame the varied sunlight filtering through the trees behind me, but I could imagine those notifications will get annoying for some. There's also no way to disable the camera's shutter sound.

Conclusion

The BlackBerry Passport is a fantastic phone, and I'm pleasantly surprised by how much I like it. The sturdy finish makes me feel like a proper professional, and the clever keyboard makes short work of text-heavy tasks. BlackBerry also does a great job of other types of communication, and I'm sure my friends and colleagues noted a marked improvement in my email response time while I was on the go with the Passport. I can't even complain too much about the app ecosystem: there are enough good Android apps here for me to get by.

But this phone is just too wide. And while phablets like the Note 3 or iPhone 6 Plus might have slightly lower resolutions, they've got larger screens and are far easier and more comfortable to hold. Yes, I am aware of how ludicrous that sounds.

With the Passport, BlackBerry has created a device for the physical keyboard fanatic who is willing to sacrifice comfort on the altar of productivity. And if you're up for tackling chores with both hands, then your workhorse has arrived. But this myopic focus on text and productivity comes at the cost of creating a device as pleasant to hold as it would be to use, and that decision keeps the Passport from eclipsing its well-rounded peers.

blackberry-passport-4932-002.jpg
7.3

BlackBerry Passport

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 8