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

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

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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

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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.

BlackBerry Passport call quality sample

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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