BlackBerry Passport review: 10 things to know before buying

We take a look at BlackBerry's unique square smartphone

4
Price 
£399 unlocked from BlackBerry
Pros 
Unique screen is great for text interactions; Strong battery life; Plenty of storage & connectivity; Solid build
Cons 
Not ideal for multimedia content; Keyboard will take time to get used to; Needs two handed use most of the time
Verdict 
This slightly bonkers BlackBerry is an excellent choice for those who still value rock-solid security and a physical keyboard

Despite being banished from popular use by iPhone and Android devices, BlackBerry still enjoys a die-hard cult following, and for good reason - the Passport is an excellent phone.

Latest news

11/02/2016: The next update of the Blackberry Passport may see the firm offer an Android version, following the positive reception of its Blackberry Priv. According to a report by the Economic Times of India, Blackberry could be making the switch to Android completely, ditching its own OS for good.

14/04/2015: The Blackberry Passport has won the Red Dot 'best of the best' award for product design. While some have criticised the Passport for its square design, it's clearly catching some serious industry attention. Only 81 products from 31 categories were granted the award in 2015, and it's treated as something of a seal of quality within the design industry.

The award has previously been held by the Porche design team for the P'9981 smartphone, and BlackBerry's Z10, Z30, Q10 and Q5 models have all been recipients of Red Dot awards in the past. After a four-week exhibition period, the Passport will take up a permanent place in the Red Dot Design Museum.

Display and Design

The first thing that immediately jumps out about the Passport is its unique square screen. BlackBerry has thrown out the rulebook for its newest smartphone, eschewing the traditional long rectangular form-factor in favour of a much wider 12 x 9 cm design.

This has divided opinions among BlackBerry fans, and has proven to be something of a Marmite option. The increased screen width means it's perfect for reading large chunks of text, which is also helped by the 1440 x 1440 resolution and brilliant 700 cd/m2 brightness.

However, because the 4.5in screen is a perfect square, videos will be framed by unsightly black borders. It's not a huge problem, but can get irritating if you're someone that watches a lot of movies or YouTube clips.

It's also a little on the unwieldy side and trying to fit it into your trousers or jeans is a bit of a nightmare. It's also heavier than most smartphones, weighing in at a substantial 196g.

Then there's the fact that it's nearly impossible to use one-handed, purely due to the sheer size of the thing. If you want to effectively navigate the phone, or type anything longer than a quick text, you'll need to use two hands.

On the other hand, it does feel pleasingly sturdy and well-made, and has an attractively premium quality to it. It has also retained BlackBerry's traditional businesslike appearance - the Passport will definitely feel at home in a boardroom.

BB10

BlackBerry 10's interface is designed to give you quick access to your most commonly used apps. The home screen is made up of ever-changing preview windows. Tapping on these panels allows you to pick up where you left off.

BB10 differs from Android and iOS, especially when it comes to navigation. There's no home or software buttons - so everything relies on swiping from the edges of the screen.

Don't worry if you're new to the OS, because you're provided with a tutorial when you boot up the device and this can be revisited at any time from the app screen. It's pretty intuitive and you shouldn't find any problems getting up to speed with the gesture control.

To help businesses deploy BlackBerrys to employees, the device also supports features like BlackBerry Balance. This allows 'personal' and 'work' profiles to be created - so confidential information can be sandboxed in a safe environment and altered without affecting personal content.

BlackBerry Hub

This remains the best messaging aggregation hub on any mobile OS. The BB Hub syncs your emails, IM and social media accounts into one easy to access place. You can get to the Hub at any time by swiping in an inverted 'L' motion from the bottom of the screen regardless of which app you're using.

Download Facebook or Whatsapp, for example, and it will automatically pull your conversations into the Hub - and you can jump straight into the app from there.

There's a Priority area too - so you can assign important contacts to make sure their messages aren't buried in a busy inbox.

Physical Keyboard

In order to fit its signature physical keyboard onto the Passport's unusual chassis, BlackBerry has had to make some design changes. The keyboard has been cut down to three rows, in order to accommodate the 4.5in display. The physical keys are used exclusively for letters, with punctuation and numbers popping up on the touch screen when you start typing.

We found the new positioning of the spacebar to be problematic. It's now on the same row as the letters, whereas on previous models it was always placed underneath. On the Passport, the spacebar is now where BlackBerry users expect to press the letters "b" and "n". 

Despite using the Passport for a few weeks, I feel like I'm not typing as fast as I could be. Touchscreen keyboards have come a long way and with apps such as Swype dominating the market, you may find physical keys aren't needed.

On a positive note, the keyboard is touch sensitive, which means it can be used to scroll within documents and web pages. This is a nice touch as it means you don't end up blocking content on screen with your fingers.

Hardware & Storage

The OS is powered by a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM. This beefy hardware should give the device longevity when faced with more recent rivals.

Every Passport ships with 32GB of internal storage and also supports micro SD cards (up to 128GB in size), so storage space won't be a problem. To access the micro SD and SIM card slots, you need to unclip the top of the device - this is secured in place so don't be afraid to use a bit of force to prise it off.

On the rear, there's a 13-megapixel snapper with autofocus and optical image stabilisation.

Wireless connectivity is comprehensive too with 4G, Wi-Fi Direct, NFC, Bluetooth 4 and Miracast all included as standard. When it comes to transferring content, there are plenty of options with the Passport, many of which work cross-platform.

BlackBerry Blend

This feature allows you to access your phone's data and messages on your Mac or Windows machine. You can sync up the Passport via a USB cable or through a connection to the same Wi-Fi network.

When your phone and computer are connected, a BlackBerry Blend Dashboard pops up on screen. This shows emails, BBM and text messages as well as Calendar appointments. You can respond to messages from the dashboard should you choose to.

We could drag files onto the Passport using the File Manager in Blend. However, to take files off, we had to use the device as a mass storage device. 

Battery life

One of the standout features is the battery life, thanks to the gigantic 3450mAh battery pack powering the Passport. That's larger than the batteries found in phablets such as the Note 4 (3,220mAh) and the Nexus 6 (3,220mAh), which have screens that are over an inch bigger.

This translates to excellent battery life. With moderate usage expect to stretch the battery life to over 48 hours. Even if you're hammering the device during the day with multiple email accounts synced up, you'll make it through the working day. I've been averaging 30 hours on a single charge.

Apps

Apps are no longer a massive problem because you can dip into either the BlackBerry World Marketplace or the Amazon App Store. This means you've got more than 500,000 apps at your disposal, so you're more than likely to find the one you need.

Box, Docs to Go, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Adobe Reader are useful apps already pre-loaded onto the device.

Personalisation

Although the interface has limited customisation options, there is plenty you can change when it comes to notifications and how you interact with the device.

To set up custom notifications for contacts go to Settings > Notifications > Contacts. It's then possible to assign unique ringtones as well as alerts for emails, texts and other messages.

We like the Advanced interactions too. From this menu, it's possible to do the following:

Web browsing

This has been a weakness of previous BlackBerry handsets with keyboards, primarily because the screens have been so small. This is no longer an issue with the Passport.

Running the latest version of WebKit, the default browser loads pages in a couple of seconds.

BlackBerry's default browser also remains one of the few to retain support for Adobe Flash on mobile devices. You need to activate it in the browser menu by going to Settings > Display & Actions. Whilst the web is transitioning to HTML5, having the option to view Flash content on the move is useful.

You can add pages to the Home screen for quick access, enable a Reader Mode to get rid of clutter and even save pages. There are even one-click keyboard shortcuts for actions like 'refresh' and 'find on page'.

Overall

The last month has been a more enjoyable experience than we imagined. BB10 has improved tremendously since its launch in January 2013. It feels like a completely different operating system and the ability to install apps from the Amazon App Store gives users a much-needed boost to their options.

The Passport provides all the functionality you'd expect from a high-end device. It's got one of the best reputations for security in the business, and it's one of the few manufacturers still offering a physical keyboard. It may not be enough to pull BlackBerry's hardware business back from the brink, but it's a great device that's likely to be a hit with fans.

This article was originally published on 16/1/15 and updated on 14/4/15 to include more details about the physical keyboard. Last update on 10/03/2016.

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