(Pocket-lint) - The BlackBerry Passport breaks smartphone design tradition and offers something we've never seen the likes of before: a square display in a device with (you guessed it) a passport-sized footprint. The Canadian company certainly had to do something different to stand out from the crowd given its tumbling position in the market over the last few years. And different is certainly what we get. But does the Passport stand out for all the wrong reasons?
Does a square display with a physical keyboard even make any sense - is that what your smartphone experience has been sorely lacking? We doubt it. We've been using the BlackBerry Passport for a week to find out whether it's the most ingenious smartphone ever or a massive mistake.
We'll cut to the chase: we think the Passport is a design abomination. It's big, it's heavy, and it's not even comfortable to hold two-handed let alone with one hand. Somehow BlackBerry has gone so far with trying to create something different that it has ended up with a device that is neither good looking or, from where we're standing, likely suited to any market. We just don't get it.
Called the Passport because it's the size of a passport (not because it'll open any doors, although you might be able to wedge open doors with one), this large slab of plastic, glass and metal measures 128 x 90.3 x 9.3mm and weighs 196g. To put that into perspective: the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, which is a big phone in its own right, measures 153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5 mm and weighs 176g. On the other side of the coin, the Passport is not so thick that it's off the charts, clocking in less millimetres than the 9.8mm thickness of the Nokia Lumia 930 for example.
BlackBerry has managed to make a device wider than almost any smartphone for no sensible or obvious reason though. When we say wide, we mean it - it's fill-the-back-pocket wide. Even the giant Sony Xperia Z1 Ultra phablet with its far larger 6.4-inch screen is wider by only a couple of millimetres, while other large flagship smartphones and phablets often have a width at least 10mm less than the Passport.
The reason for this girth is that BlackBerry has been insistent on including a square 4.5-inch screen that, along with a three row keyboard, fills the front of the phone. The keyboard is something of a saving grace if that's what you want in a smartphone, as it does look stylish and features the same striking three metal bands that pierced the BlackBerry Bold all those years ago.
But the rest of the phone is just bland. There's a power button on the very top - unreachable when you are holding it in one hand - with the volume control buttons and a dedicated quick action button on the side. The last of these wakes the new Assistant feature, which is akin to BlackBerry's equivalent of Siri, Google Now or Cortana.
Flip it over and you reveal the black plastic rear and a 13-megapixel camera. The top part of the back panel slides off to reveal a microSD slot and the nano SIM card holder, but you don't get access to the battery for switching it out. That shouldn't be a huge problem considering it has a 3,450mAh capacity, giving the Passport a little more juice to keep running than many of its competitors. More on that later.
There is no doubt about it, the BlackBerry Passport definitely succeeds in standing out. But not in a good way. We are yet to meet one person who has looked at the Passport and liked it - indeed, many we've shown it to have just laughed - which is a good representation of the wider reaction we expect following its release.
If BlackBerry is well known for one thing then it's for releasing phones with physical keyboards - a design trait all other high-end flagships lack. So if that's your thing and you really are missing typing something on a physical QWERTY keyboard then now is your chance to grab a smartphone with one. Or you could just buy a BlackBerry Q10 from last year and save yourself some money.
The Passport's keyboard has some high points, but isn't entirely well conceived. It's set across three rows with a double character spacebar in the middle on the bottom row, but there are no numbers visible on the keyboard, no punctuation - it's just the alphabet alongside a delete key and separate return key.
To access the main characters beyond letters you have to either opt for the onscreen fourth row keyboard commands by pressing a virtual button on the screen, or swipe downwards on the keyboard to reveal a full keyboard map on screen. With the keyboard in its secondary mode the new characters are available - the R key becomes the number 3, for example - but only for a single press before the keyboard reverts back to its normal alphabet-only mode.
When typing out a two-or-more digit number, for example, it's easier to do so on the touchscreen via the virtual keyboard rather than using the physical one at all, which feels like a problem that should have been avoided. The Passport is the shape that it is because BlackBerry wanted to include a physical keyboard, yet that keyboard isn't good enough to offer all the keys and characters in an easy-to-use format. Remind us what you were trying to achieve again BlackBerry?
BlackBerry is keen to point out that a keyboard makes it easier to type - and type faster - but that's not the case with the Passport in our experience. That might have been true with the BlackBerry Curve or BlackBerry Bold around 2007/8, but on-screen keyboards have moved on a lot since then and if it isn't the manufacturers enhancing the experience, then it's third-party app developers (think Swiftkey, Swype). Even BlackBerry's own on-screen keyboard is nimble and quick.
However, the keyboard does come with some tricks that are clever and we've enjoyed while using the phone. As you type auto-suggestions appear on screen, just like they do with many virtual keyboards, but with the Passport you can stop typing and swipe up on the keyboard itself to select and use the word. Likewise when the keyboard isn't being used, such as when you're in the web browser, it becomes a touch-sensitive scroll bar. Very cool idea that works well.
We get that some people love a physical keyboard in a smartphone, which is absolutely fine. But the Passport has some quirks when it should be the pinnacle keyboard device. Perhaps you should be looking at the £1,400 Porsche Design P'9983 instead?
The square screen is what defines the BlackBerry Passport. With a 4.5-inch 1440 x 1400 resolution panel, the 453ppi pixel density puts this BlackBerry on par with many flagship full HD smartphones. The HTC One (M8), Samsung Galaxy S5 and iPhone 6 are all behind in that numbers game.
That means text and visuals on the Passport appear crystal clear - even when tiny in a message inbox - and the viewing angles are good too. Whether you are reading an email, surfing the web, tweeting and the like, everything looks pin sharp. The iPhone 6 Plus looks decidedly soft in comparison when looking at like-for-like pages.
For the most part having the extra real estate works well, with websites showing more if they've been designed for that resolution. In terms of the BB homepage design, it means you can get six full app tiles on one page and 20 app icons total. Exciting.
In our meeting with BlackBerry the justification for the Passport's giant screen was to assist when viewing spreadsheets on the go. But we've got news for you BlackBerry: you can do that just as well on a 16:9 ratio landscape smartphone screen too. It's also easier watching movies in the widescreen ratio, not on a square screen. Not many people make 4:3 content any more, or 1:1.
So the Passport's screen might be sharp, but we have yet to find one true benefit for it being square. In addition, and given who BlackBerry users tend to be, we're puzzled why there's not the option for some sort of privacy filter to guard unwanted over-the-shoulder reading.
BB 10.3 and BlackBerry Blend
As is customary with a new phone we get a new operating system update, and here the BlackBerry Passport runs BB10.3 for the first time. The new system doesn't change things drastically over BB10.2, but it does add a couple of new features.
In 10.3 there's support for exFAT with a microSDXC card meaning you can increase the storage space by up to 128GB.
Other new elements include a UI tweak to the Action Bar, which highlights the most common task for each panel of an application. For example, while composing a message, the Attachment icon is highlighted and it helps makes things a lot more productive.
Then there are the small and clever tricks that you won't immediately notice. How the Meeting mode will automatically silence your phone when you are in a meeting because it can see you've got a calendar appointment, for example.
But the biggest one of all is BlackBerry Blend (that we've not been able to test it in the office, but have been given a demo of the new feature working). The idea is that you'll be able to check the content of your BlackBerry - messages, BBM, SMS, Calendar, Contacts, and files - from any computer or tablet as long as you've got the BlackBerry Blend software installed. No need to have your BlackBerry anywhere near. That's really handy in the Passport's case because you might want to hide it from view.
What BlackBerry claims - and this is where things get really good - is that users will be able to securely access their company intranet and other corporate resources through their work browser on the phone from a non-work PC, but still securely. If you need to access work stuff, but haven't got a work laptop, this should make it all possible. So for business users we can see genuine appeal - although beyond our work email we've not been able to test this thoroughly by any means.
Add that to the already great BlackBerry Hub page and BB10.3 is in a good place. We're big fans of being able to see all your messages - whether it be Twitter, Facebook or emails - all in one place for simplicity's sake. BlackBerry gets some things very right on the software front, but not all.
Used as a phone the Passport has some additional tricks, namely its speakers are packed into the bottom of the handset and are loud, clear and crisp. That kind of performance makes it ideal for speaker phone conference calls where there might be a couple of people huddled around the one phone. And despite its unusually squat shape we had no issues making or receiving calls direct to the ear either.
As a flagship device, the Passport features a top-of-the-line specification. There's a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor paired with 3GB RAM, the usual LTE 4G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, and 32GB internal storage.
However, we've always found that regardless of the power you never really get the feeling you are running anything faster than BB10.3 will let you. By that we mean performance is okay, as expected, but given the lack of apps it's not like that 801 processor is going to be crunching through heavyweight games or the like.
It's the same old story in that department, that apps and games lack. Unless you happen to work for a major global-multinational blue-chip company that has created a dedicated app on BB10 just for your company needs, then apps aren't going to be your number one concern when looking at the BlackBerry ecosystem.
For the rest of us we already know developers are preoccupied with iOS, Android, and now even Windows Phone platforms. So BlackBerry's latest solution? It's turned to Amazon. The Amazon App Store has been available for some time on BB10 but now comes pre-installed, taking centre stage and suggesting you download apps that were once designed for an Android device, repackaged for an Amazon Android device, and now repackaged for a square-screened BlackBerry.
BlackBerry has said that BlackBerry App World will focus more on productivity, with Amazon looking to give you everything else.
If you want to use the Passport to take pictures or video then you can, thanks to 13-megapixel rear and 2-megapixel front-facing cameras. The quality and performance is ok, but not amazing. We've shot some passable images, some punchy with colour others less so. Inspected at 100 per cent scale and jagged edges are present from processing, so it doesn't provide the utmost detail compared to what's on the market. Results in low-light are fairly poor too.
There are cool features on board such as Time Shift, which is a lot of fun. It works by taking a stack of photos before and after pressing the shutter, so if you want to make sure everyone is smiling in a shot then you can click and drag along the on-screen timeline to find that perfect moment. Smiles all round. In BB10.3 the mode now goes even further as you needn't select the choice frame there and then - it's possible to apply the effect any time to older pictures shot using the BlackBerry. There's also a new panoramic mode.
Nifty features go some way to helping the Passport's photographic prowess, but overall it's not going to challenge the Lumias, Apples and Sonys of this world on the photography front.
One of the few successes of the Passport is just how long-lasting its battery life is - it lasts for an age. Two days at a time for us. That could be down to efficient software, or it could be the lack of battery-munching apps, or just the sheer capacity.
Either way, if long-lasting is top of your list then the BlackBerry Passport certainly opens that door as you won't need to worry about charging it overnight every night. The compromise comes with size: as the Passport is so big it makes for a weighty and unwieldy experience.
Overall the BlackBerry Passport is perplexing. We can't for the life of us work out who it has been designed for, how it was approved, and why BlackBerry thought that a square screen with massive keyboard and bulky chassis would be a success - even for diehard BlackBerry users.
We get that some people demand a physical keyboard. But despite hopes of that being a real sell in the Passport, that too falls short of the mark thanks to an alphabet-only layout that hinders fast typing. The keyboard's best feature is the ability to double-up as a trackpad with swipe commands - an idea that works well.
It's hard to get beyond the Passport's chunky design, but if you do then, in fairness, there are some quality software features to glean from the device. The Time Shift camera mode, BlackBerry Blend's access-from-any-device concept, secure intranet mail access, some of the changes to the Hub and ability to see all your messages in one place - be it Twitter, Facebook or emails - will work well for the power user.
But such features are hardly brand new: save for Blend we've seen the majority before, and as existing BB10 phone users will be getting the software update with said features in the first quarter of 2015 you needn't force the Passport's bulk into your pocket.
If you were hoping the BlackBerry Passport would be your next BlackBerry then don't. Its ghastly design will see this square-screen oddity a write-off for most and its short list of positives won't be enough to save BlackBerry in today's fast-moving world where Apple, Samsung, and others, play. It's not how we wanted to see it end, but the Passport will likely be the company's latest albatross until someone throws the unsold stock back into the sea.
It's not hip to be square.