In recent years, mobile phone design has for the most part become far less imaginative. With a few notable exceptions, most smartphones feature a rectangular touchscreen display between about 4.5-inches and 6-inches diagonally across.
Insofar as there has been innovation, it’s been on the level of apps, operating systems, cameras, styluses and processors, rather than in physical design.
Enter the BlackBerry Passport, an Android-compatible smartphone running BlackBerry 10.3, with a square 4.5-inch screen and a three-row keyboard underneath.
It’s certainly a unique design, and from BlackBerry, a company that has always targeted the business market first.
But, to borrow a phrase from Huey Lewis and the News, is it hip to be square? It’s time to find out.
Hardware and features
The BlackBerry Passport is powered by BlackBerry 10.3, runs Android apps from the Amazon App Store, and is powered by a 2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor.
The PassPort includes 3 GB RAM, 32 GB storage and a microSD memory card up to 128 GB.
It is a 4G/LTE smartphone with NFC built in, as well as support for Miracast, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and an FM radio.
The defining feature is its 4.5-inch square display, with a resolution of 1440 x 1440 pixels, along with a three-row physical keyboard.
Bundled with the device are a couple of PC apps including BlackBerry Blend, which allows you to view your BlackBerry messages and emails on your PC, and BlackBerry Link, which synchronises files with your PC.
The Passport is powered by a massive 3450mAH integrated non-removable battery, which BlackBerry claims will allow you up to 11 hours of video playback, 24 hours of 3G talk time, or 14.5 days on standby.
For photos, it includes a 13 megapixel auto-focus camera with a 5-element f2.0 lens capable of 1080p HD video recording at 60fps. It also includes a 2-megapixel front camera. Like the iPhone 6 Plus and most other smartphones, the main camera includes Optical Image Stabilisation.
What’s the consensus?
Over at BlackBerry site CrackBerry, the key highlights of this device were the width of its screen, and its impressive battery life:
Your content is king on the BlackBerry Passport and while BlackBerry likes to tout the fact that the display is 30% wider than an average 5” all-touch device, and displays 60 characters across, almost meeting the print industry’s optimal 66 characters where other devices only manage 40 characters in portrait orientation, I have an easier way to convey its awesomeness and that’s to say after having used the BlackBerry Passport for a while now, there’s no way I can imagine myself going back to a tall, skinny traditional device. I hope the BlackBerry Passport sells so damn well that BlackBerry is forced to keep this form factor going as long as possible.
Battery life. The Achilles heel of pretty much every smartphone these days. On the BlackBerry Passport, BlackBerry attempted to not make this a concern. Did they succeed? Well, in my opinion, yes. The BlackBerry Passport includes a massive 3450mAh battery and while there are arguments to be had about whether or not they should have stuck with a removable battery, I don’t personally think it’s that big of a deal.
Despite its unconventional form factor, the Passport managed to win over Richard Goodwin of Know Your Mobile:
I didn’t want to like this handset. I had A LOT of preconceptions about the way it looked, switching back to a physical keyboard, and having to use BB10 for a week or more for the purpose of this review. Like a lot of people, I’d made my mind up about the Passport without even using it –– and this was wrong… The battery is excellent, ditto call quality, and there’s more than enough power inside to ensure everything operates in a silky smooth manner. I really enjoyed the improvements BlackBerry has made to the camera, and the screen, as we’ve already established, is just marvellous… If, however, you want a powerful piece of kit that is excellent at multitasking, has a gorgeous keyboard, brilliant battery, and an excellent notifications hub, as well as a growing selection of applications and market-leading security, then you could do A LOT worse than the BlackBerry Passport.
Peter Farquhar at Business Insidernoted that while it might not be the flashiest device on the market in terms of its tech specs, it might be one of the most productive:
It’s not the absolute cutting edge smartphone tech on the market, but even if it was, it wouldn’t be six months from now anyway. It’s a productivity tool, perhaps the best you can buy in the mobile space, but you’re already 10 times more productive on the go than you were even a couple of years ago and that’s quite enough for now… The [loss of] productivity in moving from OS to OS is minimal, despite what their purveyors would love to have us believe.
BlackBerry Blend – the software that allows you to manage everything your phone does on your desktop – works. It’s a great way to keep mind on the job in front of you without having to constantly switch between devices. I can’t stress how helpful this tool is on the train.
[The BlackBerry 10 operating system is] still the most intuitive OS on the market when it comes to swipability and navigation. It hasn’t lost anything of what made the Playbook surprisingly friendly in the hand. (I’ve noticed a few other reviewers noticing that too, which probably only serves to show how little time they’ve actually spent with a BlackBerry product in the past five years.)
Finally, Joanna Stern at the Wall Street Journal documented some of the reactions you’re likely to hear when carrying a Passport, and points out this design isn’t for everyone:
“That’s not a phone, it’s a deformed laptop!” “What the heck is that?” The best thing about carrying around the Passport is hearing reactions to its very strange design.
True to its namesake, the phone is the same size and shape as a U.S. passport. It’s thicker than your travel document, but it’s quite svelte for its size and the well-made resin back is satisfyingly smooth… The wider, 1440 x 1400-resolution surface displays more horizontal text of websites, emails and Excel cells than others. I was able to see the entire website map of my spinning class without having to zoom in or rotate the display, the way I have to on the iPhone 6 or the iPhone 6 Plus.
It was helpful in those situations, but not helpful enough to forgive how hard it is to hold the thing.
Larry Dignan of ZDNet likens the Passport to a muscle car, saying that while it’s likely to find a limited audience, it could be a viable niche product in some industries:
Passport represents BlackBerry’s focus on the enterprise — notably regulated verticals such as financial services, government, and healthcare. By outsourcing its app store to Amazon, BlackBerry can run the essential consumer applications needed to be a credible bring-your-own-device play.
Passport’s audience is also likely to be limited. But for corporations looking to hand out devices that can double as tablets, view documents and attachments well and offer a high level of security BlackBerry’s device may not seem so freaky. Add it up and I have a hard time imagining the Passport being a bring-your-own-device superstar. I can see companies handing a few of these out.
Should I get one?
In its favour, the keyboard and wide screen make the Passport an exceptional device for doing work on the go, and it features one of the best batteries on the market. And certainly BlackBerry deserve credit for thinking outside of the box in terms of their design – no-one will accuse this device of being a Galaxy Note or iPhone clone.
However, to say it isn’t for everyone would be an understatement. Most people either love this device and its unique form factor, or they hate it – there’s very little middle ground.