Hands on with the BlackBerry Passport
BlackBerry have been in the news a lot recently with the announcement of their first ever Android device - the BlackBerry Priv. Although I'd love to get my hands on one (shameless request) I'm not here to talk about the Priv, rather its larger, square-er brother the Passport.
Now I appreciate the Passport has been on the market for over a year, but given they've recently announced the Passport Silver Edition I figured a window of opportunity has re-opened and now is as good a time as any to pop some thoughts down about their self-proclaimed king of productivity.
I've been using the Passport for about 2 months, picking it up as a temp while my Nexus 6 undergoes a warranty repair. It's been a device that interested me from the moment it launched due to its odd form factor and physical keyboard (I love a physical keyboard). Owing to it running BBOS 10.3.x with the ability to run Android apps, I figured it wouldn't be too far behind the capabilities of my normal Android devices. I experienced a few hiccups with that, but I'll talk more about it below. It's been a good 2 years since I last reviewed a BlackBerry, I was excited to see how they've evolved.
With a 4.5" Square(!) 453 PPI display and a physical keyboard, the Passport is certainly eye-catching. On picking it up it was immediately apparent the device is well built with a reassuringly weighty feel and sturdy frame. The plastic back has some give but that can be forgiven due to the nature of the material and the fact it's really barely noticeable (on this particular unit).
What is certainly different however is the feel in the hand; it felt rather large and slightly awkward. I say this as someone who's been a big proponent of today's phablets (since Samsung's first Galaxy Note in fact) but of course it's not like any other phone on the market due to that width.
At 90.3mm across it comfortably overshadows the smaller 83mm of the Nexus 6 and the 79.9mm iPhone 6s+. Although it doesn't look like much on paper, in the hand and pocket it's particularly noticeable - for the latter especially when sitting down.
The screen itself is bright and crisp, boasting a resolution of 1440 x 1440 and an aspect ratio of 1:1. The view is certainly unique among competitors currently on the market though I can't say I was particularly excited by it, often wishing I could see a little more without scrolling all of the time.
The device isn't completely square however, as the keyboard is another unique feature of the Passport sitting directly below the screen. It consists of three rows of keys, the spacebar sitting snugly, strangely, amongst the bottom row. The keyboard also acts as a touchpad, translating swipes into actions on the screen above which is a really nice feature. More on the keyboard later.
Beyond the unusual form factor and unique additions the spec is fairly on par with the competition:
- 32GB storage with microSD expansion
- 3GB RAM
- 13MP rear-facing camera featuring OIS and 1080p recording
- 2MP front-facing camera
- 3450mAh battery
On the right-hand side you'll find the volume keys and BlackBerry Assistant button. The keys are sturdy, clicky and have a premium feel to them. On top there's a power button on the right and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the left. On the bottom you'll find the microUSB port for charging.
Flipping the phone over you'll find a neat little access port for the microSD and SIM card.
So as previously mentioned I've been itching to try the Android app integration with (and without) the Amazon Appstore. I last toyed with Android apps on 10.2.x and I'm not going to lie, it didn't live up to my expectations. 10.3.x was supposed to change that and therefore put my app-anxiety (which I'm sure is absolutely a thing) at bay.
Android app integration
Being an Android user since the debut of the original G1 and a Google user long before that, I've come to heavily rely on my Google services; Gmail, Youtube, G+, Maps, Music.. so on. As such one of the first tasks I gave myself was to get them working with the Passport.
It sort of worked..
Youtube failed almost immediately, Maps eventually. Hangouts is too slow to be useful and Google+ regularly gives me Google Play Services errors. Still, Gmail, Photos and Music work and I'm managing OK with that (mostly because I have a work Note 4, otherwise I'd have likely still been trying to get them all working).
There are posts on CrackBerry among other places that explain the process so I won't go into it here. It isn't too complex though and while things do fail, updates are frequent to help mitigate that.
I had more success with the Amazon Appstore and got a good few apps installed I was familiar with, but it in no way filled the void left by the absence of the Play Store - which I also got working temporarily, but ultimately failed due to the Play Services requirement of so many of the apps there and the need to manually patch them before installing.
I was also less than impressed by the Android notifications that are passed into the hub. They require first clicking on the alert, before being taken into the Android emulator itself which displays a black screen with a small alert dead-centre which then requires another tap before the notification is read.
With the Android plan somewhat scuppered, I tried to exert more effort towards BlackBerry's software offering. Even in 10.3.x (and I'll carry on referring it to 10.3.x throughout because I received an update within the first month) the software doesn't feel completely polished; it's a good deal better than the Z10 I reviewed all those years ago naturally, but I still saw glitches more frequently than I'd expect on a flagship, including:
- Calls going straight to voicemail, not ringing even once with good signal
- Backlight on the keyboard choosing not to illuminate until rebooted
- Hub notifications for alerts that don't exist (especially email, I hunted for ages - that is, over a period of weeks - for something that ultimately wasn't there)
- Stutter, slow responsiveness, glitches that all rectify when the device is bounced.
I'm sure it could be argued any of those could be due to trying to run Android apps, but then if the functionality is there (and installing APKs directly outside of Amazon is an option) shouldn't the Passport have some form of management to prevent performance from degrading? Even so I'm not convinced that was the reason for the bugs I encountered, but I can't think of anything else that would attribute towards it.
Putting the glitches aside I quite enjoyed the centralised hub; that one location accessible from anywhere that allows creating and answering messages from various services. It's definitely something I'd consider looking into when I return to Android, even though I'm certain the experience wouldn't be quite as good with a 3rd party option (any you may know of, dear readers, please point out in the comments). The swipe up > right has become so natural to me that I tend to do it without thinking on all devices.
The task manager being front and centre on the homescreen was also useful. It managed to crawl up to about 8 applications that I frequented which naturally saved time vs scrolling through the app list constantly. I couldn't figure out on what basis it decides which windows deserve to be large and which remain small as it seems random, often opting to prioritise things like the Device Monitor which I opened maybe once every few days (AKA reboot time) rather than say the browser which was open multiple times per day.
On the subject of the browser.. it needs work. It's slow, a little uninspired, incredibly basic and I found a lot of the time websites weren't sure what it was and opted for the desktop view. In the case of the latter it really didn't matter about that 1:1 wide screen, I was scrolling horizontally regardless. One of the nicer features however was the auto-fullscreen when playing video, an annoyance with Chrome I find is having to tap play on an embedded video, then tap the fullscreen button. It's undoubtedly a first world problem to have but I'm glad BlackBerry resolved it.
The Passport ships with a whole host of productivity apps preinstalled. Some, like the calendar and file manager are no-nonsense, functional applications. Others however, like Docs To Go, reinforce the productive nature of the phone. They could have easily adopted simple editors but opted for a well-known, cross-platform, feature-rich editing suite instead.
Admittedly being a device aimed at productivity I didn't spend much time using the camera. I wasn't expecting great things from the 13MP snapper BlackBerry opted to use in the Passport and while the photos were better than expected, they certainly didn't blow me away.
I found low-light photos to be grainy and difficult to focus, a familiar problem in the mobile industry though one that is improving more recently.
Here are a few samples:
[gallery link="file" columns="5" ids="2345,2346,2347,2348,2349" orderby="rand"]
BlackBerry tout 30 hours on a single charge and to their credit the Passport is possibly one of the best phones I've tested for battery life.
For example, I took the Passport off charge at 8am this morning. At 8pm the phone has lost 31%. Overnight the loss will be a negligible 5-15% (generally depending on if I leave the browser open when I turn the screen off, because the browser does draw power quite a bit more than I'd expect) and I'll likely be looking at putting it back on charge sometime later in the evening tomorrow or even the morning after.
By contrast my Note 4 typically goes on charge daily; occasionally the next morning if I forget.
It would hardly be a BlackBerry review without dedicating a heading to the keyboard. Even moreso when said keyboard also acts as a trackpad!
I remember the BlackBerry keyboards of old; they were all pretty comparable with one another across the many models and one true identifying feature of any BlackBerry. I really, really liked those keyboards.
This one? Not so much.
To start with the biggest gripe, they're missing at least one row of keys. Squashing the spacebar into the bottom row of the QWERTY layout was not a good idea; by doing so they've removed the symbols (instead putting them into an on-screen keyboard) the fn key (which gave quick access to numbers (also on-screen now) and other symbols not on a typical bottom row) and made it instantly less familiar and more difficult to become accustomed to.
Before switching over permanently to onscreen keyboards back in 2010 I had a HTC TyTN II (well documented here!) and briefly a T-mobile G1. Both had decent keyboards, the G1 to a lesser extent but due to having 5 (!) rows of keys was familiar and easy enough to type with. To this day I'm not as fast typing on soft keyboards as I was with physical keyboards (when you account for mistakes as well as speed) and I was expecting to relive my days of writing essays on phones without breaking a sweat with the Passport.
As far as keyboards - virtual or physical - go, the Passport has the most awkward, difficult to use and annoying keyboard I've ever encountered. It's one thing to have to hit a fn key to get a symbol or number, quite another to have to use a virtual addon on-screen to do the job. Adding another row of keys and making the keyboard a little more complicated (no less complicated than any other keyboard on the market I might add) wouldn't make the phone much taller and would have improved the experience no end.
With that frustration out of the way...
The keyboard is backlit, as you'd expect. When the backlight worked it was bright and immensely useful in situations where there was an absence of light.
It is also touch-sensitive. An incredibly useful idea that meant scrolling through a webpage, moving the text cursor and other functions could all be done without touching the screen. I found myself using this a lot with the relatively small (height) screen as it really allowed me to use every last pixel of display without blocking content with my finger.
As a side note I'm very happy to see they've gone back with the "classic" BlackBerry keyboard in the Priv, upgraded also with touch capabilities.
There were two main features of the Passport I found myself somewhat excited by: the physical keyboard and the extra wide "productive" display. Neither offered me any benefits over any other phone on the market today. The advantage of the extra width on the screen for excel documents and the like was far outweighed by the need to scroll far more frequently up and down documents and webpages. The keyboard leaves so very much to be desired.
Overall the Passport, although being probably the best BBOS10 device on the market, boasting flagship-specs and solid build, is let down by the awkward shape, poorly designed keyboard and a lacking/buggy OS; the latter being something that could've been overlooked if the Android app integration was more reliable.
I can see why reviews of this device have been so mixed online, it's definitely not one for me.