BlackBerry was once synonymous with "business phone," but the brand has practically faded into obscurity with the rise of the iPhone and Android devices. Now, BlackBerry wants to win back its base of business users with a truly unique smartphone: the BlackBerry Passport, a hulking device with a square 4.5 x 4.5-inch display. Sure, the odd display provides better dimensions for work-related tasks like editing a spreadsheet or viewing a large document on your phone. But will a square screen and a physical keyboard be enough to bring business users back into the BlackBerry fold, or is handling the massive Passport more trouble than it's worth?
The Passport's square screen isn't just a gimmick. When viewing a document on my personal Android phone, I often find myself flipping the device on its side to get a wider view. That's because rectangular smartphones cram documents into a narrow column when they're viewed in portrait mode, and compress them into a wide row when the phone is turned sideways. That's why I actually felt relieved to have so much horizontal screen real estate when viewing documents on the Passport's extra-wide display. The screen can fit about 60 characters across, compared to about 40 on the iPhone 5s. If you frequently view and edit documents or spreadsheets on your mobile device, that's a big difference. Reading a book on the phone was also quite comfortable on the wide display.
If I had to describe the BlackBerry Passport in one word, it would be "unwieldy." Even compared to monster phablets like Samsung's 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 4, I had a tougher time handling the Passport. Like a tablet, the phone simply demands you use two hands for even the most basic tasks. It's practically impossible to reach the power button on the phone's top edge during one-handed use. Fortunately, you can swipe up on the screen to turn it on, though the feature is far from obvious for new users. The dimensions also make it awkward to slide the phone in and out of your pocket, especially when you're sitting.
At 6.9 ounces, the Passport is also one of the heaviest smartphones ever. In comparison, the 5.5-inch, metal-framed iPhone 6 Plus is 6.07 ounces, and the massive 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 4 weighs 6.2 ounces. If you're used to a smaller smartphone, you'll really notice the extra heft.
It's not the speediest phone on the market, but the Passport still delivers very good performance. It packs a zippy 2.2-GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor with a whopping 3GB of RAM, allowing for smooth multitasking. Performance inside of apps was fast and reliable, and so was Web browsing. Overall, business users in the market for a fast phone won't be disappointed with the BlackBerry Passport. The device also includes 32GB of onboard storage, as well as a microSD card to add extra space if you need it.
Of course, what makes a BlackBerry a BlackBerry is robust security. The Passport doesn't have a fingerprint scanner like the iPhone 6 or Galaxy Note 4, but it does offer a number of standout security features. For starters, there's built-in encryption for email and messaging, to keep private business communications private. Plus, users can easily encrypt any data stored on their device or microSD card using 256-bit AES encryption.
There's also BlackBerry Protect, a suite of features to help you find and secure your phone if it's lost or stolen. Using BlackBerry's Web portal, you can make your phone emit a loud sound to see if it's nearby. If it's not, you can remotely lock the device, or even remotely wipe your data to prevent potential thieves from stealing your private info.
Let's face it: Touch-screen typing just isn't that accurate, especially on a small smartphone screen. While typing on my personal Android device, I often backtrack to correct typos. That's where the BlackBerry Passport really shines. I rarely made a mistake while typing on its physical QWERTY keyboard. Its keys are sculpted at the edges, so it's easy to feel where one key ends and the next begins.
But here's the rub: Typing on the Passport is slow. The keys are a bit stiff, and require deliberate presses to register, meaning you'll put much more effort into each individual key press than you would on a touch-screen keyboard. I did get faster with practice, but I could never type as fast as I wanted to on the Passport. And unless you have exceedingly large mitts, you can forget about typing with one hand. While cradling with device with my right hand, my thumb didn't come close to reaching the keys on the left side of the keyboard.
I did appreciate the keyboard's nifty touch gestures. They work because the Passport has a touch-sensitive capacitive layer beneath the keys. It lets you scroll up and down documents and Web pages just by gliding your thumb up and down over the keyboard, like it's an extension of the main touch screen. Here's another handy gesture: The messaging software can predict which word you're typing and suggest words at the bottom of the display. Just place your thumb under the word you want, and flick upward to select it.
BlackBerry Assistant is the company's response to Siri on the iPhone, Google Now on Android and Cortana on Windows Phone. Basically, it lets you perform all sorts of actions hands-free. There are two ways to activate the voice command prompt: either tap the BlackBerry Assistant icon on your home screen, or press the physical BlackBerry Assistant button, located on the side of the device between the volume keys. From there, I was able to speak commands to record notes, retrieve turn-by-turn directions, set a reminder and even send an email. In total, BlackBerry Assistant supports commands in 19 categories.
Voice commands work well on the Passport, but the process is much more streamlined on other mobile platforms. When taking a note using Google Now, for example, I can simply state, "Take a note: Call Joe at 4 p.m. tomorrow," and the note will be automatically saved to my default notes app. In contrast, BlackBerry Assistant breaks down the process into several stages, making me wait between the initial command and the time when I can begin dictating my note, and asking me to confirm before the note is saved. BlackBerry Assistant doesn't understand context-sensitive commands, either. Using Siri on the iPhone, for example, I can ask, "What was the score of the Packers game?" to get the latest NFL score. If I ask, "When is the next game?" the phone understands that I want to know the time of the next game on the Packers' schedule. BlackBerry Passport just isn't that smart.
However, it does support some handy commands you won't find on other platforms. For example, say, "Show me the last email from Joe," and the phone will pull it right up. The Passport will even read the email aloud, if you ask it to.
BlackBerry Blend is a stand-alone PC or Mac program that enables most of the Passport's functionality on your computer desktop. Blend delivers messaging and email alerts right to your PC, and lets you view and respond to messages using your keyboard and mouse. It also lets you view and edit your BlackBerry calendar, view your contacts list and access files stored on your phone's internal memory. You can link your phone to BlackBerry Blend via Wi-Fi or a physical USB connection. It's pretty handy, and there's nothing quite like it for any other mobile platform. For example, Android users can access Google Calendar on their PC via the Web and download the Google Hangouts desktop app to send SMS text messages from their computer, but there isn't a single app that delivers all that functionality in the same spot.
BlackBerry's real Achilles' heel has long been its app selection. The platform simply doesn't offer a library that's on a par with Android or iOS, and when much-requested apps are released for the platform, they are usually updated later and offer fewer features. The Passport offers a pretty good solution to this conundrum, however: You can actually install and run Android apps on the device by downloading them from the Amazon Appstore, which comes installed on the phone. It's true that Amazon's store offers far fewer apps than Google Play, the main Android app store, but it's still a huge boon to business users, since it opens up hundreds of additional apps for use on the Passport. You can't get official Google apps, such as Gmail or Google Maps, but the apps you can get run smoothly and scale well to fit the phone's square screen.
The BlackBerry Passport is a seriously long-lasting smartphone, packing a massive 3,450-mAh battery. This is a phone that can last nearly two days on a single charge. That's a major perk for business users who depend on their mobile devices for work. Unfortunately, our regular battery test doesn't work for the BlackBerry 10 operating system, but rest assured that this phone offers epic longevity.
The BlackBerry Passport is a strange business phone that might really benefit the right user. The extra-wide display is beautiful to behold, and makes the narrow screens on other smartphones seem cramped by comparison. Viewing documents on the device is incredibly comfortable, and typing on the physical keyboard is as accurate as it gets on a mobile device. Plus, its superlong battery life is a major bonus.
Still, it's hard to recommend the Passport for most users. The BlackBerry 10 operating system isn't nearly as refined as Android, iOS or even Windows Phone. BlackBerry Hub is a useful hub for messages, but users familiar with other operating systems will find themselves missing basic features like a central hub for nonmessage alerts. Plus, the Passport is missing some key apps, and typing on the keyboard is too slow. But the biggest problem for most users will be the Passport's size. This beastly phone is just too heavy and wide for comfort. If you really want to read documents on the go, consider carrying a tablet as a secondary device instead.