There’s nothing else like it: blocky and solid, with a row of physical keys beneath a square display. It is because of these unusual characteristics that I knew I had to try the Blackberry Passport for myself. I wanted to understand whether, by pursuing an extraordinarily different design strategy, Blackberry was actually enabling any extraordinarily different user experiences.
First and foremost, let me say this: it’s not too big.
This question is asked by almost everyone who sees a picture of it, but in practice it isn’t a problem. It is called a Passport for a reason: it’s the same size as the physical passports used by almost every country. Just ask yourself this, is your passport pocketable?
That said, I can understand where the concern comes from. The weird aspect ratio makes it appear almost absurdly wide in comparison to other smartphones. It is bold and different, but in person it looks good and feels comfortable to hold and convenient to slip into a pocket.
Perhaps even more unusual though is the choice of a square screen. This was one of the factors I was particularly keen to examine and understand how it affected the user experience.
Like most users, my benchmarks are mainly the rectangular screens which have dominated smartphones since the 3.5 inch, 320 x 480 of the original iPhone. I’ve also used the little 3 inch, 720 x 720 display on Blackberry’s Q10, but the Passport was altogether different.
With a 4.5 inch diagonal measurement and 1440 x 1440 pixels, there’s space to see a lot. Documents, from web pages to PDFs, are enhanced by this strange display. This is especially true if you’re browsing web-sites not optimised for mobile or documents which were created without thought for viewing on the move.
The visibility translates to a sense of capability, making the Passport feel closer to a data-centric pocket computer than most smartphones. It feels, dare I say it, like the spiritual successor to the PDAs (personal digital assistants) of the 1990s and early 2000s, when cutting edge mobile technology carried brands like Psion, Palm and Sharp.
It’s not just the process of browsing documents which benefits from this. Apps which rely on grid layouts – and there are many – also thrive. Media galleries look good spread out across the width of the square screen, maps seem to show larger areas and the weekly and monthly views of the calendar are easier to see.
I’d imagined the square screen would feel like data was being cut off at the top and bottom in comparison to those with a rectangular format, but instead it felt like something was being added to the left and right.
That was not the case with the older Blackberry Q10, which felt cramped at times. The Passport, however, seems to have reached a tipping point where the physical size and pixel density of the screen is sufficient that the square feels like an expansion, not a contraction of what most smartphone users are accustomed to.
Two modes of physical operation feel natural. To consume content the device may be held in a single hand, with your fingers curled around the back and your thumb flicking the touchscreen or keypad to scroll through pages. However, as soon as input is required – either typing or selecting things on screen – it becomes a two-handed device. If you’re comfortable with this requirement for two hands, the Passport is convenient to use. If you are avowedly committed to single-handed operation of mobile devices, it will be frustrating – the width of the screen means you simply can’t reach some parts of the display.
Blackberries are now in a tiny minority of mobile devices with physical keyboards. After several flirtations with all touch devices, like the Z10 and Z30, Blackberry has publicly aligned its recovery strategy with its commitment to hardware keyboards.
It was a good decision. There are any number of identikit touchscreen smartphones to choose from and a small but faithful niche of users who value physical keys. Blackberry has been the master of getting the most from tiny keys in cramped conditions for some time, but the Passport introduces a new trick: adding the ability for the keys to serve as a physical touchpad.
Just like the square screen, it sounds counter-intuitive in theory, but works quite well in practice. The major use case is scrolling. Users can hold the device in one hand and swipe their thumb over the physical keys to scroll down the screen, just like they would on a laptop trackpad.
It can also be used for interactions which require finer control, like moving the cursor around in blocks of text.
The most noticeable benefit is that it keeps users’ fingers from obscuring the content they’re trying to browse. Your scrolling finger tip rests on the keys, well away from the content. Apple has applied a similar design principle with its Watch, where the digital crown allows content to be explored without covering the display with a fingertip. On the Passport, this also has the happy side effect of balancing the device so the weighting feels good for reading.
For keyboard lovers, the Passport is just as good as you’d expect. There are some new design decisions which take a bit of practice compared to previous Blackberries, but they quickly seemed natural. There is no shift key for capital letters – you just hold down the letter key until the character turns uppercase on the screen. Also, the space bar is centrally located in the bottom of three letter rows, rather than having a row to itself.
In choosing to simplify the physical keys to the essentials and a three row layout, the Blackberry Passport places greater emphasis on the way the keyboard interacts with the predictive input software. Most of the time you’re using the keyboard, it shows two additional ‘rows’ in software at the bottom of the screen, immediately above the physical keys.
The upper of these shows 3 predicted word choices, which you can tap to autocomplete. The lower has the shift key, some common punctuation keys and a shortcut to the expanded numerical keys, which shows as another three rows on the screen.
There’s no getting away from the fact it is different and takes a little getting used to, regardless of whether you’re coming from a previous Blackberry or a full touch device like an iPhone or Android. However, I tried to look at it objectively and found it intuitive. Once I’d overcome the barrier of my previous muscle memory, the layout did not seem unergonomic or structurally flawed. Indeed, it felt natural quite quickly. That will vary from user to user, of course, but there were no glaring, universal usability problems which would prevent anyone from getting up to speed with it.
Another unique aspect of the Passport is the Blackberry 10 OS and, for most, I would see this as an asset rather than a liability. Overall, it amounts to a calculated trade-off: users must decide whether access to in-house apps from Google and Apple – like Maps on Android or iTunes on iOS – are essential. Similarly, how important it is to have guaranteed access to the latest Android app catalogue?
Blackberry 10 does not, of course, offer Google’s or Apple’s own suite of apps, and while it is reasonably good at running third party Android apps, there are limitations compared to using a mainstream Android handset. Android apps are installed via the Amazon app store, which has a limited selection compared to the Google Store, with all of Google’s own apps absent and uninstallable without some hacking.
However, if you place less importance on access to these particular apps, Blackberry 10 offers benefits as an operating system. It is fast and intuitive, combining swipe gestures and keyboard shortcuts on the Passport to provide an impressively productive environment. There is proper multi-tasking and the interaction metaphors it employs make the whole thing seem fluid.
The defining feature of the Blackberry 10 experience is the Hub. I think of it not so much as an app, but rather a zone of the operating system (I made a brief video of the UI a while ago), always accessible by swiping up and to the right from anywhere on the platform. The Hub integrates all of your communications, from LinkedIn and Facebook notifications to multiple email accounts and text messages.
As you’d expect from a company which made its name pioneering mobile communication, the Hub offers powerful search, filtering and sorting. By default you can see every piece of communication in a chronological list, with different types identified by their different icons on the left-hand side. However, you can swipe to the right to select just a single category of communications or pinch to hide everything except your unread messages. It is simple to use at first glance, but can be extensively customised and shortcut as you become more familiar with it.
A typical use case would be catching up on correspondence at the end of a working day. The Hub is ideal for scrolling through your messages and efficiently responding to everything in one unified environment. If that sounds like the way you like to work, Blackberry 10 is a strong proposition.
There are things to like outside of the Hub too. The browser is fast and the big square screen is great for viewing content. The integrated Blackberry calendar, contacts and combined notetaker and todo list app – Remember – are all well designed.
It all adds up to a creative powerhouse of a device, suited to those who value the ability to create – not just consume – within a truly pocketable form factor. For some users it will come close to replacing the familiar phone, tablet and laptop combination employed by those who travel frequently.
During my time with the Passport, I’ve done several overnight trips and a longer 6 day period abroad when I’ve used it as my only digital tool. I found it a capable travel companion, overall, with some caveats.
The longer trip was through an area of natural beauty and the camera of the Passport performed strongly. My time with the Q10 had prepared me for this, as it also offers surprisingly strong imaging for a device better known for its messaging credentials. However, the Passport takes it to another level, notably adding optical image stabilisation and an increased megapixel count (13 to the Q10’s 8 megapixels).
In real world testing the results were consistently good. There will always be some phones which perform better in specific situations, but the Passport has a splendid all round camera, delivering crisp, detailed shots in most light conditions. The panorama mode, something I rarely use on other phones was also much better than I expected, producing some memorable shots from the top of a mountain overlooking a lake.
Even in periods when the Passport wasn’t my main device, I found myself bringing it along to take photos, relishing its speed, clarity and post-processing image software for quick crops and colour adjustments.
The presence of the keyboard also compelled me to be more creative on the move, able to type lengthy articles in the cumulative time gaps which occur throughout a travel schedule. This piece, for instance, has been typed almost entirely on the Passport itself.
Mapping, however, was a weakness and that proved frustrating when travelling. BeMaps 10, a native Blackberry app, offers a slick UI for accessing Google Maps, but has its limitations – notably in turn-by-turn navigation. Users can access most of the Google Maps features, from search to public transport, but when it comes to navigating to a destination, BeMaps hands over to Blackberry’s own Maps app. When it works, it works well – the UI is straightforward and the directions clear – but the success rate, at least in the UK and Italy where I was testing it, was about 50%. That’s not good enough.
Sometimes it would crash because of a loss of connection and on other occasions it would choose bizarre and inconvenient routes. There is no way I’d trust it in the same way I’ve grown to trust Google Maps on Android and iPhone.
Battery life was unpredictable. Some days it would exhibit remarkable stamina, easily getting through the longest schedules and handling extensive calling, content creation and messaging. On others, it would drain more quickly, seemingly without reason, leaving me searching for a charger by late afternoon. The underlying technology is promising – it packs a comparatively huge 3450 mAh battery – but my guess is there are some software tweaks needed at the OS level to iron out whatever bugs are causing those occasional days of unexpected drain.
If Blackberry wants to maintain the loyalty of its core high end, high usage customers, battery life is going to be just as important as the presence of those physical keys.
Unfortunately this unreliability extended to software crashes as well. The Q10 had been remarkably reliable, but the Passport (running 10.3.0.1418) suffered from occasional random reboots. The Blackberry Link software for transferring files from my Mac to the Passport was particularly weak, crashing frequently. Blackberry Blend, a newer app which gives you secure access to your Blackberry Hub, calendar and contacts from PCs, Macs, Android and iOS devices was more reliable.
Despite these quirks, which Blackberry has a better than average track record of solving in future software releases, I couldn’t help but fall for the Passport. If it had proper access to Google’s full suite of Android apps through the Play Store, I’d have no hesitation in recommending it as the best device for those who like to create on the go. As it is, with its more limited selection of apps from the native store and Amazon Android stores, it is still very capable.
If you’re thinking about a Passport for yourself, you need to consider a few questions. Do you type more than you browse? Do you value powerful and integrated messaging over being able to try the latest chat apps? Do you work with detailed pieces of content on the go? Can you live without specific bits of the Google and Apple ecosystems, particularly Maps? If you’re answering ‘Yes’ to most of those questions – I’d be confident in recommending you take a chance, try something different and give the Passport a go. If you’re answering ‘No’, don’t worry – you’re not alone – in fact, I suspect Blackberry’s addressable niche is probably less than 5% of the total market.
To my original question of whether Blackberry has created something extraordinarily different by choosing a different design path, the answer is more straightforward: the Passport has unique form, function and will help users do unique things on the move. In pursuing this contrarian approach, Blackberry has confined itself to a small part of the market – but I’ll bet the majority of those who end up with one will value it highly and use it for a long time. The industry needs this kind of uninhibited experimentation lest it drown itself in a sea of identikit touch slabs.