Review: BlackBerry Passport Designed With Busy Business Users In Mind

Wayne Rash is senior correspondent for eWEEK and a writer with 30 years of experience. His career includes IT work for the US Air Force.

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New BlackBerry Passport smartphone features both physical keys and a touchscreen, along with a square screen designed to appeal to C-Level executives

The idea behind the BlackBerry Passport is to provide a device aimed specifically at users who need more screen real estate than is usually found on a smartphone to get optimized views of important data.

In addition, BlackBerry seems to be aiming the device at people who aren’t normally heavy users of smartphones and thus might not be comfortable using mobile phones with touch screens such as the iPhone or even the company’s own Z10. BlackBerry packed the phone with features that seem designed to appeal to people who need to get a job done quickly.

BlackBerry PassportAll square

BlackBerry’s set of design criteria led to a messaging device that is the size and shape of a passport, which is something that nearly all senior executives will be comfortable with. There is a square 4.5-inch screen positioned above three rows of physical keys. The phone will display an additional row of touch keys on the screen above the physical keyboard when needed.

In addition to providing the physical keyboard as a way to enter data, the keyboard is also gesture sensitive. A light stroke across the keyboard will scroll the screen and a light swipe from bottom to top of the keyboard will wake up the device when the screen is turned off.

There’s a 13-megapixel camera with a flash on the rear of the Passport and a 2-megapixel camera on the front. You can shoot video with the rear camera at up to 60 frames per second in 1280p high definition.

You can store that video on an SD card. The Passport will handle cards with up to 128 GB of storage capacity. There’s also the usual collection of instruments, including accelerometers, a magnetometer, time of flight sensor, a gyroscope, ambient light and proximity sensors.

In other words, it’s a thoroughly modern phone. The current version supports GSM cellular communications—via AT&T, since BlackBerry is having a tiff with T-Mobile—and all flavors of WiFi including 802.11ac.

Major update

The wide shape of the Passport coupled with the physical keys squeezed into three rows at the bottom take a lot of getting used to. For me, even though I have large hands, it was too much of a stretch to use with one hand, something that’s been a BlackBerry hallmark for years. However, I’m not the target market, so I asked a couple of IT industry CEOs, who declined to be identified on the record, what they thought about the form factor. Clearly I’m not the target for the device because they said loved it.

One CEO that I spoke with noted that the wider screen was important to him, especially for viewing documents including spreadsheets. He also mentioned that its more compact size made the Passport more desirable than a device such as the Galaxy Note, which both CEOs said was simply too big to take seriously.

If you’re a veteran BlackBerry user, especially with an earlier BBOS 10 device, the Passport will be familiar. The device comes with a newer version of the OS than what’s available on the earlier products and it includes a few new features, such as an improved BlackBerry Hub unified communications app and support for a new feature called BlackBerry Blend.

Blend allows you to synchronize items on the device with your laptop, desktop or tablet computers and manage things like email and even BlackBerry Messenger, which is BlackBerry’s secure, encrypted text messaging service.

The large square screen displays 453 pixels per inch, which means that everything is quite clear. This is important when displaying spreadsheet columns across the screen. The extra width does make viewing easier in other areas as well, including when looking at documents in PDF format for example.

On the other hand, I found the large size to be uncomfortable when I used the device to make phone calls. While it’s not as bad as the Galaxy Note, it still felt awkward to me. It’s also worth noting that BlackBerry still puts the camera icon in the far lower right corner of the screen where it’s easy to touch by mistake. I found I had taken several photos of the inside of my pocket as a result.

BlackBerry Passport_GroupNew landmark?

In general, though, the device is still a BlackBerry, and that includes the company’s legendary security. The device will work with BlackBerry Balance, which allows users to keep work and personal data in separate domains on the smartphone.

It also works with BlackBerry Enterprise Services and applications available in the BlackBerry World app store will work with it. In addition, the Passport ships with ready access to Amazon’s Android App Store, which allows some compatible Android apps to run on the device.

Battery life, always a BlackBerry strong point, is even better with the Passport. I found that even with its large screen the device would last well over two days in normal use. An iPhone 6 operating under identical conditions barely lasted for one day. The 3450 mAh battery that comes with the Passport is clearly effective.

The BlackBerry Passport seems to be a credible and successful effort to design a mobile device for someone who needs to see a lot on the screen. While you can get a similar view by holding a traditional smartphone sideways, you also give up top to bottom space.

As a communications device, the Passport works well. The only real issue besides your company’s support for BlackBerry is whether you can deal with the square screen and wide form factor. But your CEO might love it.

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Originally published on eWeek.