Passport to Productivity

BlackBerry Passport
BlackBerry Passport

When you pick up a BlackBerry Passport, the company's newly-released flagship device, one thing is immediately apparent: it's definitely a BlackBerry. But it's a BlackBerry with a twist. A twist that puts BlackBerry back in the game.

The Passport is the same size and shape as the eponymous travel document, although at 196 g (6.9 oz), it sits more heavily in the hand. But the shape is the important bit — it means that the screen is just about square, with the remaining space at the bottom occupied by a three row keyboard.

Yes, the keyboard is back, though in an unusual configuration: three rows of hardware keys (the QWERTY part), with a row of context-sensitive soft keys above that expands to four rows when necessary. Like the BlackBerry keyboard we know and love, you capitalize letters by holding the key down longer than it would ordinarily take to type the letter, and if you keep pressing after the capital letter appears, symbols associated with that key appear. But there's a twist — the hardware part of the keyboard is touch-sensitive, letting you control the cursor by sliding your finger across the keys, without having to reach up and swipe at the screen.

As you type, the system offers predictions of what the word you're composing might be; to insert a suggestion, you can do it the hard way, lifting your finger off the keyboard and touching the right word, or you can lightly swipe up on the keyboard below the word of choice to pop it into the document. Anyone who's worked with the keyboardless Z-series will be acquainted with the swipe to insert, but you do have to relearn the gesture on the Passport. While Z-series needs a longish swipe, the Passport gesture has to stop at the top of the hard keyboard; if you stray into the soft keys, you'll find yourself inserting odd punctuation instead of a word. It takes a bit of practice, but once you get the hang of it, it works well.

Editing on a pure touchscreen can be a pain, as you poke away trying to get the cursor where you want it. The touch-sensitive keyboard helps here too. Double tap on the keyboard without pressing a key, and the editing cursor appears. You move it to the desired location by dragging your finger on the keyboard. It's much easier and more precise than the old method. And one final keyboard trick — you can flip the Passport on its side and use the keyboard as a long scrollbar when browsing the Web.

Now, about that square screen. Its resolution of 453 pixels per inch makes it amazingly clear (it beats the iPhone 6 Plus's 401ppi). How clear? The default text size for email is 8 point, and it's completely legible. Try that on another phone. The screen size is 4.5 inches, diagonally, but that really doesn't tell you how large the display is.

The Passport's tag line is "See the Bigger Picture.", and they're not kidding. At the launch, BlackBerry showed off various ways the wide screen enhances productivity. You see more of spreadsheets, even compared to other phones in landscape mode. Medical imagery, even 3D views and a dynamic cardiac exam in which you could see the heart beating, were full-screen, not chopped off. There was no panning required to see the entire image.

Of course, that screen, and the form factor it necessitates, means that those with small hands will have difficulty handling the device. It's wide — a full 90.3 mm (3.6 inches) — making it a two-hander for virtually anyone. That, combined with the weight, means that while using it, I have to tuck my pinky under the bottom edge to support the device.

On the plus side, the cameras are the best ever for BlackBerry. The rear one is 13 megapixels (mp), and the front one is 2 mp. Both offer image stabilization and autofocus. The rear camera also has a flash, 5x digital zoom, and records 1080p video at 60 frames per second. The front one (your selfie and Skype camera) has 3x zoom and records at 720p. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality from both cameras. It's not Nokia Lumia level, with its high resolution and Carl Zeiss optics, but it's thoroughly decent.

Sound quality through the stereo speakers is very good too, and BlackBerry has actually given significant thought to the quality of (gasp) phone calls! Its Natural Sound technology makes calls through the handset or its speakerphone clear and loud enough to hear properly.

The other huge plus is the battery life. BlackBerry promotes up to 30 hours of mixed use from the 3450 mAh battery, but I'm getting well over that, and from online comments, I'm not alone. It's just as well — the battery is not removable.

That pretty much covers the hardware high points, but the Passport is as much about the BlackBerry OS 10.3 as it is about the hardware. I have more to quibble about here — which is good. It's much easier to fix software.

That's not to say it's bad. The OS, in combination with the Passport's quad core processor, 3 GB RAM and 32 GB of storage (which can be augmented by a microSD card of up to 128 GB), is much more responsive than older versions of BB10. I did find a couple of bugs that BlackBerry says will be corrected shortly, but they're not showstoppers.

It also includes an Android store (Amazon's), so sideloading of Android apps can be a thing of the past. However, so far I'm disappointed with the selection; it's lacking things like hotel and airline apps, and other items professionals would like, that are only supported on iOS and Android. Amazon is offering Passport users a free app every day to coax them to try out its store. It's a nice gesture, but so far they're mostly games.

One would think that all current BB10 apps from the BlackBerry Store would run, even if they look a little odd on the square screen, but not so. The Air Canada app just grumbles that the device isn't supported, as does a photo editing app I tried to grab. I'm told that BlackBerry is working with the publishers to correct these problems.

The OS itself has been tweaked in multiple ways. Some I like, some I hate, and I'm sure everyone will have their own list for each emotion. I like the new device monitor that lets you see what apps are devouring the battery, storage, and other resources. I like the way you can tell the phone to go to sleep by laying it face-down on a surface, and I like the new Meeting Mode that will automatically silence all alerts when it sees from your calendar that you're in a meeting. There's an Undo option now, in case you accidentally delete a message, and you can download all attachments at once, rather than one at a time. All good.

I have mixed emotions about the Instant Actions. It's a customizable additional menu in the Hub, accessed by clicking the check mark at the top right of the screen, that lets you easily access your favourite two actions (delete, file, flag, etc). The trouble is, when you're deleting items, you get a popup for each asking if you want to delete only from the device, or from the server as well. Yes, you can set a default action, in which case the popup won't appear, but if you move back and forth between the two options, you're stuck.

The developers have changed one option that perplexed me til I figured it out. Before 10.3, to select multiple items in the Hub, you'd highlight one, touch the "select more" icon, then highlight the others. In 10.3, you have to open the menu and choose "select more" BEFORE highlighting any items. It's counter-intuitive, and very annoying. It will be interesting to see how they handle clarification of that idiosyncrasy.

But this made me happy: a feature that disappeared in BB10, the ability to start typing a contact name or phone number on the home screen and automatically launch a call or text is back. In 10.3, it launches a new component of the OS: BlackBerry Assistant.

Like Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana, the Assistant responds to both voice and typed instructions, searching the device and/or the Internet, as required, for answers. It will also read your BBMs, texts, or emails to you, or allow you to compose and send them by voice. It may not have a name, and it speaks atonally, like a subway announcement, but it works very well. And it speaks English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. Another huge plus: unlike its competitors, it can search across both personal and business containers if your Passport runs BlackBerry Balance.

BlackBerry's usual comprehensive security is a given, of course. There's not much new there, aside from an extra way to unlock your device through the combination of a picture and a number. It goes like this: select a photo, pick a number between 0 and 9, and define the spot on the photo where the number must land to unlock the phone. In action, the photo is displayed with a random grid of numbers overlayed, and you have to drag the chosen number to the right spot to unlock. It's simple, but effective.

One entirely new feature, BlackBerry Blend, needs an app on the phone, and an app on your computer or tablet. It allows you to pair the BlackBerry with a PC, Mac, or tablet, and display and respond to messages and notifications, or access files on the larger screen. When you disconnect, nothing is left on the computer or tablet, easing the pain for the CISO. It's easy to set up, and means you can leave your phone in pocket or purse — or even at home, as long as it has connectivity — and still stay abreast of what's happening. If your Passport is connected to a BES, you can even securely access files inside the firewall from your home computer or tablet.

As you can tell, I mostly like this device, and I'm not alone. On the day it was launched, both BlackBerry's online store and sold out within a few hours — and that was around 200,000 units! Telus was the sole Canadian carrier, until October 1, when Rogers and Bell come on board, and my local store said there had been a lot of interest there as well.

It's a good start. BlackBerry took quite a risk releasing such an unusual device, but it's unusual in the right ways. And the company sensibly didn't repeat its past mistakes; it's not trying to make the Passport anything but a BlackBerry.

Canadian pricing: $699 unlocked, from the BlackBerry online store, At Telus, no contract purchase is $700, with two year contract, $250. Rogers charges $249.99 with two year contract, $699.99 without. Bell's pricing is $299.95 with a two year contract, and $749.95 without.