REVIEW: BlackBerry Passport

The smart phone pioneer's latest device has some neat tricks and longer battery life than the competition, but it's living in the past. It's not 2005 anymore.

Graph for REVIEW: BlackBerry Passport

It was 2005 and I was attached at the hip to a cellphone—literally, thanks to a swivel holster. This wasn't just any cellphone: It was a BlackBerry 7250, one of the first to free us from our desks and put email in our pockets.

Every few years I replaced it with a new model. I was hooked on the physical keyboards and how fast I could respond to messages. I clung to BlackBerry as long as I could, but then, one winter day in 2010, I just broke it off.

It wasn't me, it was BlackBerry: Its software and hardware had fallen so far behind Android and the iPhone that even those real physical keys that felt so good under my thumbs weren't reason enough to drag around what friends referred to as a "dinosaur."

But if this were a romantic comedy, the new BlackBerry Passport would be the struggling company's big "Say Anything" gesture to win me back, along with the rest of its once-devoted fans. Unlike its failed BlackBerry 10 phones, aimed misguidedly at everyday consumers, the Passport—available for $US600 without a contract and about $US250 with one—is focused squarely on what it is calling the "power professional."

With a huge square-shaped touch screen and innovative touch-sensitive physical keyboard, the Passport looks nothing like a classic BlackBerry. In fact, it looks nothing like any phone ever made. But beneath it all it wants to serve the same purpose every BlackBerry has for the past decade.

And that's the problem. The Passport has some neat tricks and longer battery life than the competition, but it's living in the past. It's not 2005 anymore.

Hip to be square?

The square screen is the same size as a piece of American cheese.
The square screen is the same size as a piece of American cheese. Source: Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal

"That's not a phone, it's a deformed laptop!" "What the heck is that?" The best thing about carrying around the Passport is hearing reactions to its very strange design.

True to its namesake, the phone is the same size and shape as a US passport. It's thicker than your travel document, but it's quite svelte for its size and the well-made resin back is satisfyingly smooth.

The craziest thing about the Passport is its American-cheese-size 4.5-inch touch screen. While every other smartphone maker was figuring out how to make larger rectangular screens, BlackBerry focused on making the largest square that humans can fit in their hand or pocket.

Why square? Well, partially to stick out among the competition, the company admits. There is a more practical reason, too: The wider, 1440 x 1400-resolution surface displays more horizontal text of websites, emails and Excel cells than others. I was able to see the entire website map of my spinning class without having to zoom in or rotate the display, the way I have to on the iPhone 6 or the iPhone 6 Plus.

It was helpful in those situations, but not helpful enough to forgive how hard it is to hold the thing. The wider dimensions made it hard for me to reach parts of the screen, nearly impossible with one hand, and on one or two occasions I even dropped it. (No damages.)


The number keys on the BlackBerry Passport appear on the screen.

The number keys on the BlackBerry Passport appear on the screen. Source: Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal 

The smaller three-row keyboard beneath the display causes part of that awkwardness. Almost a third of the size of the screen, it makes the phone top heavy when you type on it.

The bigger problem: It doesn't feel like a BlackBerry keyboard. Sure, there are the reliable well-spaced frets and angled keys, but the all-important shift, number and punctuation keys aren't there, physically—they pop up on the screen. It's harder to get used to than it may sound. I liken it to coming home to find your living room is now your bedroom and your bedroom is your bathroom.

In my heyday, with my trusty Curve, I could type 60 words per minute without even looking down. Unfortunately, the only curve here is the learning curve. I can only type an average of 45 words per minute on the Passport—and that's after three weeks of practice. And thanks to Apple's improvements to the iOS keyboard and the wider screen on the iPhone 6, I can now type 55 words per minute on glass. BlackBerry will release a new Classic phone with a more traditional keyboard before the end of the year.

Things speed up significantly when I use the Passport's predictive text feature, which is as fast or faster than Android's or the iPhone's because of the trackpad-like keyboard. The gestures have become second nature. Swipe up on the keys to pick one of the predicted words, swipe down to scroll through an email, swipe left to delete a previous word.

Forget the Apps

Despite two app stores, Instagram isn't available for the Passport.

Despite two app stores, Instagram isn't available for the Passport. Source: Drew Evans/The Wall Street Journal 

The BlackBerry 10.3 operating system is similarly chock full of gestures, which are difficult to master at first but quite speedy once you do.

Instead of a home button, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen to minimize any app. You swipe to the left from any screen to get to the universal inbox, which houses all your emails and other messages. It is an incredibly efficient way of getting to what I still believe is the best mobile email client. Superior draft email support, attachment editing and formatting options continue to put BlackBerry ahead of the native iOS and Android email apps.

There are other industry-leading features of the operating system, including how multiple notifications are organized by app on the lock screen and how easy it is to jump between open apps. With BlackBerry Balance, you can encrypt business calls and data, and store them away from your personal content. The battery even outlasted the new iPhone 6 and Moto X, making it into the next day without needing a charge.

But BlackBerry is still years behind on everything else. The maps app, which is based on TomTom's data, is unpardonably slow and it failed to find numerous points of interest in New York City. When I typed in "La Esquina," it suggested a spot in Spain. If only, BlackBerry! Let's start with the restaurant in Brooklyn, shall we?

Google Maps found the place right away, though I had to access it through the Passport's web browser. Even now, with two app stores, BlackBerry World and Amazon's Appstore, the apps I use every day, like Google's or Uber or Snapchat, are missing. And despite the square shape of the screen, there's no Instagram. Not that the Passport's 13-megapixel camera takes very good photos anyway.

While big apps like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Yelp are there, they're slower and uglier than the iPhone and Android versions.

BlackBerry says the apps and the store selection are being updated everyday. But the company's chief operating officer Marty Beard admits many BlackBerry users also carry an Android phone or iPhone. In fact, that number is close to 40 per cent—and includes billionaire adventurer Richard Branson.

Yet even if I did carry two phones, I wouldn't pick the Passport. The bulky, awkward design and the unfamiliar keyboard make it hard to justify finding space for it in a pocket or bag.

I just don't need such a thing as a long-lasting, email-centric "work" phone anymore. Modern-day smartphones allow us to not only be power professionals but also power parents, spouses, fitness nuts and more. They enable us to communicate far beyond the inbox, while also letting us stop and smell the roses—or at least take a picture of them to post on Instagram.

If I could go back in time, and keep BlackBerry from losing its groove, I would. But that would be another movie altogether.

Write to Joanna Stern at or follow her @JoannaStern.

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