Hands On With the New BlackBerry Passport Smartphone

CIO.com's Al Sacco spent a week with the new BlackBerry Passport before its official release. Here are five things you'll likely love about the unique and innovative device, along with four more things you very likely won't.

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What You Might Not Love (Maybe Even Hate) About The BlackBerry Passport

That Unique, But Challenging, BlackBerry Passport Keyboard

As much as I like the Passport keyboard, it will almost certainly be a bit much for some people. As previously stated, there's a significant learning curve. Some of the integrated touch features and gestures work better than others. It takes time to learn them — and in some cases, learn to avoid them.

I suspect more than a few people who at one point loved their old BlackBerry's keyboard will find the Passport's combination of touch and physical keys overwhelming. You need to take the time to not only learn and understand how it works, but also practice a bit to master the features, or you won't appreciate its unique functionality. If you're the kind of person who likes to read user guides and know how to use all of a device's features, the Passport could be a good fit. If you want an interface that immediately makes sense, that doesn't require time and a bit of effort to learn, the Passport probably isn't right for you. 

blackberry passport primary 1 Brian Sacco

BlackBerry Passport Is Big and Bulky

Like the BlackBerry Passport's keyboard, the device's size and shape take some getting used to. You can call it a large phone – or even a "phablet," though BlackBerry says it's still a phone – but the thing is big and square. Thanks to the physical keypad and the square display — in contrast to the long, thin screens found on most phones and tablets today — the form factor can be challenging, even a turnoff.

The Passport is almost exactly the same size as an actual traveler's passport, but thicker. It's big – but compared to the unwieldy iPhone 6 Plus, it's not too big, at least not for me.

I'm having more trouble getting used to how it fits in my hands. I say hands, plural, because this isn't a device you'll want to use with one hand. It's very awkward typing with one thumb while holding the Passport with the rest of your hand, so much so that it's almost impossible and definitely not economical.

I have large hands, and I'm still trying to find the ideal way to hold the Passport comfortably when typing. The long, short physical keyboard is at the base of the device when it's held upright. You have to slide the bottom of your hand off of it to get a good typing position, which isn't ideal. When you do, the device feels top heavy and unbalanced.

I appreciate the size of the Passport's display, which lets you see more of a Web page and utilize more screen real estate when working on presentations or documents. It can be awkward, though, especially when typing out long messages — or writing stories like the one you're reading.

BlackBerry Passport Buggy Software Mars Experience

My biggest complaint about the BlackBerry Passport: The overall software experience is buggy and seemingly unfinished. (My device runs BlackBerry OS 10.3.0.675.) Apps crash somewhat frequently, and many are momentarily unresponsive when I return to them from other apps. I have occasional problems switching camera modes. The BlackBerry Browser hangs and crashes when I try to adjust certain settings. These are just a few examples.

The level of "bugginess" in the software is surprising. It brings back memories of past BlackBerry device launches plagued with software issues. In this day and age, I frankly expect more.

The Passport is the first BlackBerry device that comes preloaded with the Amazon App Store for Android. There's still an official BlackBerry app store called BlackBerry World, which is for native BlackBerry apps developed in the past and for corporate apps. The Amazon App Store, with more than 200,000 Android apps, is for consumer apps. I think. I'm still not sure. It's confusing — and the two store experiences feel different.

blackberry passport top front Brian Sacco

The Passport runs Android apps. All of the apps in the Amazon store are supposed to work on the Passport -- but some don't, or at least don't work well. For example, I had to reboot my Passport a number of times to get Amazon's own Kindle, Instant Video and Music apps to work. You often have to zoom in or resize apps to make them look right on the Passport, too, since they were designed for different displays.

The Amazon App Store gives BlackBerry users access to more apps, but the overall app experience is disjointed and poor compared to other leading mobile platforms.

BlackBerry Passport Is One More Device To Add To Your Collection

BlackBerry was clear during my Passport demonstration that the device is meant for a very specific type of user: Someone who likely already carries two (or more) phones, a tablet (or two), a PC, a wearable and maybe even a few more devices, and who prioritizes productivity over anything else. That's the word that came up more than any other during my meeting with BlackBerry: Productivity.

The Passport is a business device, and it excels in many related areas. But it also falls short in some of the others, which means you'll probably need another phone if you want the best possible overall smartphone experience.

There's something to be said about carrying two smartphones — in fact, I said it in a post I wrote a couple of years ago. However, if you're a one-phone person, as some of the most productive businesspeople are, the Passport may not be a good fit. Simply put, the overall experience doesn't match other high-end devices on different platforms. If I had to pick a single phone to use for both work and play, it wouldn't be the Passport. 

Things to Love (And Hate) About the BlackBerry Passport: Conclusion

I like the BlackBerry Passport. I like it a lot. It's not a device I'll stop using after I'm done reviewing it. (The Land of Misfit Tech Toys is packed with devices I haven't touched since I finished evaluating them.)

The keyboard is great, if a bit oversized and unwieldy. Battery life is spectacular. It's built well, and its large display helps make me more productive on my mobile device. If you're a smartphone "power user" who values the ability to work on your handset over play, you'll find a friend in the Passport.

However, the software experience is lacking, largely due to general bugginess. The keyboard takes a while to get used to, and some of the keyboard-based gestures don't work as well as they could. The device is big, and it could definitely be too big for certain people. If you only want to carry one device, you could do better overall than the Passport.

That said, BlackBerry deserves some credit for creating a smartphone that's truly innovative, truly unique, and just different. The smartphone world is boring these days, at least from a hardware perspective. Major manufacturers blatantly copy each other. It's refreshing to see a new product such as the BlackBerry Passport.

The unlocked BlackBerry Passport (32GB) is available now for $599 in the United States via ShopBlackBerry.com. BlackBerry expects its wireless carrier partners to sell a subsidized version of the device some time this year for around $250 on contract.

AS

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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