Whenever I whip out the Passport -- which understandably got its name for having the same dimensions as a real passport -- I hear mutterings of disbelief that a product like this even exists. Saying it's unique is an understatement: The only device that looks remotely similar is the LG Optimus Vu, a nearly square, all-screen phone from 2012. I'll give credit to BlackBerry where it's due: Its bizarre design got people talking.
Indeed, buzz is something BlackBerry hasn't enjoyed for a long time. Before the Passport, its most recent handset quietly debuted in February: the Z3, a modest touchscreen device designed for emerging markets like Indonesia. This is the first piece of hardware the phone maker has launched globally in well over a year. And not only that, but it also has the most competitive specs of any BlackBerry in years.
At 128 x 90.3mm, the phone really is as wide as it seems -- it's wider than most large-screened phones on the market -- but BlackBerry insists this is a feature rather than a setback. Because it's using a 4.5-inch square display that's 30 percent wider than an average 5-inch phone, the company claims you'll read up to 60 characters per line and get a better viewing experience. In a way, that's true: I enjoyed reading articles and e-books on the Passport because text didn't have to wrap or get cut off as often, but the trade-off was an awkward one-handed fit and more frequent vertical scrolling.
The two-handed typing experience was a little better than I expected it to be. As my thumbs type, my hands naturally cradle the back to prevent the device from slipping out. This is essential because the three-row keyboard sits so low on the device that the center of gravity is different than on most phones, but I never truly felt like I was going to drop it while typing. When I'm not typing, however, I want to be able to use my phone one-handed; sadly, this is incredibly uncomfortable when I'm using the Passport in portrait mode because of its width, and is especially noticeable when you try to hold it up to your ear.
I asked a BlackBerry rep how the company expects people to use the device one-handed, and he responded by flipping the phone sideways. As I'll discuss in the next section, the keyboard has a touch-sensitive trackpad that lets you hold the Passport sideways and scroll through websites, emails or Twitter feeds by moving your thumb up or down on the keyboard. It's clever, but there are still clear interruptions in the user experience, which I'll cover in the software section.
That said, it's still awkward no matter which way you hold it, because it's short and heavy. Its weight (196g) is reason enough to hold the thing with two hands as often as you can. But at least in return you get a robust build, with solid materials that feel like they can withstand plenty of abuse. It's got a stainless steel frame that lines the 9.3mm sides and also sits in between the keyboard rows; the back uses soft-touch plastic, with the exception of a camera module interrupting a single line of metal near the top. The display is covered with a slab of Gorilla Glass 3.
The Passport's screen isn't going to win any medals, but it's got a few pros and cons. Regardless of how you feel about the shape and size of the 4.5-inch square LCD panel, its 1,400 x 1,400 resolution, which equates to a pixel density of 453 ppi, delivers a good viewing experience -- at least in terms of its easy-to-read text and pleasing visuals. But despite having settings to adjust white balance and color saturation, it still appeared much warmer, less saturated and less vibrant than most flagship phones (default or otherwise). White screens look closer to mother of pearl, while the darks are roughly the same grayish-black as most LCDs. Viewing angles are about average for a flagship. The most impressive aspect of the screen, however, is its outdoor visibility. It's one of the best I've ever seen; I had absolutely no problem reading the display in direct sunlight, which can't be said about most devices on the market. In fact, it was noticeably better than the Note 4, which is near the top of the class.
The Passport has a 3.5mm headphone jack and power button on the top, with a micro-USB/micro-HDMI port and stereo speakers on the bottom. The left side is bare, but the right features volume up/down buttons separated by a convenience key used for BlackBerry Assistant and media play/pause. The device is adorned with four mics, including one hidden in the phone earpiece. There's a 2MP front-facing camera above the display and to the right of a notification LED and other sensors.
Around back, there's a 13-megapixel camera and LED flash, as well as a removable section above the metal separator, which is where you'll find the nano-SIM and microSDXC slots. You'll also get a hefty 3,450mAh battery, but you won't be able to remove it.
As I mentioned in the introduction, the Passport keyboard is unlike any other I've tried on a smartphone. This isn't simply a matter of me going back to my roots as a BlackBerry owner years ago and getting reacquainted with the traditional layout used on the Bolds and Curves; I have to learn a brand-new design.
I suppose that's part of the fun. This company, despite never-ending layoffs and turmoil, has churned out an impressive feat of engineering. The three-row keyboard doubles as a touch-sensitive trackpad that adds gestures to the typing experience in a very clever way. With it, BlackBerry has evolved an old-fashioned keyboard into something fresh and -- dare I say -- innovative.
That's not to say it doesn't require a significant learning curve. It's not an easy board to master in a few days, but once you do, you have access to a powerful tool. Just like on most BlackBerrys of old, each key has angled frets to help your fingertips know exactly where to press. It's difficult to get used to the space bar, which is now snuggled between the V and B keys; it's also weird to adjust to the lack of symbol or number keys, since only the backspace and return keys are featured. Where's everything else? In a virtual keyboard at the bottom of the screen, which can change dynamically depending on the app you're using and the type of message you're writing. The default for most scenarios is a row of six symbols, a shift key and number button, but sometimes a number row will pop up above the symbols; when you hit the number button, a full grid of characters appears and takes up over half of the screen.
The usual BlackBerry keyboard shortcuts (even the custom ones) haven't gone anywhere; neither has the space bar double-tap to insert a period. However, gestures are the real deal here: You can now double-tap any part of the board to pull up a cursor, which then gives you options for selecting text, copy/paste and so on. Holding the shift button while using the keyboard as a trackpad lets you select multiple lines of text. Swiping left deletes full words at a time. Swiping down pulls up a virtual symbol pad on the screen (which maps each symbol to a hotkey on the physical board). And swiping up toward a word-prediction suggestion automatically inserts that word. Additionally, you can use the trackpad to scroll up and down on apps, websites and other areas. This comes in most handy when you're reading articles or feeds and want to browse everything one-handed; without this feature, one-handed use on such a wide and awkward phone would be more awkward than it already is.
Word predictions are an essential part of today's smartphone keyboards, and BlackBerry does an inconsistent job. For example, as I typed "one-handed" in the last paragraph, it predicted the term early on the first time, but took more keystrokes to figure it out the next two times. Also, after typing my first name in emails, it only predicted my last name half of the time, if that. (The other times, it'd predict "Pitt.") It also had difficulty predicting the end of many well-known metaphors and idioms, like "ducks in a row" or "penny for your thoughts." In fact, I typed out the beginning of 20 of the most popular idioms and it only succeeded at guessing the final word of five of them.
The constant transitioning from physical to virtual boards is also confusing and jarring. It's not uncommon for me to type random punctuation marks in the middle of my words because my thumb occasionally hits the virtual keys when I'm actually trying to type letters in the top physical row. It's also frustrating that in most scenarios, I have to do an extra action before getting to type numbers -- either swiping down or hitting the virtual key. And if I need to type a string of multiple numbers in a row, the latter is my only option.
Let's get the obvious out of the way: Nobody is moving to BlackBerry for its robust ecosystem of apps. To make up for the fact that developers simply aren't rushing to make BB10 apps, the company has done the best it can to provide enough meaningful programs and content for its users. Now on version 10.3 of its OS, BlackBerry has come a long way from when BB10 debuted a year and a half ago, but it's not far enough to be competitive. Unfortunately, it's instead a hodge-podge of options that confuses most users: two app stores and a method of sideloading Android 4.3 (or lower) apps.
In addition to BlackBerry World, the company partnered with Amazon to bring its app store to BB 10.3. While this means users have easy access to more Android apps, it's still restrictive because its catalog has fewer than 300,000 offerings (smaller than the Windows Phone store) and many of the most-used apps aren't there. In addition to the obvious gap in Google services, you'll also find that Netflix, Instagram and Firefox are missing, as well as popular games like Dead Trigger, Asphalt and Beach Buggy Racing (to be fair, Blitz, the older game, is offered). (Update: Dropbox is natively built into Blackberry OS.) It's definitely not a ghost town, especially when compared to BlackBerry World; you can get apps like Facebook Messenger, Vine, Box.net, Zillow and Fruit Ninja, as well as the free app of the day. But it's still a drop in the bucket compared to the Google Play store selection. There are a few third-party alternatives to some of the more popular services, but even those are sparse.
That said, you can sideload quite a few Android apps on the Passport (which seems to be appropriate, since the square screen matches the square viewfinder the app uses), but you have to know what you're doing.
The process involves converting Android APK files into BlackBerry-friendly BAR files, which you can do using online software or manual run commands. Needless to say, this isn't a novice solution. (Update: You actually don't need to convert into BAR anymore; you can directly download the APK onto the device and install it. I tried this out with Instagram and it worked flawlessly. There's also a third-party app called Snap, which acts as a Google Play client. Thanks @Bla1ze and commenters!) The end result isn't flawless either. The current software only supports Android 4.3; it's an improvement over previous versions of BB 10, which restricted you to Gingerbread apps, but not every Android app will work this way. And even when they do work, they won't offer an identical experience to what you'd enjoy on a device that natively runs Google's OS.