11.01.2016

BlackBerry Passport Review: Built Like a Tank, Handles Like a Ferrari

A fork in the road, a road not taken


Our humble website has been running for nearly a year and we’ve never written a single review. Aside from the constraint of funding, the main reason Davis and the Jake-Man has yet to review a single consumer technology product is a lack of inspiration. 

The dominant category for a number of years has been mobile, specifically smartphones. But most smartphones are boring. They’re all black rectangles that barely evoke any emotion whatsoever. Put an iPhone 7, Galaxy S7, and any number of premium Chinese handsets side by side and you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. 

Smartphone comparisons have degenerated into a discussion of trivial differences such as bezel size and the location of the fingerprint reader. They’ve all got ample memory and processing power and their cameras range from good enough to outstanding. It’s hard to go wrong in this day and age when shopping for a cell phone. The bottom line is if you buy a mid-range or top-tier handset, you’ll be getting your money’s worth.

"Smartphone comparisons have degenerated into a discussion of trivial differences."

Because of this relativity in the mobile realm, Davis and I didn’t see much value in sharing our views on this sector of the consumer tech world. Whether it’s the OnePlus 3, iPhone SE, Nexus 6P, or LG G5 (recently marked down due to its abysmal adoption rate), $400 smartphones are a great choice for most users. If you’re willing and able to spend more than that, the top tier is inhabited by well-refined choices such as the LG V20, iPhone 7, Galaxy S7, and spiritual successor to the HTC 10, the Google Pixel

LG, Apple, Samsung, and HTC (back in carrier stores by way of Google) are established names in the smartphone rat race. Conspicuous by its absence is BlackBerry, arguably the granddaddy of ‘em all. Immortalized through its dominance of the early smartphone era, BlackBerry Ltd. (formerly Research in Motion) has fallen from grace and become a punchline, almost the Windows Vista of mobile. 

BlackBerry Market Share, Credit: Statista

BlackBerry’s decline is epitomized by its shift from hardware manufacturer to software distributor. Their final in-house handset, the Priv, sold poorly and led the Canadian company to outsource the hardware to Chinese firm Alcatel. Its first two phones, the DTEK50 and 60, are rebrands of the Alcatel Idol 4 and 4S, respectively. Reception has been lukewarm at best and this change in tactics has bore little fruit for the former juggernaut. 

Before this misstep, BlackBerry had its own platform called BlackBerry OS 10 and the final flagship to run their abandonware was the BlackBerry Passport, first released in 2014 (several special edition variants would be introduced, sporting identical internals). The phone is a sight to behold. It comes in black, white, red, or silver. Your correspondent chose the special edition silver model, made of aluminum, as his daily driver after being consumed with disgust towards current flagship offerings. 

BlackBerry Passport Models, Credit: CrackBerry

To be clear, it is not recommended for typical users to even consider this phone. As mentioned, it runs a discarded operating system and has two-year-old hardware. For those fixated on the latest and greatest and/or users interested in downloading the newest apps, this phone would be a poor choice. That being said, it has a lot to offer if the prospective buyer prioritizes other features. 

What the Passport lacks in software, it makes up for with hardware. This thing is rigid. Its solid build elicits so much more confidence than a bendable iPhone or a begging-to-be-shattered Galaxy. Its camera isn’t of the same caliber as the aforementioned flagships, but it does support HDR and OIS and will suffice for casual photographers.

"What the Passport lacks in software, it makes up for with hardware."

Then there’s the screen. This and the keyboard (which we’ll discuss shortly) are the cornerstones of the device. The ad campaign for the Passport used the tagline “WORK WIDE,” meaning that users have far more horizontal real estate than on a traditional widescreen smartphone in portrait mode. This is compounded by the physical keyboard; you don’t lose half your workspace like you do on iOS or Android with their virtual keypads. It’s a 1440p 4.5-inch square display (which is immensely pixel dense at 453 PPI) that while unsuited for content consumption, is ideal for productivity tasks like email, word processing and spreadsheets.

The wonderfully tactile, clicky, and responsive keyboard demonstrates this focus on productivity. Input is mixed, with number and symbols being virtual, while the QWERTY and spacebar are physical. And this is no ordinary QWERTY. The Passport has a trick up its suit jacket sleeve, namely the touch gestures the physical keyboard touts. You can scroll through home screens, web pages, documents, and news feeds and even precisely control the cursor (a feature later introduced into the iOS keyboard though 3D Touch). It’s a terrific input mechanism and this along with the unique aspect ratio of the Passport’s screen are its main selling points.

"The software of this otherwise ideal device is indeed its Achilles’ heel."

But it isn’t all sunshine for the BlackBerry. The BlackBerry World app store is even more barren than the Windows Phone marketplace, although the Amazon App Store serves as a crutch. You can even sideload Android apps onto the Passport, although this workaround is buggy due to the BB10’s Android runtime version 4, meaning that applications requiring 5 or higher won’t load. Granted, you can use web apps or sideload older APKs, but the process is quite involved and too laborious for a mainstream user. The software of this otherwise ideal device is indeed its Achilles’ heel. 

The Passport caters to a niche market and when considering its intended audience, has stood the test of time. Software updates have taken nothing away from the performance of this 2014 flagship. The Passport can be purchased new through various online retailers for between $179 for the black version and $249 for the aluminum silver edition.