With Passport, Blackberry thinks bold and seeks new converts, says Molly Wood.
There is much to like about BlackBerrys. Their squat design, in particular, and tippity-tap keyboards are models of efficiency and lend an air of businesslike legitimacy.
For those of you who remain steadfast in your support of BlackBerry, this is the season for you. Later this year, the company will release the BlackBerry Classic, an updated BlackBerry smartphone that will feature the traditional keyboard, trackpad and physical navigation keys of earlier BlackBerrys.
But the BlackBerry company hopes its premium-priced smartphone, the Passport, released Wednesday, will also find converts to the brand.
And the Passport makes a strong case - but not quite strong enough. That’s especially true since it’s likely to be expensive even with a new contract. The phone is $600 (Rs 36,735) with no carrier subsidies.
The Passport has a good story. It’s the size and shape of an actual passport, which BlackBerry calls “the international symbol of mobility.” The design is startling and polarizing. Its screen is a near-perfect square and three lines of, yes, physical keys grace the bottom of the phone.
I like its crisp lines and aggressive, vaguely 1980s styling, with matte black plastic, exposed stainless steel frame and sturdy heft. Its wide body makes it easy and comfortable to hold in two hands while typing.
But the awkward size has drawbacks. You can’t easily place it in a car’s cup holder, so if the phone is your navigation companion, it’s hard to figure out where to put it. It’ll fit in a back pocket, the front pocket of loose-fitting pants, or a suit jacket, but not in the phone pockets sewn into most purses. As for one-handed use, forget it.
As with BlackBerry phones of yore, the keyboard is the star of the Passport. It gets some new tricks that pair with the device’s big, 4.5-inch LCD screen. The physical keys are limited to letters, backspace, return and the space bar. All other keys appear as a virtual keyboard on the screen. When you’re typing, suggested words appear above those virtual keys.
The physical keyboard is touch-sensitive; you can flick up on the keyboard to select an autocomplete word, for example. You can also scroll up and down on the keyboard, which evokes that beloved BlackBerry trackpad and keeps the screen pleasingly smudge-free.But using the actual keyboard isn’t as easy as I remember.
The keys are stiff and take some work to press. Even after several weeks of use, I felt slow. I typed more like a hunt-and-peck newbie than the “power professional” BlackBerry says is its primary target.
In a speed test, it took me 15.7 seconds to type “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” on the physical keyboard - although auto-correct typed “The suck brown fox.” The same phrase took 9.3 seconds on Android and 8.3 seconds on an iPhone 5S, and the sentence was accurately auto-corrected on both.
When I used the BlackBerry’s swipe upward trick to choose every word in the sentence, the time was reduced to 8.8 seconds - still slower than the iPhone even though the phone knew every word I was going to use.
As for the overall experience, the phone’s operating system, the BlackBerry 10, is complete and relatively familiar; it behaves similarly to Android and can run many Android apps.
To download apps, you use the BlackBerry World app store or the Amazon App Store, which is preloaded. But not all Android apps are available: You can’t get the suite of Google apps available from the Google Play store, for example, like the official Google Maps app or Google Now.
You can download Google-owned Waze from the Amazon app store or a $6 (Rs 367) app that is said to be powered by Google Maps in the BlackBerry World store.
There are some good BlackBerry-only amenities, like its coming Blend software, which will let you get access to text messages, calls, documents and BBM messages on your desktop computer or even a tablet, like an iPad. BlackBerry said Blend would operate as a secure sandbox for your work communications, even on a personal device.
BlackBerry also promotes its BlackBerry Assistant, which is like Siri, Google Now or Windows Phone’s Cortana. It does a good job of learning behavioural habits, so when you tap the share button on a photo, for example, it suggests the person you’re most likely to send it to.
I also found its speech recognition very good. But BlackBerry Assistant needs multiple confirmations to execute commands. If I say, “call” a specific contact, for example, Google Now or Siri calls that contact. BlackBerry Assistant asks me if I really want to call. It’s just one step too many for maximum efficiency.
Thus was my experience throughout - small inefficiencies that slowed me down. The cursor doesn’t always appear in text fields when it should, the lack of a “home” button is annoying, and despite top-of-the-line specs, I found performance - like swiping between apps and screen responsiveness - a bit slow. Sometimes the touch screen just didn’t respond.
Ultimately, the BlackBerry Passport feels different, daring and promising, but not enough to entice most people away from better-known devices if they have the option.
There will be definitely some who dare to be different and who choose brand loyalty above all. To them I say, you’ll love the BlackBerry Classic.