BlackBerry Passport review: A bold and valiant effort, but too many critical drawbacks

BlackBerry has taken a proverbial bashing from the mobile industry in recent years.

Its downfall has been well documented – going from king of mobile to industry loser about as quick as it takes someone to say: ‘iPhone’.

Much of the Canadian company’s criticism was targeted at its ill-fated attempt to take on Apple and Samsung in the mass smartphone market.

Its BlackBerry 10 range – which included the Z10 and Q10 – was doomed from the start. Despite being excellent workplace devices – superior at messaging and security – the decision to market them to the general consumer was seriously misguided.

>See also: It’s time to say no to Apple and its iPhones

The phones lacked all the features that consumers love. Its camera was below par and its app ecosystem was substandard. BlackBerry simply didn’t give consumers a reason to leave their iPhones and Galaxys behind, and seemingly neglected its loyal user base of professionals and businesses in the process.

Fortunately, BlackBerry’s new CEO, John Chen, has learned from these mistakes.

Chen understands that for pure working capability, BlackBerry devices outweigh competitors in productivity, battery, email and messaging, document editing, security and data management. So rather than take this for granted, he has embraced it.

As a result, BlackBerry is now focusing firmly on its enterprise capabilities. It is a leader in mobile device management – it unveils its latest version this week – and is seen as the most secure partner for devices in business environments.

So this is where it is now focusing its device output. Rather than releasing a large range of smartphones throughout the year and trying to keep up with the constantly growing expectations of consumers, it will instead release just a few flagship devices that align with its business credentials.

The plan has begun to work. This summer saw an operating profit on handsets for the first time in five quarters, and BlackBerry now aims to turn a profit in its fiscal 2016 year.

‘BlackBerry has survived,’ Chen recently said. ‘Now we have to start looking at growth.’

Most of all, however, BlackBerry has enjoyed a change in public perception, driven by a wave of positive reviews for its latest device, the BlackBerry Passport.

Chen’s decision to finally let go of the consumer market has stood the company in good stead as reviews have instead focused on what the device is marketed as: a business tool.

BlackBerry claims this device is built entirely with enterprise mobility in mind, feeding the premise that business executives want to be able to work on the go with all the functionality of their PC.

The answer to this, according to BlackBerry, is a smartphone that is far wider than any other. The Passport is, as the name would suggest, the exact size of a passport: 90.3mm wide by 128mm tall. The screen is large and square at 81mm x 81mm.

The point to this radically sized screen is not just to appear bold and different, but to make it easier and quicker to edit documents and presentations.

It passes with flying colours on both of these counts. Looks wise, the Passport is the most striking smartphone to emerge in years – although people react in equal measures of horror and intrigue upon first seeing it – and functionality wise, it is the most competent smartphone attempt to integrate PC-native business tasks yet.

However, after more extensive use, the Passport’s greatest asset ends up being its greatest drawback.

The biggest disadvantage of the Passport is the inability to effectively operate it with just one hand. It is simply too wide.

For a smartphone that was supposedly built almost entirely with business mobility in mind, this is a fatal mistake.

Working on the move is about much more than just sitting in an airport editing a document – it’s about keeping connected while literally on the move: walking to a meeting; standing on a crowded train; or, even, laying in bed. If you can’t operate a phone effectively with one hand, it is not a device for the anywhere-anytime user.

The keyboard doesn’t help this. The buttons are, in fact, too far apart from each other, which, combined with the bizarre decision to exclude numbers from the physical keys, makes typing at speed more difficult – rather than less, as you normally expect from a physical typing pad.

And despite the Passport’s quad-core Krait unit and Qualcomm processor making it powerful and speedy most of the time, BlackBerry hasn’t fixed the tendency of its previous BlackBerry 10 devices to lag and, even, at times completely reboot. If this seemingly random occurrence happens halfway through typing an important email or while presenting a slide to a client, this suddenly becomes a very bad device for business.

>See also: Learning the lessons of Apple vs. Blackberry

Nothing, however, is more unforgiving than BlackBerry’s still-poor app ecosystem. It’s now almost two years ago that BlackBerry first unveiled its new operating system, BlackBerry 10, and promised to fill it with popular and productive apps.

The lack of consumer favourites like Instagram and Snapchat can be justified given BlackBerry no longer chases this market, but business favourites like Uber and CityMapper are critical omissions. The integration with Amazon Appstore offers little extra choice, either.

On the plus side, the battery is fantastic, BlackBerry Hub is the best messaging platform on the market, and BlackBerry Blend is a terrific method of unified communications. The screen is genuinely striking, the security credentials are second-to-none, and clever gestures further increase productivity.

Yes, BlackBerry is back on the right track – but it must now really fine tune its understanding of what truly constitutes a device for business users on the go.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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