While touchscreen-only devices have taken over the smartphone world, there is just no beating a good hardware keyboard for quick and accurate typing.
However, as Steve Jobs pointed out during the unveiling of the original iPhone, using a hardware keyboard has a major drawback: even when you don’t need it, it’s using up space that could’ve been used for the screen.
But what if you put a 4.5-inch square display on a smartphone and a relatively small 3-row keyboard that only has the bare essentials: the alphabet, a space bar, backspace, and enter?
This is what BlackBerry has gone for in the Passport: a hybrid keyboard-touch device where the keyboard takes up less than 25% of the total size of the device (where other QWERTY devices clock in at 33% – 50%).
The unusual design of the BlackBerry Passport means it isn’t for everyone; something even BlackBerry is aware of.
Instead, the smartphone maker said it has made the BlackBerry Passport as a productivity tool for the “power professional”.
To know whether you’re the “power professional” BlackBerry is targeting, you’ll need to know about the Passport’s keyboard.
While not the only notable feature of the BlackBerry Passport, it is arguably the key aspect of the device and deserves a sizeable chunk of the review.
In addition to the actual keys, the BlackBerry Passport’s keyboard also has a touch-sensitive surface.
Baked into the new version of BlackBerry’s mobile operating system, BlackBerry 10 OS 10.3, is support for keyboard-based gestures to minimise having to reach up to the screen while typing.
The keyboard’s touch-sensitive surface also offers similar functionality to the trackpad featured on BlackBerry 7 devices, something which was missing on the BlackBerry Q10.
Among the gestures available is:
- swiping left to delete the previous word you typed
- swiping up underneath one of 3 word predictions to send that word to the text field you’re busy typing in
- holding the virtual shift key and swiping left and right to select text
- swiping down to open the special characters pane
With no Alt or Shift keys on the keyboard, you will have to either learn to use the virtual keyboard, or use the hardware keyboard’s gestures.
To type a capital letter without reaching up, for example, you can push and hold in a key. Holding the key in longer will let you type accented characters.
Typing special characters can be done by either using the virtual keyboard, or by pushing and holding the special characters key to let you type them on the hardware keyboard.
You can also enable this “special character lock” by swiping down on the hardware keyboard.
The ecosystem: BlackBerry and Android
Along with the experience offered by the Passport’s hardware keyboard, the other important element in deciding whether it’s for you is BlackBerry’s content ecosystem.
Here BlackBerry has done admirably, getting many key third-party app developers to natively support BlackBerry OS, and offering the ability to run Android applications on BlackBerry OS.
However, there are a few notable apps that are still not available, and using Android applications on BlackBerry 10 is not always easy for non-technical users.
Here BlackBerry’s partnership with Amazon helps, as it has resulted in the Passport coming with the Amazon App Store pre-installed, offering a glut of Android applications.
There are other third-party Android markets for BlackBerry available too, such as Snap and 1Mobile Market, but these can be tricky to install.
As one might expect, many Android applications — and BlackBerry ports of Android applications — also do not always seamlessly plug into BlackBerry 10 OS.
For example, Android applications can’t trigger notifications, which negatively impacts the user experience of instant messaging apps.
The Android versions of Google apps not supported on BlackBerry 10 such as Google Drive, Docs, Sheets, and Slides also don’t work.
Apps that don’t need notifications or OS-level support for Google Accounts seem to work well, however.
Games from the Amazon App Store such as Plants versus Zombies worked pretty well on the BlackBerry Passport.
One other niggle worth mentioning while discussing the software of the BlackBerry passport is that its high resolution square display doesn’t seem to be properly supported by all apps.
The “hidden pane” menu design used by Vodacom and Ster Kinekor’s apps, as shown in the above image, results in the hidden menu being displayed all the time, or the content remaining visible when the menu should hide it.
Speed round: Battery, Blend, and Assistant
|Dimensions||128 x 90.3 x 9.3mm|
|Operating system||BlackBerry 10.3|
|Storage, expandable||microSDXC (128GB)|
|Processor||2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801|
|Cellular data||HSPA+, LTE|
|SIM type||nano SIM|
The battery in the BlackBerry Passport is a monster 3,450mAh and non-removable. In our testing it comfortably lasted the day, and can often last well into a second day with light to moderate usage.
On the software side, BlackBerry also announced a number of features that aren’t exclusive to the Passport.
This includes Blend, a new tool that lets you access and use many of your BlackBerry’s features from your PC. For instance: you can be alerted to incoming messages, read them, and respond to them from within Blend. For now, only the BlackBerry Passport and Porsche Design P’9983 supports Blend.
BlackBerry 10.3 also introduced a new voice assistant similar to Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. You can summon the BlackBerry Assistant to have it look up information for you, set reminders and alarms, or place calls and send messages.
Is the BlackBerry Passport for you?
The BlackBerry Passport introduced a number of interesting new features and showcases a few improvements to BlackBerry 10.3.
Its touch-sensitive keyboard, in particular, is pretty exciting technology and something I hope makes its way to desktop keyboards sooner rather than later.
However, the large form factor of the Passport and relatively limited BlackBerry+Android content ecosystem means it is definitely not for everyone.
It certainly isn’t for me, but if you’ve been pining for a hardware keyboard on a large-screen phone and only use a few of the big third-party apps, then the Passport might be for you.
You power professional, you.