So this past weekend marked a full month that I’ve been using the Blackberry Passport. When I tweeted that I was putting away my other phone(s) and using the Blackberry Passport exclusively for business and pleasure, I wasn’t exactly sure how it would turn out. Today, I’d like to share a few thoughts on my experience, which, for the most part has been absolutely fantastic. Nobody is more surprised then me at just how effective and progressive a device the Passport has turned out to be. Perfect? No, but then no smartphone ever is.
At its most basic level, (size, weight, build quality) the device was really pleasing. I didn’t not find it hard to take around with me, whether it be in my suit jacket, pant pocket, briefcase. The wider nature of the Passport wasn’t strange to me. I liked it. It also has a nice weight to it. Again, I’m not one to be fussed with how thing and how light a phone is. The build quality is terrific. The weighty feel of the device gives it a premium feel and the build quality confirms this. It just felt nice and solid to me. But the physicality of a phone isn’t what determines its usefulness to me. It’s all about functionality for me. So let me spend a little time talking about how I found this unique smartphone and how it faired in heavy day to day use over the course of a month. I will highlight the key functional things that jumped out at my while using the Passport.
What I Really Liked
There are a lot of things to like about the Passport. The wide square screen provides some interesting interaction dynamics as I used it from day to day. I admittedly missed the widgets from my Android phones (more on that later), but the Blackberry OS does a great job of using active frames. For example, you can see in the photo to the right on the Passport I am looking at a weather app. In this mode, the experience is the same (meaning good) as on any other device I use (iOS, Android, Windows Phone) – nice clean refined application that I downloaded from the Blackberry store. What is nice about the using the Passport, is that with a simple swipe up from the keyboard, the weather app collapses to an active frame. You can have six active frames on your Passport that remain full size. The beauty is that if you go beyond six, the active frames get smaller and they adjust to display useful relevant information. The photo to the right again below the weather app is showing you a series of active frames. You can see the weather one has adjusted to show me some relevant information that makes sense to show the user in this view. I like that. Is it as robust as widgets on Android. Not really. Does it provide something useful that I wish Android could do? You bet. As for iOS, this active frame is way ahead of what Apple is currently doing. Stuck in the “app grid” – the Apple interface is beginning to feel tired when it comes to being able to serve up information beyond the app name and maybe a small “count” notification.
You can see there are a number of active frames (click photo to enlarge) – the weather app, my WhatsApp showing the latest message, some headlines from the WSJ, a Twitter message. You get the idea. Little mini-widget-like versions of your apps. I liked that a lot.
Another thing I really liked about the Passport was the capacitive keyboard. As a keyboard itself, it is terrific. This is Blackberry’s real strength and it shows in the Passport. The keyboard is amazing. I was able to type more accurately, if not exactly faster. Tough to explain. I adapted quickly, about 2-3 days of heavy use and I was leveraging the keyboard in such a way that I was having to make less corrections to my content. Further, because the keyboard acts kind of like a like-trackpad, you can type, scroll, type, etc without taking your hands (thumbs) off the keyboard. It was also terrific for scrolling while looking at a web page. See the video for what I mean.
The other thing this super little keyboard allowed for was to quickly swipe up to select the predictive text. I was literally flying when typing emails using this method. As I typed a letter or two and the right word appeared, a simple subtle upward flick on the touch sensitive capacitive keyboard and the word went into my email. In a single word – brilliant.
I also really liked the way the Blackberry Hub worked. I know that it was on some previous models, but it is worth mentioning here with regard to the Passport. It was an intuitive way to get around the device and I especially liked that while I was working in one app I could easily peak at message notifications. More importantly, it is a true integrated unified mailbox. I liked that WhatsApp messages appeared along side emails and that I could see other notifications like calls, text messages and direct Twitter messages. Of course you can have the Hub filter on just a single channel which was useful for when I wanted to see only work email for example.
There are numerous little subtle details that enhance the experience as well. Things like when you are working in one app, say browsing the web, and a text message comes in and the notification peaks down from the top (as it does on other phones), you can quickly respond right from the notification at the top of the screen. You never have to leave the application you are in. That is terrific for workflow. Other things like the seamless integration of WebEx in the screen where you create a new meeting. I was able to schedule a meeting via the Calendar app, much like I am with other phones. There was a little button that allows me to turn on WebEx and then when I press send to invite the participants to the meeting, a WebEx is setup in my account automatically and the people notified of the details. This saved me time on more than one occasion while I used the phone.
The battery. I can’t say enough about the fantastic battery life on this phone. Apple? Google et al? Are you listening? I’ve become so use to not being able to get through a full day with most other phones I use that on the fourth day, when I was arriving home from the office and I glanced at my phone and saw the battery had 42% remaining I seriously did a double take. I’d kept the brightness around 50% which is what I do with most of my phones. It was a day of regular to heavy use; nothing out of the ordinary. And yet, there is was, 42% battery remaining. I was so happy to see that. My ongoing usage through the month confirmed that the battery-life is terrific. I went some days with the screen brightness turned up all the way and that did reduce my usage time, but still managed to easily get me through a regular work day. I did notice two things (which I guess belong in the Don’t Like Section below): 1) the unit ran a bit hotter and used a bit more battery when I ran certain Android apps. 2) I wish the screen brightness would adjust on its own. I had to manually tone I down in the evenings for example when I was in bed or manually increase brightness outside. It would be great to see the device do this itself.
With the introduction of the Passport we also got Blackberry Blend. It allowed a desktop client called Blend to run on my PC and my Mac and allow me to see and respond to messages as they came in. So if I got a text while working on a Excel spreadsheet, I could quickly reply without taking my phone out of my pocket. I liked the concept behind blend and see similarities to what Apple is doing. What I would like to see improved or added so that it would be more useful to me, is to show me notifications for a broader set of apps. For example, the brilliant Blackberry Hub shows me WhatsApp and Facebook messages, but sadly, Blend did not. Allowing third party apps to also work through Blend would instantly increase it’s value to end users.
Lastly (though I could go on) I wouldn’t be doing this review from my perspective justice if I didn’t talk a little about the square screen. It seemed weird for all of about 5 minutes when I first picked up the device. And then you get use to it. There definitely some nice advantages to it – the “working wide” motto is accurate. It is good in some scenarios. Thought I did find though, it’s a bit over stated. I did some comparatives with my Note 3 and initially it does seem that the Passport displays more info. Of course when I adjusted the Passport font size in an email for comparison – the benefit wasn’t as pronounced. Of course, as soon as you go to edit or type something on the Note 3 you obscure part of the screen. So I think that the Passport with its square screen and three row keyboard is on to something. It may not be as compelling as the Blackberry marketing would like us to believe but it was advantageous no doubt about it.
What I Didn’t Like
As I said at the onset, the Passport isn’t perfect, and there are a few areas that I didn’t like. No many but a few that were important.
I said that they put the Amazon App store and that was good as it closed the “app gap”, but unfortunately, it didn’t close it enough for me. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t work for everyone’s app needs, but for me there were a number of key apps missing. I got personal favourites from the Android Amazon Store, like Zite for example, and it worked well. But others like Starbucks app (I bought another 3rd party app which displayed my barcode for checkout…it wasn’t great but it worked), my app to interface with my car was missing in action, as was a good app to control the lights in my home. There were a few key business apps as well missing that made for some frustration, namely OneNote which I use across all my devices and some business intelligence apps that I leverage regularly but weren’t available. Since we are talking about apps, there were some very good apps (and app alternatives in the Blackberry World, but often they weren’t as polished (or what I was use to) or they seemed to be a version or two behind the Android or iOS app. That get’s frustrating. You can get by but there are compromises and workarounds needed. I think quite honestly that if Blackberry wants to truly slam shut the “app gap” they should put the Google Play Store on the phone. The Passport is in my opinion a premium device, offering a premium user experience, so it deserves a premium app store.
I had a family wedding in November and the Passport was my camera for the day (just as my Android or iPhone would normally be). The camera on the Passport is ok. I found it a bit slow compared to what I’m use to. It has some great little software tricks that I love like the face detecting/time shift feature. Overall the quality of the photos seemed less than what I’ve been use to. It worked very well in a business setting, for example, in taking a shot of whiteboards to get notes from a meeting, but for personal use, it wasn’t as good. I took about 100-150 photos over the course of the month using the phone and a few times I was wishing the photo from “an important moment” had come out better.
The voice assistance worked ok. It wasn’t as strong as Google Now but it was useful for “doing things” like getting messages read, scheduling appoints, etc. I am in the car often between client meetings and a strong virtual assistance is important. It wasn’t bad, but not great. And I wish I could have activated it with my voice rather than having to hold down the physical button.
All in all, I really do like the Passport. It’s a shame this wasn’t the type of phone that Blackberry released 12-18 months ago. Everyone that saw me using it asked me the same question: Will this save Blackberry? In my opinion, one phone isn’t going to save a company. It’s the strategy that’s important and I think that the Passport points to a new direction in strategy. Further, the things that Blackberry is focusing on from a software perspective, like cross platform, business-class messaging in BBM, the enhanced BES server and its broader cross platform mobile device management, the partnership with Samsung to integrate Blackberry security into Samsung phones. These things point to Blackberry recognizing that they need to bring their strengths to other platforms. The Passport will be a good phone for a set group of users; business users. I found it a delight to use and test over the course of a month and plan on continuing to use it a little while longer to continue to see how it performs and integrates into my every day activity.
If you have specific questions about my experience feel free to ask in the comments. I’d be happy to share my thoughts on the use of this pleasantly unique smartphone.
- Incredible battery life
- Physical Keyboard is Great
- Capacitive Nature of Keyboard Useful
- Excellent display
- Workflow / Usability is tremendous
- Amazon app store closes the gap on needed apps
- Blackberry Blend is very useful on my PC and Mac
- Blackberry Blend needs to allow other apps to pass info to the desktop
- Still missing a few key apps I required – needs the full Google Play
- Blackberry World apps are often not as polished or up to date as iOS and Android
- Camera Lacking
- Voice Assistant is ok, but not great