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In a world of cookie cutter rectangular smartphones, the BlackBerry Passport definitely stands out. With a square 4.5″ screen and a three-row physical keyboard, you get mixed reactions at first glance, with some thinking it’s a beauty and others certain that it’s an ugly beast. But whether people love its looks or hate it, everyone gives the BlackBerry Passport a second glance.

Form factor and shape are definitely out of the ordinary, but even the target audience for the BlackBerry Passport is anything but ordinary. It’s a purpose-built smartphone, not aimed at the average Joe, but at professionals who want to be more productive.

Although this is a premium smartphone with a hefty price tag, it is not a smartphone you can realistically compare with the new Apple iPhone 6 family or high-end Android warriors like the HTC One M8, Galaxy S5 or the LG G3, and the like. You can certainly compare specs and features, but when the form is not cookie-cutter rectangular, it’s not exactly wise to compare a form factor built for a specific purpose, along with a physical keyboard.

Form Factor & Keyboard

First up, if you want to know how it feels like, take two Indian passports and hold them together. Almost the same size specifications of an Indian passport, but thicker and heavier.

BlackBerry is well known for building tough smartphones that can take more than a knock or two and the BlackBerry Passport seems built in the same mould, but is perhaps even tougher than its predecessors. The company claims that the Passport’s unique one-piece, joint-less steel frame (that also extends inside the phone to give it strength) is inspired by the building techniques used in the Toronto Dominion Centre designed by Mies van der Rohe. You can be certain that the Passport will face no #Bendgate.

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However, while it does seem super strong, the form factor takes some getting used to. At 196 gms, the Passport is anything but light and holding this oddly-shaped smartphone and typing takes some balancing practice and trials, especially because when you hold the phone by the bottom to type, it becomes unwieldy and top heavy. Once you figure out your grip, you’ll start getting comfortable, though it will take you a few days to get used to it.

The keyboard too takes some getting used to before you can call it a friend, especially if you’ve come from an all-touch smartphone to the BlackBerry Passport. Once upon a  time I was a QWERTY keyboard warrior, but the last QWERTY device I used as my primary smartphone was nearly 20 months ago. Initially, I didn’t like the physical keyboard, but in a few days I’ve come to once again appreciate the accuracy of a physical keyboard, especially when you’re typing and walking, for instance.

I don’t think the BlackBerry Passport will help me type faster than on a BlackBerry Z30, Z10, Z3 or the iPhone 5S, which also has a very good predictive touchscreen keyboard, but the Passport’s innovative keyboard is definitely more accurate. Indeed, I think it is the best QWERTY keyboard on the planet, and BlackBerry has actually managed to improve something where it was already the best. And that user experience defeats the speed factor in the end, as I came to realise.

What also makes the Passport’s keyboard different is that the keys are as different as chalk and cheese from a physical QWERTY keyboard you may have used on a smartphone earlier.

First up, there are only letters, no numbers or special characters on the keyboard, which means everything else comes up on the screen. The patented, capacitive keyboard with a good tactile feel, transforms a physical keyboard to a touchpad and makes for almost a seamless extension of the screen and leaves the screen clear for display rather than input. You can swipe up or down on the keyboard to go to the top or bottom of your mailbox or browse up or down a website or you can swipe left and right to define text, move the cursor any way you want, edit and even delete in an e-mail, for instance.

Other old friends I was glad to see were BlackBerry’s keyboard shortcuts. T went to the top of the mailbox, B to the bottom, R went to reply mode and F to forward and so on. For heavy users of e-mail and messaging, these are a boon, though if you’ve been exposed to them for the first time they will take some getting used to. That indeed is the story with the BlackBerry Passport’s unique keyboard and input system. Sure, there’s nothing like it. But if you’re not the kind who wants to spend time in getting to know the Passport so that it can make you more productive then you will only be left with an unique-looking smartphone that’s may seem like a pain to use. BlackBerry has done all it can here to smoothen the learning curve — as you start to use the Passport, helpful hints keep popping up till you silence them.

Also, the Passport isn’t a smartphone designed for single-handed use, or at least for me with my small hands. Except for basic calling and browsing, any content input required two hands. But on the flip side that’s equally true for any phablet and the iPhone 6 Plus, with which I spent some time recently. Which also means that using these larger smartphones in crowded public transport requires you to be a bit of an acrobat.

And while the Passport fits into pockets, there is a noticable bulge. Where it does fit perfectly however, is in the inner breast pocket of a business suit. Which again underscored the fact for me that this smartphone is meant for those who wear suits, travel in chauffeur-driven cars and ergo, those who are successful and perhaps already have other top notch smartphones at their disposal but want the BlackBerry Passport for its unique, purpose-built form factor — whether it be the big, wide display for glancing through business spreadsheets or the keyboard for quick and accurate typing.

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In other form factor details, the 5.04″ high, 3.56″ wide and 0.36″ thick Passport has edge-to-edge Gorilla Glass 3 that curves towards the edges, with a power button and headphone jack on top, an USB charging/data point at the bottom and volume/pause rockers on the right.

The rear panel has a well done rubberised, non-removable cover for grip, which is critical in a smartphone this size. While I didn’t drop the Passport even once despite the unwieldy design, the square edges leave me a bit worried in case of a drop. And the microSD card and nano SIM card slot are the back, under the removable top part of the back case. Stereo speakers that deliver high volumes with excellent clarity are at the bottom. A 13 MP OIS camera with flash and a 2 MP front camera complete the form factor package.

Display

The display is the second thing unique about the BlackBerry. The square 4.5″ display boasts an impressive 1440 x 1440 resolution at 453 PPI, but surely that’s not the key USP. It’s the square, wide display which is purpose built for displaying more information than normally seen on a smartphone screen.

For instance, an MS Excel spreadsheet, (or for those like me who don’t appreciate spreadsheets, the reading experience of an e-book or a desktop webpage rather than a stripped down mobile one). Some professionals like doctors would also appreciate this unique screen because medical images display far better on this size as opposed to rectangular screens. This means that doctors no longer need to carry a smartphone for calls and a tablet for medical imaging. And because of its shape, it displays 60 characters per line, which is pretty close to the 66 per line normally seen on a printed book. Other smartphones normally display only around 40 characters per line, which means you are forced to scroll far more on them.

The display is also crisp and works well even under sunlight and viewing angles are good.

The bummer though is when you play back videos. The square display is not suited for videos and you see ugly black bands (despite the width making it close to the size of video playback in landscape mode on some smartphones). It’s not that it makes a huge difference in real life, but it does look bad and each time it reminds you that video playback is best on a rectangular screen in landscape mode. The display quality of videos is great though.

Performance

For once, BlackBerry has released a smartphone that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Android leaders on specs. And in the tightly integrated BlackBerry environment where hardware and software are made by the same company (a la Apple and unlike Android), the results can make you very happy indeed.

Powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor with 2.2 GHz Quad-Core CPUs and an Adreno 330, 450 MHz GPU, aided by 3 GB of RAM, the Passport is snappy when it comes to performance and blazes through most tasks. 10 apps can be run simultaneously at the same time and will show up as live tiles. It also has 32 GB of on-board memory which can be expanded by up to another 128 GB through a microSD card.

Battery

Power is key to productivity. If your smartphone isn’t powered, all it’s good for is as a paperweight. And while you can lug power packs, it’s better if your smartphone itself can hold itself up. And with a massive 3450 mAH integrated non-removable battery, the BlackBerry Passport more than holds itself up. While using the Passport I wished there was some way I could transfer juice from it to my Google Nexus! This baby can easily last even power users a day. BlackBerry claims 30 hours of life with mixed use, but for the average user it should last around 1.5 days, and some more. If there’s a grouse, it is that the battery is non-removable.

Camera

BlackBerry has traditionally never been renowned for its cameras. The BlackBerry Passport changes that with its 13 megapixel camera with optical image stabilisation (OIS) and a 5-element f2.0 lens. BlackBerry has also gone from merely basic features to actually keeping up with the times by including a panorama mode and timer that make smartphone photography a far superior experience on the Passport as compared to earlier BlackBerry 10 smartphones. And which will hold its own against pictures clicked with leaders like the Apple iPhone 6 or the HTC One M8. The auto focus was a bit slow in my opinion, but as far as specs and images go, despite the softer tones, the Canadian company has finally got a smartphone camera right.

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The camera app also suggests modes automatically (HDR in low lighting for instance) and it would be helpful for users who think camera settings are too complicated and simply shoot on auto mode.  There’s also a 2 megapixel camera on the front, but frankly it’s passable and nowhere close to the selfie-specialist phones we’re seeing lately from the Android horde. Video recording at 1080p HD is possible with the rear camera while the front one offers 720p video recording with video stabilisation.

Media

One of the highlights of the Passport is its speakerphone, that BlackBerry touts as the loudest and clearest in the industry including as compared to the much acclaimed speakers on the HTC One M8. While we couldn’t compare the two, it is certainly very loud and very clear. But interestingly, while this does mean that you can listen to music on the speakerphone in the gym, the actual purpose intended is for business conferencing where clarity is crucial. BlackBerry also claims its patented Natural Sound is the best, but in real life we didn’t find any noticable difference, and perhaps that may be because we didn’t speak to others who were also using a Passport. The Passport boasts of four microphones (one on top, one at the bottom and two on either side of the rear camera) and also has a feature called Active Leak Compensation that automatically adjusts the call volume based on how close you hold the smartphone to your ear. Calls were certainly clear though it isn’t the easiest of tasks to hold this wide beast and talk.

Software

The Passport is the first BlackBerry to feature the new 10.3 release of BlackBerry 10. There are significant improvements in the Hub, the universal inbox, which is easily my favourite feature in BlackBerry 10. There’s a new ‘Instant Action’ feature to help users manage messages better with a single click. This helps make deletion faster, mark as read or unread much quicker and you can even reply without entering a message. There’s also ‘Advanced Interaction’ where your Passport’s sensors can be used to switch to mute when placed face down and while also going into power saving mood or waking up the smartphone when you pick it up from a flat surface.

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Another new feature is that the Amazon Appstore is now burnt into BlackBerry 10 and offers more than 200000 Android consumer applications including popular titles like Candy Crush Saga. The BlackBerry World app store will now focus on business applications. And while you can now directly load Android apps through apk files through the smartphone browser itself — a service called BlackBerry Guardian checks file integrity — I actually prefer the Snap app that must first be sideloaded but offers me direct access to Google Play.

However, any app that needs Google Play Services won’t work. For me the biggest challenge is that Uber doesn’t work. Also many Android apps don’t display too well considering they are built for different form factors. If you are fanatical about your application user experience, you will be disappointed in the Android app capabilities of BlackBerry 10.3. However, if you want the best of productivity but don’t feel the world has come to an end because a certain app is missing on a platform, then you will not only not mind, but perhaps also enjoy the Android app capabilities of BlackBerry 10.3

There’s also the new BlackBerry Assistant, a la Apple’s Siri, Google Now or Microsoft’s Cortana. BlackBerry claims its offering is superior because it can also access your work e-mail and files, and is built around work, and because it is contextual — not using the screen when you’re connected via Bluetooth because it assumes you are driving, or only giving onscreen replies when you type (because you could be in a meeting and therefore not using voice commands). What impressed me most about the BlackBerry Assistant was its flawless recognition of my voice commands from the word go, though I think it’s a tad slower than Siri. Indian accents seem to be no problem at all for the new BlackBerry Assistant.

The highlight of the software experience for me was BlackBerry Blend, where you can fully access e-mails, BBM, text, files, etc, from your Passport on a Windows PC or Mac as well as on the iPad and Android tablets. All you need is the BlackBerry Blend platform for particular platform and wherever your Passport is, as long as it switched on and connected to a mobile network or Wi-Fi, you can access it. This is great from a work security perspective because the files/messages stay on the Passport but can be seen and used/edited from other devices, like my iPad. All you need is Wi-Fi, or cellular data or even USB.

There are also built in apps like StoryMaker that combines pictures and videos and adds a background score. While StoryMaker  has been around for a while, on the Passport it does its work automatically, offering up a produced story based on your visit to a sightseeing location, for instance.

Frankly, there are so many features on 10.3 that it would take a few pages to write down a proper OS review. But clearly, this iteration has been the most significant one since BlackBerry 10 was released in end-January 2013.

Our verdict

One thing’s for sure. You can hate or love it, but you have to admit that the BlackBerry Passport is the only truly innovative smartphone of 2014.

It’s clear that BlackBerry is swimming against the flow with this one and it’s also clear from BlackBerry executives that they understand that a purpose-built smartphone for a niche audience won’t exactly appeal to every consumer, nor make any major dent in overall smartphone sales figures. But with BlackBerry seemingly turning the corner under its new CEO John Chen, buyers won’t be worrying about BlackBerry’s future and what happens to their investment.

There’s definitely far greater consumer confidence in BlackBerry today and the company itself seems very confident. And that shows in the unapologetic pricing, where’s it’s clear that this expensive smartphone (Rs 49,990, though Amazon is offering a Rs 5000 voucher on each purchase) is not for everyone, but aimed at those who can afford it because they are successful and time is money for them since productivity enables success. So, most likely the average BlackBerry Passport owner already has an iPhone and a tablet or two.

So, if productivity matters to you, if you like physical QWERTY keyboards and the wide screen makes perfect sense to you, then the BlackBerry Passport should be in your pocket. Exclusivity is another pull — in a world where the iPhone is commonplace now, some want something different and more exclusive and you could also expect those in this category to look at the Passport.

This is BlackBerry’s comeback smartphone, and whether it is wildly successful or a moderate success, the company has everyone’s attention. That could be the first page of BlackBerry’s passport to a successful comeback.