TORONTO — There's one indisputable fact about BlackBerry's new Passport smartphone: it's different.
At a time when so many new smartphones seem to look alike, the huge square-screened, keyboard-equipped Passport certainly turns heads.
While most phone makers favour the look of soft, rounded corners, the Passport is unapologetically sharp and boxy, inspired by the aesthetic of modernist architecture.
It's also inspired by travel documents. The Passport phone stacks neatly with a paper passport, sharing its dimensions almost exactly (although obviously thicker).
There's another thing about the Passport that's unlike the other premium smartphones on the market: BlackBerry's not trying to sell its newest phone to consumers.
Sure, BlackBerry plans to have them in retail stores and expects aficionados will want to buy one, but the company is bluntly emphasizing that the Passport was made with the corporate world in mind.
"We really set out to build the Passport to meet the needs of a very specific customer group,'' says director of marketing Jeff Gadway.
"(But) that's not to say there aren't going to be more people who are going to love it.''
BlackBerry says it's targeting "productivity-driven mobile professionals,'' who still care about using their device as a phone, want to be able to securely link to their corporate email accounts, and value getting work done over playing games.
SCREEN AND FORM FACTOR
Although BlackBerry was clearly trying to give the Passport a slick look, the company says it was mostly function — not fashion or gimmickry — that inspired the phone's unconventional design.
The Passport is a handful, wider than even the biggest of phablets. BlackBerry notes the Passport's 4.5-inch square screen is about 30 per cent wider than most five-inch rectangular phones.
BlackBerry claims the extra-wide screen makes business documents — from PDFs, to spreadsheets, to presentations — easier on the eyes, with less need to zoom or swipe while reading or editing. The screen can display 60 characters per line, which is close to what the publishing industry considers ideal for printed books.
If you care about the increasingly cited pixels per inch measurement — although many experts say it's overrated as a metric for quality — the Passport's 453 PPI is one of the highest on the market, topping Apple's new iPhone 6 devices and Samsung's Galaxy S5.
The screen is certainly very sharp, but that can be said about nearly every new high-end device that's released. The screen's square shape is its biggest draw — if you buy BlackBerry's claim that it's more efficient for mobile workers.
The Passport's extra-wide screen and body also means the keyboard is super-sized, with larger keys than the BlackBerry Q10's.
The keys are also larger because a bunch of them have been removed.
Gone are the number keys and individuals buttons for Alt and Shift. Those numbers and functions have been moved to a virtual line of keys that appear onscreen just above the keyboard, when BlackBerry's software predicts you might need them.
After about a week of testing, I still found it a little awkward to use the virtual keys when needed. And the wide body of the Passport also takes some getting accustomed to, as your thumbs need to cover a larger area while typing.
It's always challenging to fight muscle memory and adapt to a new device, so with some more time I'd expect to eventually feel more at ease with the Passport's keyboard. It's certainly easier to use that any on-screen keyboard, but takes a little longer to get comfortable with than the Q10's did.
Also notable about the keyboard is that its surface acts like a laptop's trackpad, so a user can swipe to navigate a website or app without covering the screen.
The Passport comes loaded with a new version of the BlackBerry operating system, 10.3, which will become available for other BlackBerry devices.
Also preloaded is a new app called BlackBerry Blend, which allows you to access your Passport's contents from another Internet-connected device. A computer or tablet can securely link to a Passport and get into its email, text messages, BBM messages, calendar and files.
The selection of apps available in BlackBerry World is still dire, but the Passport is preloaded with Amazon's Appstore, which offers a collection of Android apps that run on BlackBerry 10. Some of the top apps available include Netflix, Candy Crush Saga and Minecraft - Pocket Edition.
Believe it or not, some people still do use their smartphones to regularly make phone calls. BlackBerry says its target market in particular is very interested in call quality. In addition to having HD Voice technology (which only works when both callers have a cellphone that supports it), BlackBerry claims it has optimized call quality with proprietary software, and has built in an improved speakerphone.
BlackBerry also boasts that the Passport's battery life is "exceptionally long,'' although the company has been inconsistent in promising just how long it will last. A press kit claims the phone can get 25 hours of life under mixed use, Gadway said 30 hours is realistic, while CEO John Chen was recently quoted as saying a full 36 hours of battery life is possible. In reality, every charge will yield a different result depending on how much the phone is used during the course of a day, but the Passport typically lasted a full 24 hours during testing, with some juice to spare. I did encounter a random bug that caused the battery to drain aggressively in standby mode — the battery meter went from just over 75 per cent when I went to sleep to 25 per cent in the morning — but it was corrected with a reboot.
It's also worth noting that the camera in the Passport is significantly improved and takes much better photos than previous BlackBerry 10 devices.
With its share of the consumer market withering away, BlackBerry is focusing on corporate customers in a last-ditch attempt to revitalize the company.
If corporate buyers see value in the wide screen — and the keyboard, of course — and think the Passport could be a viable mobile work tool, it may find success. In particular, BlackBerry Q10 users who liked the device but found the screen too small will probably consider the Passport a natural upgrade.
Only the most strident of BlackBerry loyalists would argue the Passport is the absolute best smartphone on the market. But it is different, and some people want different.
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