The new BlackBerry Passport has a large screen, a real QWERTY keyboard, a nice square screen, and a great long-lasting battery. So..., what's not to like?
I had used the Windows Mobile platform before but that didn't work for me. After that, I had used the Apple iPhone for a long time, and stopped at the 4S because I no longer felt that I should be constrained, as a developer and user, to a very closed app ecosystem. That was when I switched to the Android platform.
The Android platform was great for me, and I went through various phones, stopping at the LG G2. The Android platform is great for both developers and users alike, offering a system that can easily accept apps from anywhere, and I developed various apps that were readily published to the Google Android platform (now known as Play).
However, when I read of the developments of BlackBerry, running the latest OS especially, I began to wonder if there was a good reason to consider the BlackBerry, having seen the new CEO and the new developments that seemed promising and encouraging.
The BlackBerry Passport seems like an ideal smartphone for me - it has real QWERTY keys, a good quality camera, a large screen, and the ability to run Android apps so that we are not constrained by a proprietary closed OS that offers very few native apps.
So how does the BlackBerry Passport stack up in real use in my personal experience at least?
In a nutshell, a bit of a struggle, and just about to get better.
I am an app and server platform developer, and have been a geek for a long time since my youth. So handling computers is not something I would be afraid of. I relish the experience of using computers. The smartphone is nothing but a glorified handheld computer like the Sinclair ZX or the Casio handheld computers I used as a child, writing BASIC programs.
So, I would personally rate the Apple iOS as the simplest OS for smartphones, with Android next in simplicity. The BlackBerry OS 10 needs a bit of getting used to, being quite a bit different from older BlackBerry OS offerings.
The Hub attempts to tie in everything from emails to short messages, and even your social app messages. It is very similar to what Windows Phone offers.
However, I personally feel that I much prefer a discrete messaging like what iOS and Android, where messages are contained within the confines of each app instead. Maybe it is just me.
As a digital media consultant, I need to keep tabs on social media channels for my clients, and to keep connected with the ecosystem.
However, the BlackBerry World is anemic in terms of availability of apps for various social media and other digital ecosystems.
For example, there doesn't seem to be a native Instagram app for the BlackBerry 10 yet, with only a third-party offering known as iGrann. Although I can side-load the Instagram app available on Android, it does not always work properly, and crash occasionally. So I have to use the native BlackBerry iGrann instead.
There are also less third-party social media apps on the BlackBerry OS 10 to replace the native apps developed by the social media channels. There is a good reason sometimes, to use alternative apps rather than vendor-approved apps.
This is because vendor-approved or vendor-developed apps are sometimes too laden with features that they run less efficiently on smartphones. Sometimes, on small screens especially, there is less incentives to run full-fledged apps with way too many features that we may not use. Instead, I sometimes prefer to run third-party apps for certain social media channels such as Facebook.
There are also third-party apps that may offer more features than vendor-supplied apps. For example, Twitter's own app does not offer multiple account management, while third party apps such as TweetCaster can. But TweetCaster is not available on BlackBerry OS 10, and must be side-loaded from the Android (Google Play) environment.
There are some Android apps that simply don't work on the BlackBerry Passport. For example, when I tried to run Fujifilm Receiver app, which can receive resized images from my Fujifilm X-T1 camera via WIFI, the app will not connect my smartphone with my camera. The app worked flawlessly on my previous LG G2 Android phone though.
As a professional user, the calendar and contact functions are very important to me.
To synchronize my contacts with all my devices, from desktop computers, laptops, to my smartphone, I use Google Contacts for simplicity, although I would rather not if I can. That said, it is not difficult to synchronize my contacts on my BlackBerry Passport with my desktop computer, by leveraging on Google Contact.
The calendar is a different beast altogether. I could not find an easy way to synchronize my corporate CalDav calendar on my server with my new BlackBerry Passport, no matter how I tried. However, running the Android DavDroid with Google Calendar Android app, I could bring my CalDav calendar on my BlackBerry. It is not the simplest way, and not the best way if I were to standardize all my users on the BlackBerry, and so for now, it deters me from wanting to give a BlackBerry 10 smartphone to each of my team members. The calendar would work flawlessly with Android and even iOS devices though.
Real keys and size
I have always loved the tactile feel of real keyboard keys, and so the BlackBerry Passport represents a good compromise for me. Sure, it does not have the full QWERTY experience like the old BlackBerry phones, since the numeric keys are virtual. But at least the alphabetical keys are real this time. You do have to get used to the weird experience of using real alphabetical keys together with virtual keys for punctuation, numbers and symbols.
Still, I would say that my new BlackBerry Passport has allowed me to be more productive typing sentences, compared to virtual keyboards on my other Android and iOS smartphones (they are now locked away in my cabinet, expect for mobile app testing and development).
Because of the width of the BlackBerry Passport, you do have to use both hands to type, unlike my iPhone 4S and LG G2, among other devices I had before. And because of its width, it will be a stretch in our pants (for us gentlemen). It is shorter though, so in my opinion, works better compared to taller and wide "phablets". Those phablets may not fit in my front pants pocket at all.
The BlackBerry Passport features a good rear camera - 13 megapixels, optical image stabilization (OIS), with an F2 aperture. The sensor is understandably small like any smartphone, but has back-side illumination (BSI), so should work better for low light environments compared to those sensors without BSI.
But no smartphone (except perhaps the Lumia 1020) can produce images or video close to a real camera, especially one such as the micro four-third (MFT), APS-C, or full-frame sensor cameras. You cannot beat physics. A big sensor will produce better images with better light sensitivity compared to a tiny sensor (such as those found on smartphones).
But, realistically, if the best camera is the one you carry with you, then the BlackBerry Passport can certainly deliver decent images. The native camera app takes a short delay to start up, and so if you are expecting a street-style camera that you can capture spontaneous shots, you are out of luck. But the app is easy to use, and the camera can go quite close to subjects or objects, so food bloggers or macro shooters can use this smartphone camera with no problems.
This is not quite the end of my review, or rather, early review, of the BlackBerry Passport. I am going to spend time using this smartphone, mostly for work. I will share more thoughts on this smartphone, perhaps in a short video, or another written piece, down the road. Meanwhile, I am beginning to be more accustomed to the strange new world of BlackBerry OS 10, and the physical quirks of this smartphone. Time will tell.