BlackBerry Passport deep-dive review: Qwerty meets quirky

Qwerty fans will welcome the unit's keyboard, quad-core processor, big battery and voice assistant, but its square shape and hefty weight may give others pause.

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Software specifics

The Passport runs the BlackBerry 10.3 OS; chief among its new features is BlackBerry Blend for sharing messages and content from the phone to many desktop computers and tablets.

Blend is what all the smartphone platforms hope to become; it could be the most exciting development from BlackBerry in months. From the Passport, you can share texts and documents and see your calendar and contacts, among other functions, on many other devices. So far, Blend sharing is supported from the BlackBerry 10.3 Passport to Mac OS X 10.7 and later and Windows 7 and later, as well as to iPads running iOS 7 and later and Android tablets running Android 4.4 and later via cellular, USB or Wi-Fi connections.

While I wasn't able to test it out extensively prior to the public release of the Passport, Blend, which must be downloaded separately, sounds very helpful for professionals traveling and using different computers or for grabbing a document on a work computer from a device at home.

Another software feature new to 10.3 is BlackBerry Assistant, which marks the first time that BlackBerry has enabled a digital assistant that can be activated with voice and text commands for all kind of things like finding contacts, creating notes and emails, and browsing the Web.

Assistant is akin to Cortana on Windows Phone, Google Now on the Android platform and Apple's Siri. From my tests, Assistant was as good as or better than the competition in understanding my voice queries and then quickly locating information. When I said, "Go to Computerworld.com," the website quickly launched. When I asked Assistant to "remind me to buy milk," I was asked when I'd like be reminded. When the appointed time arrived, I received a text to get milk. (Curiously, Assistant suggested I reserve an hour to do so, even though it should take far less time.)

I was also able to dictate memos and emails with almost 100% accuracy -- truly, recent advancements in voice-command technology are amazing. That said, one area in which Assistant seems to be wanting is search accuracy. For example, when I asked Assistant to "find the nearest food store," a long list of all kinds of stores came up, including fast food, clothing and more. After repeated tries, Assistant did find the closest food store, a Costco, but then on a subsequent try came up with a long list of stores that have the proper name "FoodStore" in their names; many of those were hundreds of miles away from me.

By comparison, Microsoft's Cortana was especially good in similar broad questions when I tested it on a Lumia 635 device in the summer, possibly because Bing is a comprehensive search engine that BlackBerry may not be able to compete against.

Also in 10.3, BlackBerry has enhanced its previously available BlackBerry Hub, a unified view of messages, phone calls and emails. The enhancement presents "instant actions" right next to each item received, allowing a quick response such as "talk to you later" to a BBM instant message, or the ability to quickly delete the message, call or email, instead of having to open the email or message or phone container to do so.

When it comes to software and apps, BlackBerry has loaded quick access to BlackBerry World and the Amazon Appstore on the Passport. BlackBerry won't say how many apps it now has in its World store, merely noting that it has shifted World to business and productivity apps, but Passport users will have access to 200,000 or more apps in the Amazon Appstore that seem designed to please the general consuming public.

Many smartphone users judge a platform by the number of apps available, and by that standard BlackBerry is almost certainly lagging. I'm less concerned about having access to many apps than I am about how well a few critical apps and other features in a phone perform. Many Passport users are likely to connect to proprietary work-related apps through a BlackBerry Balance partitioning arranged by their IT shops. That will give them separate spaces for work and personal uses for added security.

Bloomberg Professional seems to be a particularly useful app for financial professionals. Due in late October, it will allow all kinds of searches for financial information. During one demonstration, a user was able to find the top banks by revenue in Canada with a simple voice command, with the list popping up quickly on the display.

Other apps are coming for a variety of uses including a medical imaging technology app from Claron Technology, which allows viewing of detailed medical images on the high-resolution Passport display.

Bottom line

While BlackBerry has a number of great improvements in the Passport, I'm not sure how much they matter. Yes, it is nice to have a fast processor, a clear display and long battery life, but the added width of the square display means very little to me. Various rectangular phones I've tried show me all I need to see while on websites or typing emails. I'm not one to regularly compose or edit Excel spreadsheets, so the added width to do that is also meaningless to me. Admittedly, I'm not the target user of this device.

I'm also pretty sure that anybody under age 35 is not going to care a whit about Passport's qwerty keyboard, including the ability to swipe with the physical keys. Getting all this questionable technological capability inside a heavy-to-the-feel smartphone doesn't seem like an effective way to grow BlackBerry or expand its future beyond its existing user base.

BlackBerry does deserve credit for trying new things and for working cross-platform with its BlackBerry Enterprise Server functions. Kudos go also to the 10.3 OS's BlackBerry Blend sharing technology and for Assistant. That very capable -- possibly superior -- voice-controlled digital assistant tool could help BlackBerry shine, especially when used in conjunction with its professional-grade BBM messaging service. That applies to coming BlackBerry devices as well.

When trying to describe the Passport, the persistent word that jumps out is quirky. As I was holding the Passport while waiting in a line recently, people asked me what it was. I couldn't tell if they were impressed by it or just perplexed. Me? I'm perplexed.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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