Blackberry Passport (Non AT&T version) – An abject failure in design

I preface this by saying that there is now a special version of the Passport that appears to address some of the issues that I’ve seen, but that doesn’t help those who have the original.

I went into the Passport not knowing what it was. I had a project that required a hardware keyboard, and those are extremely difficult to find nowadays. When I first opened the box, I laughed until tears came to my eyes. Pictures do not do it justice, you have to hold it in your hands to understand the state of confusion that it puts your mind into. I’ve seen a lot of phone designs in my time, and this is….something. I feel like I should stick it in the ground and worship it like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This thing is massive. It still fits in my jean pockets, but you know damn well it’s there.

The shape is a radical departure from any that I’ve seen before it. It even includes a booklet for justifying itself, which is ultimately confusing for me. I realize they styled it after an actual passport in terms of dimensions, but in my frequent travels my actual passport has been bent due to the fit in my pants pocket.

Physically and ergonomically, it is a design that does not make sense. One of the most distressing moments I have ever experienced with any device is opening the door to place the SIM card in. It is extremely difficult to open, and I was quite concerned that I would break the door in the process of trying to open the infernal thing.

This is a phone not meant for pants and especially not for jeans. In jeans, it’s an extremely tight fit and you always know it’s there both due to the size and the thing is the weight of a small brick. Basically, any sort of top-loading pants will not be a pleasant time for you. In dress pants as well, you know it’s there and so does everyone because there’s a huge bulge in your pants (besides the normal one if you’re a guy). Simply put, it has to be in a jacket pocket. In a suit (at least for me), the corner sticks out by the arm, but it’s not too noticeable.  You definitely notice the corners, both in pocket and in hand.

You cannot type one-handed. It’s somewhat possible to browse the internet one-handed, so long as you don’t have to reach all the way across. I would not, however, recommend trying to drink from a latte while using it one-handed. Too much risk. The power button location on the top bothers me, as I’ve been close to dropping it a couple times trying to press the button one-handed. As an odd note, the default camera picture format is a square (though it can be changed). Not sure how I feel about that one yet.

It has the same annoyances that the Z10 has for me in that the lock screen doesn’t update the read emails. For example, if I read an email in Outlook, it still shows as unread on the Passport. This wasn’t the case in general with the iPhone (something seems to have changed around iOS 8, in theory fixed in 8.2), and it’s more problematic as the notification light flashes until I actually look at the Passport. It’s really a pet peeve of mine, and for a company so focused on email it’s a large oversight. There may have been so enhancements in the meantime, as the function appears to work intermittently.

For gesture controls, since the strip isn’t as wide between the keyboard and the actual screen as it was on the Z10, the swipe up gesture is a lot more difficult to control. I’m constantly overshooting the exact distance required to see just the lock screen as opposed to trying to unlock the device. Exchange requires a PIN, so that’s where the problem arises. I want to glance at the information, but it’s covered completely by the PIN unlock prompt. I can do just the lock screen by pressing the power button, it’s placement is so awkward (as I’ve said before) it’s just not convenient.

The keyboard is pretty awkward for me to use, especially reaching the “P” in the upper right corner. Since it’s a shifted QWERTY layout (for example, “A” is directly below “Q”, backspace is below “P”, and Enter is below backspace), I have trouble with some muscle memory as I have to look down sometimes to know where things are, and I think I like the Z10’s keyboard better so far. I’m also getting a weird cramp in the knuckle of my thumb, so I think I need to change how I hold the device (I want to hold it with eight fingers behind the back). There just doesn’t seem to be a good way of holding the device with a firm grip if you have to type for a long time, and I imagine the classic Blackberrys didn’t have this problem. What’s interesting is depending on certain circumstances (if you press the @123 onscreen button), the onscreen keyboard can take up over a third of the display.

It has no shift inherently, or any punctuation keys, those have to be displayed on the screen. Granted, I’ve never been a physical keyboard sort of person. The keyboard also isn’t very tall, and it being touch sensitive isn’t useful unless you turn the device sideways and read that way. Scrolling through emails and websites in portrait (normal phone orientation) is a real pain in the ass, and there should be a setting to adjust/increase the distance traveled. I tend to swipe too far and that sends either a gesture of bringing up the extended keyboard or opening something I didn’t want to. It’s basically unusable when you hold it normally. When you hold it sideways, it holds some utility, but it still feels awkward. If you’re holding it sideways and need to type something, you have to rotate the phone BACK into the normal orientation to type. Another downside is that you lose the predictive keyboard that the Z10 has. While I didn’t use it very often, it had a neat feature where the text prediction was tied to a letter. On the Z10, let’s say you’re wanting to type the word “interesting”. For me, when I type in “in” just above the “T” on the keyboard “Interesting” appears. When you swipe up from that letter, it completes the word. While I didn’t use the feature that often as my eyes were looking at what I had already typed, it is an interesting feature and I would rather have it than not. With the Passport, you get a predictive entry above the screen keyboard extension which is par for the mobile device course. Minor nitpick for me: the keyboard backlighting is uneven in colour and intensity as well as the O (and the Q) using sideways 0’s.

I’m seeing an odd issue with Docs To Go, where when you reenter the document from the switching screen or the lock screen it freezes up. It shows the cursor, but it won’t let you type anything in at all. It appears to be limited to that app as the Hub doesn’t do the same thing, just lets you type in straight away. In terms of screen size, I haven’t found any applications so far that are expecting a particular orientation, though I’ve seen at least one looking a little odd. I’ve also had emails that wouldn’t wrap properly, so the text actually drifts offscreen so I have to zoom out in order to see the whole sentences. I’ve really yet to see a benefit to the screen orientation (some with the width), and I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if they had ditched the physical keyboard and allocated the space to more display. Maps still looks pretty bad, with a lot of texture pop-in where it’s missing completely, then it loads the low-res version and then eventually the higher-res shows up. I’ve had it take a couple of seconds just to show.

The summary of it is this so far: this is a poor design. The keyboard is uncomfortable for me to type on (causes pain, still trying to figure out a better way to do it), the apps are still problematic even with Amazon availability built-in, the square screen conveys no actual benefits, and the weight and dimensions means this is a device that you want to leave behind as soon as you’re done with work.  In my experience It doesn’t address the shortcomings of the platform, which is the real inherent limitation.  One can only hope that the AT&T version addresses at least some of these issues, which it appears it may have.

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