We haven't seen a major announcement from BlackBerry for a year, since they announced the Z30, although they have produced a cut-down BlackBerry Z3 for the South Asian market and a couple of high-end Porsche Design versions of their devices. To be honest, it is a bit of a surprise to see that BlackBerry is still here amongst collapsing sales and huge financial losses.
But something odd is happening with BlackBerry, not least the launch of the BlackBerry Passport smartphone that is very much unlike anything else we've seen before. At first glance it looks like a variant of the classic BlackBerry messaging device, but then the sheer size of the thing becomes apparent.
The BlackBerry Passport is a very wide device measuring 128 x 90 x 9.3mm and weighing a whopping 194 grams. Its footprint is 77% bigger than the classic BlackBerry Curve 9300 and it is 86% heavier too. At 90mm wide it is 12mm wider than the iPhone 6 Plus, while being 30mm shorter.. but the overall footprint of the Passport and 6 Plus is roughly the same, even though the BlackBerry is 22 grams heavier. The Passport is so-called because its dimensions are roughly the same as the travel document of the same name.
The key design features are the square 4.5" 1440 x 1440 pixel touch-sensitive display that the Passport is built around, with a quite large QWERTY keyboard tucked underneath. The keyboard is unusual in that it supports gesture controls, and these can be used with word prediction to bring some of the advantages of a Swype-style keyboard to one with physical keys.
Inside is a 2.2GHz quad-core processor with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage plus a microSD slot and the Passport is an LTE and NFC-capable device too.
BlackBerry Passport On the back is a 13 megapixel camera with optical image stabilisation that is capable of recording 1080p video, with a 2 megapixel front-facing camera too. There's an inbuilt FM-radio, and because this is a modern smartphone then it has all the features you'd find in the competition such as GPS, GLONASS, WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0.
The operating system is BlackBerry 10.3 but it can run Android applications (support for the Amazon store is built in), plus native BlackBerry applications such as BBM. That's been possible for a while now, but frankly there's little point in buying something like a Z10 to run Android apps, but the physical design of the Passport makes it a more interesting proposition.
One other novel feature is BlackBerry Blend, which allows you to control the Passport from a PC or other device. Sounds weird, but what it does mean is that you can use the Passport's relatively secure data connection and other features but with an even larger screen and keyboard if you want.
The high resolution screen is impressive, but of course the square aspect means that you can't pop the phone sideways to look at things in landscape mode, but if you are a fan of physical keyboards then that's a compromise you are possibly willing to take. In terms of hardware, the Passport certainly looks competitive with the high-end competition.
BlackBerry Passport BlackBerry is a very different company from even just a couple of years ago. Despite having a tough time of it, they are beginning to get losses under control at the cost of thousands of jobs and some very aggressive streamlining of the business. The Passport is a result of these business changes, and may well appeal to long-time BlackBerry fans while not going head-to-head in a fight with the competition that they will probably lose.
The BlackBerry Passport is available to order now at the price of $599 in the US, £529 in the UK and €649 in Germany and France, with the black version currently available and a white version in the works. By the end of the year it should be available in 30 countries around the world.
GSM 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
UMTS 850 / 900 / 1700 / 1900 / 2100
LTE Bands 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 17, 20
GPRS + EDGE + UMTS (3G) + HSPA+ + LTE + WiFi
4.5" 1140 x 1140 pixels
13 megapixels (main)
2 megapixels (sub)
Large messaging smartphone
128 x 90 x 9.3mm / 196 grams
Yes (plus GLONASS)
23 hours talk / 18 days standby (3G)