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A Phone Only a BlackBerry User Will Love

The BlackBerry Passport isn't for everyone. Even the company says so.

Vjeran Pavic

To say that BlackBerry has had a rough go of it over the past few years would be an understatement. A failure to innovate at the pace of Apple and Google, losing sight of its core audience and numerous executive changes are just some of the reasons the once-dominant smartphone maker is struggling in today’s competitive market. (It’s not a good sign when you tell someone you’re testing a new BlackBerry and their response is, “They still make those?”)

But BlackBerry is hoping to right its ship by going back to its roots and focusing on business customers, starting with the new BlackBerry Passport.

Built with the power user in mind — doctors, lawyers, bankers, government workers — the Passport includes some useful new features, like a voice-enabled virtual assistant similar to Apple’s Siri and Google Now. It has an extra-wide screen that makes it great for viewing emails and documents. And of course there’s also the beloved physical keyboard, which now doubles as a touchpad.

Available today from BlackBerry’s website and from Amazon, the Passport’s off-contract price of $599 is even lower than the iPhone 6 ($649), iPhone 6 Plus ($749) and Samsung Galaxy S5 ($649). AT&T will also offer the smartphone, but the carrier has not announced pricing or an availability date yet. BlackBerry expects the phone to cost around $250 with a two-year service agreement.

Despite all this, the Passport’s chance of appealing beyond the BlackBerry faithful is slim. And even some BlackBerry users might eschew the phone due to its bulky design.

Technically, the Passport isn’t a phablet since its screen is smaller than five inches, but it’s still large with a blocky shape. In some ways, I almost found it more difficult to manage than other phablets like the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and iPhone 6 Plus, because it’s so wide at 3.56 inches across.

I had a hard time wrapping my hand around it. Admittedly, I have small hands, so I let a couple of my guy friends try it out, and they agreed that it was uncomfortable to hold. The phone is also not very pocket-friendly.

BlackBerry is the first to admit that the Passport isn’t for everyone. And for those who crave a smaller form factor, the company is planning to release a more traditional model called the BlackBerry Classic later this year.

There is a reason for the Passport’s shape, though, and that’s the 4.5-inch, 1,440 by 1,440-pixel touchscreen. The square screen is 30 percent wider than the average five-inch smartphone, allowing it to display 60 characters across, compared to 40 characters on a five-inch device.

This did lead to a better experience for reading text. When viewing emails, I was able to see more of the message at a glance on the Passport than on the iPhone 6. The same was true of Web pages and Word documents. Apps like Twitter and Facebook also scaled fine to the square screen, but watching video was another story.

When I switched to full-screen mode in Netflix, the scenery on the left and right sides got cut off. Meanwhile, in YouTube, there was a lot of black space above and below the picture.

With the screen dominating much of the device, the Passport’s keyboard now has three rows of physical buttons rather than the usual four. When I first started using the phone, it took me a while to acclimate to the narrower layout.

But BlackBerry has added some smart features around the keyboard. Depending on what application you’re using, the Passport will display a row of virtual keys on screen to help you complete your task. For example, when composing emails, it shows punctuation symbols. But if you switch over to the Maps application, it displays number keys, knowing that you’re most likely going to enter a street number.

Second, the keyboard now acts as a touchpad. You can gently swipe your finger in different directions to delete entire words, move the onscreen cursor, and more. I found it particularly useful for scrolling through Web pages and minimizing apps.

The Passport ships running the latest version of the company’s operating system, BlackBerry 10.3. One of the new features of the OS is the voice-controlled BlackBerry Assistant.

By holding down the mute button on the right side of the phone, you can speak different commands and ask questions like, “What’s the weather like today?” While I didn’t do an extensive comparison against Siri, Google Now or Microsoft’s Cortana, BlackBerry Assistant capably handled all of the requests I threw at it, including searching for specific emails, launching applications and displaying sports scores.

The Passport is also the first BlackBerry device to come preloaded with Amazon’s Appstore, so you can download Android apps that have been tweaked to run on the BlackBerry OS. It helps broaden the selection of what’s available in the limited BlackBerry World app store, as I was able to download titles like Netflix, Fitbit and Pocket.

Security has always been one of BlackBerry’s strongpoints, and the Passport continues that tradition with tools for both you and your company’s IT department. This includes remote lock and wipe, control over apps permissions, on-device and data encryption.

Like many of today’s high-end smartphones, the Passport has a quad-core processor, but it didn’t feel quite as responsive as some other handsets I’ve tested. There was a slight lag when opening applications and refreshing pages. There were also several occasions where the Passport briefly froze.

For example, when trying to respond to an email, I kept hitting the reply button, and nothing happened for a few seconds. The phone’s main 13-megapixel camera was also slow to focus, and picture quality wasn’t as good as on the iPhone 6 or Galaxy S5.

Voice calls made on AT&T’s network sounded clear, but like a lot of phablets I’ve tested, I had to adjust the position of the phone a few times to get the earpiece in the right place to hear my friends. BlackBerry built a microphone into the earpiece that’s supposed to boost audio even if the earpiece isn’t in the right spot, but I didn’t notice any difference. Speakerphone quality was good on both ends of the conversation.

BlackBerry estimates the Passport’s battery life at about 30 hours. While I didn’t run a formal battery test, the Passport lasted a little over 24 hours with moderate to heavy usage. But you’ll still need to recharge this phone every night.

For current BlackBerry users, and businesses using the company’s devices, the Passport brings some nice additions and the choice of a wide-screen phone. But if you’re already invested in other platforms, there’s no reason to switch.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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