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BlackBerry Passport deep-dive review: Qwerty meets quirky

Matt Hamblen | Sept. 29, 2014
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.

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," 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.


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