IT'S hard to say which was braver: producing an almost square phone, or calling it "Passport", as if to symbolise BlackBerry crossing the border into a happier future.

Launched in London on Wednesday, the Passport was inspired by the challenge "to set aside the limitations of traditional design and ... simply build a device that fundamentally changes the way business professionals get work done on their smartphone", said John Chen, BlackBerry's executive chairman and CEO.

The most obvious feature of the phone is its shape: 128mm x 90mm, which makes it not quite square, but breaks dramatically from the standard rectangle.

An alternative to the teen-favourite BlackBerry Curve, this is not. No kid would be seen dead with what they would regard as an ungainly slab. However, that is decidedly not its target market. It is aimed at a business audience, in effect going back to BlackBerry's roots. The company that all but invented the smartphone as an indispensable business tool now wants to reinforce it in that role.

"We are aware the device is not for everyone," said Martin Fick, senior country product manager for BlackBerry in South Africa. He points out that the 4.5-inch square display opens up new possibilities that are most obvious in enhancing productivity.

"A square display as opposed to the usual 16:9 aspect ratio puts a different spin on certain applications. Take mapping; you can see as much horizontally as vertically, and that gives you a different experience. When I'm browsing a regular website as opposed to a mobile site, I don't need to turn my device to have more real estate or for better legibility."

The device comes into its own when composing e-mail or documents. The three-line physical Qwerty keyboard below the display, along with a minimal numeric and symbol virtual keyboard at the bottom of the display itself, leaves maximum room for composing and editing.

Yet another BlackBerry keyboard innovation appears on the Passport, with a touch-sensitive keypad that turns it into a trackpad. Users can swipe across the keypad or up and down for varying purposes, making the touch functionality an interface in its own right.

"On the typical screen, you have a very limited viewable text field due to the virtual keypad popping up and taking up almost half the screen."

The high-definition display is superb, and a 13-megapixel camera makes this the first BlackBerry to take photos seriously, offering 2128 x 3096 pixels and optical image stabilisation. A two-megapixel front camera makes it a viable video conferencing device.

Yet another BlackBerry keyboard innovation appears on the Passport, with a touch-sensitive keypad that turns it into a trackpad. Users can swipe across the keypad or up and down for varying purposes, making the touch functionality an interface in its own right.

On the other hand, trimming down the physical keyboard to just the 26 letters of the alphabet, along with spacebar, delete button and return key, reduces the utility of the keyboard. (Although the rest of the traditional keyboard functions appear directly above the physical keyboard.)

The battery life is superb, at more than 24 hours, and the build is solid, with metal edges that give it a quality feel. Android functionality is better than ever, with the Amazon apps store pre-installed.

There's no question people will find the phone weird at first. It's unlikely to be another Samsung Note-style success - a new shape that took the market by storm. But in the context of BlackBerry's tiny market share - and low cost structure - it just needs niche acceptance for it to be considered a success.

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Tue Dec 06 04:54:33 SAST 2016