At BlackBerry's recent annual shareholders meeting, CEO John Chen said that he doesn't "want to give up the hardware business" and that he feels his company still has "a shot at still making money in it." He said this after the latest round of rumors saying that BlackBerry was going to finally exit the phone hardware business.
BlackBerry at one time was the leading smartphone platform, but it now has an almost non-existent market share, especially in the U.S., and many question why it doesn't completely transform into the software and services business it has basically become. Still, whether it is the right direction or not, Chen thinks there is a market for new hardware, and BlackBerry's phones still have a vocal and passionate fan base. With that in mind, BlackBerry announced today an updated version of its flagship phone, the Passport – the Silver Edition.
Notice how we said "updated." This is not a new Passport phone with different specs. It has the same 4.5-inch square screen, 2.2 GHz Snapdragon 801 SoC, 3 GB of RAM, 13MP camera with OIS, 32 GB of storage and a 3,450 mAh battery as the original Passport released last September. What BlackBerry has done is take elements (the rounded corners) of the AT&T exclusive version of the Passport that was released earlier this year (check out our hands-on) and incorporated them into a more refined hardware design.
In a post on the official BlackBerry blog, Di Tao, BlackBerry's Senior Industrial Designer, described how the new design is stronger and improves antenna performance. It also has a new diamond pattern texture on its back for better grip and machined metal details around the rear camera that should protect the lens from being scratched better than the original design. The keyboard has also been improved, with the new model having the wider lower "chin" below the keys of the AT&T model. BlackBerry posted an unboxing of the Silver Edition, which you can see below.
On the software side of things, the Silver Edition runs the latest version of BlackBerry OS, 10.3.2. The BlackBerry OS now has a digital assistant, The BlackBerry Assistant, like its OS competitors, and supports BlackBerry Blend 1.2. Blend is an application that allows you to display data such as email, BBMs, texts and contacts from a BlackBerry phone on Mac and Windows desktops, and iOS and Android tablets.
The Passport can also run Android apps, either officially through the pre-installed Amazon Appstore, or via sideloaded .apk files of apps not available on Amazon. For the more adventurous, you can also, with a bit of tinkering, get the Google Play Store and Play Services running on the Passport too, turning it into a "full" Android phone.
The BlackBerry Passport Silver Edition is available in North America today as an unlocked phone on BlackBerry's website. It goes for $550 in the U.S. and $650 in Canada. To sweeten the deal, BlackBerry is also throwing in $130 USD ($150 CAD) worth of accessories (shown above) if you buy it direct – a Flex Shell, Flip Case, and Sync Pod.
It will also be coming to the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands in the next few weeks, both directly from BlackBerry and from Amazon.com, Carphone Warehouse and Selfridges.
While BlackBerry devices do serve a niche market now, we do think there is still a need for a high-end device with a great hardware keyboard, and the Passport fills that need. Its square form factor isn't for everyone and is certainly unique, but we quite liked the time we spent with the original Passport, and the Silver Edition looks like a much more attractive refined version.
Alex Davies is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware, covering Smartphones, Tablets, and Virtual Reality. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow Tom's Hardware on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.