Retailers’ alternative to Apple Pay just had a security breach


The Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX), a consortium of more than 50 U.S. retailers working on an alternative to Apple Pay, announced Wednesday that its service, called CurrentC, has experienced a security breach.

“Within the last 36 hours, we learned that unauthorized third parties
obtained the e-mail addresses of some of our CurrentC pilot program
participants and individuals who had expressed interest in the app,” a
representative for MCX said in a statement provided to Mashable. “The CurrentC app itself was not affected.”

While payment details were apparently not impacted, the incident
nonetheless casts an unflattering light on CurrentC at a time when the
payment service is already receiving greater scrutiny.

CVS and Rite Aid backed away from Apple Pay in favor of CurrentC, which one report suggested may be the result of fines retailers could face for breaking their contracts with MCX. (MCX has since put out a blog post confirming the exclusivity aspect, but said “there are no fines.”)

CurrentC was first announced in 2012, well before Apple unveiled its
payment option, but it won’t hit the market until sometime next year. At
first blush, CurrentC is a clunkier alternative that requires customers
to scan QR codes in order to make in-store payments. The email breach
may also raise questions about whether it’s as secure as Apple Pay.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said earlier this week that more than one million credit cards were activated in Apple Pay in the first 72 hours.

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BlackBerry has another unusual device in the works

Hot on the heels of last week’s BlackBerry Passport launch, a word got out that the company plans to introduce more devices with unconventional design going forward. The head of BlackBerry’s Devices unit, Ron Louks delivered the news in an interview with Reuters.

According to Mr. Louks, the trimming of BlackBerry’s losses allows it to take more risks and introduce more unconventional smartphones in the future. The company will be looking to introduce at least one unconventional device every year.Furthermore, the high-level BlackBerry executive hinted that the company has a new unconventional device in the works already. Wireless carrier partners have reportedly given positive feedback on the new project.Despite its quirky design and questionable ergonomics, BlackBerry Passport has so far been well received by the public – it sold out within hours of its retail launch in many outlets and raked in more than 200,000 sales in three days.

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How a Smartphone Factory Reset Doesn’t Really Protect You

Tools used to recover data include FTX Imager. Credit: Avast  

Smartphones are no different than computers: you need to
overwrite or encrypt the data to get rid of it, despite what some
smartphone makers infer.

You might already know it, but there’s money in old
phones. If you’ve been selling-on devices when you’re done with them,
take note of some new research. Experts have found that when upgrading
to a new device, a simple factory reset doesn’t wipe clean your old phone.

The eBay experiment

Security software maker Avast performed the study. It analyzed 20 eBay-sourced, used phones, and was able to recover swaths of data including compromising stuff.

Remarkably all of the previous owners had performed factory resets. Something you’d think would clear the device.

The data that the security outfit uncovered included over 40,000 images and more than 750 e-mails and texts.

Of those images 750 were of women without many of their clothes, and
250 were selfies of probably better left un-photographed parts of the
male anatomy.

Contact names and addresses were still on the devices as was one completed loan application.

In the experiment Avast used specialist software to conduct the
hidden-data recovery job. But clearly there are failings with the common
factory reset, which basically eliminates the data index only.

Encrypt Your Android

Alternatives to a reset include overwriting and encrypting the data
itself. The Encryption process scrambles the data. The electronic
encryption keys are then deleted during the reset, said Ken Munro, a
security expert at Pen Test Partners.

Clearly there are failings with the common factory reset, which basically eliminates the data index only

“Any data in slack space on the device should be encrypted and pretty much irrecoverable,” he said. Encryption options
are built-into many post-Android 3.0 OS devices. Not all devices
support it, according to Munro. The next version of Android, currently
known as “L” and due later this year, will likely have encryption turned
on by default he said.


Overwriting the drive with ones and zeroes using a commercial
solution like a third-party app is another way of ensuring data can’t be
read again. Avast is one provider. There are varying degrees of
feature-creep in options at the Google Play store.

iOS issues

Avast didn’t check used iPhones during its eBay experiment. But
Apple’s iPhone could also be susceptible to erased data recovery
although it’s more complicated, said Avast’s mobile product manager
Tomas Zeman.

Despite being widely thought of as encrypted, Apple’s file system is
often unlocked and elements including images aren’t encrypted at all,
according to iOS forensics expert Jonathan Zdziarski.

Avast reckons that if an operating system is not encrypted, you can
be “somewhat successful” in recovering data using a similar extraction
technique as the one used for Android phones. But Zeman thinks that
iOS forensics is much harder to do than Android. “If the iOS encrypts
the data on the device, then if anybody tries to recover the data, they
recover encrypted data,” he said.  Sellers can take some precautions.

An old-tech solution

It’s only recently that mobile operating system makers have even
begun to address the issue of retiring, or handing-down devices. I
remember the days of smashing phones with a hammer. Some years ago, I
needed to end the life of a 2008 Palm Treo, the granddaddy of
smartphones. It was full of account numbers – we didn’t do selfies in
those days. There was no data deletion at all then, when performing a
factory reset. Factory resets were only used to un-hang stalled devices.

I wrapped the aging in a towel and smashed it to bits on the concrete
floor of my downtown loft. I then dumped the pieces in the street
recycling receptacle. I didn’t get hacked.

Bricked devices

And if you can’t factory reset the device before selling it? For example, if it’s bricked? “Then simply don’t sell it. If you can’t encrypt the device before wipe, definitely don’t sell it,” Munro said.

But don’t worry. eBay has hammers too, if you need one.

Encrypting a Jelly Bean or KitKat Android device

Step 1: Plug in the smartphone and let the battery charge.
Keep the power cable connected so there’s no chance of power failure.
That can corrupt the process.

Step 2: Open Settings and find the Security menu item. Choose the Screen Lock menu item and enter a long, hard-to-guess password. Then follow the prompts to confirm it.

Step 3: Scroll to the Encrypt phone item in Security settings and choose the Encrypt SD card option by marking the checkbox. Select Next, and confirm your password at the prompts.

Step 4: Press Encrypt phone. The process can take half-an-hour, and will reboot the phone a few times.

Tip: Removing any external SD cards, before starting
encryption, and storing them safely away, will eliminate any media on
that card being  | The Open Standard

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Playing ‘Portal 2’ might make you smarter

“Them games’ll rot your brain, you know,” said the fictional
midwestern mom that we’ve invented for the purposes of this story.
Grudgingly, we’d accept her admonishment, put down our copy of Sonic the Hedgehog and go back to playing “educational” titles like Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego. Now, however, it turns out that a game like Portal 2 is better for your brain than an actual brain-training game like Lumosity.

A team down at Florida State University sat 77 lab rats
undergraduates in front of the games for eight hours, with their
problem solving, spatial skill and persistence tested before and
afterward. The results showed that the Portal 2 players showed “significant increases” in their scores once they’d spent time with Wheatley and GLaDOS while the Lumosity
gang, er, didn’t. It’s only one study with a limited sample set, for
sure, but maybe the next time that fictional midwestern mom starts
moaning about your rotting brain, you can hand her the report and tell
her to shove it.

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Five new features coming to BlackBerry 10.3.1 (Video)

The BlackBerry Passport and the Porsche Design P’9983
are the first two BlackBerry models to come with BlackBerry 10.3
installed (which includes BlackBerry Assistant). Already, BlackBerry
10.3.1 is in the works. A video has been posted on YouTube, revealing
five interesting new features for the OS build.

Five new features coming to BlackBerry 10.3.1 (Video)The first feature
on the video is Reverse Contrast. Instead of black on white, the screen
shows white on black. Other colors show up as purple and orange. We
can’t say that this looks to be useful, but it is a way to customize
your phone and make things seem fresh and new. With BlackBerry 10.3.1,
users will be able to block contacts, and hide pictures and video. If
you have some embarrassing photos of yourself that you might have
snapped, this feature will allow you to keep them under wraps in case
you lend someone your phone for a quick call. It also will prevent
someone hanging around you from seeing something that you don’t want
them to see.

With Battery Saving Mode, you can preset when
certain changes kick in to save the battery life on your phone. With
this Mode in action, the screen brightness is lowered and notifications
do not turn on the screen. You can decide to lower the maximum CPU
performance, turn off data services and turn off “advanced
interactions”. And the last new feature on the video is Custom
Notifications. With this feature, you can decide the ringtone that plays
when you have a call, the color of the LED notification that
accompanies various events, whether to show notifications on the lock
screen, and more.

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Apple iPhone 6 (Apple A8) performance review: CPU and GPU compared to the best Android phones out there

Apple iPhone 6 (Apple A8) performance review: CPU and GPU compared to the best Android phones out there
it comes to performance and power there is no device so widely
misunderstood as the iPhone. The new iPhone 6 (and iPhone 6 Plus) is no
exception – you’d find bashful comments about its comparatively low
clock speed, ‘only’ two CPU cores, low amount of RAM, lack of expandable
storage, and what not in practically every online forum.

at numbers without fully understanding them, though, is a dangerous
business. This iPhone 6 performance review aims to clear some of the
widespread misunderstandings and give a more detailed overview of the
state of mobile CPUs, and how Apple’s efforts compare to that of the
main rival: the mostly Qualcomm-powered Android fleet.

Apple A8 and ARM’s architecture license

it comes to the CPU, it’s worth starting off with a quick refresh on
the facts. The overwhelming majority of mobile devices – be it Android,
Windows Phone, or iOS ones – are based on ARM-derived architectures. ARM
offers two types of licenses to its clients: a processor license and an
architecture license.

Most manufacturers use the processor
license that grants them the right to take an ARM-designed core and use
it in their SoC. An example for ARM-designed cores include the
battery-optimized Cortex A7 (and its newer, 64-bit Cortex A53 successor)
and the Cortex A15 (with its newer, Cortex A57 64-bit heir). Phone
makers like Samsung, for instance, take those two cores and combine them
in various big.LITTLE combinations to come with SoCs like the Exynos
5430 in the Galaxy Alpha where the company combines four power-efficient
A53s running at lower clock speeds and four performance-driven A57 that
can go up to higher clocks, but also draw more battery.

other type of licensees, those under ARM’s architecture license program,
take a totally different approach by just using the ARM instruction
set, while building their own CPU core. The most prominent companies
that do that are Qualcomm and… Apple. Apple used to operate under an ARM
processor license all the way until the iPhone 4s, but decided to
switch to an architecture license for the iPhone 5, and has building its
own CPU cores ever since then.

The state of 64-bit

Apple iPhone 6 (Apple A8) performance review: CPU and GPU compared to the best Android phones out there

at this timing, you see how this coincides with Apple’s industry-first
introduction of 64-bit chips – the first 64-bit phone, the iPhone 5s,
arrived two years after Apple introduced its first processor, and Apple
has clearly used this time slot to outpace the industry. To this day,
Apple remains uniquely positioned in the transition to 64-bit on mobile –
all first-party apps were 64-bit-ready on iOS 7 launch date, and the
company has given developers an ample timeline and great tools to
optimize their app quickly and effortlessly to 64-bit. With extremely
low levels of fragmentation in Apple’s ecosystem (where by fragmentation
we mean that iOS adoption rates are high and happen in days, while on
Android transitions span months, if not years), the company is one year
away from having a lineup consisting of 64-bit devices only. This will
happen next year when the Apple iPhone 5 is expected to go out of
production, and the 64-bit iPhone 5s with Apple A7 (or as speculated, a
plastic derivative of the 5s with similar hardware) takes the lowest
place in Apple’s ecosystem.

Looking over to the Android camp,
we’re seeing that the platform lags behind a full year and more. To this
date, in late 2014, the biggest Android vendors like Samsung, HTC, LG,
and others, are all releasing their flagships with 32-bit chips like the
Snapdragon 805 and Snapdragon 801. Both those chips are based on the
now 3-year old Krait core (with some tweaks, of course), and later on in
this article you’d be able to spot the difference in compute power.
Naturally, using the 32-bit 805 translates into those flagships not
being able to benefit from ART optimizations in Android L.

earliest this could (and likely would) change is in spring of 2015 when
the first wave of Android flagships for next year is expected to arrive.
Some (and hopefully most) of those devices are said to feature the
Snapdragon 810, Qualcomm’s first top-level 64-bit SoC. In just over a
year time, Qualcomm has overhauled its portfolio to consist of 64-bit
chips on practically all levels, from the low to the high-end. However,
the Snapdragon 810 does not ship with a custom Qualcomm core (such a
core would likely take more time for development) – instead, the company
goes back to using an ARM processor license and equips the 810 with a
big.LITTLE setup with four low-power Cortex A53 and four
performance-driven Cortex A57 cores.

Given the long period of
time it takes for the Android install base to switch to an ART-enabled
version of the platform in meaningful numbers (let’s keep in mind that
we don’t have a minimum target for ART, and chances are that it won’t be
KitKat, but Android L), it is clear that Android is in a much less
favorable position in terms of 64-bit-readiness.

Apple A8 die break-down

Both TSMC and Samsung are said to be making the A8 in a 40-60 ratio
Both TSMC and Samsung are said to be making the A8 in a 40-60 ratio

as secretive as Apple is (the company does not disclose processor
details in the way Intel does) hides a little joy for us, tech
reviewers, to try and reverse-engineer its efforts.

We’re not
completely in the dark, though: in the past two release cycles, Apple
has been disclosing the number of transistors in the Apple A8: there’s
now a whopping 2 billion of them, double the number from the A7. As far
as we can tell, this is the most ever in a smartphone chip – in
comparison, some estimates claim that the Snapdragon 805 chip features
700 million transistors.

From here on, the journey towards a
better understanding of the Apple A8 starts with a teardown of the
iPhone 6 and images of the A8 die from Chipworks. Those images give us a
detailed breakdown of the Apple A8 die and the location of its various

Despite (or rather because of) the doubling of
transistor count, the die size has grown smaller and comes in at 89mm in
the A8, down from 102mm in the A7. Apple has switched the places of
components on the die, and the CPU is now on the bottom left (it was on
the bottom right), with a large block of L3 cache above it. Despite a
20% decrease in the size of the SRAM block (cells have shrunk in third
from 0.12µm to 0.08µm), it’s likely that more advanced circuitry makes
up for the difference and we’re still dealing with 4MB of L3 cache
memory. At the time of this writing, we have seen the first benchmarks
showing that memory latency has indeed improved by a hefty 20ns when we
go out to L2 $ and further.

The most drastic change in size,
however, seems to be in the CPU die size: the new CPU measures 12.2mm,
nearly 30% smaller than the 17.1mm CPU die in the Apple A7. By all
visible clues, the rest of the architecture remains the same: we have
64KB/64KB of L1 instruction/data $ (L1 is the fastest cache, located on
the CPU die), and a 1MB block of L2 cache shared between the cores.

has provided a few important details about the CPU performance of its
new A8: first, the company says the new CPU comes a 25% performance
improvement, and illustrates this with a chart showing generational
improvement all the way since the 2G iPhone (the 25% number is derived
by comparing the iPhone 5s’s 40x CPU overhead over the 2G iPhone and the
50x peek in the iPhone 6).

On clock speeds and deceptive marketing

With a modest
boost in CPU clock speeds from 1.3GHz to 1.4GHz (an 8% speed-up), the
25% improvement obviously comes from various other tweaks and tricks.
Before diving deeper in benchmarks, though, here is the place for a
quick insert about clock speeds and the state of the industry.
Commentators in forums are quick to point out the apparent inferiority
of Apple clock speeds in comparison to the much faster speeds declared
in rival Snapdragon and Exynos chips, for instance. The most up-to-date
example is the Snapdragon 805 with a declared clock speed of ‘up to
2.7GHz’. At first sight, Apple’s Cyclone core looks like a sore loser
with its declaration for just half that at 1.4GHz.

Most people
would call it a day at this point – the Snapdragon outperforms the A8
hugely, case closed. This, however, would be naïve: running real-world
applications and games shows instantly that the 2.7GHz speeds can only
be achieved for a very short periods of time, but after those short
outbursts, the chip quickly throttles back to the much more sane
~1.3GHz. Put simply, the 2.7GHz number that you read about is not the
nominal frequency, but maxed out turbo speeds that are not sustainable
for the long term. In fact, Apple is being much more truthful as it
declares actual nominal (and not turbo) speeds for its chip, plus, the
company goes on to disclose a second big thing about its chip: sustained
performance times. Apple actually claims its A8 is capable of running
flat at its nominal speeds for (at least) 20 minutes.

This is the
right place to note that ARM, the licensee company for both the
Snapdragon and the Apple A8 CPU cores, has actually claimed that the
current generation of its processors works best in terms of thermal
output/performance at around 1.2GHz. Going up above that ensues big
consequences – AnandTech has earlier shared estimates that going above
the 1.5GHz threshold by just 100MHz brings up a shocking, quadratic
increase in voltage and power consumed by the chip.

Apple iPhone 6

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The 5 lessons both IT and business should learn from Apple

Apple background image

Tired of being ineffective and unloved? It’s time to act different


Sep 16, 201

When Apple Pay was announced
last week, I very quickly saw IT folks at retailers and elsewhere
saying it was old technology. Platform partisans were quick to point out
that Android phones have had the required NFC chips for several years,
and Google has its own wallet technology. I also heard CIOs quickly
declare that because Apple was a technology company, Apple Pay would not
be secure.

Those reactions were, to be blunt, stupid. And they’re emblematic of the
dilemma that IT finds itself in: unloved by users, distrusted by
managers, considered an incompetent, expensive, yet necessary evil to
keep thing running. InfoWorld’s editor in chef, Eric Knorr, was asked at
a recent VC conference about IT’s role in this era
of cloud computing and technology-savvy users, and the question brought
him short, as it did his fellow panelists. Houston, we have a problem.

Although the “think different” theme is now cliché, it does speak to a
core reason why Apple is Apple and no one else comes close. If IT
organizations and their management partners understood the Apple way,
perhaps they could become Apples in their spheres: groups that make real
money even without majority market share, loved by their customers, and
able to drag much of the industry along. I’ve followed Apple as a user,
reporter, and editor for 23 years, and what makes Apple Apple is quite

Lesson 1: Work through the whole problem

There are no silver bullets. Yet so many people think adding this
technology or that business relationship will magically make them
succeed. When Google convinced its Android makers to add NFC to phones,
the banking industry and retail industry ignored it. An NFC chip may be
useful as the communications mechanism, but the issue is deeper.

The payments issue is complex, but a key challenge was that the customer
credit card data was being stolen both at the point of sale through
magnetic skimmers and shifty employees, as well as from the data centers
by insiders working with cyber criminals. Moving the credit card data
from a magnetic strip to a chip-and-PIN to NFC does you no good if the
sales terminal is compromised, as we saw with Target last year and with Neiman Marcus and Home Depot this year.

If you move valuable information through lots of networks and accessible
devices, you have an indefensible perimeter. Apple Pay does away with
that issue by sending one-time codes from the iPhone to the sales
terminal, matched to a unique user ID. The reconciliation happens on the
back end through presumably highly secured, low-footprint connection

On the phone, the unique ID is stored on the Secure Elements chip,
inaccessible from apps. The fingerprint in the Touch ID is likewise
stored in that chip. Thus, the attack surface is smaller and hardened,
and the data is abstracted from the credit card itself. (John Beatty has
written a great technical description of what Apple is doing on the security front for Apple Pay.)

To develop Apple Pay, Apple had to work through several issues: the
communications technology, the security issues (on the device, at the
sales terminal, and at the data centers), the user experience, and the
card collection method (through the Passbook app, in this case).

Note “user experience” — this is an area where IT usually fails.
Technical persona are different than business persona, but that’s become
a convenient “why we can’t” explanation to keep IT down. People use
technology, and it needs to feel and work “right.” As long as IT ignores
this or pays lip service to it, it won’t be working through the whole
problem it needs to.

 | InfoWorld

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iOS 8.1 launches on Monday; here is what you should expect

iOS 8.1 launches on Monday; here is what you should expect
Apple iDevice users are looking forward to Monday,
when they can download and install iOS 8.1 on their iPhone or iPad. The
update will help correct some of the bugs that have been afflicting
users of iOS 8. The most talked about new feature coming with the new
build is Apple Pay. This is a mobile payment system that allows you to
use your NFC enabled Apple iPhone 6 or Apple iPhone 6 Plus to tap a pad near the point of sale at a participating retailer, to make a payment.

update will also bring back the Camera Roll, which had been removed
with the release of iOS 8. At the same time, the iCloud Photo Library
will be available so that you can save all of your pictures and video to
the cloud. The feature ties in to your iCloud account and uses your
available iCloud storage space. A smaller version of the pictures are
stored on your iOS device, in order to use up less memory.

new feature, Instant Hotspot, requires a Mac with OS X Yosemite, to
turn on the hotspot feature of an in-range iPhone running iOS 8.1. With
SMS relay, iPads and Macs can receive SMS messages routed through an
iPhone. While the Mac and Apple’s tablets can receive iMessages, SMS
messages have been limited to Apple’s smartphones.

Among the bug
fixes that iOS 8.1 will fix, is one that makes it difficult for an
iPhone to pair with a Bluetooth device. While the update is expected to
be disseminated on Monday, Apple has not yet released a time when we
will start seeing notifications pop up on iOS devices.

iOS 8.1 is coming Monday

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BlackBerry Passport review

CNET Editors’ Rating


Very good

Review Date:

September 24, 2014

Updated on:

September 29, 2014

The BlackBerry Passport is a pure productivity machine, and
emblematic of the company’s professional, business-focused mindset. It’s
packing powerful hardware, a slew of clever features, and a great
foundation in BlackBerry OS 10.3, which is poised to give iOS and
Android a run for their money — if there are enough apps.

phone will be available unlocked later this week for $599 in the US, and
later in 2014 for €649 in France and Germany, $699 in Canada, and £529
in the UK. It’s definitely coming to Australia, but at the moment
there’s no pricing or even on sale dates available. BlackBerry has
announced that AT&T will carry the device in the US, but more
information on carrier availability, the phone’s price on contract, and
specific release dates haven’t been announced at time of publication.

approached this phone with reservations, and came away as something of a
fan — it’s really nice! But the Passport has a critical flaw, and
you’re looking at it. The squat, square chassis that makes the device
great for reading and editing documents is the reason for its distinct
shape. But it makes for a cumbersome user experience, and one that’ll
give pause to even those of us cursed with giant hands.

Design and specs

The BlackBerry Passport and a passport
Josh Miller/CNET

4.5-inch BlackBerry Passport is about the same size and shape as a US
passport. That squat, distinctive square shape will certainly grab
everyone’s attention while you’re tapping out missives or holding it up
against your face. And at 6.9 ounces (just under half a pound or 196
grams) the phone is light, but still feels solid. But it’s also 3.5
inches (89mm) wide, which makes it wider than phablets like the 5.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus — both of which offer larger displays.

in mind that these are completely different phones targeting
fundamentally different audiences: the average consumer versus that
nebulous “professional” BlackBerry has courted for so long. And if you
fall into the latter camp of hard-core BlackBerry devotees or can’t do
without a physical keyboard, this is the phone for you.

In May, BlackBerry CEO John Chen remarked that BlackBerry had
been “distracted” by consumer devices: “We cast our nets a little too
broadly…The bigger play is in enterprise.” Lackluster devices like the BlackBerry Playbook
needed to give way to BlackBerry’s longtime focus on productivity and
messaging — we’d see some of that in the keyboard-toting BlackBerry Q10.
It’s no surprise that BlackBerry’s latest foray into the smartphone
space would emphasize getting things done above all else, but this phone
may have taken the idea a step too far.

It is an odd-looking phone, sporting a shape we haven’t seen in some time — the HTC ChaCha and Acer BeTouch E210
are two devices that attempted the full-QWERTY, square-display look, to
ill effect. But the Passport, by contrast, looks really sharp. It feels
like a premium item, with a sturdy stainless-steel frame that screams
“jet-setter.” And yes, it fits in my pocket.

The massive Galaxy Note 3 feels more comfortable to hold.
Josh Miller/CNET

square 4.5-inch display has a 1,440×1,440-pixel resolution, with a pixel
density of 453 pixels per inch. It’s a gorgeous screen but the width is
key here, as the Passport can show about 60 characters on every line.
BlackBerry points to the print industry as a guide, where the optimal
standard is considered to be about 66 characters per line.

personally found that responsive, mobile-friendly websites have
generally eased any issue I’ve had with reading lots of text on modern
smartphones, but there’s no denying that reading on the Passport is a
great experience. Text is crisp, and you can comfortably fit a lot of it
on the screen without flipping over to a wider landscape mode or
zooming in on a site.

Images and videos look great too, with
colors that are reproduced faithfully and don’t shift no matter how you
hold the display. And if things look a little off, you can just dive
into the display color settings and tune the white balance and color
saturation to your liking. The glossy IPS LCD holds up well enough in
office and outdoor lighting, though (as expected) it becomes less
visible if the sun is beaming directly down on it.

If you’ve
used a phablet then you’re likely already aware of some of the benefits
of a bigger, wider phone. BlackBerry is banking on the unique design to
help its phone stand out from the nigh-endless parade of rectangles out
there, thanks largely to the compact physical keyboard running
underneath the display. And that keyboard is the real story here, as it
represents an attempt to bridge what BlackBerry perceives as the gulf
between your average smartphone and devices built for those who want to
get things done.

The keyboard

BlackBerry and physical
keyboards have gone hand in hand since time immemorial, but the company
is switching things up a tad on the Passport. The four-row physical
keyboard that might be familiar to fans of the BlackBerry Q10 (or the BlackBerry Bold)
has been replaced with a three-row model. The end result is a mashup of
physical and virtual keyboard, with a context-sensitive row sitting on
the bottom edge of the display.

Reaching up to the screen to
insert numbers and punctuation or capitalize letters took some getting
used to, and the spacebar is a little narrow for my taste, but it didn’t
take very long to get acclimated. And BlackBerry has built in quite a
few really smart features and gestures to give its keyboard an edge.

The excellent, full-size QWERTY keyboard.
Josh Miller/CNET

keyboard is touch-enabled, and it works fairly well. Consider predictive
text: as you type, three suggested words appear above the keyboard —
swipe a finger upward underneath any of those options and the word will
drop into place. It took me some practice to get the motion just right
(it’s more of a flick than a swipe), which isn’t ideal, but once I’d
mastered it my typing sped up dramatically. If you make a mistake, just
slide to the left on the keyboard and the last word you typed will be
deleted — that gesture works flawlessly.

Things get even better
when it’s time to edit documents. Double-tap lightly on the keyboard
and a magnifying glass will appear over your text. You can then use the
keyboard as a sort of touchpad to scroll about with, dropping the cursor
exactly where you need it. It’s really precise, and makes editing long
documents (like this one) a manageable experience on a smartphone. I’d
personally still turn to a proper keyboard and monitor to get heavy
lifting done, but if you want to carry only one device and you spend a
lot of time wrangling text, the Passport’s keyboard will be helpful.

Note that while the phone’s abnormal width makes for a spacious typing
experience, you’ll need to use both of your hands to get things done.
Time and again I had to drop what I was doing (or holding) to hammer out
a quick response to an email or text, knowing that one hand would
suffice on a narrower phone like my Nexus 5, or even the gargantuan Samsung Galaxy Note 3. And I have really big hands — smaller palms will find this phone more unwieldy.

This is a bigger problem than it may sound. Tall, comparatively narrow
phones like the iPhone 6 Plus already are overtaking head size for some
people, and the Passport is a full half-inch wider. I suspect that
unless you’re clamoring for a tactile typing experience and are willing
to compromise, you’ll be unable or unwilling to juggle this phone.

Software and features

The Amazon Appstore lacks much of what you’d find on Google Play.
Josh Miller/CNET

BlackBerry Passport runs BlackBerry OS 10.3. App selection remains the
phone’s Achilles’ heel, but there is a silver lining: you can run quite a
few Android apps. The Amazon Appstore comes preinstalled, and you can just fire it up and download apps as you would on any Android device.

But this is no Google Play Store — you’re limited to apps that are
available from Amazon’s marketplace, which is a weird subset of the
Android experience. That said, I readily found most of my favorites,
like Spotify, Pocket and Reddit is Fun. You won’t find everything — most of my favorite Android games
are missing — though if you have the APK file for an app you’d like to
run, you can drop that onto the phone and install it at your leisure.

You won’t find Google’s official apps, either. The native BlackBerry
mail and calendar apps are great, but Google Talk is the best the Amazon
Appstore has to offer, as Google Hangouts isn’t available. That service
hasn’t aged well, and lacks many of the features Hangouts has
introduced, such as free voice calls and SMS. BlackBerry’s BBM is of
course readily available — and your friends can join in on the fun
whether they’re on iOS, Android, or Windows Phone.

Angry Birds Stella feels rather cramped.
Screenshot by Nate Ralph/CNET

that aren’t optimized for the square display can also look a little odd.
Consider a game like Angry Birds: the Passport’s generous resolution
means it has no problem displaying all of the content, but the game is
really meant to be played in a landscape orientation, where you can see
an entire level at a glance to plan your strategy. On the Passport I
generally need to zoom out or pan across the screen to get that crucial
birds-eye view of the action.

BlackBerry 10.3

If you’re
primarily interested in staying in BlackBerry’s ecosystem, you won’t be
disappointed. Email and messaging has long been BlackBerry’s strong
suit, and the device does great job of juggling disparate accounts and
giving you a single “hub” to view everything in.

A sidebar called
Instant Actions sits on the right side of the hub, and will allow you
to quickly respond to text messages or file and delete emails en masse.
There’s also a Priority Hub that works just like Gmail’s priority inbox
— messages that are identified as being “important” are funneled here,
so you can quickly access them. The priority hub is supposed to learn
your habits as you go, though you can flag messages as important. In my
case, emails and text messages I was actively replying to tended to end
up in the priority hub.


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