The Passport Is Not the BlackBerry You're Looking For

“Why should I care?”

That’s the phrase I uttered to myself when I first unboxed BlackBerry’s latest smartphone, the Passport.

Why should I care about the device’s odd 4.5-inch square screen? Why should I care that the device is the same size and shape as its namesake? Why should I care that Amazon’s App Store is preinstalled on the Passport?

Okay, okay, forgive my skepticism. There’s a lot to love about the Passport. It’s the first product launch under BlackBerry CEO John Chen, who took over the struggling company last November. In an effort to turn it around, Chen said he wanted to return to the Canadian company’s roots by providing devices and services that appeal to large companies, a.k.a. the enterprise.

A travel document-shaped phone fit for business travel? Sure. Why not?

BlackBerry positions its oddly shaped device—which certainly succeeds at drawing attention to the company—as the ultimate productivity tool for those who want to get work done. If the marketing sounds familiar, it is: In recent years, BlackBerry has let out a business-focused battle cry with every major product release. It’s as if the company is saying, “Please, forgive us for the pink BlackBerry Pearl Flip.” Or perhaps, “Here is a phone that won’t run Flappy Bird.”

In truth, the Passport’s screen lends itself to displaying more information without forcing you to rotate the device, as you will often do with a phone of more conventional proportions. I found the screen quality to be on par with, if not slightly better than, Apple’s iPhone and most high-end Android devices on the market.

And you know what? The Passport may be a square, but I came to appreciate its dimensions. In testing, I grew to respect its wider view, unobstructed by a digital keyboard—though I would gladly forfeit screen space to make room for a more classically sized BlackBerry keyboard. (More on that in a moment.)

I also came to appreciate a feature called BlackBerry Blend, new in version 10.3 of the company’s mobile operating system. No, it’s not some smoothie—it’s a service that allows you to access the content and messages on your phone from your desktop computer, even if you’ve left it at home (or in the car, or in your office desk drawer). After a few initial connection hiccups, I found myself frequently connecting to the Passport from my Apple Mac desktop computer and Apple iPad.

As for that keyboard: It’s much different than the physical keyboards found on other BlackBerry devices. The Passport’s keyboard is limited to three rows (the classic BlackBerry arrangement is four). The bottom row is split by a spacebar. The shift and symbol keys, normally found flanking the space bar, now reside on the screen in digital form.

Like most people, I use a virtual keyboard on my personal phone. I found it a struggle to readjust to a physical keyboard. The first day I felt like I was blindly mashing the keys in an effort to elicit coherent words from it. (Luckily, BlackBerry 10 includes a mechanism to correct misspelled words, even when a physical keyboard is used.) The pain eased over time. Still, I’m not sure that traditional BlackBerry users who are quick to profess admiration for the classic BlackBerry keyboard would be singing praises of the Passport’s version.

Moreover, the Passport’s keyboard has a secondary function: it’s a covert trackpad. You can swipe your finger over it to scroll through spreadsheets, navigate emails, and delete words. With a double tap, activate the text selection tool to precisely edit a document.

Once you find the functionality, it’s a novelty—then it wears off. I found it awkward to ignore a fully capable touchscreen to use the keyboard as a trackpad. What’s more, I repeatedly activated the text selection tool as I deliberately typed, which changed the focus of the cursor and thus the destination of my entered text. Frustrating.

I wanted to love the ingenuity of the Passport’s combination trackpad-keyboard, but I failed to have the “Aha!” moment I was so desperately looking for.

By the end of my testing, I wasn’t sad to put the Passport down. It’s hard not to respect the device’s bold departure from norms in the category, and there’s clearly a niche market for a device like this. But for the vast majority of BlackBerry users still clutching legacy devices, the Passport is not the BlackBerry you’re looking for. And for those who have moved on to other platforms? It’s difficult to go back.

Why should we care about the Passport? After spending quality time with it, I still don’t have a solid answer to that question. I do know people are talking about it, and by extension, its maker. Now that I think about it, perhaps that was the point.

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