COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Two cutting-edge phones offer alternatives to iPhones

Tired of hearing more about iPhones? Here are two excellent alternatives provided by AT&T for this review.

One is very much a niche product, and the other will likely become one of the biggest sellers in 2015. What’s appealing is that the engineers for each phone thought out-of-the-box to come up with novel designs — just when you thought all phones look much the same.

BlackBerry Passport: The Passport, BlackBerry’s newest phone, looks unlike any other phone. It’s wider than a large smartphone, yet no longer than a standard one. It’s exactly the size of a U.S. passport and, like a passport, can just manage to fit into a pants pocket.

The display is 4½ x 4½ inches square, making it about a third wider than an iPhone 6. The added width makes it capable of displaying a full 60-character line of text. Beneath the display is a three-row mechanical keyboard, wider and with fewer keys than other BlackBerries.

Cleverly, rows of additional context-sensitive soft keys pop up on the display above the top row, turning the keyboard into one with as many as six rows, half mechanical and half touch.

The result is a product with a very good display and an excellent keyboard that’s much superior to touch-screen versions. The keyboard’s surface doubles as a touch-sensitive track pad, allowing you to direct a cursor, replacing the tiny scroll balls and track sticks used on older BlackBerries.

The phone is solidly constructed and well finished with a metal frame and soft-touch matte black plastic back. Typing on the phone takes some adapting, because it requires two hands to hold, and you need two thumbs to type. Holding it up to your ear as a phone is a little awkward as well, but if you use a headset, that’s not an issue.

The display is very high resolution, more than 400 dpi, and everything looks very crisp and bright, both indoors and out. The phone accepts a removable microSD memory card, but its battery is not removable. During my testing, the battery lasted nearly two days between charges. Call quality was excellent and the speakerphone worked very well.

The phone uses the BlackBerry 10.3 operating system, which I still find somewhat unintuitive. The Hub screen, its key feature, provides a list of recent messages including email, calls and messages. And, like all BlackBerries, it has far fewer apps than Android and Apple.

Its camera is better than on previous models, but has less flexibility than the cameras on the iPhone and Samsung phones. But it’s very adequate for a business-oriented phone.

Overall, this is the best Blackberry phone I’ve used because of its ability to combine a very good keyboard with a large display. If you loved your old BlackBerry, but gave it up because of its small display, the Passport is worth a look. It’s available for $669 or $199 under contract.

Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge: The new Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge is Samsung’s newest and best phone. It’s a major change from older Galaxy phones that felt cheaply made with plastic dimpled back covers. The S6 is devoid of plastic; it is constructed of a sleekly contoured metal frame with glass on the front and rear faces. The Edge’s display curves around the vertical edges to provide a wraparound display.

Overall, the phone is one of the thinnest ever at 7 mm thick. It’s essentially the same dimensions as an iPhone 6. It’s one of the most striking and beautiful designs of any smartphone and feels great in the hand, almost like holding a polished slab of glass.

Unlike previous Galaxy phones, it’s not full of bloatware — extraneous software that just adds confusion and redundancy. And the aesthetics of the new software is much more contemporary looking compared to previous versions.

Its 5.1-inch OLED display, slightly longer than the iPhone 6, is one of the best of any phone. The curved edge of the screen can be used to display a clock, single-line messages and email titles, all readable from the edge when the phone is flat on a table. It’s cool looking, but doesn’t offer a huge amount of utility.

Its 16-megapixel camera is one of the best I’ve used on any smartphone. Double-click the home button to launch it. The camera offers a huge number of options, including focus tracking a moving object.

Samsung had the iPhone in sight during the development of this phone, and matched it or perhaps even exceeded it. The S6 incorporates an electronic payment system to compete with Apple Pay and a similar-working fingerprint reader.

Like the iPhone, the Samsung battery is no longer replaceable, in order to keep the phone thin and maintain its beautiful aesthetics. Samsung does offer an optional wireless charger device. You set the phone on top of it to charge.

The phone will charge in a little more than an hour, or 50 percent in about 15 minutes using the included fast charger. In my use, battery life was about 10 hours. Like the iPhone, there is no expansion memory slot.

The S6 phone Edge is also available in an S6 version that has a flat display — no curved edges. Its performance is identical and costs $100 less than the Edge. While it’s not possible to test without destroying it, the Edge appears to be a little more vulnerable to breakage of the display, with its curved edges exposed. But either phone is Samsung’s best ever, and comparable to the iPhone, based on its hardware design and performance. If you’re looking for an Android phone, you can’t do better. The S6 with 32GB costs $684 or $199 with a contract. The S6 Edge with 32GB is $814 and $299 on contract.


Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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