BlackBerry Passport Review

From the original leaks, to BlackBerry CEO John Chen showing it off, to what is now the official unveiling of the device, the BlackBerry Passport has attracted many people because of its quirky look. Even I had my doubts about the Passport initially, wondering if BlackBerry's design team had lost their minds. But after a while I warmed up to the look of it and began to wonder if BlackBerry was really onto something here with the odd shape, the missing row of keys, and unique trackpad built into the keyboard.

According to BlackBerry, the Passport was built for productivity, and one of the key selling points is that it's a powerful smartphone that is optimized for viewing and input. The large display offers an uncompromising experience for viewing content, reading documents, using maps, managing email and finally, browsing the web. But does it really deliver all of that? Let's find out!

BlackBerry Passport specifications

More powerful than any BlackBerry has ever been

Right to the point on this one. The BlackBerry Passport has better specs than any BlackBerry produced before it. Behind the Gorilla Glass 3 enforced 4.5", 1440x1440 LCD display is a 2.2 GHz Quad-Core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 customized for BlackBerry, 32GB of flash memory that's expandable up to 128GB through the micro SD Slot and 3GB of RAM. Although BlackBerry 10 devices have never really suffered from lag, the Passport just feels faster at doing everything. Opening apps, taking pictures, browsing the web -- you name it, it all feels faster on the BlackBerry Passport versus previous devices.

BlackBerry Passport

The BlackBerry Passport doesn't come up short on any of the expected features, they're all there. Wi-Fi comes in 2.4GHz 802.11 b/g/n and 5Ghz a/n + ac flavors, Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy is onboard, there's NFC to support mobile payments and file exchange plus it supports Wi-Fi Direct, Miracast, and DLNA and of course, assisted, autonomous, and simultaneous GPS.

A few features possibly not expected are also included. USB On-The-Go gets carried over from the BlackBerry Z30, SlimPort is the chosen option for USB and microHDMI out, and a unique calling feature called Active Leak Compensation, which automatically adjusts the call volume based on how close you hold the device to your ear, is included. That's over and above BlackBerry's 'Natural Sound' system that dynamically adapts in real-time to your surroundings and the network to provide you with consistently good audio quality for phone calls.

The Passport just feels faster at doing everything.

One of the key features of the device and the biggest attraction comes by way of the touch-enabled QWERTY keyboard. The lack of a fourth row of keys on the device initially left some puzzled but eventually it came out that BlackBerry would be introducing a new innovative physical keyboard on the BlackBerry Passport.

With only three rows of keys, the BlackBerry Passport utilizes the display to offer additional virtual keys that change in context with what you're doing on the device. Additionally, the physical keyboard is touch-enabled and can recognize gestures such as swipes up and down to help with navigation through the BlackBerry 10 operating system. It's not without some issues but more on those shortly.

BlackBerry Passport right side BlackBerry Passport bottom BlackBerry Passport top BlackBerry Passport left side

Overall, the BlackBerry Passport has everything from previous BlackBerry 10 devices and bit more to make it that much more a compelling option. We know from the release of previous BlackBerry 10 devices that sometimes a few things have been left behind between the different devices but that hasn't happened here.

Everything that was present on BlackBerry 10 from day one is here, be it Wi-Fi Direct, Miracast, DLNA, FM Radio support, HDMI out, USB On-The-Go and as mentioned, there are plenty of new features as well. If you've been waiting for that one BlackBerry 10 device that has it all, the BlackBerry Passport just might be it.

BlackBerry Passport hardware

Classy, industrial, and very much BlackBerry

BlackBerry Passport

If you're used to using any other device, when you pick up the BlackBerry Passport the first thing you're going to notice is its weight. Weighing in at 196g, my first thought was 'this device is heavy', however, after use I began to think of it more as solid rather than heavy, as it never really interferes with my usage. It's a well-built device and the quality shows on it in pretty much every way. From the sandblasted stainless steel band wrapped around the device that acts as a booster for the Paratek antennas, right down to the spun metal ring around camera, the BlackBerry Passport just screams quality hardware. Part of that is thanks to the 5-step CNC forged metal process BlackBerry used to enhance durability and strength on the BlackBerry Passport.

With no removable battery on the Passport, BlackBerry was free to play around with some of the options in the battery area as well as the nanoSIM and microSD placement on the device. Instead of fussing about with little flaps on the side of the device, which likely would have made a high-quality device feel cheap, BlackBerry instead opted to leave the back cover alone and instead make use of a top piece that simply pops off revealing the slots on the top of the device. That might not really sound any better in terms of quality than having flaps on the side but I assure you it is. The top piece comes off easily enough, but not so easy that it feels cheap or like it will break if you're rough with it.

Passport top panel

On the top of the Passport, to the left, you'll find the usual 3.5mm headphone jack and to the far right of the device you'll find the Power on/off button. Given the BlackBerry Passport is a rather large device, I started to wish BlackBerry had put the power button on the left hand side of the device where there are no keys as it would have made it easier to reach, but then when I really thought about it, the amount of times I actually shut down or reboot any of my BlackBerry 10 devices is so minimal that I suppose reaching up to the top and holding down that button really isn't much of an issue at all.

The BlackBerry Passport just screams quality.

BlackBerry Passport BlackBerry Passport case

If I had one complaint about the BlackBerry Passport hardware, it would be on the backing of the device. BlackBerry opted to not use their glass weave backing on the BlackBerry Passport as a design decision and instead are making use of a soft-touch finish on the black versions and a porcelain like finish on the white versions. Maybe it was just a fluke and I got a bad finish, maybe it's a sign of how much I use my BlackBerry, or maybe it's just a sign that I need to wash my hands more often, but the back of my Passport has a noticeable spot where you can see the finish 'wearing' away.

I hesitate to say wearing away, because it's not as if it's peeling off or anything like that. There is just a spot by the BlackBerry B's where you can see my fingers are resting on the back of the device when I type, more commonly known as the BlackBerry prayer position. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this has happened on several of my BlackBerry devices before in the past but alas, it is something I noticed in my use of the Passport as well.

Will it get worse over time? Maybe. Was it just the initial layer of soft touch wearing off? Probably. Would it stop me from buying a BlackBerry Passport? Hell no! A good case would stop that wear and tear anyway, so I'm not overly worried about it, just aware and letting you all know as well.

BlackBerry Passport and BlackBerry Z10 BlackBerry Passport and BlackBerry Z3 BlackBerry Passport and iPhone 6 BlackBerry Passport and Nokia Lumia 1520

The other concern, which seems to be at the top of the list for folks but isn't really a concern for me is the actual size of the BlackBerry Passport. This is a pretty easy one to overcome, really. It's not as big as it looks in pictures. It fits in your pants pockets, unless you're wearing some super skinny jeans. In fact, it slides into pants and shorts pockets rather easily but here's the thing. It doesn't come out as easily and really, that's a feeling I like. It never feels like the phone is going to slide out of your pockets. I've destroyed several devices simply by them falling out of my pockets and I really don't have that concern with the BlackBerry Passport.

Finally, is it a two handed device? I'm going to generalize a bit here and say for most people it certainly is a two handed device. Those with big hands though will find there are times it's a two handed device, but there are also times you can get away with using it one handed thanks to predictions and the touch-enabled keyboard. I can lay in bed and use the device one handed rather easily with my bear paws. I can browse web pages, scroll around and even reply to BBM's on the go one handed as well but when you're deep into a conversation or pounding out a long email, even with large hands you're likely to find yourself using both to comfortably use the Passport. Is that a problem? Not for me, but I can understand how it might be off-putting for some.


BlackBerry Passport screen

Given the fact one of the key selling points of the BlackBerry Passport according to BlackBerry is that it's 'optimized for viewing and input' you would think the decision to put a fantastic display in the device would be an an easy one, right? Well, they did, so no need to worry there. The 1440x1440 LCD panel they went with is bright, gorgeous, and renders colors beautifully in my opinion.

It also has the added bonus of holding up pretty darn well in direct sunlight and unlike the BlackBerry Z30, which had its display brightness abilities limited, that's seemingly not an issue on the BlackBerry Passport. If you want to crank the display up so that it looks like a shining star when you wake at night and swipe it on, you can do that. I don't recommend it of course, but who am I to tell what you to do and what not to do. To each their own, let there be light!

Your content is king on the BlackBerry Passport and while BlackBerry likes to tout the fact that the display is 30% wider than an average 5" all-touch device, and displays 60 characters across, almost meeting the print industry's optimal 66 characters where other devices only manage 40 characters in portrait orientation, I have an easier way to convey its awesomeness and that's to say after having used the BlackBerry Passport for a while now, there's no way I can imagine myself going back to a tall, skinny traditional device. I hope the BlackBerry Passport sells so damn well that BlackBerry is forced to keep this form factor going as long as possible.

Battery Life

BlackBerry Passport battery stats

Battery life. The Achilles heel of pretty much every smartphone these days. On the BlackBerry Passport, BlackBerry attempted to not make this a concern. Did they succeed? Well, in my opinion, yes. The BlackBerry Passport includes a massive 3450mAh battery and while there are arguments to be had about whether or not they should have stuck with a removable battery, I don't personally think it's that big of a deal. In my testing, the BlackBerry Passport survived a full day in any use case and while some nights when usage was heavy I HAD to charge it, there were also nights when usage wasn't as heavy and if I forgot to charge it there was more than enough juice to get me up and running in the morning and into the afternoon.

By now, we're all aware that people use their devices differently, we all live in different areas and there is no definitive way to say your battery life situation with the BlackBerry Passport will be as good as mine. It's all relative to how you use your device, where you live, and what kind of coverage you get in your area, but to add some perspective here and possibly set a few expectations, let me share some details with you. I was using the AT&T network in New York, which is apparently brutal on devices, and then I traveled to Arizona (mostly Scottsdale) while remaining on the AT&T network. I've had LTE coverage all throughout and have never really struggled for connectivity anywhere and have never been left scrambling to reach a charger.

To sum it up, battery life on the BlackBerry Passport has been awesome for me and while it might be an obvious point to state, I'm going to state it anyway, because anyone who owns a Z30 will know what I mean and appreciate it. The BlackBerry Passport runs circles around my Z30 when it comes to battery life. That said, if you're not a BlackBerry Z30 user now but are on a different BlackBerry 10 device, then there's no doubt you'll be pleased with the battery on the BlackBerry Passport.


Taking a photo with the BlackBerry Passport

One area I've been waiting for BlackBerry to improve across their devices has been the camera. A common feeling about BlackBerry is that they always seem to settle for good enough when it comes to the shooters on their smartphones. Sure, you can take some amazing pictures on any of the BlackBerry 10 devices under the right conditions and settings but as we all know, the opportunity to set up shots like that isn't always feasible. So is it different on the BlackBerry Passport? Did they try to go a little further or did they stop at good enough? I'm under the impression they gave a lot more effort this time around.

The BlackBerry Passport has a 13MP, 5-element f2.0 lens shooter with Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), LED Flash, 5x digital zoom and 1080p HD video recording including 60 FPS capabilities, 6DOF video stabilization and back side illumination That's all the techy points, what's the real deal? If you were happy with BlackBerry 10 smartphone cameras before, you're going to LOVE the photos the BlackBerry Passport takes. If you were unhappy with BlackBerry 10 smartphone cameras before, you're going to LOVE the improvements the BlackBerry Passport brings and enjoy the pictures it takes.

A quick shot from the Passport and iPhone 6 for comparison (Passport of the left, iPhone 6 on the right):

BlackBerry Passport photo sample iPhone 6 photo sample BlackBerry Passport nighttime photo sample iPhone 6 nighttime photo sample

You can view the full resolution versions here: BlackBerry Passport Sample / iPhone 6 Sample

On top of clearly using better optics for the camera, BlackBerry OS 10.3 includes several enhancements to the actual camera software itself including built-in intelligence that now offers suggestions for shooting in certain modes depending on the present conditions. You can now take panorama photos natively. Time Shift has improved, you now have the option to save a Time Shift capture for editing at a later time. The rear video camera can capture up to 60 fps (frames per second) in 1080p, which is beneficial for recording fast moving objects. You can now capture a picture while recording video at any time by tapping the camera button or pressing the space bar on the keyboard.

Not enough? Well, there's more. Once you shoot a video, you have the option to edit it. You can trim the video to only the part you want, adjust the brightness, contrast and color and play with the sound volume, plus the video editor now includes a Slow Motion feature. Finally, Story Maker has an auto-creation feature. The system examines your content then offers to create a Story Maker video for you based on that content. When you open the Pictures app you'll see the video placeholder in your photos app, just tap it and you can automatically generate a video. A lot of attention has been given to the camera not only on the Passport but in OS 10.3 on the whole.

Call Quality

Making a call

What's a smartphone if it can't perform as a phone, right? Thankfully, BlackBerry has never had any issues in that area and with the BlackBerry Passport it remains that way. The BlackBerry Passport makes great, clear phone calls thanks to BlackBerry Natural Sound which now enhances calls over the network, HD Voice calling, and BlackBerry's new and unique feature called Active Leak Compensation, which automatically adjusts the call volume based on how close you hold the BlackBerry Passport smartphone to your ear.

As BlackBerry describes it, 'A microphone in the earpiece of the phone – part of the phone's unique quad-microphone array – measures the sound pressure in your ear and adjusts the volume accordingly for consistent sound quality. ' From my testing, I'd have to say it works. Calls are noticeably clearer than on any previous BlackBerry 10 devices and even in noisy situations, no one had any complaints about my call quality or being unable to hear me. In the same vein, I never really had any issues hearing them either and everything came through fine as kind.

If you're a person who spends time on conference calls or makes use of speakerphone a lot, you shouldn't have any issues either. The speakers on the device offer a loud output and again making use of that quad-microphone array on the Passport, voice input comes through loud and clear to anyone who may be on the other end. All in all, I have no complaints about the call or even speakerphone quality on the BlackBerry Passport and I don't think you will either.

BlackBerry Passport software

The same BlackBerry 10 you know and love, only much better!

BlackBerry OS 10.3

The BlackBerry Passport is running OS 10.3 out of the box, and aside from the Porsche Design P'9983 is the only other device to have the OS as of now. We're not going to dig too deep into this portion within the Passport review itself because honestly, BlackBerry OS 10.3 deserves a review of its own. We'll be taking a direct look at the OS in the near future, but for now let's take a look at some of what BlackBerry considers key additions to the operating system on the BlackBerry Passport.

  • BlackBerry OS 10.3 features new icons, buttons and other UI elements, with a flatter, more modern design.

  • Minimized apps are Active Frames. You can have up to eight Active Frames on your Home screen. The first app you minimize takes the top left position of the grid, and each new app follows sequentially. In BlackBerry OS 10.3 you can reorder the placement with a long press on any frame. The frames will begin to "pulsate", like app icons, and you can then drag a frame to a new position.

  • With 10.3, apps now run in the background without an open Active Frame ("headless apps").

  • The Action Bar in BlackBerry OS 10.3 highlights the most common task for each panel of an application. For example, while composing a message, the Attachment icon is highlighted.

  • The cut, copy & paste functionality in BlackBerry OS 10.3 has been enhanced, giving you even better cursor control and is integrated with the touch-enabled keyboard.

  • BlackBerry Assistant on the BlackBerry Passport smartphone allows you to manage your work and personal email, contacts, BBM, calendar and other native BlackBerry 10 applications through both voice and typed commands. It helps you execute essential tasks quickly in any situation, whether at your desk, in your car or in a meeting. Offering unique capabilities such as having your email read to you and replying back hands-free and eyes-free, or saying "book a meeting" to schedule an event, BlackBerry Assistant has a best-in-class architecture and new language processing that yields a very high rate of accuracy and recognizes voice commands in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.

  • BlackBerry OS 10.3 includes a dial pad look up. Type the first few letters of the name or phone number to access a list of matching contacts.

  • Advanced Interaction uses the phone's sensors to enable certain behavior, such as setting the phone face down to save power.

  • A new and improved device monitor provides you with essential details on battery usage, the impact of installed apps on battery life and memory, data and storage usage, as well as CPU stats.

  • If a BBM or text message message arrives, you can instantly reply to the message without even leaving the app you're in, including now from within BlackBerry Hub and email.

  • Meeting Mode (in Calendar Settings) will automatically silence your phone when you are in a meeting.

  • When you receive an email with multiple attachments, you can now download them all at once.

  • You can now immediately access the dial pad from the Calls Hub.

  • Triage Hub - Tap the icon to open a context sensitive side menu (Instant Actions) that lets you quickly file or delete a message, or respond to a text or BBM. The side menu also pops up for a short period after you close a message.

  • Draft messages now automatically save, even if you swipe away from the message to do something else. You can also select Cancel, which gives you the option to save the draft.

  • If you are replying to a message, you now have the option to delete the original text.

  • The Amazon app store is preinstalled. You can simply download and run Android apps directly from the store.

  • The media player includes an equalizer with 17 different presets.

  • Remember has been redesigned to be simpler and easier to create and manage tasks. Entries can include notes you type as well as attachments such as photos, videos and voice notes.

  • BlackBerry 10.3 gives you extensive control of what appears on the Lock screen. You can even set a different wallpaper for the Lock screen and Home screen.

And those are just the items that BlackBerry felt were important enough to note. There's plenty of other little touches and moments of charm that make BlackBerry OS 10.3 feel more complete over its earlier versions so hang tight for our full review, it won't be long until we get that posted up. I know it's a bit clichè at this point and we say it with every large OS update but this is what BlackBerry 10 should have launched with. It's so feature rich now compared to the bare bones 10.0 release we all started BlackBerry 10 with.


Typing on the BlackBerry Passport

This is no doubt the part most people are curious about along with the trackpad. How does typing on the BlackBerry Passport work? Well, it's pretty much like typing on any other QWERTY BlackBerry 10 device really but that's not to say there isn't a learning curve with the contextual on screen options because there certainly is. The good news though, is that it's not a steep learning curve and once you get used to it you can end up flying across that keyboard just like you would any other QWERTY BlackBerry 10 keyboard. In some cases maybe even faster because after all, it was designed with productivity in mind.

So what about the trackpad? How does it work? Is it really useful? Well, the trackpad is built into the keyboard and it's actually broken into three sections. In the screenshot below where the predictions are showing, right below each is where the sensitive parts of the trackpad are, give or take. It's a minor detail and really, you would be hard pressed to actually confuse it as it really does act as if the whole thing was a trackpad.

BlackBerry Passport virtual trackpad

Now, is it really useful? Well, yes and no. I can see some folks getting a LOT of use out of it however, I'm not really one of them. In my use I found it easier to just use the display to scroll up and down through web pages and apps but at times (like when laying in bed) I did find myself using the trackpad. I think my main issue with it is that it's not yet consistent with where it works. By that, I mean in some apps it works and in others it simply does not. It might work or it might not, and you're left to figure it out on your own. I'm sure there's some developer reason there like it needs to be implemented specifically into some apps, so that's not really a knock against the trackpad, it's just something to be aware of.

BlackBerry says it offers faster scrolling, more intuitive cursor control and text selection all in a minimal design and they're not wrong. That's exactly what the trackpad is going to do for some people but there's also going to be those who, like me, just simply find it easier to reach around and use the display to get their tasks done. It'll be interesting to see who makes use of the trackpad and who doesn't, once the BlackBerry Passport becomes available.

One issue I did have with typing comes by way of the space key on the Passport, but I quickly got over it. For whatever reason, during the first two days of usage I kept missing the space key whenever I went to enter text. I think my brain assumed it would be lower based on previous devices and it never failed. Every time I went to hit it, I ended up hitting right below it. It was really a really weird thing to wrap my brain around but eventually, I got over it and can now find that space bar with no problem at all. I'll be curious to see if others have this issue during their first days of use as well.


Amazon Appstore on the BlackBerry Passport

Where the BlackBerry Passport comes with BlackBerry OS 10.3, that means it also comes with the Amazon Appstore preloaded in addition to BlackBerry World. The Amazon Appstore offers many free and paid apps that can all run through the BlackBerry Android runtime. Speaking of the Android runtime, that's been improved in order to make all this happen. Android apps downloaded from the Amazon Appstore seem run faster than they did on any previous BlackBerry 10 devices, no doubt due to the specs of the Passport, and there's now better compatibility with those apps. Some apps that previously didn't work have now started working on the Passport and BlackBerry is working with Amazon to ensure the top apps you're looking for end up optimized to work.

Zoomed app BlackBerry World

Is it perfect? Do all the apps run? Well, no. I can't say that. You're still going to come across a few apps here and there that won't work for you, especially if they're not downloaded from Amazon, but the situation is much better than before and it continues to improve. Specifically on the Passport, BlackBerry has even built in the capability to improve compatibility yourself through a Zoom In / Zoom Out option while running Android apps. App doesn't fit the screen? Zoom out to get a better look at it. Apps not looking right due to the size of the Passport? Try zooming in to adjust the view. This might not sound impressive but when the app you really want to work starts working by simply tapping on an icon, you really appreciate it.

Of course, not everyone likes to use Android apps and for native apps BlackBerry World remains an option as well. Thousands of apps are available in BlackBerry World and many of them already work with the BlackBerry Passport without any problems. Plus, many developers are already in the process of updating their apps to include support for the BlackBerry Passport and BlackBerry has done their rounds as well, so a lot of the core apps you know and love are ready to go on the BlackBerry Passport out of the box. Now, all you need is a BlackBerry Passport, right?

BlackBerry Passport: The Bottom Line

A quirky QWERTY that wins in all the right places!

  • The BlackBerry Passport has a solid and durable design, great battery life, and simply the best specs ever put into a BlackBerry. It's bad ass!
  • It's not a device for everyone. Some people are going to LOVE it, some people are going to hate it. Even if they are die hard QWERTY fans.
  • When it comes down to it, the BlackBerry Passport is an awesome device. It has beautiful hardware, it feels solid, the display is gorgeous and overall the device is a powerhouse.

I have no trouble in admitting that when the BlackBerry Passport first leaked out, I was pretty skeptical. I don't just mean the shady images either, I mean the whole concept of the device just felt wrong to me. Eventually I warmed up to it and realized, BlackBerry has obviously done some testing here to figure things out. You don't just toss out this radical, quirky design without at least looking at the data on it all and now that I've been using the BlackBerry Passport for a while, I really can't see myself going back to a different BlackBerry smartphone. I love my BlackBerry Z30, the battery life is great, the display is large, the camera is above acceptable, but the Passport blows it out of the water for me.

The BlackBerry Passport really is a productivity machine.

The 'for me' part is probably the most important part there and I highlight that because I know not everyone is going to love the BlackBerry Passport, even if they diehard QWERTY fans. Some are going to find it too big, some are not going to like the three-row keyboard with its contextual awareness and trackpad integration and some quite frankly are just going to be turned off by the look of the device. That said, I highly encourage you to not dismiss the device without actually giving it a real go. The BlackBerry Passport really is a productivity machine. I found myself responding to emails more, loading up full web pages more, more willing to complete tasks that I'd normally wait to get back to a computer to complete such as invoices through Documents To Go and Word To Go and more. The big, wide display makes you want to try things you'd never try on a skinny, tall smartphone and that's actually rather awesome.

The whole time I've been reviewing the BlackBerry Passport there's been a lingering thought in my head and I'm sure it's one I share with many of you all as well. How well is the BlackBerry Passport going to sell for BlackBerry? At the end of the day, or in this case at the end of the review, I really don't know but what I have decided is this. The BlackBerry Passport is just quirky enough, just odd enough to make people interested in it. Even during my review, I've had several people ask about the device, even a guy at the Apple Store (Yes, I was showing off) had questions about it and that's actually beneficial to BlackBerry. Just quirky enough, just odd enough, that people want to pick up the device and see what it is all about and well, BlackBerry needs that. Not enough people know BlackBerry 10 even exists, let alone the fact that's a great operating system. If their first experience on BlackBerry 10 is the BlackBerry Passport, I feel that's a good thing because even though it looks a little odd, it's a pretty complete package when all things are considered.

I know a lot of you were probably expecting me to tell you to go out and buy the BlackBerry Passport as soon as you can because it's the best thing since sliced bread. After all, this is CrackBerry and when BlackBerry does well, we do well but I don't think that's right at all. I think the BlackBerry Passport has some very specific audiences that it's going to appeal to and those individuals are going to make their own minds up, if they haven't already done so. Early adopters, people not afraid to try something new, people who want more out of their smartphones and even people who might already own a different device but need something that enables them to be more productive on the go, people who want an uncompromised, purpose built experience. These are all people who will be buying the BlackBerry Passport. So instead of me telling you to run out and buy the BlackBerry Passport, even though I really want to because I've fallen in love with it, I want to leave you with a question. Will you be buying the BlackBerry Passport?

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