Review

Review: BlackBerry Z30

BlackBerry is in a tough spot, with consumers leaving the brand faster than a burning platform, and with carriers now turning a cold shoulder to the once dominant smartphone vendor, what’s a company to do? Well, for now, it seems, you keep pumping out new phones that you hope consumers will adore.

And that’s what BlackBerry has done with the newly released Z30. The phone, which is the follow-up to the Z10, is another attempt by BlackBerry to produce a modern device that does away with its old ‘business only’ image and hopes to appeal to those who want a touchscreen device. This new appeal comes on the back of BBOS10 that I noted needed some improvement as the software was far from perfect, the last time I reviewed a BBOS10 device.  With the Z30 running an updated version of the OS, it will prove to be a good testament to see if BlackBerry has been able to refine its OS or if the company is still residing on the values of yesterday in hopes of making it successful tomorrow.

The Z30 is for sale on Verizon right now with a two-year contract price of $199.99 or an off contract price of $549.99.

Specs:

On paper, the Z30 looks ambitious with a 1.7GHz dual core processor, 2GB RAM all packed behind a 5in Super AMOLED display. Further, the camera, coming in at 8MP is average for the course but most cameras are roughly the same size in MP (minus the Lumia 1020) so it’s safe to say that BlackBerry is keeping up with the class but is by no means trying to become a ‘best of’ with the Z30.

While I will be the first to argue that competing in the spec wars race is a bit silly as great hardware is only as good as the OS that utilizes the underlying chips. Microsoft has shown with Windows Phone that by heavily optimizing software for the underlying architecture, you can have exceptional performance with a lower spec’d device.

Spec Description  
Display 5in, 1280x720 Super AMOLED  
Weight 170 grams  
Color Black/Silver  
Storage 16GB  
Memory 2GB  
Processor 1.7 Ghz DualCore Snapdragon S4  
Cameras 8-megapixel rear camera
2-megapixel front camera
 
Battery 2880 mAh  
Ports USB micro, HDMI micro  
LTE support Yes  
Price $549  
Availability Fall 2013  
 

Even with the modest spec sheet, I would hedge that very few consumers read a spec list, besides the amount of storage, as the OS is likely the only consideration to be made these days. Think about it, before heading into the store, you likely know you want an Android or a Windows Phone or if it comes to iPhone, the specific model. Rarely do you hear stories of consumers who say “I want my phone to have a quad core CPU or a PPI of 200 or more.

So for BlackBerry to retain, at minimum, competitive specs for the Z30 is all that’s important. It doesn’t need to be class leading in raw horsepower, as that is only a short-term win and for BlackBerry; it needs to win at the OS level, as that’s the only real differentiator these days.

Design:

The appearance of the phone is quite minimalistic. With no buttons on the front of the device, you are greeted with a large slab of touchscreen goodness and a volume rocker on the side that has an additional action key between the up/down buttons. Up top you have the power button that feels like you are pushing a noodle through gravy when engaging the key.

The back of the device is covered in a rubbery material that was also used on the Z10. It’s a great feeling material that provides plenty of grip. The back cover is removable but unfortunately, the battery is not user replaceable. The battery is screwed into the shell of the phone which is quite odd, considering that you can remove the back panel.

The reason you can remove the back panel is to gain access to the SIM and SD card slots. It is a bit of an odd arrangement but on most modern devices, the battery is locked into place, so when compared to the competition, this is on par with expectations.

The front of the device does have a bit of plastic, the silver ‘chin’ below the screen is unapologetically plastic. Besides the one omission of plastic, the device, otherwise, feels fantastic and is made of quality materials..

OS

BlackBerry is shipping an updated version of BBOS 10 with the Z30, 10.2. The update brings a few new features such as quick notification options have been added to the lock screen. You can now launch the camera app from the launch screen too and you can also activate a ‘sleep’ mode by swiping down from the top to show an analog clock. When you are in sleep mode, all notifications are turned off which is a nifty feature, as long as you remember to turn it off when you want to begin receiving notifications again.

One of the big upgrades to BBOS is the addition of a priority hub that automatically sorts incoming notifications based on your prior conversations. In short, it recognizes which contacts are important to you based on your historical usage and then sorts your emails and other notifications based on these conversations to hopefully surface the important information as it hits your inbox. In practice, it works and users can configure the priority options to sort the content based on their needs.

For me, though, I turned off the priority sorting as I still prefer chronological order for my content but I can see how this feature will be useful to some who receive an abundance of emails and other notifications per day.

Notifications, across the OS, have been improved by showing a preview when received at the top of the screen. There is a small X that appears next to to the notification that allows you to quickly dismiss the alert.  While this type of notification has become standard across the smartphone segment, it is good to see the BlackBerry has caught up in this area.

One of the highlights for BlackBerry has been the keyboard and for Z30, the software keyboard is quite good.BlackBerry can still build great keyboards. The quick word feature that pops up above each letter when typing is fantastic and shows that BlackBerry can still build great keyboards, even if they are virtual.

One thing to note about BBOS 10 is that it is all in all gesture support. The OS can be navigated by swiping in from the sides to manage all functions of the OS. It’s important to know this as it is a serious love or hate type relationship. If you are used to having a ‘Home’ button like Android, Windows Phone and iPhone all have, using BB10 can be a bit frustrating. There is a reason why all the other vendors utilize a few key buttons at the bottom of the screen, instead of solely relying on gesture support because in practice, hitting a home button is a heck of a lot easier than trying to use the gestures BB10 has included.

With that being said, you do get used to the lack of button based control and after a week, I have mastered the navigation features of the platform but that doesn’t mean I don’t prefer to have the safety of the ‘home’ button to allow us to quickly and easily exit an app without having to be looking at the screen. Along with app crashes, there were times where the display became unresponsive, forcing a hard reset of the device.

Further, I had quite a few times where apps would crash and it’s apparent that stability on the BB10 platform is not as rock solid as other smartphone operating systems.

But none of this compares to the most annoying feature, or whatever you want to call it, that is muting the phone. If you hold down on the volume rocker, it will show that the media volume is at 0. This, you would assume means that the device is muted and will make no noise. False. When turning the phone on, after being off for a few days over the weekend, I quickly held the volume rocker down to show 0 for the volume. And then came the Twitter and email notifications, making the phone sound like a cheap Chinese firework and promptly waking my daughter up from a nap. While reviewing dozens of devices over the past five years, I have never been this frustrated by the lack of a poor user experience with adjusting the volume of notifications on a device.

Display:

Both screens set to 100% brightness  Z30 | iPhone 5

I are not sure what the deal here is, but on paper the display should be fantastic but for some reason, our review unit’s screen is quite dark. Even when the backlight is set to max, when compared to an iPhone 5 or Lumia 928, it’s simply not very bright which makes it hard to see in direct sunlight. I turned off auto brightness and attempted to do everything I could think of to understand why it’s simply so dim, but alas, it appears this is par for the course on the Z30.

Backlighting aside, the touchscreen is responsive (when it is not locked up) and does accurately recognize our gesture input. Further, the color reproduction is acceptable, not leading the class by any means, but there is little edge bleeding of colors.

Off angle viewing is moderate, with colors only falling off after you move outside your typically viewing angles.

Camera:

Cameras have become a focal point on cell phones recently with the likes of Nokia seemingly cramming as many megapixels as it can into the smallest possible space. Rightfully so, the camera on the phone is arguably one of the most important features these days as smartphones have taken over the point and shoot market. So, if your camera is crap, then the likelihood of you capturing the world around you to reflect upon later will be met with subpar images.

The camera on the Z30, unfortunately, is not all that great. In ideal conditions with bright light, the camera captures crisp images. But as soon as you move into less than ideal situations, the colors drop out and the images become a bit muddy.

Click to enlarge sample shots

The images are quite noisy at full scale and the details, as you can see in the far left sample images, is lost are the darker tones. With an iPhone 5 or Lumia 928, the details remains crisp and the Z30 falls short of the competition.

Video is the same way, optimal lighting, and the video works well but as soon as you head into the less than ideal conditions, colors fall off and become a bit grainy.

Call Quality:

When it comes to a smartphone, you tend to think that call quality is a given considering the price of the device. Unfortunately for the Z30, the call quality is average, at best.

The noise-canceling microphone does a good job at isolating the ambient noise from the conversation but voice tended to be shallow sounding to the recipient. Further, when at max volume, you may have trouble hearing the conversation as the earpiece does not get as loud as I would prefer.

Audio:

The built-in speakers perform exactly as you would expect for a smartphone. They work well but do not expect anything tremendous out of the device but know that for watching a short YouTube clip or other short film, they will get the job done. If you plan on watching a video of considerable length on a flight, thanks to the long battery life, bring a pair of ear buds to supplement the built-in speakers (and to avoid not annoying those around you on your flight).

Battery Life:

The Z30 comes with a 2880 mAh that provides fantastic longevity. We had no problems having the phone last an entire day without needing to be recharged. More specifically, we averaged a little over 10 hours of use out of the device during a period of 7 days.

I used the device quite extensively and would consider myself a heavy user. Battery life is fantastic. With a copious amount of web browsing, twitter usage, email, phone calls and the like, the Z30 exceeded our expectation for a smartphone.

One thing to note about the battery, is that unlike many other BlackBerry devices, the Z30 has a non-removable battery. While this is common in nearly every other smartphone, BlackBerry had been differentiating itself by offering this ‘feature’. But, alas, the Z30 bucks the BlackBerry trend and conforms to others on the market.

Apps:

iOS and Android have apps stores that are filled to the brim with options and price points that fit nearly all consumer needs. Windows Phone is making strides but is still catching up to the pack leaders but BlackBerry, well, they have their own issues to sort out.

BlackBerry’s App world is a barren of unloving apps that don’t add significant value to the platform. Sure, you can run Android apps on BBOS10 but if you are buying a BlackBerry to run Android apps, you might as well buy an Android device (and running Android apps is not as simple as using the Google Play store, the apps must be converted to .BAR format and then side-loaded).

Further, BlackBerry has the same issue that Windows Phone has, if a new app comes out, it will likely not debut on BlackBerry. Because of this, and the same with Windows Phone, the platform will always be the runner-up to receiving the hottest new apps, if they even show up at all.

It’s a chicken and egg scenario, developers want a large base of consumers to sell too and consumers want to have great apps. You need both to have a successful platform and with BlackBerry facing a shrinking user base and uncertain financial future, don’t expect the app situation to change anytime soon.

Conclusion:

The Z30 is the best BlackBerry phone on the market but falls way short of the premium offerings from Android, Apple and even Windows Phone.

The hardware for the Z30 is actually quite good. The phone feels great in your hands and the 5in screen does not seem all that large and in fact, from a hardware point of view, the phone is fantastic.

Where it all goes downhill, is when you turn the device on. The slow boot time and buggy user experience leaves a lot of room for improvement. We had several instances where the touchscreen stopped responding to input for a few seconds or had an app crash for no apparent reason.

The phone still has a considerable learning curve to it as well. Even though the OS now includes a tutorial feature that helps you learn all the gestures, coming from iOS or Android, it’s certainly a different experience and it is hard to quantify if that ‘difference’ is a good thing. The lack of a dedicated home or back button at the bottom of the screen will likely annoy converts to the platform at first and in the retail space, with only a few minutes to try out the platform, could turn off potential buyers.

It may seem harsh to say that BBOS 10, for the majority of users, will likely not enjoy BBOS 10. If you don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of the platform, consider this: Verizon is not even putting the Z30 in their retail shops, it must be purchased online, ouch.

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