BlackBerry has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, and while only time will tell if it’s able to get out of the mess it’s in as a company, loyalists can take solace in the interim CEO John Chen’s statement. He went on record saying there are no plans to get out of the handset business, and that the company is here to stay. Good news not only for BlackBerry fans, but for everyone – it’s just great to have more choice, you see.
Between the clouds, a couple of new developments appeared as the proverbial silver lining. BlackBerry Messenger, or BBM as it’s called, finally made the jump to Android and iOS, and the company launched a new flagship in the form of the Z30. After the debut of the Z10 (the all-touch device that also marked the launch of BlackBerry’s new mobile OS, BB10), this is the fourth handset that runs the same OS, with keyboard-toting Q10 and Q5 appearing in the middle. The Z30, which is also an all-touch handset just like the Z10, rocks a 5-inch display, the largest ever on a BlackBerry, and brings with it the latest iteration of BB10 that boasts quite a few new features. Let’s get up close and personal with the flagship device and figure out what it can do…
Design and Hardware
The 5-inch form factor has assumed significant importance in the smartphone space (only on Android so far, we may add), and has appeared as the sweet spot that sits between the phone and the phablet categories… an optimum balance between a large screen size, portability and usability. Due credit has to be given to the designers at BlackBerry, who’ve managed to keep the Z30’s overall size from being too unwieldy. There’s barely any bezel on the device, and this along with its svelte profile helps keeps the size down to manageable levels. The build quality is typical of a BlackBerry – reassuringly solid.
While the front is dominated by the 5-inch screen, an aluminum chin at the bottom adds the much-needed flair. A large BlackBerry logo is placed just above the chin and right below the screen, while the earpiece, front camera and the sensors are located on top. The bottom of the device is barren, with the 3.5mm audio socket placed on top, next to the power / sleep key. The latter’s placement may not be ideal for a phone of this size, but do keep in mind that as with the other BB10 devices, the Z30 can also be woken up from slumber by swiping up from the bottom of the screen. A silver band runs around the sides, with the microUSB and micro-HDMI ports for direct TV connectivity located on the left, and the two separate volume keys with a vice command key in the center located on the right.
Turn the device around and you’re greeted by a rubbery rear that sports the same carbon weave pattern we saw on the black variant of the Q10. The camera and flash modules are on the top left and a large chrome-embossed flying D’s logo in the middle. The phone speakers are placed on the top and bottom edges, with one grille placed on top and two right at the bottom. The rubbery matte finish of the rear imparts a comfortable feel to the device, adds grip and doesn’t smudge easily, not to mention that it also makes the device look quite elegant. Pry the cover open, and you’ll find the micro-SIM and microSD slots tucked away on the side, while the 2,880 mAh battery is sealed and can’t be removed. The large label stuck inside provides at-a-glance indication of the port placement, and also guides you about the correct way to insert the micro-SIM and the microSD cards, apart from utilizing free space to advertise a couple of specs of the device.
The Z30 rocks a 5-inch display with a resolution of 1,280 x 720 and a pixel density of 295 ppi, which is slightly lower in resolution than the 4.2-inch, 1,280 x 768 pixel display on the Z10. However, the Z30’s screen is a Super AMOLED display as compared to the Z10’s LCD, and as such, boasts better contrast levels and more vibrant colors. It still doesn’t look as impressive as the full HD displays we’ve seen on recent flagships such as the HTC One, the LG G2 or the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, but still manages to score points due to its high image quality. The extra real estate does wonders for web browsing, gaming and media consumption, while also enhancing the input experience due to the larger virtual keyboard.
We wish we had lots of fodder to report as far as the camera is concerned, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. The Z30 brings with it the same 8-megapixel snapper we’ve seen previously on the Z10 and Q10, with the interface and set of features on offer also remaining pretty much unchanged. HDR and burst modes are available, and so is the very handy TimeShift mode that captures a series of images even before you tap the screen to click a picture (there’s no dedicated shutter key, virtual or otherwise), and then lets you save the best one later.
Video can be captured at 1080p at 30fps. The snapper isn’t too different in terms of performance either, and delivers pleasing images and videos as long as there’s enough ambient light. When the light falls, so does the camera performance. Suffice to say that the camera does its job, and isn’t one of the highlights of the device.
The Z30 runs BB10, complete with its intuitive swipes and gestures. The overall operation remains the same as the Z10 and the Q10, and therefore, we won’t get into the complete details. For a more detailed overview, please refer to the software section in our BlackBerry Q10 review. Briefly though, you get the same intuitive UI, with the ability to wake up the device from slumber by swiping up from the bottom of the screen (the aluminum chin helps), and a horizontally scrolling app drawer with folder support. Access to connectivity toggles and settings is via a settings pane that drops down when you swipe downwards from the top of the screen, while running apps can be minimized to Active Frames, and then killed if you don’t need them. BlackBerry Hub remains the mainstay, aggregating all messages from all connected accounts in one place. It can be accessed by swiping to the right, and retains the handy Peek feature that lets you glance at notifications by performing an inverted-L shaped swipe from the bottom. All very smooth, flowy, and intuitive.
What we haven’t mentioned yet is that the Z30 ships with the latest iteration of the BB10 OS, version 10.2 to be exact, and this update brings with it a fair share of features and usage enhancements. The update has since rolled out to the earlier BB10 devices as well. Of course, as you must have guessed from our brief overview of the software above, the latest version doesn’t impact how you use the device, but it does add up to the overall experience. Possibly the very first thing you’ll notice is lockscreen previews. These are implemented in a slick way, using onscreen icons that display the recent messages by tapping on the corresponding icon. BlackBerry Hub also gets a refresh with the addition of the Priority Hub – a feature which is similar to Gmail’s Priority Inbox and displays messages it deems important. You can use filters to mark messages for inclusion into the Priority Hub, and also mark specific message threads to be included manually, and over time, it promises to learn what’s really important for you. Another very significant, and possibly the key highlight of the new OS version is popup banner notifications. These pop up on top of the screen and help you stay abreast of what’s happening, regardless of the app you may have running. Furthermore, these banner notifications are actionable in certain cases, mainly for BBM and text messages, and also for a few third-party apps like WhatsApp. This allows you to respond to messages without interrupting anything else you were doing on the phone – browsing the web or viewing a video, for example. It’s not just handy, it helps take the usage experience to the next level. Apart from the aforementioned highlights, the latest iteration of the OS also includes quite a few under-the-hood improvements, the most notable of which is that emails sent from the desktop or any other device sync nicely with the BB10 smartphone – so you always stay current with email on your BlackBerry. Other new additions include a dedicated icon for BlackBerry Hub and an app manager available in settings that allows you to check CPU and memory usage of apps.
The preloaded app set is also no different from what we’ve seen on the Z30’s siblings earlier, and support for key social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and services such as Evernote and Dropbox built right in. As far as the app ecosystem is concerned, it’s seen some nice inclusions – Real Racing 3 and Flipboard, for example (the latter is admittedly an Android port, but it’s there), while basics such as Skype and WhatsApp were already there. Native Instagram and Google’s suite of apps are still missing in action, and these remain a major gripe.
Performance and Battery life
You’re in for some disappointment if you were to compare the specs of this flagship BlackBerry to what its rivals boast, especially those running Android. In the age of quad-core and octa-core, the Z30 is still powered by a dual-core Snapdragon Pro processor which is clocked at 1.7GHz… a small step above from the 1.5GHz chip found in the Z10 and the Q10. It’s paired with 2GB of RAM, and 16 gigs of expandable internal storage. Connectivity options abound as well, and apart from the micro-HDMI port we mentioned earlier, you’ll find dual-band Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct, NFC A-GPS and DLNA, and for the very first time in a BlackBerry, the very handy inclusion of USB On-the-Go support as well, letting you plug in USB flash drives to the device directly.
Specs aside, it’s the real world performance that matters, and as such, we faced no hiccups or performance jitters while using the device. The gestures, swipes and animations are all smooth, while the operation stays jitter-free even with multiple apps running in the background. We did see a few frame drops while running Real Racing 3, but nothing that rendered the game unplayable.
The Z30 features new antenna technology from Paratek that claims to dynamically tune reception for better connectivity in low signal areas, and we did find the reception a tad better as compared to other phones when we tried it out in a basement. Call quality isn’t as loud as we’d have preferred, but it’s quite clear and the built-in speakers do a fair job as well. What’s really a step up is the battery life – its 2,880 mAh sealed pack keeps the Z30 alive for a full day comfortably, extending into the second day if your usage isn’t very heavy, before it puts its feet up and dies. Of course, good battery life is critical for any portable device, but this certainly is a pleasant surprise given the so-so battery life on the Z10 and bodes well for this flagship smartphone.
BlackBerry managed to surprise us with the pricing of its earlier BB10 handsets, all of which were priced quite high at launch time. The Z10 has received a significant price drop since then, and is now officially pegged at Rs 29,990 (~ $470), though you should be able to find it for much lower online… as low as Rs 20,349 (~ $320) on eBay India. We were fearing the worst when the Z30 launched, and the company managed to surprise us yet again, pleasantly this time. With the official sticker price of Rs 39,990 (~ $630), it isn’t cheap… but it isn’t exorbitant either. If you’re in the US, you can get the Z30 from Verizon Wireless for $199 on a two-year contract.
After playing around with the Z30 for a few days, it’s quite clear that this is the best BlackBerry smartphone till date. It may not have an awesome camera or top-notch specs on paper, but it has quite a few things going for it – a decent screen, smooth performance, elegant looks, a solid build and generous battery life. Sure, it won’t deliver the same app catalogue as iOS or Android, but then, do keep in mind that this is a BlackBerry and its mainstay is still a powerful messaging and notification system. And it does deliver. BB 10.2’s new features add to the overall experience and make it a worthy choice for anyone who is looking for a device to keep in touch with work and loved ones when out and about. The media and entertainment experience is very good as well, with a capable media player combined with the large screen and the long battery life that keeps pace. The only reason why we can’t recommend it wholeheartedly is the opportunity cost involved – the LG G2 is available for around the same price in India, and hits the sweet spot in terms of everything from screen quality, camera performance, overall speed and general all-roundedness… making it a much more compelling buy. However, if Android is not your thing for some reason, and you’re lured by the smoothness, intuitiveness and the messaging focus of the Z30, you can’t do much better than this. We aren’t sure if the Z30 is enough to pull the company out of the red, but that’s fodder for a separate article perhaps.