BlackBerry Z30 deep-dive review: Upgraded software in a great 5-in. smartphone

The Z30 is new and improved for both enterprise and individual use -- but can BlackBerry stick around long enough to make it matter?

By , Computerworld |  Mobile & Wireless, BlackBerry, BlackBerry Z30

The 5-in. touchscreen BlackBerry Z30 smartphone may sadly become a modern-day fable, one in which pundits shake their heads over a great phone that just couldn't make it in the wider marketplace.

With a screen that's 38% larger than the 4.2-in. Z10 smartphone that shipped in late March in the U.S., the Z30 turns what was cramped touchscreen typing and navigation on the older model into a mobile user's dream device.

There are other physical improvements beyond the bumped-up size: four microphones instead of two, a beefy but non-removable 2880 mAh battery and a number of small-but-mighty productivity improvements within the new BlackBerry 10.2 operating system.

Sadly, the device could face slim sales, especially in the U.S. -- even worse than the disappointing sales of the Z10 that led to a near $1 billion write-down at the company. Nearly everything that has gone wrong with BlackBerry has little to do with the virtues of its latest devices' hardware and software -- and the same might someday be said for the Z30.

A company with problems

Buyers could be worried about what will happen to BlackBerry and its future support for the Z30, which could severely limit the phone's sales appeal. The Canadian company undertook a drastic reorganization in August that on Nov. 4 led to a $1 billion investment by several investors and the replacement of BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins with former Sybase chief John Chen as interim CEO.

BlackBerry Z30

As the corporate drama plays out,Verizon Wireless will be the exclusive seller of the Z30 in the U.S., offering it sometime this month for $200 and a two-year service plan, a price that's in line with other similar phones.

The problem, though, is that this single-carrier approach could produce even fewer sales than when all four major U.S. carriers offered the Z10.

BlackBerry's biggest problem with the Z10 was not getting it on sale soon enough. The company suffered through years of failing to compete with Android phones and the iPhone with a responsive touch-screen BlackBerry device that had a decent browser and good styling. And, oh, there was -- and remains -- the matter of a shortage of great apps for downloading, even in the productivity area for workers (BlackBerry's mainstay audience).

There are currently 130,000 applications for phones using the BlackBerry 10 OS (like the Z30) -- a fraction of the 1 million or more in, say, Apple's App Store. BlackBerry has worked hard at adding apps, but there's a growing concern that app developers just won't stick with BlackBerry down the road.

BlackBerry has repeatedly assured its customers that they will get support for new phones going forward, both in an open letter in mid-October and in a statement issued after BlackBerry appointed its new interim CEO. Many analysts believe this support will continue and that Verizon is not likely to drop the ball. But before seriously considering a purchase of a new Z30, or a corporate purchase for multiple users, you may want to check the latest news about the company and grill your sales person about what happens to Z30 support if the sky truly falls at BlackBerry, whatever the reason.

With that caveat, it's time to look at what's clearly a great phone in both hardware and software.

Improved hardware

The styling of the Z30 is actually a vast improvement over the Z10, although it's still not an eye-catcher like an iPhone 5S in gold or the iPhone 5C in green.

Still, the Z30's new black body with silver trim and rounded edges fits the mission that was expressed in BlackBerry's preliminary second quarter results "to refocus on enterprise and prosumer markets, offering end-to-end solutions, including hardware, software and services."

On the other hand, some features of the Z30 -- such as improved video and photo capture -- show some concessions towards consumers. Still, the mostly-black look will keep it a good fit for the staid business world.

Compared to the Z10, it is still quite a change. The Z30 replaces the dull black lower front edge of the Z10 with silver trim, and a fine silver trim line is carried around the entire edge. On the upper edge, the glass front carries to the top edge, replacing another dull black bar on the Z10.

The other subtle styling change is a rounded edge on the back of the case that makes it easier to pick up the device from a desk or table than the Z10, which was squared off on all its edges.

Both the Z30 and Z10 are nearly the same thickness, with the Z30 at .37 in. and the Z10 at .35 in. The Z30 is 5.53 in. long, compared to the Z10 at 5.1, while the Z30 is 2.8 in. wide, compared to the Z10 at 2.5. The Z30 weighs 6 oz., a full 1.2 oz heavier than the Z10, but that's not out of line when compared to some other 5-in. smartphones on the market. It feels comfy to use and fit easily in my shirt pocket (and, I confess, my rear jeans pocket).

Both devices have the same ports. There are volume up/down and mute or voice command buttons on the right edge. A power/stand by button is centered on the top edge next to a 3.5mm headset jack (which is capable of stereo in the Z30). On the left edge, both devices have a micro HDMI-out port for output to HDTVs and monitors, and a micro USB port for charging and data transfer. A notification LED is at the top front under the glass.

The back can be pried off to get at the SIM and SD card slots, but I had an unusually tough time doing so on repeated attempts. The Z30 has a powerful battery under the back cover, rated at 2880mAh and advertised as handling up to 25 hours of normal use. I used the Z30 for browsing, talking, the occasional video and keeping it on standby each night, and I didn't have to recharge it for four days. I figure I got about 32 actual hours of use, about 25% more than the amount advertised.

Be aware that the battery can't be removed like the one in the Z10. On the other hand, the Z30 offers Qi technology for wireless charging.

Amazing display

I'm a big fan of big displays and the 5 in. Z30 screen might be just about ideal for me. The Z30 uses a Super AMOLED display that's rated at 1280 x 720 pixels with 295 pixels per inch (ppi). That's actually a lower resolution that the Z10 had at 356ppi, but I couldn't notice any difference.

BlackBerry said it used a different material in producing the Z30 display, which helps make the images appear clearer and brighter. Also, BlackBerry improved color density and contrast to make the screen more vibrant than that of the Z10 or other 5-in. displays on the market. Even so, BlackBerry says its Z30 screen uses 20% less power than the Z10.

The Z30's 5-in. display makes it easier to use features such as BlackBerry's Hub, which lets you swipe apps in and out.

There are other changes in the user interface that help the clarity in the display, such as shading on some of the smaller notification text. I know that I would never be able to read text that small on my iPhone, but the shading and other factors made it possible -- even effortless -- to do so on the Z30 without glasses. The display and these contrast improvements are nothing short of amazing.

Touch response and BlackBerry's processors

Touch responsiveness in the Z30 is better than that in the Z10, and was very consistent over many hours of use over several days. This is probably the result of many factors, including the use of a 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor. (There's also a QuadCore Adreno 320 GPU.)

The Snapdragon S4 Pro in the Z30 is only dual-core, even though Qualcomm makes a version of the Pro in a quad-core version. A BlackBerry spokesperson said the dual-core processor was used in the Z30 because it optimizes battery life and doesn't substantially degrade performance when compared to the quad core in performance tests. BlackBerry chose a quad-core graphics chip to improve speed and fluidity -- and it certainly works.

Improved sound

Four microphone ports (up from two in the Z10) are around the edges. Two tiny ports are on the edge below the volume control (for noise cancellation), another is at the top of the lower silver trim on the front, and the fourth is on the top edge. There are two speaker ports at the bottom edge, and another at the top edge, which is combined with the top mic and a fourth speaker at the top of the glass front.

BlackBerry combined all this with special software to bring what it calls a "natural sound" experience to audio and videoconferences and other communications.

I evaluated my review copy of the Z30 over video chat via BlackBerry Messenger and could definitely detect an improvement compared to the Z10. Stereo sound might not seem important for talking to somebody in video chat or over an audio conference call, but it can make the experience seem more real.

As the other person on the call moves left or right, you can detect the difference. In a crowded room on the other end of the call, you can even tell when a person in a group of callers is on one side of the room or the other.

The stereo speakers also rocked the streaming music I played over Slacker Radio. When the Z30 is placed flat on a desk, the stereo sound is perceptible and impressive.

The speakers and good video resolution also worked excellently for video chat. I never got inadvertently dropped during the chat, as has occasionally happened with other smartphones, although sometimes I did hear words clipped off short, as I've experienced with many audio conferencing devices.

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) video chat also can be used with Android and iPhone smartphones if those users have BBM downloaded.

Phone calls are better with the Z30 than on other smartphones, too, partly because of BlackBerry's new Paratek Antenna technology, which is designed to keep a call connected in areas where previous performance had been poor. The technology is proprietary to BlackBerry, although the company might eventually license it to others, the BlackBerry spokesperson said.

While I couldn't evaluate precisely how robust the Paratek technology is, I did notice that the phone never dropped a call.

The Z30 is equipped with an 8-megapixel rear camera and a 2-megapixel front camera, which is quite competitive with most other smartphones out today. The rear camera also has 5x digital zoom and auto focus with 1080p HD video recording, both really useful elements for a casual point-and-shoot photographer like myself.

All told, the hardware in the Z30 is a great improvement over that in the Z10.

BlackBerry 10.2

There are various important refinements in the latest version of the BlackBerry OS. However, I was disappointed that it still took more than a minute -- 64 seconds, on average -- to boot the device. This is a small improvement over the 71 seconds on average that it took to boot the Z10. Most smartphones take only half as long.

One satisfying addition is that notifications of emails and other updates appear right on the lock screen, instead of inside another portion of the phone that's harder to get to. A little bell icon appears and, when touched, will open with a line of information and a timestamp for each entry.

Other quick functions have been added to the lock screen, such as an icon that will launch the camera app. When the camera's launched, its shutter is activated by touching anywhere on the display.

Also from the lock screen, you can swipe down from the top to activate the sleep mode in the device, with an analog clock face appearing on the display that can be used as an alarm clock -- and you can set the clock from the lock screen. Notifications are automatically turned off when in this mode.

A distinguishing feature of the earlier OS version was the BlackBerry Hub, which acted as a universal inbox for email, text, BBM messages, other social media and updates from third-party apps. You swipe up and to the right to get to the Hub, and reverse the gesture to go back to what you were doing.

A new addition, Priority Hub, now allows users to get notifications and emails based on software that follows your prior conversations to see which people are important to you. If 100 emails arrive in an hour, Priority Hub will sort the most important ones for you to see under a separate tab, or you can arrange to have them put in the BlackBerry Hub message stream with a priority icon.

Priority is given to emails and messages in three ways: from people with your same last name; from people who have marked an email with "high priority" and from those who are responding to a conversation that you started. Users have the ability to turn each of the three on or off.

Another great improvement: Notifications -- including BBM messages- - come in a preview on the top of the display no matter what app or Web page you are in. You can tap to reply, or click an X to dismiss it. It even works with voice calls -- you can either take the call or dismiss the call with a swipe and have a quick pre-arranged response message (such as "I'm busy and I can't take your call") sent to the caller via text, BBM or email.

For first-timers on BlackBerry 10 devices, there are more in-screen instructions with 10.2, saying things like, "Swipe to the left" to reach another function.

All the achievements of BlackBerry 10.0 are still in 10.2, especially the Balance software that works with BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10. With Balance, corporate data remains inside a work perimeter on the Z30 that can be managed by IT staffers, while personal data, apps, photos and other content stay in a personal perimeter (outside of IT control). The calendar app and the Hub in the Z30 can contain both work and personal information, and users can launch apps from both the work and personal sides of the device and multitask between them.

At a Glance

BlackBerry Z30

BlackBerryPrice: $200 at Verizon Wireless with two-year service planPros: Vivid 5-in. display; quick reactive touch; 25 hours of battery life; productivity gains with new BlackBerry 10.2, including new Priority HubCons: Conservative styling; slow boot time; battery is not removable; future of BlackBerry as a company is still uncertain

BlackBerry 10.2 also still offers a universal search to pore through messages, contacts, apps and Internet searches on its fast BlackBerry browser, which allows use of Bing, Google or Yahoo as the search engine.

The BlackBerry touchscreen keyboard on a 5-in. display may make a convert out of any prior physical keyboard user. I was able to use two thumbs for typing, compared to only using one finger to touch keys on the Z10. It helps that the keyboard learns words commonly used over time, then offers them up as you type. When they appear, you can flick them up into the keyboard text area, or you can turn off that function.

I'd rank this BlackBerry keyboard as better than any virtual keyboard on the market, even those on the larger Android smartphones launched recently.

All told, the software innovations in BlackBerry 10.0 made it a great operating system, and 10.2 has added some true polish.

Conclusion

The Z30 is a great smartphone, offering a brilliant, responsive 5-in. touchscreen with valuable sound improvements.

The BlackBerry 10.2 software will please users of all types, but especially workers and older BlackBerry physical keyboard users who may be converting to a touchscreen for the first time.

I was put off by the lack of a removable battery and the truly long boot time. Some users might not find the device stylish enough, but if the black and silver body isn't flashy enough, you can buy a custom case that's more like a pocket protector in white (or black) leather.

On the other hand, the Z30 still suffers from a limited number of apps. It also may need to be protected from BlackBerry itself, as the company tries to re-invent itself under leaders that seem headed toward putting more emphasis on BlackBerry management software and less on devices and device software.

Time will tell what happens to BlackBerry as a company, but the Z30 is a striking device that should get full support from Verizon and BlackBerry over the next two years at least. Current BlackBerry users should definitely try it out, and even Android and iPhone users might want to play with a Z30 at the nearest Verizon store to see what they're missing.

This article, BlackBerry Z30 deep-dive review: Upgraded software in a great 5-in. smartphone, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

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