Let’s face it: If you’re seriously considering a BlackBerry at this point, you either haven’t been paying attention to the news for the last couple years, or you’re a die-hard fan, desperately holding on to your Torch in the hopes that the company might launch a ground-breaking device and rekindle the fickle flame of smartphone success.
The good news is that the Z30 is unquestionably the best touchscreen BlackBerry to date.
BlackBerry is now shifting focus and partnering with Taiwanese hardware manufacturer Foxconn to deliver what’s likely to be a lower-end device to Indonesia in early 2014. This plan has also caused the company to scrap a couple of upcoming devices and its 2014 BlackBerry Live developer event.
When looked at in isolation there’s certainly a lot to like about the BlackBerry Z30 from both a hardware and software standpoint. And business users will do doubt appreciate the phone’s stellar battery life as well. But if you do opt for the Z30 (it’s $200 with a new contract on Verizon) and regret it before your two years are up, just remember, we warned you.
Business-class build quality
The first thing we noticed when taking the BlackBerry Z30 out of its box was how solid the device feels. At 6 ounces, it’s a bit heavy for a smartphone with a 5-inch screen (the Galaxy S4, for example, weighs 4.6 ounces). But the Z30 feels like a different class of device in the same way a Lenovo ThinkPad or Dell Inspiron business laptop differs from, say, a budget HP machine.
The front of the Z30 is dominated almost entirely by glass that runs right to the edge, with a small silver lip on the bottom, below the BlackBerry logo. The comfortably curved backside has a soft-touch feel. But instead of plastic, the company has opted for fiberglass, which gives the back a more substantial feel, which is also likely more durable.
The power button and headphone jack feel right where they should be on the top edge. Metal volume buttons are also comfortably placed on the right side, and easy to find with your thumb.
Speaking of audio, the Z30’s stereo speakers, which fire out of both sides of the device when holding it in portrait mode, are excellent, with an impressive amount of volume and more low-end than we expected. Among recent current smartphones, we’d say only the HTC One’s speakers sound better, with more bass and less distortion and maximum volume—but the Z30’s speakers are certainly impressive for a business-centric device.
The Z30 feels like a different class of device in the same way a Lenovo ThinkPad differs from, say, a budget HP machine.
The layout on the left side of the device, though, is a problematic. The SIM and MicroSD card slots are here, near the top. But you’ll have to pry off the back cover to get to them. More problematic is the placement of the HDMI and Micro USB charging ports, which live a bit lower down, near the center of the left edge.
It’s the power port here that’s the most problematic, since its placement makes holding and using the device while charging awkward. That being said, as we’ll see later, that may not be a big deal, since battery life is stellar, thanks to a 2,880mAh battery, which the company says should last up to 25 hours.
The battery isn’t removable, which may ruffle the feathers of BlackBerry die-hards used to popping in a spare cell. But because battery life is long and cheap external batteries can now be found just about everywhere, we don’t see this as a big downside.
BlackBerry 10.2 OS: buttonless navigation is a mixed bag
If you’re unfamiliar with the BlackBerry 10 OS, feel free to peruse our full review. There’s certainly more to say than can be summed up here, so we’ll mostly stick to covering a couple major changes that come with the latest flavor of the OS, 10.2, which ships with the BlackBerry Z30.
First, though, it’s worth noting that navigation in BlackBerry 10 is mostly done via gestures. There are no dedication navigation buttons (persistent or capacitive); instead, you swipe up from the bottom to unlock the phone and to back out of an app to the Home screen. Swipe left from there and you’re taken to a list of your installed apps, much like you’ll find in Android or iOS. But swipe right from the Home screen and you’re taken to the BlackBerry Priority Hub, which handily aggregates your email, social media, and text messages into a single inbox.
The Priority part, which was switched off by default in our review unit, attempts to prioritize your most important messages, so you aren’t distracted by the dozens (or hundreds) of unimportant emails and other messages most of us receive throughout the day. If you’re a Gmail user, this probably sounds familiar, as Google implemented a similar feature back in May of 2013.
Having spent some time tweaking and using Google’s Priority Inbox, we can say there’s a lot of time-saving potential in this idea. And the fact that BlackBerry 10.2 lumps other notifications into one prioritized inbox sounds like it could be great for business users or anyone overwhelmed by messages and notifications across different platforms.
Priority Hub could be a stand-out feature, but it just doesn’t feel as smart as it should be.
We have no doubt that, after spending some time flagging messages and emails as important and dismissing others, Priority Hub could be a stand-out feature for those with message overload. But out of the box, it just doesn’t feel as smart as it should be.
Another feature we like about BlackBerry 10.2 is the ability to reply to notifications as they come in, right from the notification itself, without having to bounce out into another app, away from what you’re doing. Also, you can see recent email and social messaging subject lines, as well as upcoming appointments, right from the lock screen—handy for making sure you’re on-time or not needed elsewhere, without having to jump deep into the OS.
Our biggest complaint about BlackBerry 10.2, though, is a pitfall of doing without any persistent buttons for navigation. Many apps have their own back button for internal navigation purposes. But it’s not always in the same place and doesn’t always look the same, which can be disorienting and frustrating if you’re using an unfamiliar app and you’re pressed for time.
Overall, we like BlackBerry 10.2. While it has its own quirks, we think it’s a viable alternative to Android and iOS, particularly for business users or those more interested in messaging than having the best selection of games and apps. The BlackBerry World app store doesn’t have anywhere near the selection of apps available from Google or Apple.
There are various ways to sideload Android apps and run them on the Z30. But for the average busy BlackBerry user (particularly one who isn’t all that tech-savvy), this is hardly a simple solution.
“Good-enough” specs don’t break any ground
We’d classify the Z30’s specs generally as “good-enough,” but hardly great for a high-end smartphone. The Super AMOLED screen looks good, but is 720p, rather than the more pixel-dense 1080p screens on most high-end phones these days.
The Snapdragon S4 Pro CPU handled the OS and apps that we threw at it just fine without noticeably stuttering, and it is paired with a healthy 2GB of RAM. But the 2012-era chip (which also powers the 2013 Nexus 7), doesn’t have the raw power of newer Snapdragon 800 chip inside Sony’s Z Ultra or Samsung’s Note 3.
Also, while you can supplement storage for files with a MicroSD card, there’s only 16GB of built-in storage, which is less than we’d like for a high-end phone.
The 8-megapixel camera is okay, but not great. Images aren’t as large as other flagship phones, like the 41-megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020 or the 13-megapixel Samsung Galaxy Note 3. But pixel count isn’t everything. Like many mid-range smartphone cameras we saw in 2013 (and some high-end models as well), the Z30 is able to produce pretty good shots outdoors in ideal lighting conditions. Likewise, when the lights are bright indoors, the results are acceptable as well. But when the lights get low or subjects are backlit, the Z30’s camera struggles.
For a business-focused smartphone, the Z30’s camera is certainly acceptable. Just don’t expect to find a plethora of presets in the camera app, like we’ve seen with Samsung and Sony’s Android smartphones. With the Z30, things are sparser: You can choose from Auto, Action, Whiteboard, Night, or Beach or Snow.
Battery life is one of the Z30’s best features
While the Z30’s internals aren’t the most powerful (or modern), when paired with the phone’s sealed 2,880 mAh battery, they make for a phone that will definitely get you through the day. In fact, in our testing over the Christmas holiday, we were able to get through two full days of moderate use without needing to recharge. Granted, we weren’t receiving the usual amounts of email over that time. But we were interacting with Facebook more than usual, and taking plenty of photos.
Even heavy business users should be able to get through the longest of days without having to look for a power plug. Many users will likely be able to get by charging the device every other day.
Leave the continuing struggles of its parent company out of the picture, and the BlackBerry Z30 is a pretty good alternative to the iPhone or your many Android phones, particularly if you’re looking for a device that’s focused more on messaging and long battery life than apps or excellent imaging abilities.
The Priority Hub alone, once it learns what’s truly important to you, has the potential to make work life a lot less stressful, particularly if you juggle more than one email account, along with social networks.
Still, at $200 on contract with Verizon, the Z30 feels a bit more expensive than it should be, given its decidedly mid-range specs. The HTC One, for instance, while it’s now nearly a year old, has better internals overall, build quality that also looks and feels great, and currently costs just $50 on contract.
Granted, Android and Blackberry are two very different operating systems. But Android can be customized to deliver at least some of Blackberry 10’s features (like notifications on the lock screen). And with an army of app developers, if there’s something else you really like about BlackBerry 10, chances are, someone’s working on implementing a similar feature in both Android and iOS. Without the same developer momentum as its rivals, Blackberry’s OS just can’t evolve that fast.
Combine the Z30’s so-so specs, high price, and limited app selection with the company’s continuing struggles and reports of millions of unsold last-generation Z10 and Q10 devices, and the Z30 becomes hard to recommend, no matter how much we like the hardware and software in isolation.
- Solid build quality
- Long battery life
- Nice AMOLED screen
- Impressive message-oriented features
- Excellent speakers
- High-end price, mid-range specs
- App selection lags behind Android and iOS
- Only 16GB of internal storage