BlackBerry Z30 review: Is the biggest BlackBerry the best yet?

Reviews Paul Briden 14:53, 4 Dec 2013

Has BlackBerry cracked it by jumping on the 5-inch smartphone bandwagon? Paul checks out the BlackBerry Z30 to find out

Rating: 
3.5
Typical Price: 
£460.00
Pros: 
Great screen, Good battery life, Excellent multitasking, Nice camera in good light
Cons: 
Lacking in top-end power, App ecosystem lacks depth, Ugly and clunky design
Verdict: 
Everything the BlackBerry Z10 should have been, but about nine months too late and having been beaten with the ugly stick

It feels a bit weird to review the BlackBerry Z30 at such a turbulent period for the Canadian phone maker. 

Bigger wheels are turning right now which will be more signfificant in determining the company's future, than whether or not the BlackBerry Z30 is a successful handset.

Thorsten Heins, the man who spearheaded BlackBerry 10 and its devices such as the Z30, is now gone, and analysts are predicting a wide scope of possibilities for BlackBerry, ranging from the idea that it could settle for Google's Android software, to it transforming into a dedicated software and services company.

Naturally, these floating question marks will probably make you think twice about the possibility of buying the BlackBerry Z30. How long, after all, is it going to be officially supported? That's an important question, but unfortunately not one I'm in a position to comment on without a time machine.

What I can do, is let you know what I think of the phone as it is right now and whether it’s actually any good or not.

Design and build

With the BlackBerry Z30, BlackBerry hasn’t gone for anything too bold or outrageous, with a fairly conservative shape. The handset has rounded corners akin to the most recent models in the Samsung Galaxy S family and from the front looks more-or-less like any other generic slab.

I can’t say I think the BlackBerry Z30 is a particularly attractive smartphone, it’s quite thick and chunky and there are a few features which just leave me thinking “who thought this was a good design decision?” The silver “chin” at the bottom of the front fascia looks jarringly out of place, though it’s actually part of the metallic surround separating the front and back panels which houses its various buttons and ports.

The back panel itself is probably the biggest eyesore, resembling something a boy racer might use as the bonnet for his Ford Escort in a bid to emulate 2 Fast 2 Furious.

I actually like the soft-touch rubberised feel and the fit and finish throughout is superb with no flex or creaking. The Z30 is a solid bit of kit – aside from that ugly back panel. It could have just been plain with no texture. Even Motorola has dropped that sort of nonsense with its Kevlar-backed Razr range, because nobody likes it. 

The BlackBerry Z30 feels a little on the heavier side, not so much as to make it unwieldy and the balance in the hand is fairly good, but it’s noticeably weightier than rival devices if you hold them side-by-side.

I’ll get on to display quality in a moment, but in terms of scale the 5-inch panel can be a bit of a stretch for the thumb at times, though on the whole it works just fine. The larger screen is also advantageous for interacting with the BlackBerry 10 software, but I’ll cover this in more detail further into the review.

The back panel is removable, though it’s a bit tough to take off, but at least this means it’s secure. You can’t remove the battery, but this is where you access the SIM and microSD slots. On the left-hand side of the handset there’s a microUSB port and an HDMI port.

Button placement is...odd. On the right-hand side you’ve got a volume rocker in the usual accessible place, about a quarter of the way down the device. This works well for use with either hand, however, the volume rocker buttons are either side of a central button. Logic would say this is the power button.

But it isn’t. It’s a button for activating the voice control features and I found myself instinctively tapping it as if it was the power button far too frequently. The actual power button is on the top, unusually placed in the middle, which means you can operate it with either index finger, but again it’s a bit of a stretch and I did not find it particularly intuitive.

As well as being not very good-looking as it stands alone, I’d argue the BlackBerry Z10 actually looked nicer. It may also have been conservatively styled but at least it had its own character. The BlackBerry Z30 is just dull.

Display

This is one of the main features of the BlackBerry Z30, as it’s the largest screen on a BlackBerry handset to date and is considerably bigger than the other touch BlackBerry 10 device, the 4.2-inch BlackBerry Z10.

The 5-inch Super AMOLED display sports a 1280x720 pixel resolution, giving it a pixel density of 294 pixels-per-inch (ppi). While it might not be a 440ppi 1080p behemoth, 294ppi (near enough to 300ppi) is certainly sharp enough to provide excellent image quality.

Being Super AMOLED, colour and contrast are also top-notch and as with other BlackBerry devices text in particular is very clear. Viewing angles are also relatively wide and the phone performs reasonably well in bright sunlight.

For web browsing and multimedia this is a pretty good offering which will likely please most users.

Processor, software and performance

Software: BlackBerry 10

My impression of BlackBerry 10 hasn’t changed much from my experience with the BlackBerry Z10, so I still think it’s one of BlackBerry’s best OS offerings to date, makes a lot of very sensible moves in terms of the UI and features, and provides some of the best multitasking around.

The main appeal of BlackBerry 10 is the BlackBerry Hub, which neatly aggregates email accounts, social networking accounts, calendar events, calls and messaging platforms (including texts and BBM) into one easy-to-use place.

Another cool multitasking feature is the way active apps are minimised into small preview tiles on the homescreen, which is arguably more instantly accessible than Android’s (and now iOS 7’s) carousel setup.

The majority of interaction with BlackBerry 10 relies on gesture control, which is really where the BlackBerry Z30’s larger screen real-estate comes into its own. While larger displays can present complications in terms of reach, on balance using BlackBerry 10’s gestures is far easier on the Z30’s 5-inch panel.

Describing the software simply as BlackBerry 10 isn’t quite accurate enough though. This is actually BlackBerry 10.2. Most of the additions in BlackBerry 10.2 are back-end tweaks which may sound mundane but are largely quite useful and welcome.

Things like Wi-Fi Direct, Miracast and USB Host support (which amongst other things lets you hook the phone up to a mouse, keyboard and monitor for a desktop experience), Bluetooth 4.0 low energy, more lock screen notifications, multiple alarms for the clock and enhanced audio and codecs. These are all very nice to have.

There are a few changes which do stand out though, BlackBerry has added a Priority Hub to the BlackBerry hub where you can set your most important content to appear and there’s also the inclusion of custom quick SMS replies for rejecting incoming calls. BlackBerry has also enhanced the text selection and copy/paste features (though these were already pretty good) and the keyboard itself remains excellent - it's easy to use, accurate and features predictive text suggestions you can swipe up into your message.

One thing which jumps out as being significant is the Android app capabilities. BlackBerry 10 could side-load Android apps quickly and easily but this has been expanded to include Android apps from 4.2.2 Jelly Bean and below.

This sounds great, because although BlackBerry 10’s selection of apps is relatively robust (there are plenty of big name brands) there are a few notable omissions and on the whole the ecosystem lacks depth compared to its rivals. So, tapping into Android’s rich vein of content seems like a winning solution.

If you can find the .bar files required to side-load, that is. This can be a time-consuming and tricky experience, but there are some absolute goldmines for these files, such as BB10Bars.net and apps.goodereader.com.

You might be surprised at what you can grab from Android, even the Gmail app, Google Play Music and Google Play Books to make the transition easier for those coming across from Android and who want to bring their content. I was disappointed that I couldn’t find Google Play Movies though, but maybe it will appear in time. In short, you won’t find everything you need just yet.

I’d like to think this will continue to expand as it appears to be one of those things with an enthusiastic community behind it, but with BlackBerry’s future (and therefore BB10’s) hanging in the balance it’s a tricky one to judge.

Before leaving BlackBerry 10 it has to be said that, like the exterior of the BlackBerry Z30 itself, it’s not the most attractive piece of software around. Granted, it is much nicer than its predecessors, but there’s something quite archaic and clunky about it with an abundance of dark menu bars. It’s generally quite crowded and team KYM agreed that something as simple as ditching the dark boxes around the app icons would go a long way to making the whole setup look nicer and less cluttered.

Processor and performance

Talking about processor speeds and performance outside of Android does feel a tad like so many wasted words. As with iOS and Windows Phone, BlackBerry 10 is very well optimised to its app ecosystem and processor hardware.

I'll simply say that I experienced no slow-down, stuttering or problems running the BlackBerry Z30, it’s very smooth and reliable to operate the BlackBerry 10 system with. I did notice the back panel was prone to heating up a bit during more intensive tasks but this didn’t last long and nor did it impact performance.

For those who like to know the nitty gritty, the processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro dual-core chip, specifically the MSM8960T which is a slight upgrade from the BlackBerry Z10’s chip and around 200MHz faster with a clockspeed of 1.7GHz. It has the same 2GB of RAM and an upgraded Adreno 320 graphics processing unit (GPU).

For benchmarks I managed to side-load Quadrant, which gave a score of 4497, coming in below the HTC One X and a wee bit faster than the Asus Transformer Prime TF201 tablet – both of these are older devices, of course, but then the chip itself is no longer a spring chicken.

The BlackBerry Z30 is easily capable of handling intensive multitasking and any content you throw at it from BlackBerry World. Side-loading intensive Android games could have mixed results. The likes of Angry Birds, Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run 2 all work reasonably well. Things like Dead Trigger aren’t currently available but I doubt you’d get flawless performance for such a graphically demanding title.

Hardware, connectivity and web

As with other BlackBerry 10 phones I’ve tested, web browsing on the BlackBerry Z30 is a thoroughly enjoyable experience with some surprisingly fast speeds, fluid operation and excellent readability thanks to the bigger display. Sunspider benchmarks place the Z30 with a score of 1187.9 milliseconds, just slightly outside of those superfast 900ms or lower scores increasingly seen from recent rivals, but still towards the top of the tree nonetheless.

Connectivity options include 4G and 3G/HSPA+ for mobile data and the handset is able to maintain a consistently good connection with fast speeds. There’s also dual-band Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct, Hotspot, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, microUSB and HDMI.

Special mention must be made of the BlackBerry Z30’s stereo speakers, which produce fantastic sound quality with incredibly loud top-end volume for calls, music or other multimedia. Call quality is also great.

There’s only one storage option with 16GB onboard but it also supports microSD cards up to 64GB, so plenty of options for music, film and work documents.

Camera

The camera setup is identical to that of the BlackBerry Z10, an 8-megapixel back-illuminated sensor (BSI) with an f/2.2 aperture, 1080p video, digital stabilisation and LED flash, while the front-facing secondary is a 2-megapixel sensor.

While that might not sound earth-shattering, as with the BlackBerry Z10 I was actually quite impressed with the imaging quality, to the extent that I’ll let you in on a little secret...I’ve used BlackBerry’s imaging hardware to shoot other phones for KYM’s own pages before. Shhh.

The big deal is the detail, snaps and video are absolutely stuffed to bursting with it and on the whole it’s incredibly crisp and sharp too. Colour reproduction is very good and it handles vibrant colours well – check out the snap with the bright red windows.

Picture quality remains great even when you zoom in a good way on a photo – sure it’s not the Nokia PureView’s lossless zoom, but it’s still better than most others in this regard. In good lighting conditions, white balance, dynamic range and contrast are all great, although as you can see from the image of a tree against the sky, extreme contrast can cause a bit of a problem.

It seems a significant factor in the above average picture quality is the Z30's digital image stabilisation, and it appears to be to a similar high-grade to devices such as Samsung’s Galaxy S4. It works well enough that you can snap a photo while walking and it’ll still turn out reasonably well – that’s not something which can be said of every handset on the market.

Particularly impressive is the Z30’s ability to handle close-up shots, I should point out that I did not toggle a Macro mode for the close-up of the chrome bollard, this was in auto mode and the sharpness, detail and focal depth all look fantastic.

Video is just as capable as the stills and has smooth capture and playback.

Another bonus feature is the ability to capture in a multishot mode allowing you to pick the best moment and even pick the best face for a chosen shot from the sequence.

If your subjects are moving around loads this can result in some weird stuff like floating heads, but for your standard shot where everyone’s fairly static it’s really useful for getting everyone smiling (convincingly) at once even if they weren’t necessarily doing so in reality.

Again mirroring the BlackBerry Z10, low-light performance on the BlackBerry Z30 simply isn’t there, it still gets the detail but whether the flash is on or off you still get a muddy, washed-out image.

While this means the BlackBerry Z30 isn’t the sort of phone you can rely on for, say, capturing stills and footage of a gig at a nightclub, I don’t think this detracts from the fact that overall, in most other areas, it’s a truly excellent cameraphone.

Battery

As with the processor, putting the battery under prolonged and intensive strain was somewhat problematic due to the lack of high-intensity applications.

It’s rather similar to Windows Phone in this regard and I got the distinct impression I was never really pushing the phone to its limits with what activities I could do with the handset.

At its core it is a browsing, social networking and messaging phone first (again like Windows Phones) and a smartphone with apps second, so low-intensity tasks are its bread and butter.

With light use I found the BlackBerry Z30’s 2,880mAh battery pack was easily capable of lasting a couple of days. More moderate usage saw this come in consistently at around a day and a half, leading me to believe that really intensive use will see you through a full day on a single charge.

But, crucially, it should get a day’s use rather more comfortably (ie: from waking to bedtime, rather than getting into the office to just making it home) than other phones with smaller power packs.

Certainly the BlackBerry Z10 was something of a nuisance which required you to keep close tabs on the battery indicator and to never stray too far from a charger – that’s not really a concern here, and it’s more or less in-line with other circa 3,000mAh handsets.

Conclusion

I still really rather like BlackBerry 10 as it offers some neat tricks you simply won’t find anywhere else, however, it’s far from perfect with a fairly ugly UI and a less robust app ecosystem than its rivals.

As far as touch-only BlackBerry 10 devices go, the BlackBerry Z30 is unquestionably the best so far, but then of course it only has one rival, the BlackBerry Z10. The BlackBerry Z10 suffered from poor battery life, some teething problems with the first-round of software and a slightly pokey display. The BlackBerry Z30 deftly tackles all these problems and is a far more usable beast.

But a beast it certainly is, like the UI on the inside, on the outside it’s an ugly brute with its ghastly back panel and hefty design.

The BlackBerry Z30 typically retails for around £400-£470ish SIM-free, over £100 more than the Nexus 5 and in the same ballpark as the 16GB iPhone 5C.

Is it worth the price?

It packs a fantastic camera, good performance and battery life, a great display and some decent software.

But, it’s limited – you will not find as much high-end content as with rival devices and the processing power is tailored to its own narrow ecosystem with little scope for truly intensive apps or games even if you could fiddle them on from Android.

It’s also boring and uninspiring, on the whole. Unlike some phones which make their way through KYM towers, I’ve no particular desire to keep using it or to even show it off to anyone when they ask "what phone are you using at the moment then?"

Ultimately, considering what it offers compared to similarly priced or cheaper rivals I find the idea of stumping up £400+ for the BlackBerry Z30 more than a little difficult to come to terms with.

Specifications

Length 140.7mm
Width 72mm
Thickness 9.4mm
Weight 170g
Screen Colours 16 million
Screen Size 5-inches
UK Launch October 2013
Phone Style Touchscreen
Typical Price £460
Website http://uk.blackberry.com/smartphones/blackberry-z30/buy.html?CPID=KNC-kw253901_p8&HBX_PK=rim|72ae1db3-780a-3f68-424a-00004f84fc10
Designer Lens No
Camera Resolution 8-megapixels
Video Resolution 1080p
Flash LED
Zoom Digital
Music Formats MP3/WMA/WAV/eAAC+/FlAC
Music Player Yes
Song Storage Yes
Speaker Stereo
Radio No

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