Big screen, big sound, and big battery, but will it be a big success?
The BlackBerry Z30 has already launched in some international markets and hits Canadian shelves on October 15th. On the surface, it comes across simply as a bigger version of the BlackBerry Z10, but there’s quite a bit more to it. Rear stereo speakers introduce high-quality sound, new antenna technology helps to provide a whooping 25 hours of battery life, and OS 10.2 offers an array of helpful new features.
The Z30 launches at a critical time for BlackBerry. The company's on the financial ropes, and the initial launch of BB10 devices isn't having quite the reception that many had hoped for. The Z30 faces an uphill battle against waning consumer sentiment and some drastic changes within the manufacturer.
If the Z10 didn’t get buyers excited for BlackBerry 10, can the Z30? Let’s find out.
James has already enjoyed the grand deflowering process of unboxing the Z30. You can take a looksee if you want to get in on the magic. DJ also put together some preliminary impressions if you're looking for a shorter review.
Before we dig in, let's run through the BlackBerry Z30's specifications. Purely on paper, many Android afficionados are likely to scoff at anything less than a 1080p display and a 2.26 quad-core processor. These are all sacrifices I'm happy to make for the sake of killer battery life provided by the 2880 mAh battery.
The BlackBerry Z30 is a bigger device with a 1280 x 720 SuperAMOLED screen clocking in at 5 inches, a solid 37% bigger than the Z10’s display. Despite that, the Z30’s overall footprint is only about 19% bigger, plus the more ergonomic backing makes the Z30 considerably more comfortable to hold (though my monster-hands may not do a normal human’s experience justice). There are times when the size is unwieldy, namely when I'm holding the Z30 in my right hand and have to tap something in the top-left. It's also hard to resist using two hands sometimes for tasks that could be done with one, but would just be a smidgen more uncomfortable. Otherwise, I've had no issues with storage or pocketability. It's sufficiently slim to be carried in most standard pockets.
What I find more noticeable than the Z30’s size is its weight. It comes in at 170 g, compared to the Z10’s 136 g. That might not look like a big difference on paper, but it’s noticeable in-hand. I wouldn’t necessarily mark that as a con - lots of folks prefer a solid-feeling device - but if you intend on watching full-length TV shows or movies (which is certainly viable with a screen this big), you’ll probably want a stand of some kind. Considering you’ve got a beefy 2880 mAh battery in there with 25 hours of mixed use, I’d say it’s worth the extra heft. As for build quality, the Z30 is right up there with other BB10 devices - that is to say, it’s well-built. There’s no creaking, parts are assembled tightly, The media control keys are a little more loose than I would like, and they stick out enough that they’re easy to accidentally tap.
During a briefing in Waterloo, we got a chance to talk with one of the Z30's designers who highlighted some of the key stylistic differences versus the Z10. The main thing was directionality. Having the silver frame at the bottom and no longer anything at the top provides a visual anchor so users intrinsically know how to hold the thing when they pick it up. Plus that bottom frame is a good tactile cue for the all-important swipe-up gesture. The rear also enjoys a more ergonomic curve which indicates the front of the device more clearly, and feels a heck of a lot more comfortable than the Z10. The new style really does suit the bigger screen.The slightly beveled edge and clear upper portion certainly make the Z30 feel less restrained than the Z10, which had very clear lines on all sides.
Feels a heck of a lot more comfortable than the Z10
The battery door situation is interesting. It's using the glass fiber weave we've become accustomed to since the 9900, except they've managed to get the material to curve right around the lip this time. The speaker ports are placed at an outward angle along the top and bottom edge, which surely must have complicated the accomplishment. The BlackBerry folks also pointed out that the material keeps radio interference to a minimum. The matte finish provides solid grip, though the door is hard to remove, even with the access latch. One might ask why bother with a door if the battery is non-removeable - after all the SIM and SD card slots could just as easily be covered with a flap or tray mechanism. As is, they're covered by a fairly conspicuous part of the door.
It seems like the main reason is for accessories. They had us try out a particularly clever cover that replaced the stock door, and had a flip cover come around the front. This had the bonus of adding a lot on function with minimal extra bulk, but it drew a lot of attention to the awkward placement of the USB port. See, it’s covered up entirely by the fabric fold on the left side, meaning you’ve got to leave it propped open when charging. The leather pouches they were showing off also covered the slot. Similarly, the port is low enough that it will get in the way of your hands while typing. Given, you’ll be spending less time charging the Z30 than any other BlackBerry before it, the positioning still isn’t great. In any case, there are a ton of accessories on the way for the BlackBerry Z30 - it's definitely worth checking out some of them at ShopCrackBerry.
On the whole, I'm very happy with the BlackBerry Z30 display. Pixel density notwithstanding, the folks at BlackBerry are very happy with the contrast ratio they've managed to achieve with the Z30, and I certainly have no complaints. Colors are vibrant, text is sharp, and animations are fluid. There are the aforementioned practicality issues of reaching certain parts of the screen, on the whole everything is extremely responsive.
BlackBerry advertises 25 hours of mixed use battery life, which falls in line with my experience. I could get a solid two days of use when coasting predominantly on Wi-Fi. BlackBerry claims 18 hours talk time, 16 days standby, 90 hours of audio playback, and 12 hours of video playback. A big part of the enhanced battery life is BlackBerry’s new Paratek Antenna technology, which helps fine-tune transmission on the fly based on coverage and usage. This is both a hardware and a software solution, which you can learn more about here.
What does this mean practically? I’m on the periphery of Bell LTE coverage, and the battery life still managed to stand up to at least a full day’s usage. On most phones, being in low coverage can mean eating into your battery life as your phone struggles to get a strong signal by pumping extra juice to the antenna. The display also saves on battery life thanks to an S-Stripe pixel layout, similar to what’s being used by the Galaxy Note 2.
The Z30 isn’t only big on battery and screen, though. It’s also big on sound. The stereo speaker ports on the rear are angled out just a bit so that it doesn’t matter which side it’s laying on. You can get solid sound either way - certainly better than most mobiles, and even better than some of the smaller external speakers out there. Though the sound is extremely clear even at top volume, I still found it slightly tinny for extended listening sessions. Game audio, for whatever reason, comes through extremely well. The main thing is that the spread of sound is really impressive; you can drop a Z30 in the middle of a table and have everyone sitting able to hear it, even in a fairly noisy environment. The Z30 also emphasizes clear microphone technology too.
There are an extra two noise-cancellation microphones on the side, plus one in the earpiece, in addition to the primary one at the bottom in the usual spot. Of course these can all work in concert to provide HD voice over cellular, but that’s something all other BB10 devices can provide anyway. The real selling point here is what BlackBerry’s calling “Natural Sound.” This apparently blows HD voice and even upcoming voice over LTE out of the water, and is only fully realized in Z30-to-Z30 BBM calls. I’ve been impressed by the quality of BBM Voice calls in the past, but haven’t had a definitively better calling experience on the Z30 yet. For regular ol’ phone calls, OS 10.2 has added new canned responses when ignoring a call, which is sent over the channel through which you most commonly interact with that contact.
There aren’t any significant updates on the camera front, unfortunately, since it's using the same unit included on the Z10. A panorama mode is still sorely missing, but you’ll still find Timeshift, which lets you get everybody’s face at just the right moment, and a solid editing suite for fine tuning and artistic filters. They have added a new feature to the thumbnails that you drag up directly from the camera app, though: you can now share or delete directly from the preview.
If you’re coming back to BlackBerry for the first time in awhile (either from OS 7 or another platform), it’s best you get started on our BB10 review with the Z10, but here’s a broad overview. The core BlackBerry experience is composed of a strip of home screens. Start on the left is the Hub, which is a kind of souped-up notification center. E-mail, Facebook messages, Twitter mentions, and just about everything pop up here and are immediately actionable without having to open up an app. You can get to the Hub from anywhere in BlackBerry 10 by swiping up from the bottom of the screen and to the right. The next screen is where Active Frames go. These are the apps that are currently running, shown in a minimized view. You can get to the Active Frames screen by swiping up from the bottom of any app. Many apps will show glimpses of information from here. Every screen beyond that is a traditional app icon home screen, complete with folders. You can navigate to each of these pages quickly by tapping or swiping along the navigation strip of icons along the bottom of the screen.
Those are the basics. So what’s new in BlackBerry 10.2? Lots of stuff, mostly small tweaks. The priority section in the hub is new. Every message that’s identified as priority gets a little red stripe to the right side of the message. By default, these include e-mails that are marked as high priority by the sender, messages sent from anyone with the same last name as you, any reply to a message you’ve already sent, or threads and contacts that you manually designate as high priority. Though it takes a bit of training, I’ve found the Priority Hub useful for those times where I only have a few seconds to see what’s up.
Also new in the Hub is a dedicated Attachment view. this lets you see all incoming attachments, with the tiny signature-related files weeded out. This is perfect for when you just need a document and not necessarily the message it came with. Attachments can be shown in a tile or list view, and can be sorted by date, sender, name, or file type. There’s also a dedicated search option if you know exactly the file you’re looking for. The system-wide share menu has had a significant upgrade. Now at the top it shows you some of your most commonly shared-to sources, including apps and contacts. These pop up after two or three shares, and grow more prominent the more regularly you share items to them. This can shave off a tap or two from some shares, and will be noticeably convenient for that one person you’re always sending stuff to.
The lock screen now provides detailed previews of fresh notifications - just tap on the icons to get a sneak peek of what’s new. This is smart use of otherwise unused space, though it would be nice if you could unlock from there and jump right into important messages. Maybe in the next patch. BlackBerry was quick to remind us that any work e-mail that’s locked behind Balance won’t show up here, which is pretty important for maintaining privacy from a readily viewable screen.
Then there’s instant previews and replies for BBM and SMS. These pop up at the top of the screen no matter where you are. Many of the built-in apps can toggle these on or off, including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and individual e-mail accounts. Again, you may need to tweak your settings to get this behavior right where you want it, but when you do, it’s very useful. I can’t wait for instant replies to come to other apps.
Calendar appointments now have a dedicated “I will be late” button which lets you quickly shoot out a message to meeting attendees telling them how late you’re going to be based on how you adjust a slider. I haven’t had a chance to use this in a real world scenario yet since I’m always so damned punctual, but I could see it being very handy for those that are regularly scrambling to get to their next meeting. I’d love to see this feature include the option to share location so participants could see exactly how far away you are.
BlackBerry 10’s browser is still fantastic, and looks great on the big screen. Bars hide away intelligently to maximize screen space, and a Reader mode lets you get the most out of it by paring away the extras and focusing on the text. Bing as a default search client is still weird, but easy enough to switch. Flash support is still there. In fact, if you flip on Desktop Mode under developer options, you can play Candy Crush Saga in the browser. It’s not as good as a native version, but it’s better than nothing.
BlackBerry’s sensitive to the learning curve required to pick up one of their new devices, and to that end they still have a tutorial on gestures included, plus there’s a new dedicated icon to reach the Hub. Yes, you can already get there with the navigation strip at the bottom of the home screens, swiping past the Active Frames screen, and through the gesture, but more traditionally-minded users are likely to miss all of those or have a hard time using them regularly.
Typing on the BlackBerry Z30 is markedly more comfortable than the Z10 due to sheer button size. It’s especially great typing in landscape orientation. As always, the gesture-heavy typing is great, either for deleting previous words, picking predictions for new ones, or hiding and summoning the keyboard. On top of that, software improvements have added new audio feedback for different keyboard actions, and copy and paste have been revamped with in-line icons. Though I can still type more confidently on a Q10 and Q5, the Z30’s bonus in screen real estate and battery life makes it a more than worthwhile tradeoff.
The launch of the BlackBerry Z30 is a good time to check the app situation for BB10. The lack of apps tends to be the biggest mark against BlackBerry’s new platform, and by direct comparison to Android or iOS, sure, you’re going to be missing at least a few titles. Initially the big one missing was Skype, but it eventually came by way of an Android port, and thanks to the new Jelly Bean runtime, it’s running better than ever. Take a look at Badland. This side-scrolling game earned rave reviews and awards when it originally launched on iOS. They came to BlackBerry before they even touched Android, nevermind Windows Phone. Displays of confidence like this make me feel pretty good about the platform’s future among developers. Making its official debut with OS 10.2 is Flipboard, a popular feed reading app. It’s an Android port, and it’s running swimmingly (though it had ever since it was sideloaded in the Z10’s Android app player). Evernote now has its own stand-alone app preloaded, which offers rich text editing and tagging, in addition to the existing integration with the native Remember app.
Of course, not everything is perfect. A deal-breaker for many is the lack of an official Instagram app, and shoehorning in an Android version isn’t going to cut it for those users. Notably absent from the catalog for the Z30 is Netflix. Normally I’m not one to watch a whole movie on my phone, nevermind a TV episode, but when multimedia is such a prominent focus in a device like the Z30, it’s hard not to notice. On that note, it was odd to see the folks at BlackBerry push the Z30 as a prosumer productivity-driven device. I’m maintaining a lot of faith in the app situation though, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time on Android and iOS. I’ve found on those platforms apps are highly disposable, simply because there’s always a new one around the corner and device memory is limited. It’s a rat race I don’t miss when sticking with BlackBerry, though for many this ongoing cycle of consuming apps is exactly what makes them compelling. What’s important to remember with BB10 is that the major players (Facebook, Foursquare, LinkedIn, and Twitter) are all on-board and baked in. As far as I’m concerned, everything beyond that is icing on the cake.
In terms of overall performance, the BlackBerry Z30 is snappier than its predecessor, thanks in no small part to the upgrade to a 1.7 GHz dual-core processor and quad-core graphics chip. However, I still hit a few bumps along the way. Google Talk doesn’t seem to want to open in the Hub. The new “next message” and “last message” gesture (swipe right then up or down) doesn’t execute consistently. Still, 10.2 is a big step up, especially when you look at stuff like USB host capabilities (which I managed to get working without a hitch), and Miracast display mirroring (which I couldn't try since I don't have a Miracast TV). Piled on top of existing cool features like remote access to your PC files through Link, and screen sharing over BBM, it's clear that the platform's evolving quickly.
For all of its technical merit, I still worry about the BlackBerry Z30 selling. There doesn’t seem to have been as much of a marketing push for the Z30 as even the Q5 enjoyed, carrier support seems to have waned (Rogers wasn’t initially going to be getting it, and we haven’t heard from Sprint or T-Mobile), and anyone really sold on the new vision of BlackBerry are likely to have already picked up a Z10.
Iterative updates like the BlackBerry Z30 are exactly the steps to be taken down the road of maturation
Many will be asking if this is the device that turns BlackBerry’s fortunes around, and the short answer is “no,” but no single product can do that. Rebooting a platform isn’t something that happens overnight, or even within the first 6 - 8 months. It will take at least a year, and maybe two in order to know if BlackBerry’s going to continue to exist in a single piece. It’s easy to be cynical about the Fairfax deal and say all it’s doing is delaying the inevitable. As funny as it might sound given how slowly BlackBerry’s been to strategically pivot, time is exactly what BlackBerry needs now in order to bring BB10 up to feature parity with the legacy operating system and become competitive with the other major OSes out there.
Iterative updates like the BlackBerry Z30 are exactly the steps to be taken down that road of maturation, and I would say that if future devices offer as significant an improvement on the previous generation as the Z30, BlackBerry will be caught up fairly quickly. Of course, that progress hinges on BlackBerry having the financial resources to maintain this pace and partners (both carriers and developers) sticking around for the ride.
For all of those unconcerned about the bigger picture of the industry, you’re probably just wondering if the Z30 is a good phone. Yeah, it’s a good phone. You won’t get Instagram on there without some wrestling, but it’s a perfectly capable, strong device so long as you don’t care about missing a few token apps. Z10 owners, it’s probably too early for you to upgrade, but if you were on the verge of buying one and held out, the big screen and big sound of the Z30 may very well be your cue.