BlackBerry isn’t a very popular brand at the moment. If I were to use a famous line from a competitor which has all but killed an underperforming yet overconfident BlackBerry in Western markets, you have to think different to be considering buying a BlackBerry today.
But the truth is trailblazers do think different, they swim against the flow, though on the flip side trailblazers can often be wrong too. That is the risk that you take with BlackBerry today.
What we have with us for review is BlackBerry’s all new flagship, the Z30, the successor to the Z10, which got good reviews, but didn’t see great sales. To some, the Z30 may seem like just a larger version of the Z10, and that’s what I thought initially too, but I was wrong.
Besides a larger screen, there is the highest number of microphones on a phone to enable voice clarity, there’s new antenna technology that BlackBerry claims will noticeably help in poor coverage areas, there are stereo speakers and most importantly, there’s a very juicy battery that really sets the Z30 apart from the rest. There’s an all new iteration of the Blackberry 10 OS too, and in areas like productivity and elements like touch screen keyboards, the big Z30 takes BlackBerry’s productivity edge to an all new level.
But, should you consider buying the Z30, especially in the face of overwhelmingly negative customer sentiment? That’s a question that only you can answer, because that’s a risk you need to consider. But as for what’s measurable and reviewable, here’s the story:
Looks & Form Factor
I loved the Z10’s understated looks and feel in the hands. I have small hands and I don’t like phablet form factors. For that reason, I was a bit apprehensive about the Z30, which isn’t exactly a phablet but not too far from being one. But when I held it, the Z30 felt comfortable, and that comes from the subtleties in terms of the shape and form; the Z30 fit very well into the curvature of my hand, even though it’s a fairly wide smartphone.
What immediately strikes you at first glance is the large bottom frame in a brushed metal finish. Unlike the Z10, there’s no way you’ll mistake the top for the bottom, even if you’re blind or trying to use the smartphone in pitch darkness. The curved back is beautiful glass weave which BlackBerry says also helps with cellular reception, but also provides great grip. A brushed metal ring also runs all round the unit, with volume buttons on the right and below those two microphones; the power key and audio out are on top and the microUSB charging/data point and microHDMI ports are on the left. The bottom of the glass weave rear has dual stereo speaker grilles and more on top.
There’s also a strange area on the metal frame on the left, which looks like a flap and initially I thought it was removable to reveal a SIM/microSD card, and tried to open it. I have a feeling some folks are going to try harder and actually manage to damage their Z30s. What adds grist to this theory of mine is the fact that the removable back is pretty tight. But removable it is and surprisingly, for a removable back, the battery is non-removable and what you have are microSD and microSIM slots. What gives?
A cover where the back cover of the Z30 is replaced by accessory’s back cover, with a flip cover on the front. Replacing the back cover with the accessory cover ensures the smartphone doesn’t get too bulky. Unfortunately, we couldn’t check out this accessory to decide whether it was really smart thinking or otherwise. But it does look good.
The edge-to-edge glass is premium too—we found no scratches despite keeping it in trouser pockets and sometimes with keys. Build quality is BlackBerry premium, which as most folks know, is as good as they come. Not plasticky, not loud, but solid.
Specs, Hardware & Display
Speaking of solid, one reason is the weight at 170 gms. The weight lends a definite solidity to the Z30 and you know the Z30 can take a few hard knocks. And with dimensions of height at 5.53 inches, width at 2.83 inches and depth at 9.4 mm, the Z30 will fit into most pockets. And as with all things BlackBerry, a holster accessory is also available.
The processor is a dual-core Snapdragon S4 Pro 1.7 GHz and there’s a quad core GPU (graphics processing unit) in there too, which gamers will especially love, especially since quite a few games are being released on the BlackBerry 10 platform.
There’s also 2 GB RAM and 16 GB application storage, expandable using a microSD card of up to 64 GB. And for the first time on a BlackBerry you can also add USB devices (flash drives, mouse or keyboard for instance) using USB OTG (On-The-Go). Miracast, which in this case enables wireless delivery of HD video from a Z30 to a compatible device like a HDTV (or using a Miracast dongle), via Wi-Fi Direct, is also supported.
From a spec-focused buyer’s perspective this may seem like not-so-great specs, especially for a Hero phone, when compared to Android where quad-core processors are now commonplace and octa-core powered smartphones are being touted as Hero phones.
But as I keep writing, in a tightly integrated solution where hardware and software is made by the same manufacturer, a quad core processor might appear better on a spec sheet but might not make a significant difference in usage and may indeed be a bad bargain when looked at from the battery drain to performance gain balance.
The display, which I found gorgeous, is a 5-incher Super AMOLED with a resolution of 1280 x 720, at 295 ppi (pixels per inch). The screen is sharp and renders deep blacks and vivid colours well. Text is sharp too and viewing angles are superb. However, if you’re again comparing spec-to-spec and looking at what seems to be a power ppi number (the Z10 which used different display technology clocked 356 ppi), S-Stripe pixel layout are the words you need to learn about.
The S-Stripe pixel layout is what makes text particularly sharp on the Z30. And as this technical blog explains: “...display readability is significantly improved compared to traditional Pentile, which has two sub-pixels per pixel. S-stripe has three sub-pixels per pixel, and an advanced design may have five. The second advantage is that s-stripe may enable longer lifetimes for the display.”
Having said this, is the display better than a 1080p display? No way. BlackBerry seems to have taken this middle ground to save battery life.
There’s an 8 MP HD auto focus camera on the back, which does seem like a letdown when smartphones far cheaper boast of 13 MP cameras, and there’s a 2MP fixed focus HD camera up front. The familiar LED indicator is at the top of the front display and I found it useful to customise colours for different notifications--a very useful feature in meetings—though the app I used for this (BeBuzz Pro) is a paid app. There’s a free BeBuzz app too, but it has limited options.
Powered up for great battery life
If there’s one standout feature in this age of smartphones that do great things but often don’t have the battery power in them when you need them the most, the Z30’s battery is it. The 2880mAH battery is non-removable and BlackBerry promises up to 25 hours of mixed use, and I’m happy to state that it lives up to the promise. It’s a delight to come back home at the end of a long workday and see 50 percent of battery left and at worst, around 20-30 percent. This, when I run a host of sideloaded Android apps, which aren’t optimised for BlackBerry 10 and are battery drainers.
What also helps is BlackBerry’s new Paratek antenna technology which according to claims dynamically tunes reception to give users better connectivity in low signal areas. The Paratek Antenna is also supposed to enable faster data transfers and fewer dropped calls in low signal areas.
From a layman’s perspective, the reason I get double the battery life in areas with great cellular coverage as opposed to areas with spotty coverage is that the smartphone radio constantly searches for a stronger signal in the latter scenario and that drains your battery faster. As for fewer dropped calls, I’m not so sure.
Though I suspect marginal improvement, and could definitely tell that my calls never dropped in one location where calls would invariably drop each time as I drove past, I’m not sure who to thank. Perhaps it’s the Z30’s antenna. Or may be Vodafone finally decided to do something about that particular spot’s network issue. Only an independent study conducted by telecom professionals could provide surety here and that’s not something a reviewer can do.
Pictures & Sound
The 8 megapixel camera seems poor on paper when compared to other Hero devices and it’s the same unit as on the Z10. Indoor pictures were crisp and sharp. Colours were well defined:
My colleague Angelo Mathews who’s a bigger photography buff than me, found outdoor pictures confusing though.
There is a consistent haze when shooting on the 16:9 mode. Daylight shots often look different when shot back to back, one with a slight tint of haze and the other without.
Camera features include Flash, continuous and touch to focus, image stabilization, a proprietary Enhanced Super Resolution Digital Zoom (5x), and 1080p HD video recording. Shooting modes include Normal, Stabilisation, HDR and Burst mode. Scenes gives you the choice between Auto, Action, Whiteboard, Night and Beach or Snow.
The cool TimeShift camera that captures multiple images in a burst is also included. TimeShift detects faces in the picture and allows you to choose the best profile shot of each person in the picture with a simple zoom and toggle option.
The video camera using which you can shoot in 720 p or 1080 p is decent too. Great in daylight, and microphone cut background noise well too. Not so great in bad light.
On the sound front, the stereo speakers are a great addition, but what’s unique is what BlackBerry calls Natural Sound technology, part of BlackBerry OS 10.2, that supposedly makes BBM Voice and BBM Video chats sound more natural and realistic. BlackBerry claims that Natural Sound lets you hear nuances and variations in tone, making conversations sound like you’re in the same room. When I heard samples, I was very impressed, and it does seem to work well in BBM calls between Z30s.
Which, is the crux of the matter. Natural Sound works best on BBM Voice or Video call between two Z30s, though some software elements of Natural Sound are coming to the Z10, Q10 and Q5 too as part of the 10.2 update that has just started rolling out. While there are four microphones (two noise-cancellation ones on the side, one in the earpiece and the main microphone at the bottom), I didn’t notice any real difference in normal cellular call quality.
New on BlackBerry 10.2
The Z30 is also the first BlackBerry to come with BlackBerry 10.2 OS. Although other BlackBerry 10 smartphones are getting the same update, here’s a quick look at what’s new. And if you want to know all that’s new in BlackBerry 10 itself, head here.
Instant Previews & Toast Notifications:
E-mail, BBM and SMS message previews now appear in any app and with toast notifications users can respond to BBM and SMS messages in any app. It’s very useful especially when you’re browsing or watching a news video for instance, and BlackBerry 10.2 is the only mobile OS with this nifty feature.
One of the features I like most about BlackBerry 10 is the BlackBerry Hub, an universal inbox, which in my opinion is the best iteration of a communications centre in any smartphone and where every communication tool from e-mail to BBM to Facebook to Twitter and more are all in one place and where you don’t need to open separate apps to post to respective services.
The BlackBerry Priority Hub makes the Hub even better, since it learns what conversations and which people are important to you, thus enabling you to find messages and information quicker. You can either let Priority Hub use standard rules such as messages from folks with the same surname (family), messages sent directly to you, etc, or you can set your own rules.
Improved lock screen notifications: As opposed to earlier lock-screen previews that only provided information on the kind of message waiting for you (e.g. number of e-mails, text messages, LinkedIn messages, etc), on 10.2 clicking the icon provides a useful instant preview of sender and subject line and some details in case of SMS. Real estate on the locked screen is no longer wasted and you can customise which accounts appear on the lock screen.
I think BlackBerry 10 has the best on-screen keyboard among all smartphone OSes, and this was what convinced me to switch from my regular combo of one QWERTY BlackBerry for typing and a touch screen for browsing.
The Z30’s size makes this keyboard even easier to use and for us Indians the cool factor is that Hinglish is now supported. You can type in English and Hinglish at the same time and with personalised next word suggestion and auto-correction the sentence comes out perfectly. In fact, BlackBerry 10 supports 3 languages at once. BlackBerry also claims improved audio feedback with distinct tones for specific keys like backspace and shift to help users type more confidently, but I really didn’t seem to sense or hear these audio cues.
And as you keep using it, the keyboard learns the way you type and becomes smarter. It also learns where your fingers hit the keyboard and using a virtual keyboard under the displayed keyboard, it ensures you’re always hitting the key you intended even if your finger is hitting the wrong key-- the virtual second keyboard is adjusted slightly each time your finger hits the wrong key as part of habit. The large keyboard is also great for error correction because of the large touch targets.
Sharing made easier: One new feature I much appreciated was the updated share feature in menus which provides suggestions on who and how to share your files based on whom you've shared with in the past, and which learns over time. Found this very useful since I could share faster with the contacts with whom I shared the most information.
Android 4.2 runtime:
Android runtime on 10.2 has also been bumped up to Android 4.2 as opposed to 2.3 earlier. I now run everything from the latest version of Instagram for Android to Google Earth and Google Maps. You can either make your own .bar files from Android .apk files or find sites with readymade .bar files, which you then sideload to the Z30. This should also mean that many Android developers who’ve been holding back from porting to BlackBerry 10 to avoid the older Android 2.3 runtime could now take plunge. If that happens, it will be a huge boost to the application numbers problem that is BlackBerry 10′s Achilles heel.
But don’t expect miracles on the application front if you are considering a Z30. The truth is that Google Play and App Store are adding as many new apps as BlackBerry World and playing catch-up is an almost impossible game for BlackBerry. And some like Instagram may take a long while coming--at the recent BlackBerry Jam Asia, BlackBerry execs threw in the towel when anyone asked about Instagram.
However, if you’re an average Joe as are most people, you’d use about 8-10 apps daily and you might most likely find them or alternatives on BlackBerry World. The truth is while the app situation is not something to dance about, it’s not so bad that you just shouldn’t consider BlackBerry 10 either.
Running late calendar feature:
Since BlackBerry 10 is focused on productivity, you can let meeting participants know if you'll be late and can even tell them how late through an easy to use slider.
10.2 is great and I wish BlackBerry had released the Z10 with this OS. However, I did experience some glitches. Sometimes in the middle of an incoming call the screen went blank and I had to press the power button for the screen to wake up again.
Perhaps it was because I was reviewing an unit with a pre-market OS release. But Contacts is still a horrible mess since the day BlackBerry 10 was launched. It’s terrible form for BlackBerry to not deal with the Contacts problem in a productivity-focused mobile OS. I for instance have a huge number of duplicate contacts and struggle with managing these. And Gmail synchronisation is still poor—minutes after you’re read an email on your BlackBerry 10 smartphone, the same e-mail shows as unread on Gmail on your desktop or vice versa.
Should you consider the Z30? It depends on the risk you’re willing to take, especially given current market sentiment around BlackBerry. But if you do you’ll find the Z30 a great productivity workhorse with an amazing battery and with many unique features geared for productivity.
But in the end value boils down to the price.
At Rs 39,990 the BlackBerry Z30 is considerably cheaper than the initial price of the erstwhile flagship, the Z10, which was priced terribly for what is well known to be price-conscious market. However, given current market sentiment, it will still be an uphill climb for BlackBerry, but the slope may be gentler. Ideally, the price tag should have sub-35K. But given that the Z30 offers many unique productivity advantages, you should give it a serious dekko. Remember, sometimes swimming against the flow pays off too.
WHAT I LOVE
Amazing battery life
Instant previews and unique actionable Toast Notifications
Sound quality, especially on BBM Voice and Video
WHAT I HATE
Poor Camera specs
Contact management problem still persists
Despite great battery, removable battery would have been great for road warriors
Published Date: Oct 25, 2013 07:50 am | Updated Date: Oct 30, 2013 02:55 pm