You know that a company is under fire when its top management has to start a product launch by explaining to the audience why the company is, in fact, not in trouble. That’s exactly what happened at the BlackBerry Z30’s India launch when the company’s India head, Sunil Lalwani spent about ten minutes telling us why nobody should be worried for BlackBerry, before showing off the actual product.
That brings me to the what the general opinion about BlackBerry seems to be today. If you ever spark a discussion on the Canadian phone maker, chances are you’ll get to hear about how the company is no longer relevant, how it’s only a matter of time before it shuts down or is bought out by someone else. Over the past couple of months, I’ve reached a different conclusion. While I agree that BlackBerry has seen better days, the company has also made courageous decisions and ones that express the confidence it has in its own products and strategy, a confidence that may not be shared by consumers, but something that’s commendable nonetheless.
This brings us to the BlackBerry Z30, a great representation of BlackBerry moving ahead (a 5-inch display, a quad-core GPU) and doing so on its own terms (sticking to the homebrewn BB OS). However, just because the Z30 is good for BlackBerry, does not necessarily mean that it’s the right choice for you.
Let’s find out if it is.
The first thing that will strike you as disappointing is the fact that the BlackBerry Z30 sports a dual core processor. At a price-point where you won’t a single smartphone without a quad-core processor, it seems strange that BlackBerry would go for one with only two cores (albeit, two powerful cores clocked at 1.7GHz). Similarly, it’s great that BlackBerry decided to go with a 5-inch display but not so much that it decided to restrict it to a 720p one. Again, full-HD 1080p displays are becoming more and more common among large-screened smartphones, something BlackBerry should have seriously considered for the Z30.
If you checked out the comparison, you will have noticed that apart from the couple of things we pointed out earlier, the Z30 pretty much falls in line with other available smartphone with respect to its hardware.
Right, so this is where things get interesting. Back in 2008, when I got my first job reviewing smartphones and MP3 players, BlackBerry was the name on everyone’s lips. Remember, this was before Android and before Nokia had floundered and lost its way. At this time, the BlackBerry OS was probably one of the most usable out there and amazingly complemented by the various types of QWERTY keypads sported by the different BlackBerry models. These phones did not have the best specs or feature-sets but were compelling products nonetheless on account of the absolute usability they offered. For example, I used a BlackBerry 8830 ‘World Phone’ for the better part of a year and loved it despite the phone not having a basic feature like Wi-Fi.
So, you could say that by going all touchscreen, BlackBerry is taking a massive risk with its new line-up of BB10 smartphones like the Z30.
Fortunately, the software on show on the Z30 is very good and recreates what you may have liked about the old school Blackberry phones. If you liked BB10, that was launched with the Z10, you’ll love the fact that BB10.2, that goes live with the Z30, brings in additional improvements to make the overall OS work faster and more efficiently.
The Z30's app drawer (left) and default homescreen (that doubles up as a task manager- right)
One of the neat brand new additions are lock screen notifications that not only tell you which app has something new to show you, but also let you peek at the actual messages. Unfortunately, unlike on iOS and Android, you can’t jump directly to the particular app from the lockscreen. However, at any given point in time while working on the phone, you can swipe up from the bottom of the screen and hold to peek at what different types of communique you may have received. By swiping right, immediately after, in one smooth motion, you will land up directly in the Message Hub, BlackBerry’s one-stop location where all your messages across different apps (email, Facebook, BBM, Twitter et. al.) reside. In this Hub, you can take all follow-up actions with the messages you have received. In this way, BB10.2 assumes that the biggest priority for BlackBerry users is the ability to stay on top of all their messages, and to a large extent that’s the correct philosophy to follow.
Peeking at the notifications, the main Messages Hub and the various accounts fueling the Hub (l to r)
Another very important addition to BB10.2 is a redesigned virtual keyboard with a unique auto-correct feature. Like most keyboards, this one also learns from your typing habits and places the most likely word suggestions on top of the next letter you’re about to type in. For e.g. if you were typing out the word ‘TYPEWRITER’, the keyboard would recommend the word and place it above the ‘W’ key. Choosing the suggestion requires you to swipe up from the letter (the ‘W’ in the example) and presto! The word is added to the document you’re typing out. Now this process takes some time to get used to and I spent quite a bit of it scanning the keyboard for the suggestions rather than typing, which slowed things down. Even if you don’t want to use this feature, you will soon realise that the Z30 has the best touchscreen keyboard you’ll have ever come across. The accuracy and responsiveness of the keyboard affords such speed that I often marvelled at the pace I was typing stuff out on the Z30. If you were worried about using a virtual keyboard to replace the good ol’ physical ones on older BlackBerry phones, then rest easy. This is the best way to jump headfirst into the word of a touchscreen BlackBerry.
The Z30's keyboard also offers plenty of ways to customize it
The ecosystem of BB10.2 is fueled by the BlackBerry World app store
and like any burgeoning OS, the app store still has a long way to go to match the ones that keep Android and iOS afloat. The good news is that your needs will be met by the 100,000 odd apps that are already available on the store, some of which are universally popular like an Angry Birds or an Evernote. However, the bad news is that you will stumble across obvious gaps in that portfolio when you realise that searching for apps like Instagram, Dead Trigger or Asphalt don’t throw up the desired results. I would suggest you browse through the BlackBerry World store on your PC to figure out if there are some deal breakers in the form of absent apps. For the rest of you, the App World should keep you happy and fed.
A couple of preinstalled apps on the Z30 worth pointing out include the Docs to Go productivity suite that lets you do anything you can imagine with Word docs, PowerPoint presentations and Excel spreadsheets. Story Maker is a nice little app that you can have a lot of fun with since it lets you add images and clips to a pre-packaged video with good-looking animations, effects and music. The Z30 also supports Miracast and DLNA that will allow you to view and transfer content from your phone to a compatible display.
A feature that’s often talked about BB10 is its ability to run sideloaded Android apps but honestly the entire process to run Android apps is painful and not something you’d want to do regularly. If for some reason, running Android apps on BlackBerry OS is why you want to get the Z30, then please, please find some other reason quickly.
The Z30 has numerous other features but I won’t really be getting into those that right now because that would take a few thousand more words. Suffice to say, if you’re looking for a reason NOT to buy the Z30, its software offerings won’t be that reason.
If you’ve seen the BlackBerry Z10, then you’ve seen a smaller and less attractive version of the Z30. The 5-inch BlackBerry improves upon its predecessor’s looks by adding a splash of silver to the bottom of the all-glass, all-black front and taking pointers from the HTC One, which was one fine looking piece of glass (and aluminium). However, on closer inspection, the Z30 does reveal a less premium build than the Z10. For one, the phone is larger and less wieldy. It also has a textured back that feels like rubber but when pried off, reveals itself to be actually thin plastic. On top of that, the Z30 won’t win any awards for being petite or light either.
The 5-inch display is something else that disappoints. While many may be comfortable with a 720p display, let me tell you that after subjecting my eyes to the grandeur of the 1080p IPS display of the LG G2, the BlackBerry falls woefully short. Also, for some reason, BlackBerry seems to be drinking from the same bottle as Samsung which has led it to believe that Super AMOLED is the way to go. Sure, Super AMOLED makes content look more vibrant but it’s not the best at portraying accurate colours. Of course, at the end of the day this is subjective, and if you’ve no problems with the uber-colourful displays on Samsung phones, you won’t have a problem with this one either.
So, in my downtime, I use an iPhone 4S that I picked up last year in February. One of things I spend my time on while using the phone is the Alien Blue app for Reddit. Now, since almost every third post Reddit tends to be a GIF, I have learnt to be patient, since it takes close to a minute for a GIF to load on the 4S. For some reason, I brainwashed myself into believing that this was the standard time it takes to open a GIF image on any smartphone. So, once I got the Z30, I installed the Reddit in Motion app, and started browsing. As it happens, and as the Z30 showed me, GIFs aren’t actually the scourge of the Internet and take no more than five seconds to load.
This anecdote quite accurately represents my overall experience while using the BlackBerry Z30. The phone is fast, fast enough to do most things, fast enough to play 1080p MKV videos and not hang and fast enough to play a good looking 3D game (Beach Buggy Blitz) and not come out stricken like a priest who has just failed at an exorcism. In fact, in about a week of use, the phone just hung once, while I was using the camera, and I couldn’t replicate the error afterwards. The dual-core processor will not be bottleneck for performance, at least not right now. However, by opting to go for a dual-core processor, BlackBerry is playing it fast and loose because I can almost assuredly say that this will be a problem that surfaces may be about a year down the line.
Battery life is quite amazing on the Z30 (you can most likely thank the dual-core processor and 720p screen for that) and will easily last you two complete days of normal use. If you push some gaming and movies into the mix, then the phone will need a charge at the end of the day, but that’s still better than many phones out there. Call quality on the Z30 is a mixed bag and inconsistent. Sometimes the phone was able to churn out sharp, clear audio while at times there was audible hissing that distorted voices. However, the speakers on the Z30 are loud and clear both for calls and listening to music.
You weren’t really planning to buy a BlackBerry phone for its shooting prowess, were you? Well, if you keep that attitude going on for a bit, the Z30 will surprise you, a little bit at least. I wasn’t really expecting much when I put the 8MP camera through its paces and it turned out okay, not up to the mark set by the Lumia 1020
or the Xperia Z1, but okay nevertheless. The Z30’s camera tends to work best when shooting under good light where it keeps a tight lid on noise. However, this performance slips under low light where noise creeps in and photos look less wholesome. Another serious issue is the camera’s inconsistent focus performance. Sometimes, the focusing happens quickly while other times, it just doesn’t lock on to the subject. Things get more annoying when you realise that when you manually focus by tapping the screen, the camera automatically shoots a picture, without letting you set up the scene.
The photos shot by the Z30 don’t really hold up when you compare them to those from the LG G2. The G2 works better with colours when shooting under daylight while it leaves the Z30 far, far behind when it comes to low-light performance. The Z30 compares more favourably to the Nexus 4’s camera performance but still falls short of the latter when it comes to low-light shooting with the Google phone doing better at controlling noise.
Photos shot outdoors under daylight (Click to enlarge in new window)
Photos shot indoors under good light (left) and low light (right). Click to enlarge in new window.
Things get better when you switch over to video recording. The Z30 lets you shoot in both 720p and 1080p and the results are good-looking videos that are stutter-free and have great audio capture. Here again, the lighting matters a lot, and you’ll come across sub-par results under low light conditions.
Overall, the Z30 maintains the status quo when it comes to BlackBerry and photography but still manages to surprise on occasions.
The BlackBerry Z30 is a very good smartphone, there’s no doubt about it. BlackBerry has very smartly packaged the software and hardware keeping in mind the needs and desires of a typical BlackBerry user while throwing in some new things like the 5-inch display and a quad-core GPU. And therein lies the problem. When confined to the limited universe of former and current BlackBerry users, the Z30 is a phone worth recommending despite its drawbacks but when the boundaries of that universe are broken down to let in all the smartphones, things don’t look good for the BlackBerry. Phones like the Xperia Z1, the LG G2 and the Galaxy S4
offer more and do many things better than the Z30 (for e.g. better displays, more powerful hardware, better app ecosystems), and those things may ultimately matter to buyers without a bias towards BlackBerry.
So, to sum it all up, buy the BlackBerry Z30 if you are or have been a BlackBerry user and are looking to stay with the company. If watching movies or having the latest apps comes second to using social networking and messaging apps, and you aren’t already invested in any other mobile OS, in that case too, the Z30 will suit you. For the rest who want the latest apps and the best possible multimedia and gaming experiences on a smartphone, there are better alternatives to consider than the Z30.