BlackBerry Z30 £529
15th Nov 2013 | 16:27
BlackBerry goes big with the 5-inch Z30
The BlackBerry Z30 is too late. This isn't the place to recap BlackBerry's highs and lows, but with the reassuringly expensive Z30 in your hand it's tough not to muse about what might have been. This is a smartphone worthy of flagship status, and it offers a significant improvement over the BlackBerry Z10.
This is a heavy smartphone with a 5-inch 720p Super AMOLED display, a really premium build, and a solid set of specs, including a 1.7GHz dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, 4G support, an 8MP rear camera, 2MP front camera, and a big 2,880mAh battery.
Sadly for BlackBerry, these are cutting edge specs from more than a year ago; it simply hasn't been able to keep up with the pace set by the leading Android manufacturers with phones like the Samsung Galaxy S4, the LG G2, and the Sony Xperia Z1.
It may be able to compete with the likes of the Nokia Lumia 925 on paper, but it's more expensive than its Windows Phone rival.
If you do covet the BlackBerry Z30 then you'll need to lay down £529 (around $850, AU$905) for a SIM-free handset. Alternatively, you should be able to pick one up for free by committing to a two-year contract at £32 per month or more.
The niche market of business users that the Z30 might appeal to probably won't balk at that price. It's a tough sell for the wider consumer market and few people will be persuaded to board a sinking ship by anything less than a stellar handset.
This better-looking, big brother of the Z10 measures 140.7 x 72 x 9.4mm. It doesn't feel overly big for a phone with a five-inch display. It may not quite achieve the super-slim bezel of the Galaxy S4, but it manages to undercut the Xperia Z1 on height and width, even if it isn't quite as svelte.
It has the typical black glass slab aesthetic that all the young phones are sporting nowadays, but the silver bar at the bottom of the screen breaks it up nicely and runs around the edge to provide a welcome contrast with the plastic.
The back cover is subtly textured plastic with the classic silver BlackBerry logo in the middle. The camera and flash break up the woven pattern and sit offset to the left at the top. The cover snaps off, with a bit of encouragement, to reveal slots for a SIM card and a microSD card. You can swap microSD cards up to 64GB in size without having to switch the Z30 off. The battery is non-removable.
There are no buttons at all on the face and the bottom edge of the Z30 is similarly naked. On the right spine there's the volume up and down buttons, which double up as camera keys when the camera app is open.
There's also a dedicated voice control key in between the volume controls and it launches BlackBerry's answer to Siri and Google Now. When you're playing music or videos this key doubles up as a play/pause control.
Up top you'll find the central power button with a standard 3.5mm headphone port to the left of it. The left spine is home to the microUSB and the microHDMI ports, but you only get a USB cable in the box.
At 170g you're going to feel the weight of the Z30 as soon as you pick it up. This is one of the heaviest smartphones around, but that's not to say it's uncomfortable to hold, because it isn't.
The textured plastic back cover actually provides a lot of grip, but it's still easy to slide in and out of a pocket. It's awkward to try and use the Z30 one-handed, though.
The BlackBerry Z30 ships with the latest version of the platform which is BlackBerry 10.2. There are a few subtle improvements, but nothing is drastically different from 10.1 and our BlackBerry 10 review gives you a real insight into the operating system.
BB 10 will be very easy to pick up for anyone who has used a smartphone before, as all the major platforms have plenty in common. For users coming from BlackBerry 7 there is going to be a learning curve here, but BlackBerry has helpfully provided a few tutorials to help you get to grips with the basic gestures required for navigation.
When you tap the power key up top, or swipe up from the bottom of the touch screen, you'll be greeted by the lock screen. The lock screen shows your status in a bar at the top which displays battery life and signal strength.
Below that you have the time and date. To the left you can see your notifications about messages and calls, including any social media accounts you may have set up.
Tapping on these reveals a little detail about what's inside, which can be a real time saver - one of the new features in BlackBerry 10.2.
At the bottom right you'll find a camera icon, and you can tap and hold on it to quickly launch the camera. Quickly means under three seconds.
To unlock the Z30 you need to slide up from the bottom of the screen. This means that, with practice, you can actually unlock the phone from sleep with one long slide from the bottom of the screen up towards the top and you'll bypass the lock screen completely.
Your home screen will default to your grid of apps until you start opening things, at which point it becomes a multitasking menu. All of your home screens have three icons in a dock at the bottom: Phone, Search, and Camera.
The lack of physical or capacitive keys means everything is gesture-based. You swipe up to back out of an app and you swipe down from the top to access the menu.
When you swipe up you'll always return to the home screen which displays the last four apps you had running. It can actually display eight, but you'll need to swipe up to see the other four.
Some of them will cycle new images, a bit like live tiles or widgets. If you swipe down from the top of the home screen you'll open the quick settings menu which affords you quick access to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Rotation Lock, Alarm, Notifications, or the full Settings menu.
From your home screen you can swipe from left to right to access your BlackBerry Hub, which is essentially a unified inbox for messages. If you swipe from right to left you'll find your apps organized in a familiar four by five grid of icons.
Tap and hold on apps to move them around. You'll also see a small bin icon on the apps you can delete, and dropping one app icon on top of another will create a folder which you can name as you please.
So far, so intuitive. The 1.7GHz dual-core processor and 2GB of RAM seem to provide ample power for the platform. Navigating around the phone is quick and easy.
The transitional animations are smooth and we didn't encounter any stuttering or lag.
Additional gestures, like peek, help it hang together and soon feel natural; you can slide up just a little from the bottom of the screen for a quick look at your notifications on the left and then let go to close it, or swipe off to the right to bring up the hub if you see something you want to check.
Contacts and calling
When you set up the BlackBerry Z30 you'll get the usual options to suck in contacts from your various social media spheres. You can bring them in from your SIM card, your email account (if it's Gmail or Hotmail), your Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or your BBM accounts.
You can access contacts from the contacts app or from the phone app. You can also cycle through and add them when you compose a message in the Hub.
We found that our contacts app had everyone listed, but the contacts tab in the phone app conveniently only lists contacts with phone numbers. Adding a phone number to an existing contact immediately bumps them into the phone app.
When we added contacts from various accounts they were all immediately listed except for Facebook which added people gradually over a period of days.
Taking a closer look this may be because the contacts app doesn't just suck in their personal contact details from Facebook, it lists everything else from their birthday to their employment history.
Combining contacts from different sources, unless the names are identical, is always a problem, so you can expect a laborious process of linking them together if you use multiple sources.
Another mild annoyance is that when you choose the link option in the contact it doesn't give you a quick list of suggestions; you actually have to go back to your full contact list and find the right one.
On top of Details, each contact also has an Updates tab which pulls in the latest from any social media accounts of theirs where you're connected, and an Activity tab which is a record of your communications.
The final feature worthy of note is the fact that you can choose personalised ringtones and vibrations for each incoming communication from each contact, you can even decide whether you want the LED to flash or not.
To make a call you tap the Phone icon in the dock at the bottom left of your home screen. There is also a Phone icon listed in the apps, although we can't think of a reason you'd ever use it since the Phone icon is ever present at the bottom left of all your home screens.
You can also initiate a call by selecting a contact from a message within the BlackBerry Hub or from the Contacts app.
The Phone app lists Voicemail at the top and there are two slots alongside it where you can list favourite contacts. There's no visual voicemail so you will need to call in to check your messages.
Below that you'll find a list of all your calls and there's a tab so you can quickly check Missed calls only. Tap on any of the numbers in this list and you'll initiate a call.
At the bottom there's also a Contacts tab and the Dial Pad. The Contacts tab just lists contacts with phone numbers and when you tap on one the available numbers slide down, which is great if they have more than one. You can just tap the number you want to call.
The Dial Pad is perfectly functional. The option to add new numbers to existing contacts, or create new contacts, is right there when you dial in a new number. There's no smart dialling feature.
Call quality is very good. Switching from a Galaxy S3 in a known poor reception area the BlackBerry Z30 showed a marked improvement with no dropped calls.
Those multiple microphones are obviously working their magic for noise cancellation too, as the other caller reported great quality audio despite our noisy background. On our end callers sounded clear and crisp. As a phone the Z30 really delivers.
Messaging and Internet
The BlackBerry Hub is one of those things that sounds like a great idea, but you immediately realise that you don't really want a unified inbox on being confronted with a torrent of irrelevant and distracting nonsense. For most of us, social media accounts are still not on a par, in terms of importance, with email or text messages.
Thankfully BlackBerry has neatly divided your accounts, so it's very easy to just select the one you want to view.
You can dictate exactly what should appear in the blended stream, and if you also tweak the notifications within individual apps, it becomes quite easy to create a central place that only throws up what you want to see.
You can take it further by turning Priority Messages on. The Priority Hub defaults to messages in conversations that you started, messages from people with the same last name as you, and messages marked as high importance by the sender.
You can even teach it what to include over time by long pressing on any entry in the Hub and adding or removing it from your priority filter. The end result is a very useful and thoughtful way of ensuring that you are only ever interrupted by the messages you actually want to receive.
The Hub is also where you'll go to create a new message. There's a Compose option at the bottom and you'll be prompted to choose the account you want to send a message from.
It's easy to compose a message and the virtual keyboard is very good. The prediction and auto-correct are useful and they improve the more you use them.
The virtual keyboard emulates BlackBerry's physical keyboards with silver frets spacing out the lines of keys and providing a natural place to throw up word predictions.
It feels comfortable and accurate to type on; the only thing that's missing is a Swype option, which would allow you to keep your thumb on the screen and move between letters to type.
It's especially handy for typing one-handed on a big phone, so it would be good on the Z30. Another minor gripe with the keyboard is the fact that all the letters are displayed in capitals regardless of whether you are actually going to type a capital letter.
It feels a little odd at first that it doesn't switch between upper and lower case to indicate whether you're on caps or not.
BBM is the instant messaging solution on the Z30 and its usefulness depends entirely on how many people you know that use it. It used to be the gold standard of instant messaging apps, with real time updates informing you when the recipient had read your message.
BlackBerry also added the option to share files and, more recently, enabled BBM to handle audio and video calls using your Wi-Fi or data connection.
Truth be told, a lot of apps on other platforms have replicated BBM's killer features, but the app is now on Android and iOS providing a real boost to its potential usefulness.
The basic browser that comes on the BlackBerry Z30 is perfectly usable. It seems fairly fast and responsive and the Z30 supports the latest quad-band LTE and there's dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n support.
We tested on 3G and Wi-Fi. The full fat version of the TechRadar website loaded in five seconds on Wi-Fi, and was a second or two slower on 3G.
You can set up bookmarks, check your history (filtered by day), and open multiple tabs. When you first open it, by selecting Browser from the app list, it defaults to a grid of your most recently open pages.
Text generally looks crisp and clear, images are colourful and detailed, and it's easy to zoom in and out. The only glaring omission is the lack of text reflow, so if you zoom in the text doesn't realign and you will have to scroll sideways to read it.
It feels a little weird that the search and address bar are at the bottom, but that will depend what browser you are used to.
The number of open tabs is listed to the left and the menu options can be opened via the icon on the bottom right. Adobe Flash is supported, but you'll find it is off by default, so head into Settings > Display and Actions to enable it.
You'll also find a Reader option in the menu which strips out all the images and just serves up plain text. It has a handy text resize option at the bottom so you can enlarge the text if required.
If you don't like the BlackBerry browser then there are a number of alternative browsers in BlackBerry App World, but sadly you won't find any big names like Chrome or Dolphin.
Overall the BlackBerry Z30 offers a really good web browsing experience. The only missing element for us was the inability to sync bookmarks with a desktop or laptop, something which makes Chrome so enticing.
The main, rear-facing camera on the BlackBerry Z30 is rated at 8MP. It boasts autofocus, image stabilisation, a 5x digital zoom and an LED flash. It can also capture full HD video at 1080p.
According to BlackBerry the Z30 camera also has a five-element F2.2 lens, and back-side illumination for better low-light performance.
The secondary, front-facing camera is rated at two megapixels and it's really for video calls.
Launching the camera app is easy, just tap on the Camera icon that's ever present at the bottom right of your home screens, or press and hold on the Camera icon that sits at the bottom right of the lock screen.
You'll find an extra Camera icon in your app grid as well. You can go from a dead start to taking a shot in under three seconds, which is impressively fast.
The shutter speed is generally zippy, and you can tap on the screen to take a photo, or you can use either of the volume keys. We recommend the volume keys.
The fact that it will try to autofocus on the spot you tapped on the screen before taking a shot can cause a delay, but then without the autofocus you're going to get a lot of blurry shots. If you tap and hold your finger on the screen you can change the focus point.
The Z30 has a simplified Camera app. It actually has fewer options than the BlackBerry 9720's Camera app, despite the fact it has a far superior shooter.
This rationalisation is definitely a good thing for most casual camera users, but it might disappoint real photography enthusiasts looking for ISO settings and the ability to change shutter speeds. Your default mode is the camera for still shots, tap that icon and you'll see the video camera and the Time Shift options.
In the basic camera there are four shooting modes: Normal, Stabilisation, Burst, and HDR. You also get five scene options: Auto, Action, Whiteboard, Night, and Beach or Snow. Beyond that you can opt for auto flash or turn it on or off, and you can choose the ratio: 1:1, 4:3, or 16:9.
Time Shift is the oddball. It allows you to take a series of shots and then select the best faces from them to get a perfect group photo.
In theory you could eliminate closed eyes or daft expressions, but it doesn't always work perfectly.
The video camera on the Blackberry Z30 only offers Normal, or Stabilisation shooting modes. The are just a trio of scenes too, with Night, Beach and Snow on offer.
You can also opt to have the flash stay on for recording in the dark and switch between 1080p or 720p quality. You simply tap on the screen to start recording and tap again to stop. The flash icon sits at the bottom left to allow you to shed more light on your subject if required.
The front-facing camera can only capture 720p video and, as stated before, it's really for video calls.
In very busy environments with a moving camera going in and out of direct sunlight, the camera struggles with a lot of movement - even with stabilization on.
With indoor video the camera deals well with slight movements, but it does have trouble with the light source and shifting subjects. You can also hear the audio break up when there's a piercing scream.
Up close and mostly stationary you can really see the potential quality of your videos. The audio is clear and the picture quality is very good.
The video camera does a fairly good job from a speeding car, but you can hear the wind whipping round the microphone. You can also see it trying to adjust to the murky light in the sky.
Any smartphone with a five-inch display is going to be expected to deliver a good media experience and the BlackBerry Z30 does not disappoint. It boasts a healthy 16GB of internal storage and there's a microSD card slot under the back cover which allows you to add up to a further 64GB.
If you plug the Z30 into your computer with the USB cable provided then it should automatically install the BlackBerry Device Manager which allows you to access all the files on your Z30 as though it was another hard drive. You'll be able to drag and drop files with ease.
Alternatively you can download and install the BlackBerry Link software. It enables you to schedule regular backups and share files wirelessly when you're connected to the same network.
It can also restore your BlackBerry Z30 if you run into any problems. It's easy enough to use, but it can take a little while to establish a connection. We had to restart the Z30 on more than one occasion to get the software to spot it and connect.
The Music app is a totally straightforward affair. You can create playlists and filter your collection to find what you're after.
The sound quality on the speakers is actually pretty impressive for a phone, but a decent pair of headphones is always going to be your best bet if you plan on using the BlackBerry Z30 as your portable music player. There is a stereo headset provided with earbuds and a tangle-free cord.
There's no equalizer to speak of and options are limited. If you long press on the track playing then you can access the Play On option which allows you to stream music to any devices in the vicinity that support DLNA.
Once your music has started you can back out of the app and get on with other things. The volume keys will bring up a set of mini controls, so you don't need to dip back into the Music app proper to pause or skip tracks.
Format support is solid with WMA, MP3, MKA, AAC, AMR, F4V, and WAV all playable on the Z30, but there's no FM radio.
You can also purchase music in BlackBerry World. Individual tracks are 99p and albums vary from around £7 up to £10.99 for the latest Kings of Leon release. There seems to be a fairly good depth of music on offer.
The Video app is even more bare bones than the Music app. It lists your videos by date, or you can organize them into albums. Just tap on a video to play it.
There's an icon at the top right which you can tap to change the aspect ratio. If you head into More options at the bottom right you'll find the same Play On option for DLNA streaming and an option to enable Repeat.
Videos look good on the 5-inch screen, but at 170g you're going to get fed up of holding the Z30 quite quickly. Movie fans should invest in some kind of stand.
You can edit videos with tools to crop, enhance, and shorten available via Edit in More options. The app also supports all the major formats including 3GP, 3GP2, M4A, M4V, MOV, MP4, MKV, MPEG-4, AVI, ASF, and WMV.
If you want to rent or buy movies or TV shows then you can check out what's on offer in BlackBerry World. The prices are steep, with the majority of rentals at £3.99 and the cost of buying a blockbuster like Star Trek: Into Darkness a whopping £12.99. TV shows like Fringe cost £1.99 per episode.
The collection on offer definitely lags behind what you'll find on iTunes or Google Play.
You'll find your photos in the Pictures app, where they're presented in standard thumbnail views – or you can swipe through them full screen one by one.
For some reason there's no option to create a new album on the BlackBerry Z30, so you're stuck with everything being dumped into Camera unless you're prepared to fire up BlackBerry Link on your computer and create albums there.
On the plus side you have a good range of editing options built in. There are cropping tools to quickly resize your shots. There are enhancement tools that include things like red eye reduction and saturation. Then there's the fun stuff in filters and frames.
The Filters section has ten options, from Lomo to Cartoon, and you can drag the slider across an image to see it working its magic in real time. This definitely makes the filters more fun to play with. There are eight frames so you can create a basic border, give a shot an aged feel, or go for a film strip effect.
It's easy to share your favourite photos directly from the app via BBM, email, or other social media accounts.
Battery life and connectivity
The BlackBerry Z30 is packing a 2,880mAh battery. Although you can remove the back cover, you can't remove the battery, so there's no carrying a spare. From our time with the Z30 it seems unlikely that you'll need to. This phone can really go the distance.
BlackBerry quotes up to 18 hours of talk time and up to 16 days on standby. That actually sounds plausible.
We did our 90 minute video test and it barely put a dent in the battery. After using it quite heavily for a mixture of video, music, browsing, calls, and games the Z30 was still ticking at the end of the day.
It should certainly see you through a normal day's use with change, and you may even make it a couple of days between charges. Battery life is definitely one of the strengths of the Z30.
There's nothing obvious missing in this department. The BlackBerry Z30 supports quad band LTE, HSPA, and GSM/GPRS/EDGE. There's also dual band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n and it can serve as a 4G mobile hotspot. Throw Bluetooth 4.0 LE, A-GPS and NFC into the mix and you have a well-connected device.
Your DLNA options are built in to the relevant Pictures, Video, and Music apps, via the Play On option, or you can go into Settings and look for devices under Media Sharing. It's easy to use.
You also have the option of investing in a microHDMI to HDMI cable to plug your BlackBerry Z30 directly into your HDTV.
The only issue we encountered with connectivity was related to the Wi-Fi connection. On two occasions the Z30 dropped the Wi-Fi connection and switched to the mobile network, but the Wi-Fi icon was still full, as though Wi-Fi was on.
After restarting the phone it immediately reconnected, but this is a concern and it could lead to unnecessary data usage.
Maps and apps
The BlackBerry Z30 comes with a Maps app that includes turn-by-turn directions. The maps it draws on are from TomTom and they seem fairly accurate.
The app is also able to give you an indication of how heavy traffic is. Green roads are clear, orange is moderate, and red indicates heavy traffic.
Visually it's very basic, just a top down map, or a bare bones turn-by-turn angled view. There aren't very many POIs marked and searches for specific places are patchy, but we did find a handful of local businesses covered.
The GPS was very fast to get a fix on our position, but the Maps app is generally sluggish and it takes a while to load in as you zoom in and out. Compared to Google Maps, it feels dated and slow.
Turn-by-turn navigation is a great feature, but we definitely have our concerns about its accuracy. We checked a route on the Z30 Maps app and on Google Maps, from Dunbar on the east coast to Edinburgh Castle right in the heart of Scotland's capital.
While the directions were very similar and both sets would get you there, the time estimates showed a large discrepancy. Google Maps estimated a journey time just under 50 minutes, but the BlackBerry Maps app was more optimistic with an estimate of 33 minutes.
The journey actually takes around 50 minutes, so the BlackBerry app was way off.
One of the main weaknesses of the BlackBerry 10 platform is a lack of apps compared to its competitors. The last we heard, in May of this year, there were over 120,000 apps available, but it's all about quality not quantity.
Even if we overlook the fact that many BB10 apps are quick ports of Android apps, we can't overlook the fact that there are some major omissions from BlackBerry World.
You'll have to make do without things like Google Maps or Chrome, there's no Netflix or Sky Go, and you won't find Skype. Much depends on what you use. Many people won't miss these apps, but some definitely will.
You will find things like Spotify, SayIt, Flixster, ReadItNow, and there's a nice Guardian app. Recent additions include heavyweights such as Evernote and Flipboard, not to mention cool wee apps like Hype Machine. The list is growing, but it's growing slowly and not all of the missing apps have an alternative.
It is also apparent with some apps that they've been ported without much thought for how BB10 works.
Apps like Goal were clearly not designed to be used without a Back button, and navigation can be a real chore. The obvious lack of effort on the part of the developers shows how little BB10 figures in their plans – and that's very unlikely to change now.
The pre-loaded apps cover a lot of bases. BlackBerry's reputation for productivity is reflected in the likes of Documents To Go and BlackBerry Remember.
You'll have no trouble keeping on top of your schedule and your inbox with the BlackBerry Z30 out of the box. The on-board apps tick all the business boxes.
Sure, some of BlackBerry's offerings may lack elegance, but they're always fit for purpose. Substance over style sums it up neatly.
There are two standout inclusions. Smart Tags allows you to scan or create your own QR codes and NFC tags.
They can work as handy timesavers for giving out directions or creating a business card. There's also an app called Story Maker which allows you to combine your photos and videos with music and filters in a timeline to create your own multimedia compositions. It's quite fun and very easy to use.
If you were saddened by the lack of apps then close your eyes now. BlackBerry 10 is horribly short of good games. Like the apps, there are new games coming out on the platform all the time, but the vast majority are poor quality clones of classics or ports of old hits from iOS and Android.
The Games app allows you to tie in your BBM account so you can compete with friends more easily. It also gives you a profile to show off your achievements.
Hands on gallery
If the BlackBerry Z30 had been released in place of the Z10 then the company might not be in so much trouble now, although realistically it could have done with landing at least six months before that to have had a real hope of arresting BlackBerry's decline.
It is a good smartphone with a premium feel and it performs well, but there's just no avoiding it, this is too little, too late.
There's a reassuringly expensive feel to the weight and finish of the BlackBerry Z30. You enjoy slipping it in and out of your pocket.
The camera is relatively fast and we captured some good shots with it. It's also a good phone for web browsing, thanks to the speedy performance and the big, attractive screen.
The unified hub for messages is really good once you've tweaked it for your own needs. The Z30 is also a solid phone for calls and it has real staying power thanks to that big battery.
The dropped Wi-Fi was the main low point, particularly as it didn't seem to register properly. The Maps app was also a real let down.
Some big players are absent from the app list and the general standard is quite poor. You'll find a lot of apps in BlackBerry World with very low ratings, and too many of them simply haven't been designed for the BlackBerry platform. We can't see this being resolved as an issue given BlackBerry's current health.
It's sad to think that this might be BlackBerry's last release because with the Z30 it has finally, belatedly, figured out how to make a really good touch screen smartphone.
The trouble is, the Z30 is up against the Samsung Galaxy S4, the iPhone 5S, the LG G2, and even the Nokia Lumia 925. In terms of pricing and features you could make a compelling argument that every one of those devices would be a better buy right now than the BlackBerry Z30.
Make no mistake, the BlackBerry Z30 is a good smartphone, but in today's competitive market, good simply isn't good enough. Like some of Nokia's recent offerings, the Z30 feels like a solid piece of hardware that's let down by the software running on it.
We enjoyed our time with the Z30, but it won't be too difficult to say goodbye.