BlackBerry Z30 review: A polished business phablet, lacking a lighter side

Summary:BlackBerry's new flagship smartphone is a sturdy 5-inch phablet with good battery life and some elegant tweaks, but it's a little bit too sensible for its own good.

The Z30 arrives at a very difficult time for BlackBerry , but it's a polished handset, combining good build quality with some elegant software tweaks aimed at the busy executive.

Hardware

The Z30 is the fourth BlackBerry 10 device , following the Z10 , Q10 and Q5 . Considering that the last handset the company released was the anonymous, plastic-clad Q5, the Z30 is an immediate return to quality — as befits BlackBerry's new flagship.

bb-z30-fb
BlackBerry's Z30 measures 72mm wide by 140.7mm deep by 9.4mm thick, weighs 170g and has a 720-by-1,280-pixel AMOLED screen. It's powered by a dual-core Qualcomm CPU running at 1.7GHz. Image: BlackBerry

Whereas the plastic back of the keyboard-equipped, 3.1-inch Q5 made it quite unpleasant to hold, the Z30 is a sturdy but not-too-heavy (170g) phablet that fits nicely in the hand and feels good thanks to the woven carbon-fibre back. That said, I found it a little too large for my pocket (although others may disagree).

The Z30 packs a nicely responsive 5-inch Super AMOLED display, which at 1,280-by-720 resolution and 295ppi is crisp enough, if not top of the range (Samsung's Galaxy S4 delivers 441ppi, for example). The screen could do with being a little brighter, too. Still, the 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm MSM8960T Pro CPU with 2GB of RAM keeps everything zipping along nicely. There's 16GB of internal storage, expandable via a MicroSD card slot located under the back cover.

Connectivity is good, with support for quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE, HSPA and LTE, along with dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and NFC.

The Z30 features a large 2,880mAh battery, which BlackBerry says will last for 25 hours of mixed use (or 18 hours of 3G talk and 16 days on standby), which seems a reasonable assessment in our experience. However, the positioning of the charging port on the side is one of the handset's least elegant features, and that large battery takes a lot of charging — or at least it did on the sample we tested. As well as the Micro-USB 2.0 charging/data-sync port, there's a Micro-HDMI port for video output on an external monitor or projector.

The 8-megapixel rear camera is adequate and businesslike but nothing particularly exciting (and refused to open a couple of times on the unit I road-tested). Still, this is not a handset aimed at the snap-happy crowd, even if the TimeShift feature, which allows you to remove unwanted elements from a picture, and the image-editing software are useful additions. The rear camera will record full-HD (1080p) video, while the 2-megapixel front-facing camera will do HD (720p) video.

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The Z30's pixel density, at 295ppi, doesn't compare with best-in-class 5-inch-screen devices like Samsung's Galaxy S4 and Sony's Xperia Z (441ppi). image: BlackBerry

Software

The Z30 is the first BlackBerry handset to run the 10.2 version of the BlackBerry 10 operating system, which improves on what was already a good user experience. BlackBerry says the Z30 is aimed at a prosumer and business audience with an emphasis on productivity; it certainly feels as though it's been built with busy professionals in mind.

One key updates is the BlackBerry Priority Hub, which collects the most important messages across email, social networking and other accounts to give users quicker access to high-priority conversations. You have to do some work to teach it which are the priority messages, but it's a handy addition. Although I found the Hub occasionally slow to update with messages as well, it's still a useful tool, as is the Attachments view that makes it easy to find files.

There are several tweaks aimed at making it simpler to see and respond to messages: the lockscreen displays a summary of emails and tweets, which is a handy and mildly addictive way to keep up to date; you can also respond to a BBM message without leaving the app that's open at the time. Similarly, the BlackBerry 10 'peek', which allows you to check your messages without closing an application, is a useful addition once you've mastered the up-and-across swipe.

Elsewhere you'll find some sweet keyboard shortcuts to speed up typing as well (Docs to Go is handy enterprise-oriented addition here), while the 'reader' option in the browser strips out all the extraneous formatting and images from web pages, making them much easier to read.

Perhaps the worst thing you can say about the BlackBerry Z30 is that's it's a little lacking in fun — I felt slightly guilty watching a YouTube video on it, for example. And the BlackBerry World app store isn't going to help turn your somewhat po-faced Z30 into a party machine either, as it still lacks depth compared to the Android or iOS alternatives. Having said that, you can side-load Android apps, which should help you fill in the gaps.

Rivals and alternatives

Apple's iPhone 5s is the Z30's obvious rival in terms of flagship status, or Samsung's Galaxy S4 if you're looking for a big-screen Android handset.

Pros

  • High-quality build
  • Impressive battery life
  • Good productivity tweaks
  • Storage expansion via MicroSD card

Cons

  • Screen could be brighter
  • Fewer native apps than other platforms
  • Slow to boot
  • Bulky

Verdict

The Z30 is a polished business handset aimed at the multitasking executive, and contains lots of neat tweaks aimed at making such people as productive as possible. It's the short-back-and-sides of the phablet world — a briefcase when everyone wants a cool courier bag,  or a pair of brogues when everyone is wearing trainers. For a rectangle, it's surprisingly square. In short, it's a little too serious, and BlackBerry 10 lacks the broad app ecosystem that would give the Z30 wider appeal for use in the office and at home — which is what most buyers actually want in a smartphone. To be a real success, smartphones have to appeal to consumers as well as business users, and the Z30  doesn't really bridge that gap .

It's also impossible to review such a device without noting BlackBerry's current situation, with analysts Gartner even suggesting that enterprise customers should start looking at alternatives fast. The Z30 isn't the handset to turn the company's fortunes around, but it will certainly appeal to the (increasingly niche) business-first audience.

Price  £499.95 at Selfridges, or free for £32/month on O2

Editors' rating 8/10

Specifications

Dimensions (WxHxD)  72mm x 140.7mm x 9.4mm
Weight  170g
Dedicated buttons  volume up/mown, mute, lock (for Power On/Off)
Display  5-inch diagonal Super AMOLED, 16:9 aspect ratio, 1280 x 720 resolution, at 295ppi
Processor  dual-core 1.7 GHz Qualcomm MSM8960T Pro
Memory  2GB RAM, 16GB internal storage, MicroSD slot under back cover
Ports  Micro-USB 2.0, Micro-HDMI
Battery  2,880mAh (non-removable)
Cameras  8-megapixel (rear), 2-megapixel (front)
Network bands  quad-band LTE 3, 7, 20, 8 (1800/2600/900/800 MHz), quad-band HPSA/UMTS 1, 2, 5/6, 8 (800/850/900/1900/2100 MHz), quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE (850/900/1800/1900 MHz)
Wi-Fi  802.11 a/b/g/n, 2.4 GHz/5 GHz, 4G hotspot
Other features  dual integrated stereo speakers, microphones, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, NFC
Sensors  accelerometer, magnetometer, proximity sensor, gyroscope, ambient light sensor

Topics: Smartphones, BlackBerry, Reviews

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor-in-chief of ZDNet and TechRepublic, and has been writing about technology, business and culture for more than a decade. Previously he was the editor of silicon.com.

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