BlackBerry Z30 (Verizon Wireless) review

The Z30 phablet is the best BlackBerry phone you can get, with killer battery life and excellent reception and call quality. But can it overcome the inferior app store or the uncertainty surrounding the company itself?
Photo of BlackBerry Z30 (Verizon Wireless)

The rumors of BlackBerry’s demise have been greatly exaggerated—or so BlackBerry would have you believe. In the face of grim forecasts and dwindling sales, the company formerly known as RIM remains optimistic as it launches the latest device in its BlackBerry 10 revival. The well-built BlackBerry Z30 ($199.99 with two-year contract) could easily be mistaken for a supersized Z10, but it’s got a few notable tricks up its sleeve that make it more than a simple scale model. It also launches with BlackBerry 10.2, which brings even more features that help cement the fledgling OS as a mecca for messaging addicts. The BlackBerry app situation isn’t showing much improvement, though, and there are nowhere near as many titles as you’ll find for iOS or Android. The Z30 is arguably the best BlackBerry to date, but it’s devoid of any truly unique features that might draw fans from the other side of the fence. And by choosing the Z30, you’re going all in with the uncertain fate of BlackBerry itself. I don’t like those odds. There are just too many better options on Verizon now, like the Apple iPhone 5s or the Samsung Galaxy S4, both of which garnered our Editors’ Choice award.

Design, Hardware, and Performance
The Z30 looks and feels like a larger, more distinguished Z10. BlackBerry nixed the nondescript textured plastic found on the Z10, in favor of the soft-touch “woven glass” material you’ll find on the keyboarded Q10. I personally like the look and feel here, but if you think the whole carbon-fiber look is a bit played out, the effect is far more subtle on the white model.  At 5.54 by 2.83 by 0.37 inches (HWD), the Z30 is sizeable, which isn’t overly unwieldy, but at 6 ounces you’ll feel it in your pocket and in your hand. This is still a well-made handset, but small regressions, like looser plastic buttons instead of metal ones, detract a bit from the full luxury feel. The Power button is still on top, which just doesn’t make sense for a phone this size. On the left side you’ll find a micro USB port for charging and a micro HDMI port for mirroring your phone display on a big screen.  

Curiously, the 5-inch, 1,280-by-720-pixel display on the Z30 actually has a slightly lower resolution than the 4.2-inch 1,280-by-768 display on the Z10. The technology is different here, too, as the Z30 employs a Super AMOLED display versus the LCD on the Z10. Contrast is higher on the Z30 and colors look as vibrant as on the AMOLED panels found on Samsung’s smartphones. It looks good, but it’s just not that impressive, especially matched up side-by-side with a 1080p display like the one found on the HTC One. Maximum brightness is also somewhat low, which hurts outdoor usability.

That big screen means a bigger version of BlackBerry’s already-excellent virtual keyboard. The keyboard is roomy and comfortable to type on, and the predictive text is pretty great once you get used to the swiping gestures. The update to BB 10.2 also brings new audio feedback, which provides a different sound for different keys, like letters versus numbers or the spacebar. The typing experience isn’t on the same level as with the Q10′s physical keyboard, but as far as touch-screen options go it’s among the best.  

The back panel can be removed to reveal SIM and microSD card slots, as well as a 2,880mAh non-removable battery. There’s 16GB of internal memory and our 64GB SanDisk microSD card worked fine. The Z30 features dual-band 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS, NFC, and Qi wireless charging. BlackBerry claims 25 hours of “mixed use” on a single charge. In our tests, the Z30 was able to last for 16 hours, 13 minutes of continuous talk time. That’s a very respectable result, and comes within striking distance of the Galaxy Note 3, with its larger 3,200mAh battery and 18 hours, 50 minutes.

The Z30 is powered by a dual-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro with 2GB RAM and quad-core Adreno 320 GPU. It’s an increase in clock speed and graphics power over the Z10, but we don’t really have any reliable benchmarks for comparing the two. I ran a few browser based tests and the Z30 did indeed perform better than the Z10, finishing the Sunspider JavaScript test in 1,049 milliseconds to the Z10′s 1,511 milliseconds and scoring 2,965 on Browsermark to the Z10′s 2,187. Those numbers, however, are still pretty short of the iPhone 5s and top Android smartphones. In regular usage, I couldn’t really tell any appreciable difference in speed between the Z10 and the Z30, and both were still prone to the occasional lag or app crash. Gaming performance wasn’t all that great, despite the improved GPU. I loaded up EA’s Real Racing 3 and experienced a good deal of stutters and jumping frame rates, which I didn’t see on top-end Android or iOS devices. BlackBerry has Shadowgun, albeit the original version which is now somewhat dated, and even there, the textures and graphics weren’t as impressive as on an Nvida Tegra 3-powered device like the HTC One X+.

The 8-megapixel camera sensor in the Z30 is the same one used on the Z10, and there aren’t any new software tricks here either. As such, performance is indistinguishable between the two. To recap, you get sharp, good looking pictures in well-lit scenarios, while dim lighting tends to produce softer images with some noticeable grain. Video tops out at 1080p resolution and records at a smooth 30 frames per second. 

BlackBerry 10 supports a wide array of media formats, and like the Z10, the Z30 breezed through all of our tests. For video, you get MP4, DivX, Xvid and WMV at resolutions up to 1080p. All of our audio test formats are supported here too, including FLAC and OGG.

Call Quality and Speakers
The Z30 supports quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE (850/900/1800/1900MHz), HPSA/UMTS (800/850/900/1900/2100MHz), and LTE (1800/2600/900/800MHz). The key feature here isn’t the broad network support, but rather the antenna technology itself. Blackberry highlighted its acquisition of Paratek, and the Z30 is the first to benefit from the tunable, dynamic antenna technology. Without getting into technical jargon, BlackBerry explained that the materials used for the antenna in the Z30 allow it to selectively adapt power output to areas in the antenna that maximize reception based on changing environmental factors. The advantage, in theory, is in both signal strength and battery life. Most phones will simply boost the power of the entire antenna when reception is low, which is a big draw on battery life, but Paratek’s tunable antenna allegedly does more with less power.

I tested the Z30 on Verizon’s network in New York City to see how it bore out in real world usage. As it turns out, it seems BlackBerry might be onto something here. I tested in three locations: one street location with poor service, one street location with good service, and once in the basement of our office where there’s typically no service. At the street location with poor service, the Z30 showed an average signal level around -52dBm (closer to zero is better) and network speeds around 0.7Mbps down and 0.5Mbps up. At the same location, a Galaxy Note 3 showed -94dBm, 0.15Mbps down, and 0.15Mbps up. In the area with good service, the advantage was less dramatic, though. The Z30 showed -42dBm, 2.66Mbps down, and 0.89Mbps up, where the Note 3 showed -73dBm, 2.24Mbps down, and 1.3Mbps up. In our basement location, the Z30′s signal strength fluctuated from anywhere as good as -73dBm to -107dBm, but it was able to actually make a call on the first attempt without ever dropping out. The Note 3 showed around -108dBm, but was unable to make a call from the basement.  

Call quality is also very good, though not at the top of its class. Earpiece volume was too low and it was somewhat hard to hear over loud street noises in my tests. Transmissions through the microphone sounded very full and clear, with plenty of volume, but were a bit digitized. In my tests, noise cancellation did a good job keeping ambient noise low, without eliminating it completely, creating a better sense of actually being in the same room as the person you’re conversing with. A call using the Note 3, however, eliminated more noise and still left voices sounding more natural than the Z30, though that call also suffered from more annoying static than the Z30′s. Surprisingly, call quality did not degrade that greatly when placing a call from our office basement where there is little to no service.

There are two stereo speakers on the back of the Z30, and while the rear-facing placement isn’t ideal, they perform well, getting loud without distorting. You don’t get any real bass response, which is true of most every cell phone speaker, but they come close to matching HTC’s BoomSound speakers on the HTC One. It’s not room filling sound, but for the occasional background music or video viewing, they’re actually good.

BlackBerry OS 10.2
The Z30 launches with BlackBerry OS 10.2, which adds a few useful new features, but doesn’t do much to change the core experience here. To give a quick recap, BlackBerry OS is a slick, modern, and visually elegant ecosystem that puts a focus squarely on multitasking and messaging. Coming from strictly iOS and Android, BlackBerry OS was admittedly a little confusing for me at first. It’s a bit like Windows 8 in that it relies heavily on gestures for navigation and use, and likewise it takes some getting used to. In the latest update, BlackBerry OS holds your hand more than in the original, walking you through all of the useful gestures and how to set up all of your various online accounts. After acclimating myself, I actually started to like the novel OS. It felt snappy, looked sharp, and made it relatively easy to access most of the important functions I expect from my smartphone. For a closer look at BlackBerry OS check out our full review; for now I’ll focus on some of the new additions in 10.2. 

The Hub is an essential part of the BlackBerry OS experience, providing an anchor point for all of your communication needs. It aggregates all of your incoming texts, emails, BBMs, and whatever social network updates you link to your account. New here is the Priority Hub, which functions much like Gmail’s priority inbox. The idea here is to keep important messages in the forefront so you’re not inundated by a constant flow of messages and updates. For now, you can set a few rules for which messages get marked for priority—messages sent from people with the same last name as you, conversations you start, and messages sent with high priority. You can also flag messages as priority on a message-to-message basis, which purportedly helps the system learn exactly what types of messages you deem important. I concede that the system probably didn’t have quite enough time to truly learn my habits, but during my tests I found my Priority Hub to be pretty sparse. BlackBerry says more filters are coming, but for now it feels too limited.

Notifications are revamped as well, now offering lock-screen previews and banner notifications. I really like the lock-screen previews here—they look slick and are thoughtfully presented. On the left column are icons for various sources of updates (Phone, texts, BBMs, etc.) and on the right are your four latest updates from whichever source you select. Banner notifications are now actionable, letting you directly reply to BBMs without having to leave whatever app you’re in. For now, though, this is limited to BBMs.

Sharing content with your contacts is now easier and more intuitive, as BlackBerry OS learns who you typically send certain content to, and through which channels. Pressing the share icon in the image gallery opens up your typical list of apps to share through, but now at the top is a collage of frequent contacts and services.

BlackBerry World Revisited
Apps are arguably the most important part of any smartphone experience, and unfortunately, the BlackBerry World app store is still well behind iOS and Android. But it’s not just about sheer numbers. It’s really about the popular apps—last we checked, BlackBerry was missing a good deal of the top apps found on iOS and Android. For this comparison, we looked at the top 20 paid and free apps in iOS and Android, excluding apps that can’t be duplicated (like Root Manager or Launchers on Android). The results were pretty bleak. Of all the top apps on both ecosystems, BlackBerry World had so few that I can actually list them here: YouTube, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, eBay, Plants vs. Zombies, TuneIn Radio, Where’s My Water, Soundhound, Smart Tools, Docs To Go, Wolfram Alpha, and BBM. That’s just a hair over 16 percent of the top 80 paid and free apps on iOS and Android. When we originally reviewed the Z10 at launch, we found that BlackBerry World had only 15 of the top 102 apps, not including functional equivalents, so the situation isn’t really improving. 

That’s slim pickins, but to be fair, it also doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. Of the 80 total apps we looked at, 32 were games, and among those, BlackBerry offered a few approximations or older versions. For example, Asphalt 8 and Angry Birds Star Wars II top lists for both iOS and Android, and BlackBerry does offer Asphalt 7 and Angry Birds Star Wars I. But BlackBerry is missing some apps that I would consider fairly essential for a large portion of users—namely Netflix, Pandora, Instagram, Snapchat, and Google Maps. On top of that, I also stumbled upon some fairly disconcerting trends regarding app approximations. A search for Snapchat, for instance, returns the top hit ‘Best Snapchat,’ a $0.99 app that uses Snapchat’s logo, but simply shows two random screenshots in the app with no functionality. Then you look at popular apps like ESPN ScoreCenter, which has a bottom-barrel 1.5 star user review rating. And the whole argument that BlackBerry 10 can run Android apps doesn’t really hold up in practice. Developers have to submit their apps to BlackBerry World, but they can’t use any Android APIs, which instantly limits functionality when so many apps on Android are tied to Google services like Google Maps. On top of that, they’ll have to account for BlackBerry’s lack of analogous navigation buttons, meaning clunky software Back or Menu buttons will have to be added to converted apps just to make them usable. 

The app situation was bleak to begin with, and continues to be a low point in the BlackBerry experience. And with questions surrounding the company’s future, it’s hard to extend the benefit of the doubt that things will get better here.

Conclusions
The Z30 nails call quality, reception, battery life, and messaging—all essential features to consider when it comes to choosing a smartphone. But is that enough to make it a viable option compared with top choices running Android, iOS, or even Windows Phone? Unfortunately, as much as I like the Z30, I find it exceedingly difficult to recommend any BlackBerry product at this point. The app situation is still a major sore point, not only from its lack of popular apps, but also the prevalence of dubious options that litter BlackBerry World. People aren’t buying smartphones simply to make calls and check emails anymore, and BlackBerry still misses the mark by a wide margin. Ultimately, though, the uncertain future of BlackBerry itself is enough reason to, at the very least, take a wait-and-see approach here. Both the iPhone 5s and Samsung Galaxy S4 offer better ecosystems and stellar smartphone experiences in their own right and make much better options on Verizon. If the company can restore consumer confidence, then the Z30 could be a viable alternative to Android or iOS devices. But that’s a big if.

Specifications
Phone Capability / Network GPRS, GSM, CDMA, UMTS, LTE
Screen Resolution 1280 x 720 pixels
NFC No
Dimensions 5.54 x 2.83 x 0.37 inches
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 a/b/g/n
Video Camera Resolution 1080p
Battery Life (As Tested) 16 hours, 13 minutes
Processor Speed 1.7 GHz
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus MSM8960 Dual-Core
GPS Yes
Service Provider Verizon Wireless
Total Integrated Storage 16 GB
High-Speed Data GPRS, EDGE, UMTS, LTE, CDMA 1X, HSPA
Weight 6 oz
Screen Type Super AMOLED HD
Operating System as Tested BlackBerry OS
Physical Keyboard No
Camera Resolution 8 MP Rear
2 MP Front-Facing
Screen Pixels Per Inch 295 ppi
Bands 800, 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100, 2600, 700
microSD Slot Yes
Form Factor Candy Bar
Screen Size 5 inches
Bluetooth Version 4.0

Verdict
The Z30 phablet is the best BlackBerry phone you can get, with killer battery life and excellent reception and call quality. But can it overcome the inferior app store or the uncertainty surrounding the company itself?
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc