Review: BlackBerry Z30

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Is BlackBerry’s new five-inch flagship enough to turn things round?

Amid the chaos surrounding BlackBerry in September, it almost went unnoticed that the Canadian manufacturer had announced a phablet and anointed it as its new flagship handset. The BlackBerry Z30 boasts a five inch Super Active-Matrix Organic LED (Super AMOLED) display – by far the largest display on any BlackBerry,

The smartphone gives one the sense that the struggling phone maker is ticking a box and feels as though by releasing a  trendy phablet before it closes the book on 2013, it has done everything it could to turn the company’s fortunes around.

The Z30 is for fans of BlackBerry or BlackBerry 10 who very much want a very large display as it’s certainly not converting anyone from another platform, but even toward satisfying such a niche user group, the Z30 feels like a half-hearted attempt.

A supersized Z10

BlackBerry Z30 HubThe BlackBerry Z10, introduced in January, is a solid, compact, smart, conservatively attractive smartphone with a good camera and a crisp, 4.2-inch display with a resolution of 1280 by 768 for 356 pixels per inch. The Z30, with its 5-inch display, has a resolution of 1280 by 720 and 295 pixels per inch, meaning that it has a less-crisp display than the Z10.

However this is an understandable decision. BlackBerry begged its developers to stick with it, through the long delays that plagued the release of BlackBerry 10, and it didn’t want to alienate or hurt any who stuck with them by offering a new display that Z10-ready apps couldn’t step up to.

Vivek Bhardwaj, BlackBerry’s head of software, said part of the company’s commitment to its developers is to “make sure we have a healthy ecosystem first,” before any fragmentation occurs. The Z30’s display epitomises the feeling of the newest BlackBerry as a larger, flabbier version of the more muscular and compact Z10.

Poor relation

The cameras, another key consideration for users, also stayed the same as on the Z10. There’s an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 2-megapixel up front, but the rear camera felt slower.

It was difficult to capture a crisp photo of anything not standing completely still (a 200-year-old church, no problem; a 3-year-old child, forget it), and at times, I had issues just getting the camera to focus on an object in the foreground, instead of the background, which it found more compelling.

Even the general look of the Z30 feels sloppier, or less disciplined. While the Z10, with its straight, even sides has a very specific look—there’s no confusing it with anything—the Z10 is more rounded and could, be mistaken for something else.

Great Additions to BlackBerry 10.2

However BlackBerry certainly made some smart upgrades in its new BlackBerry 10.2 operating system, especially with the brand new BlackBerry Priority Hub.

For non-Blackberry 10 users, the Hub is a place where, at a glance, a user can see their latest emails (for several accounts), text messages, voicemails and missed calls, BBMs, Tweets, Facebook updates and more. If in the last five minutes I received a voicemail, five emails and a text, with a glance I’ll see all of those things listed in a row instead of having to poke at three different apps. Hub is the heart of BB10, and it’s a fantastic feature.

Priority Hub lets users dictate which contacts and conversations are priorities—specifically, or using generally rules such as “include everyone with the same last name as me.” Yet the software is also good at figuring out on its own what’s a priority for the user.

Priority Hub

BlackBerry Z30 Front SquareWhile I may get five emails in five minutes, if I go into a 30-minute meeting, I may emerge to 40 new emails. Priority Hub lets me see at a glance the most important ones—instead of hunting for them amid coupon offers, newsletters and Facebook messages.

Another efficiency-minded 10.2 upgrade is the ability to see from the locked screen not only how many unread emails and missed Tweets or alerts one has but, by lightly tapping the icon, read the sender and subject line of those emails, as well as the full Tweets and Notifications.

Still another is a yellow bar that appears at the top of the screen, when a user is doing anything other than looking at the Hub, to show that a new message has come in. Tapping on the bar to answer a text (and it’s clear who the new correspondence is from, not just that there is one) will deliver a user to the text app. When it’s a BBM that comes in, though, a user can answer it without leaving YouTube, LinkedIn or whatever he or she is looking at.

Hardware features

The Z30 has a bigger battery to support the larger display and claims to last through 24 hours of mixed use. I didn’t time it, but it was also never an issue, lasting through two days of light use before I plugged it in, though even then it wasn’t in the red.

The Z30’s antenna is another unique feature. BlackBerry acquired Paratek as it was readying BB10, and the Z30 is its first device to benefit from that company’s technology. While most devices are calibrated for a few conditions, the Z30’s Paratek antenna can retune itself on the fly, adjusting to the coverage situation, for a better user experience.

There are also other small, nice tweaks to the OS, like, when sharing a photo, the ability to tap the automatically generated image of the contact one shares images with most often, saving the two steps of tapping email and then filling in the contact.

BlackBerry 10.2 is more thoughtful, efficiency-minded version of an already good OS, but you don’t need the BlackBerry Z30 to enjoy it unless you are desperate for a five inch display. The software improvements introduced in the upgrade can be enjoyed as easily on the Z10, or on whatever, if anything, arrives from the company in 2014.

BlackBerry has had a bumpy year! Try our 2013 BlackBerry quiz!

BlackBerry Z30

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BlackBerry Z30

Originally published on eWeek.

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