BlackBerry Z30 review: BlackBerry's best phone is years too late

Core components
Powering the Z30's software is a respectably zippy 1.7GHz Snapdragon S4 Pro processor and quad-core Adreno graphics. It's the same thing Motorola packs into both the Droid Maxx and Moto X Android handsets.This CPU engine is backed up by 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. As I mentioned before, the Z30 also comes equipped with a microSD card slot for extra storage.

Camera
If you're familiar with the cameras on the BlackBerry Z10 and Q10, the Z30 won't offer many surprises. That's because the Z30 uses the same 8-megapixel sensor and LED flash combo as its predecessors. The camera app is also similarly appointed with mostly identical scene modes and editing options that came bundled with BlackBerry's first BB10 devices.

Z30
Detail was soft and images dark in low light. Brian Bennett/CNET

For example the Time Shift feature takes multiple shots at once so you can choose the best one later. Designed primarily for group photos of fidgeting people, the phone strives to identify faces of folks within the frame. You can then tap on a highlighted mug (outlined in boxes) and slide a virtual knob on the bottom of the screen. This action shifts through points in time so you can select when the person's face in question is either looking into the camera or not blinking.

Z30
choose the right image instant with Time Shift. Brian Bennett/CNET

BlackBerry has added an HDR mode, a function that many of today's camera phones offer, which harnesses the Z30's Back Side Illuminated sensor to brighten shadow detail in strong backlight. In addition to that, there are four other scene modes to choose from such as Action, Whiteboard (very businesslike and so BlackBerry), Night, and Beach or Snow.

Z30
The Z30 has an HDR mode for adding detail in strong backlighting. Brian Bennett/CNET

Other options include stabilization to smooth out the effect of shaky hands, and burst, which fires the shutter continuously to capture multiple images in quick succession. The Z30 has the ability to process images you take through various filters as well, with examples including Black and White, Lomo, Antique, and '60s. You can also stitch video you've captured together with the Story Maker application. Story Maker lets users create custom slideshows compiled from the photos and audio tracks of their choice.

Despite all this fancy editing prowess, though, I wasn't impressed with the quality of raw images I snapped with the Z30. Indoor shots turned out dark with soft details unless I had ample lighting. Additionally, photos of fast moving subjects taken indoors often looked blurry and lacked crispness.

The HDR mode in action. Brian Bennett/CNET

Performance
All in all I found the Z30's new BB 10.2 software responsive enough without unpleasant delays when launching apps or flipping through settings menus. That said, the phone didn't feel quite as nimble as recent Android handsets I've reviewed, specifically the Droid Maxx and Moto X. I attribute much of the Z30's lack of pep to BB10's animation-heavy interface. For instance, when you tap on an app to open it, BB10 first slides your view to the Active Frame panel, which shows windows for all currently running applications. After that happens, the device will then (and only then) present a full-screen look at your selected app. It's a chain of events that adds a fraction of a second to every app-launching process. Sorry, BlackBerry, I know you want to highlight how many pieces of software BB10 can handle at once, but I'd rather not wait longer just so your phones can prove that point.

In other ways the Z30 proved fleet on its feet. The handset's browser fired up CNET's mobile site in a quick 4.6 seconds. The full desktop version of CNET.com, though, took a much longer 22.2 seconds even when linked to Verizon's 4G LTE network in New York. Likewise the phone took its sweet time to boot up, over 1 minute, which is an achingly long time to wait considering that the Droid Maxx can do this just 15 seconds. That said, the Z30 brought its camera app online in a short 1.7 seconds.

Performance: BlackBerry Z30
Average LTE download speeds (Verizon) 0.9Mbps
Average LTE upload speed (Verizon) 1Mbps
App download (CBS Sports) 2.6MB in 24.9 seconds
CNET mobile site load 4.6 seconds
CNET desktop site load 22.2 seconds
Boot time 63.3 seconds
Camera boot time 1.7 seconds

Call quality
I tested the BlackBerry Z30 on Verizon's CDMA network in New York and experienced very pleasing call quality. People I spoke to said my voice sounded clear and with plenty of warmth. I was surprised though that on my end voices of callers didn't get very loud even when I set the earpiece at maximum volume.

Callers did prefer the audio quality of conversations carried through the Z30's speakerphone -- odd since it's usually the other way around. This would make sense, though, given the Z30's unique array of noise-canceling mics. The handset's stereo speakers also pack an audio punch with the speakerphone getting very loud, especially when I placed the Z30 on a hard surface. Wooden desktops were particularly ideal for reflecting the Z30's down-firing drivers back within earshot.

BlackBerry Z30 call quality sample Listen now:

Data speeds
Sadly the Ookla speed test app I usually rely on to gauge data performance isn't available in the BlackBerry World software store. I did find another third-party application, Network Speed Test (NST), which reported data speeds over Verizon's 4G LTE signal. In New York where I tested the BlackBerry Z30, NST clocked the average download rate to be just under 1Mbps (0.9Kbps), slow LTE result.

Uploads were pokey, too, with the app measuring them to be an average of 1Mbps. By contrast, the Droid Maxx sucked data down at 10 times the speed (10.5Mbps average) and pushed bits to the cloud at much more nimble rate of 6Mbps. Of course I used the Ookla app to test the Maxx and can't say for certain if the NST solution produces results that are reliable or even comparable.

Real-world testing by downloading a 2.6MB application wasn't blisteringly swift, either. Through the BlackBerry World storefront I completed the process in a long 24.9 seconds, not counting the time it took to also install the software.

Battery life
One bright spot in the BlackBerry Z30's performance, along with call quality, is its lengthy run time. BlackBerry claims the Z30's 2,880mAh battery provides 25 hours of mixed use. This includes voice calls plus audio and video playback. This jived with the longevity I experienced in anecdotal testing. With a full charge bright and early in the AM, the Z30 kept it's charge through a full work day, then overnight, then again through the next day in the office before I had to charge it again in the afternoon.

Z30
Under the back cover is a big but not removable battery. Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
It's not rocket science that BlackBerry's days of making consumer mobile phones are numbered. Even so I still got excited when the Z30 landed on my desk. You see, I, too, was once a loyal BlackBerry convert, a disgruntled refugee from the tragically terrible Windows Mobile 6 OS. Way back then I sang the praises of my BlackBerry Pearl replacement. Then Android came along and seduced me with its charms, namely power and customization. That said, I have a serious soft spot in my heart for BlackBerry devices (perhaps always will). It's also why my time with the Z30 has been particularly poignant.

Within the Z30 I see all the promise of what the BlackBerry platform could have been. If this phone had debuted two, maybe three years ago, today's smartphone landscape would be a very different place. I mean, imagine if the Z30 were the official device for BB10, not the less impressive Z10 , and that it launched in early 2010. I know that I personally wouldn't have committed to Android as completely. It would also help if the Z30 weren't only sold in the US by Verizon.

As it stands, though, even with its enhanced messaging and notification features, the $199.99 Z30 can't surpass what modern smartphones have become. For the same $200 price tag, the Motorola Droid Maxx offers battery life to match the Z30's, plus access to the vast world of Google services (not to mention plenty of third-party apps). Samsung's $199.99 Galaxy S4 provides all that and all the whiz-bang Samsung software extras you could shake a stick at. That's why the Z30 only makes sense to those absolutely committed, or locked into, the BlackBerry brand.

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