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

Meet the $199.99 Blackberry Z30, the company's slickest, most advanced smartphone yet, which hits Verizon stores in November. It boasts a big 5-inch screen and the latest tricks BB10 can muster.

Brian Bennett
Brian Bennett Former Senior writer
Brian Bennett is a former senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET.
11 min read

Everyone knows BlackBerry is in dire straits, but that hasn't stopped the company from taking one more stab at a flagship smartphone. In many ways BlackBerry's latest creation, the BlackBerry Z30, is what the BlackBerry 10 launch device should have been. Unlike the actual BB10 debut product, the smaller Z10, the Z30 is without a doubt the company's biggest, boldest, most advanced gadget yet. Unfortunately, though, this fresh effort from the Canadian handset maker comes way too late. Arriving at just one US carrier, Verizon, this November for $199.99, I fear all those who would have considered the Z30 over iPhones and Android handsets have long since moved to greener pastures.


BlackBerry Z30

The Good

The <b>BlackBerry Z30</b> is equipped with a big screen, long battery life, and excellent messaging capabilities. It also boasts great call quality plus a microSD card slot for extra storage.

The Bad

The Z30’s BlackBerry 10.2 software is bogged down with unnecessary eye candy. The BlackBerry platform still lags behind iOS and Android in both app number and quality. The Z30’s camera takes unimpressive pictures. The phone is only sold by Verizon.

The Bottom Line

The BlackBerry Z30 lives up the promise of a flagship phone, but it's too little, too late for all but the most committed BlackBerry users.

Sure, the Z30 is compelling. Despite boasting a large 5-inch touch screen, handsome styling, and a high-capacity battery, the device falls short compared with the competition. Specifically the $199.99 Motorola Droid Maxx and $199.99 Samsung Galaxy S4, which, thanks to the growing strength of the Android ecosystem and BlackBerry's uncertain future as a viable company, add up to much better deals on Verizon.

A bigger, better BlackBerry (pictures)

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Shaped like your typical rectangular smartphone slab, at first glance I had trouble telling the BlackBerry Z30 apart from the sea of similar-looking Android devices now flooding the market. With its jet-black color scheme, silver accents, and rounded corners, the Z30 could've been crafted by any of today's top handset makers. As a matter of fact, the phone's soft-touch back and subtle striping bears a striking resemblance to the Motorola Droid Maxx. That's a good thing, since I'm fond of the Maxx's nano-coated back and soft-touch textures on phones in general.

Prominent BlackBerry logos, both on the back and on the front below the screen, give the Z30 away as device designed in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Verizon couldn't resist slapping its own moniker on the phone, either, above the display and on the rear, but at least they're stenciled in a modest gray.

On the left side you'll find ports for Micro-HDMI and Micro-USB. Sarah Tew/CNET

Above the Z30's large 5-inch screen sits the earpiece, a 2-megapixel front-facing camera, and the iconic red BlackBerry notification light. The phone's left edge houses ports for Micro-HDMI and Micro-USB cables, while on the right you'll find controls for play/pause and volume-up and -down. Rounding out the Z30's bevy of physical buttons is a power key on the top edge next to a 3.5mm headphone jack.

The right side holds controls for volume-up and -down plus play/pause. Sarah Tew/CNET

BlackBerry makes sure to tout the Z30's noise cancellation abilities and the fact that its flagship handset boasts not just two but an array of four microphones. The mics ring the phone, one on each of the Z30's four edges, and they complement the device's set of powerful stereo speakers (top and bottom). Indeed, the first time I fired up the music app and piped a tune through the Z30's sound system I was shocked. The volume this phone's tiny drivers can produce is phenomenally loud, with loads more sound than what you get from the HTC One and Motorola Droid Maxx -- both of which have muscular stereo speakers.

The Z30 is BlackBerry's biggest-screened smartphone yet. It packs a large 5-inch 720p HD resolution display, which the company says has a pixel density of 295 pixels per inch. Of course, that's nowhere near as sharp as the displays on the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4, whose full HD screens offer 468ppi and 441ppi, respectively. Still, it's practically gigantic compared with the displays gracing the previous BlackBerry Z10 (4.2-inch) and BlackBerry Q10 (3.1-inch).

The Z30's screen is big but not very bright. Sarah Tew/CNET

I have to say, though, that the Z30's display isn't very bright. For instance, the Motorola Droid Maxx, while it has the same 720 HD resolution and OLED screen technology, is much brighter when viewed side by side with the Z30. Still, one benefit of the Z30's OLED hardware is that it has high contrast and wide viewing angles.

Software and interface
A bigger screen isn't the only improvement you'll find on the BlackBerry Z30. The phone's software has been updated as well. The Z30 runs the new BlackBerry 10.2 operating system, which has a few fresh tricks up its sleeve. Along with the familiar Peek gesture that lets you quickly see your messages and the BlackBerry Hub unified inbox, both of which first debuted with BlackBerry 10, there's a new Priority Hub feature.

Priority Hub will pay attention to whom you interact with most, whether on Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, or texts, then will float those conversations up to the top of a Priority Hub view. By default, the criteria for tagging messages as a priority is pretty straightforward. Priority Hub will prioritize (hence the name) conversations from contacts who have the same last name as you or those labeled as highly important. The same goes for messages you select as vitally significant. Simply long-press a conversation in your inbox to slap it with a priority icon (represented by an up arrow) to accomplish this. You can toggle these Priority Hub settings on and off as you see fit.

Use the Peek gesture to check your inbox from any screen and Priority Calling to respond to incoming calls with canned messages. Brian Bennett/CNET

It seems that every OS is catching notification fever, and BlackBerry 10.2 is no exception. Just like Apple's iOS 7, BB 10.2 now supplies previews of messages as they hit your phone. No matter which app you happen to be in or settings windows you have open, new notifications appear as thin headers across the top of the screen.

Tapping these notifications will launch a full view of the message to read its full contents and respond. Hitting an "x" icon within the notification preview will dismiss it entirely. To quickly handle incoming calls, a new feature called Priority Calling lets you receive caller ID notifications then either accept, dismiss, or respond with a canned reply. BlackBerry Messenger alerts provide the extra option of responding inside the notification itself so you don't have to switch out of the app or menu you're currently viewing.

For all BlackBerry's efforts to breathe life into its smartphone platform, it can't hide the lack of many popular apps gracing its virtual store shelves. Sure, many of the major players have found a home on BB10, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Flipboard. The photo-sharing service Instagram isn't available and neither is my current podcast app of choice, Pocketcast.

I know many true BlackBerry adherents out there will bemoan the Z30's lack of a physical keyboard. Even so, from someone who gave up tangible keys years ago for tapping out messages on glass panels, the Z30's software keyboard is one of the best I've used. The bigger screen makes for more comfortable typing than on the smaller Z10, and I also appreciate BB10's impressive predictive text abilities.

The Z30's keyboard is both comfortable and fast. Sarah Tew/CNET

Able to learn over time what words you're likely working toward, the phone also offers handy suggestions placed over the letter your finger (and eyes) would have to travel to. Flicking upward pushes predicted text into the body of your message. The Z30 also did an admirable job of accurately detecting what keys I hit. The end result is that this gadget lets me type fast and furiously without many errors.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.


BlackBerry Z30

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 6Performance 6
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