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

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The Good The BlackBerry Z30 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.

6.7 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 6
  • Performance 6

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.

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.

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.

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