The BlackBerry Z30 arrives at a time when BlackBerry is in turmoil. Racking up losses, a question mark over who will end up owning the company and what the future holds, sees the BlackBerry Z30 launching into a storm. It's ironic, then, that the BlackBerry Z30 is the best BB10 device yet.
The BlackBerry Z10 didn't feel competitive against rival touchscreen devices when it launched. The Q10 and the Q5 offer a different smartphone experience with the keyboards, but again, neither really screams for attention in a sea of excellent choices.
READ: Blackberry Z10 review
But the BlackBerry Z30 is different, because in reality, it isn't that bad. Read on and we'll tell you why.
In the hand the BlackBerry Z30 has a great design. It has a premium finish that was missing from the BlackBerry Z10. The first thing you'll notice is the luscious soft-touch glassfibre weave of the back - the same as the BlackBerry Q10 - that wraps neatly around the edges to make it a pleasure to hold.
It's tactile, feels nice and secure in the hand despite its fairly large size. As the Z30 measures 140.7 x 72 x 9.4mm, it isn't the slimmest smartphone device out there, but for one with a 5-inch display, that's an impressive footprint: it's smaller than the Sony Xperia Z1 but doesn't quite manage to out-small the Samsung Galaxy S4.
READ: Sony Xperia Z1 review
The latest BB also weighs in at 170g, which is towards the top end of the scale for a smartphone of this size, but still manageable as you feel like you get a lot of phone for that weight.
The front is dominated by the glass display surface, running edge to edge, as well as incorporating the ear speaker and front camera, reaching all the way up to the top of the device. It's a nicer effect than the sandwiched effort of the Z10. And it looks more premium too.
Across the bottom of the display is a silver bar, which also runs around the device's edges and is part of the bodywork to form the structure of the phone. It's an attractive aesthetic, contrasting with the black of the phone's front and back. It also contains all the connection points of the device, such as the headphone socket, volume controls, HDMI and all the other ins and outs that you'll need.
So the BlackBerry Z30 feels really solid in its build. There are no creaks or flex from the body, it's just a well put together package.
Display: Having it large
Under that glass face the Z30 has a 5-inch Super AMOLED display. It's a size that puts the Z30 among flagship Android devices, although the resolution doesn't quite hit the same mark. It offers 1280 x 720 pixels - which is 295ppi - over a 16:9 display that's close to the resolution of the Z10.
It gives BB10 more room to breathe, however, and even though the Z10's display is technically sharper - at 356ppi - we much prefer the Z30's use of space. It suits the BB10 interface nicely and even though it lacks the absolute detail of those 1080p rival displays, we like it because there's not only more of it, but you don't have the same feeling of wasted space at the top of the phone. It's all down to better design.
The display is bright and vibrant, a typical benefit of AMOLED. That means the colours have real punch and there are deep, inky blacks. Sometimes that's at the expense of realism though.
It's not the very best display out there and set it against something like the HTC One's LCD and you'll find that the viewing angles aren't as impressive and the whites aren't as clear and bright. But in daily use, and in isolation, we've little to complain about.
READ: HTC One review
Sitting at the heart of the BlackBerry Z30 is a dual-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset, with 2GB of RAM. It might not boast quad-core power, but things run well enough.
In use it's fast, slick and fluid. We put much of this down to software refinement in BlackBerry 10.2 - more details on that in a moment - although until we have a final release version of version 10.2 on the earlier Z10 model, it's difficult to make a direct comparison. The important thing is that the BlackBerry Z30 handles day-to-day tasks very well.
There's a microSD card slot for expansion of storage in addition to the 16GB internally. What you don't get, however, is a removable battery. The 2880mAh battery that lies within is one of the great features of this phone, but it is perhaps slightly strange that the rear of the Z30 is removable just for the sake of the SIM and SD card slots.
We lamented the fact that the Z10 didn't last all that long per charge. We criticised that point, as we did with the Q10, because older BlackBerry devices offered good endurance. Fortunately, the BlackBerry Z30 is something of a return to form. We managed to easily get through typical days - and not just a working days, the whole day and all that brought with it. It's refreshing to arrive home at 8pm and find that your phone is more than happy to keep on going.
Perhaps that's because we've fewer apps drawing data, perhaps because it's not pushing data to so many pixels, perhaps because there isn't such a powerful engine. compared so some rivals. Whatever it is, we're happy with the battery performance it offers. But like all smartphones, a busy day full of calls, photo snapping and using the maps will see the battery deplete at a fair rate.
BlackBerry 10.2 rolls into town
Making its debut on the BlackBerry Z30 is BB10.2, the latest version of the BlackBerry operating system. It brings a run of features and it's all slicker and faster than the Z10 was at the launch of the BB10 OS. What we get in 10.2 is the BB10 experience that we should have had back in January 2013. But better late than never.
We've had a look at some of the new features that the software brings with it in a separate feature if you're interested in some more detail.
There has also been a lick of paint applied in some areas of the user interface too, such as opting for a dark background over a light one. Many smartphone manufacturers are using this as a way to reducing battery drain, but we also think it make things look more modern. It's particularly evident in the system settings, although we wish that it carried through to the setting menus for all native apps too, even just for the sake of consistency.
In terms of new features, the main headlines are a new Priority Hub, that will feed you the most important messages, as well as a couple of tweaks to notifications.
You get control of your Priority Hub in the settings, with a few overriding rules, but you can also long press to add a sender to the priority list - perfect for making sure that your important colleagues or contacts don't get lost in the noise of spam, mailing lists, unnecessary CC messages, and so on.
Helping you keep connected, BB10.2 also adds quick glance lock screen notifications. Rather than just presenting a list of message numbers on the left, as per BB10, you can tap one and it will show you what's waiting. When the LED starts blinking we've found this feature really useful to take a quick glance without unlocking the phone.
It means you can tap the standby button, and make decisions about whether you need to action something, without the rigmarole of swiping into the BlackBerry Hub. While we like the universal inbox approach of BlackBerry Hub - which now has its own icon in the apps menu - we still think it's too fussy to navigate.
While having a gesture to take you straight to BlackBerry Hub is a nice-to-have, it doesn't always get you where you want to be right away. On rival platforms you can often press a home button and then have your most important apps are there in front of you, either on that homepage or in folders.
BlackBerry Hub might pull things together - messaging services, social network messages, emails, calls, SMS, and so on - but rather than returning to the "hub" of all this connectivity, you often return to the last point you were at when you left. It's like landing in a warren of tunnels, where you have to back out of that tunnel to get back to the type of message you want. That's why the lock screen notifications are so useful.
There are new toast notifications - named so because they pop-up at the top of the display - that BlackBerry calls "instant preview". They also address the problem of getting stuck in the warren of messaging tunnels by letting you tap on the notification to go straight to it for appropriate action. The result is that messaging on the BB Z30 with BB10.2 is better because it's easier to get around.
There is also smarter sharing, with suggestions based on your most frequently used sharing choices, as well as an attachment viewer, in addition to lots of other tweaks that add plenty of options. One of the subtle but key changes we like is the improved handling of copy and paste, which is now more immediate, rather than being handled in a bar off to the side.
Overall, the software experience of BB10.2 is good and it's more competitive than it has ever been before. The recent additions that BlackBerry has brought to the table are encouraging, although we can't help feeling that all of this should have happened a year ago.
But it's not plain sailing
For all the pros, there are still some cons. BlackBerry Maps, for example, feels dated compared to rival Google Maps. Things seem fairly barren, with a lack of useful information compared to rivals.
Maps does offer driving directions, as well as traffic, but in some cases we reverted to Google Maps in the browser to get us to where we were going. The browser experience on BB10.2 is pretty solid, thankfully, so this was no problem.
Then you come to apps. If there's one thing that defines modern smartphones, it's apps. It's a large part of what makes them "smart". The hardware and the OS in many cases are just a platform for the best app developers to empower a device. The core BlackBerry experience, covering the basic tasks, is good, but expanding into the wider world and you'll find that most of the attention is heaped on Android and iOS. It's not often that the latest app is launched straight to BlackBerry.
Whether or not you think the app experience is important comes down to what you'll be using the device for. If it's messaging and browsing, then fine: the keyboard is great - although it could do with trace entry to speed up the SwiftKey-esque experience it offers - and the browser is nice and fast.
But if you're the sort of person chasing the latest apps and games, then you'll be left waiting, perhaps indefinitely. Given the in-limbo status of Blackberry at the moment, who knows how that will affect things further. This isn't just an argument about app numbers, it's about quality and service. Where you're guaranteed the latest apps on Apple's App Store, the same cannot be said of BlackBerry World. Even though conversion and side-loading of Android apps is relatively easy, it's not something you should have to be doing.
Clarity in calls
The Z30's speakers, both internal and external, provide plenty of volume. It's a decent device to make calls on and we didn't find it too large to hold. We found the call quality to be pretty good too - no complaints about the quality here, we've had no problem with dropped calls and found the overall connectivity to be good. This may be down to BlackBerry having spent time optimising the antenna in the Z30 to make sure it is better at staying connected.
BlackBerry has enhanced the audio offering in the Z30, with stereo speakers now in place. Volume is a tick in the box, but the lack of rich bass - something offered by the HTC One's stereo BoomSound speakers - does mean a fair amount of distortion when the volume is turned right up.
There are also four mics on the BlackBerry Z30, meaning that you can have stereo separation when using BBM Video for a more natural sound experience. It's just a shame the speakers aren't as good as they could be.
On the back of the BlackBerry Z30 is an 8-megapixel camera supported by an LED flash. The camera boasts a 5-element f/2.2 lens and back-side illuminated (BSI) sensor. All sounds competitive.
Given good light, the BB Z30 can give you some great shots and we've been impressed. As the light dips it becomes a little heavier with image noise as you'd expect. As with any camera when the ISO sensitivity rises and the shutter speed slows the shots often get blurrier, the processing harsher and, therefore, results softened to try and counteract the presence of image noise. Support the Z30 when shooting in low-light to avoid camera shake and you'll get something usable though.
The camera's interface has been kept fairly simple. There are three main options: stills, video, and Time Shift mode. The first two do what they say on the tin with some additional extras, while the last mode takes a series of snaps then lets you change out faces. It's a bit of fun and works to an extent, if people aren't moving around too much.
For stills there's an HDR (high dynamic range) mode that can "flatten" out an exposure. It can make all the difference between a dull, flat, photo with under-exposed shadow areas or blown-out highlights. HDR works by taking several exposures and then combines them for a final result. It can look a little artificial, with skies turning a little muddy, but sometimes that's worth the trade off. Cleverly you can opt to save a normal shot as well as the HDR composite, which is a best of both worlds result.
The Z30's front-facing 2-megapixel camera is fixed-focus and not such a great performer: it's very grainy in low light, so best avoided for those dark selfies.
Video capture is reasonable, but we found the autofocus to be a little slow. We've shot several videos that are entirely out of focus, in fact, not helped by the fact capture is started and stopped by touching the display and there's no manual focus option on offer.
The BlackBerry Z30 is the best Blackberry 10 model so far, bringing the benefits of a large display, plenty of power, a much imporved design compared to the Z10, and solid battery life that has seen us through the day.
There are some new software tweaks in BB10.2 and the device feels fast to use. The apps on offer are getting better and some of the early troubles with apps have now been resolved, so BB10 is a better offering than it was earlier in the year. But for those who want the latest apps, then BlackBerry isn't the world for you: stick to iOS or Android.
But all of these positives are set to the context of uncertainty. What's going to happen to BlackBerry? It's hard to tell. Although the company is set to continue to work in enterprise and "prosumer" markets, it's difficult to wholeheartly recommend a BlackBerry at this moment in time with those dark clouds looming overhead. And while other manufacturers surge forward with multiple device options, it's taken BlackBerry this long to reach this point.
That's a great shame, because the BlackBerry Z30 feels like the device where BlackBerry finally got it right. But there's one critical question: are people still interested?