For better or for worse, BlackBerry is a name that should be familiar with even casual tech users.
Once a major player in mobile phones, BlackBerry’s QWERTY keyboard-equipped handsets propelled it to a popularity as great as any iconic brand.
But while the tech world progressed towards touchscreens and adopted powerful Android and iOS software, BlackBerry remained sat back. Its inability, or perhaps refusal, to update its portfolio led to it slipping from a 50% market share to less than 3% today.
QWERTY keyboards on a phone were a big deal 10 years ago. Today, they are niche at best, a relic at worst.
This is why the BlackBerry Z30 is noteworthy. It’s odd that the big talking point for a flagship smartphone should be that it features a touchscreen, but that’s the Z30’s big statement. It’s a fine looking screen, too ‘ a comfortable 5 diagonal inches of Super AMOLED display, with a resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels. That gives it a pixel density of 295 pixels per inch, which is not too far off the rather excellent iPhone 5s. After the Z10, this is BlackBerry’s best attempt at making a full-sized touchscreen display.
In fact, BlackBerry can be pleased with the phone’s looks all-round. Considering a failure to adapt its designs caused BlackBerry to fall away so dramatically, the Z30 is a very attractive handset. Many phones are criticised for falling into the generic ‘black slab’ archetype but the Z30 manages to take an ordinary oblong design and put an interesting BlackBerry spin on it. The back casing is a slightly rubberised plastic with a subtle kevlar pattern running through it, while the front has a thinner-than-average silver bezel. It’s available in black or white, too, if you prefer.
As the Z30 runs on BlackBerry’s own operating system, its design is much more minimalist than you might be used to after years of Android and iOS.
There’s no dedicated home button on the device as you’d find on the iPhone, nor is any valuable screen space taken up by the an Android-style set of navigation buttons. Unfortunately, this is where the strengths of BlackBerry’s operating system end.
One of the greatest strengths of BB10, the latest version of BlackBerry OS, is that it doesn’t use dedicated navigation buttons. But it can also be a nuisance. When inside an app, you minimise it and return to your homescreen by sliding your digit up from the bottom of the screen. This doesn’t always work first time, and if you’re playing a game, you can do it by accident.
It would be infinitely more useful to have a button that pauses your app and takes you back to your homescreen with one press.
The homescreen itself is functional enough, but there’s simply no room for customisation. While iOS is often criticised for its restrictive nature, its presentability can make up for it. BB10 is a bit like Android, but without customisation. You have one screen filled with preview windows for all of your currently running apps, while to the right lies a series of screens that simply lay out all your apps. You can put apps in folders, but short of that, the screens have to remain there, unchanged (again, this is where Android’s app grid button would really come in handy to reduce clutter).
Should you swipe to the left, you are taken to the BlackBerry Hub, a sort of messaging centre that unifies all of your messages and notifications from various apps: email, Twitter, BBM, texts and the like. It’s a nice way of staying on top of things, and is surely a driving force behind BlackBerry’s continuing success as a provider of business phones.
The lock screen is excellent too, providing you with all of your notifications neatly divided by app, and you can jump to any one of them by double- tapping on the preview it provides for you.
If you plan on using your Z30 as nothing more than an emailing device or phone, then you’re in luck because it’s all downhill from there.
BB10’s app store, BlackBerry World, is a ghost town. The odd big-name game might appear such as Angry Birds and Real Racing 3, but the lack of app choice on there is stifling.
Promisingly, we spotted a BBC Sport app. Upon opening it, though, it simply loaded the BBC Sport mobile web page. It’s laughable that a corporation the size of the BBC would pass something like that off as an app.
There are a few other apps floating around, but they lack polish. It’s this lack of support from major developers and trustworthy names that kills the BB10 app experience.
On the plus side, if you do manage to find an app worthy of downloading, you should have no trouble running it.
The Z30 is powerful enough to run the most demanding of BlackBerry apps without any trouble. Some may take a while to load ‘ it took 30 seconds for Real Racing 3 to boot up, and waiting 10 seconds for Twitter to kick in is downright frustrating ‘ but once they’re on their feet, the apps run well enough.
Transitions between apps and general scrolling is as smooth as you’ll see on any device, regardless of operating system. This makes day-to-day use enjoyable.
[alert type=alert-blue]Screen, battery & camera[/alert]
One avoidable issue BlackBerry has brought upon itself is the Z30’s display brightness. Its screen is maddeningly dim. You can adjust the brightness, but you might be surprised when you head to the menu to discover that it’s already running on full. This is because it operates on a photo-sensitive auto-brightness that cannot be disabled.
It’s baffling. Unless you’re using it in direct sunlight, it will be about as bright as your iPhone or Samsung on 40% brightness. As a result, what should have been a vivid display appears to be constantly dark and dreary, as if you’re trying to conserve battery.
Perhaps this plays a part in the Z30’s excellent battery life. It will happily sit idling for days on a single charge. You could play around with it all day, too, and not worry about it dying on the commute home. Once again, BB10 disappoints here, though, as the homescreen doesn’t show battery percentage, just an icon. It’s only on the phone’s lock screen that you can see a percentage, which is a strange decision.
If its battery life stands out, the Z30’s camera couldn’t be any more anonymous. The rear camera has an unremarkable 8 megapixels. It functions just fine, as long as you don’t attempt to zoom ‘ before or after snapping. Its auto-focus can struggle indoors with varying light sources, too, although HDR and burst-fire options are nice additions.
If you’re a die-hard BlackBerry fan, none of these flaws will matter to you. You’ll regard the Z30 as BlackBerry’s finest hour (possibly). This is a well- specced touchscreen smartphone and its flaws are inherent in almost every BlackBerry handset. If you could overlook them in the past, you can certainly overlook them now ‘ except, perhaps, that dreadful display brightness.
The device looks good, it feels good, and for the most part, it works as well as any other phone out there. But if you’re used to an unlimited choice of apps on Android or iOS, stay away.
Perhaps if BlackBerry had focused its efforts on making a phone like this five years ago, we would be looking at a very different picture now. As it stands, a barren app store, odd features and a monster price tag may kill what could have been a competitive device.