It's a similarly fair-weather experience with video: clips filmed on the street and in daylight were of high quality, and the microphone does a good job of masking wind noise. Users have a choice of recording clips at 720p or 1080p with an additional stabilization mode, but we found that the frame-jerking issue we experienced on the Q5 hasn't been resolved. As you can see from the clip, low-light performance isn't great either, although that fuzziness and low contrast mean the videos have a touch of artistic romance. There's also an annoying glitch whereby recorded video clips tack on a few extra frames of white, which makes editing the clips even more of a chore.
The Z30 is the first BlackBerry handset to ship with BlackBerry OS 10.2. Given the company's renewed focus on business customers, it shouldn't come as a surprise to see that the biggest improvements here are aimed at the enterprise set. These include the ability to preview messages on the lock screen, BBM now becoming ubiquitous and the creation of the Priority Hub. In the lock screen, users can glance at the headers of the four most recently received emails, as well as the full text of their last four Twitter messages -- just by pushing the corresponding icon. Meanwhile, Priority Hub is a homegrown version of Google's Priority Inbox, which learns your email habits and selects messages from senders you regularly converse with as "important." You then can access the Priority Hub as one of the options in the hub, next to BBM, Text messages or Facebook missives.
Now it's time for us to share a small gripe concerning BB10 and its integration with Gmail. While adding our account to the handset was a breeze, using this on a daily basis can be frustrating. Given the near ubiquity of Gmail, you'd think that BlackBerry would have built in some options that we now take for granted. For instance, the lack of a simple archive or delete button means that all BB10 devices are useless for working through your emails unless you fancy pulling a double shift on them later. Perhaps it's a minor issue and we're making more of it, but this is a gripe that we think that you should be aware of, particularly if you or your company uses Google Apps for work mail.
When it comes to BlackBerry App World, "Download the shortcut to the website now" is a depressingly familiar sight. While you can find some ported Android apps now in the store, the lineup is still sparse and there are too many third-party clients like Flix, which charges you £2.50 for a desktop-based workaround to let you watch Netflix on your smartphone. On the upside, BlackBerry 10.2 has been updated to run Jelly Bean-compatible apps, although that will require you to side-load apps that have been converted to the company's .BAR format. If you aren't feeling too confident about your chances, CrackBerry.com maintains an archive of pre-converted titles and numerous tutorials on the subject.
Performance and battery life
On the bright side, BB10 handles multitasking with aplomb: as many times as we tried to force a slowdown with eight apps all running at once, it rarely stuttered. In the real world, however, there are some issues we need to tell you about. Take, for instance, the moment we wanted to turn the display off to pocket the device while entering a train barrier. Unfortunately, it refused, and even after our furious, panicked pressing, it wouldn't relent. That meant we had to pocket the phone still on to navigate the obstacle. Once we were through, however, it still wouldn't work -- and in fact we had to hold our finger on the power button and threaten a restart before we could coax it back to life.
Then there was the time we switched from taking HDR images to normal mode, which prompted the phone to reboot itself. Another time, we tried to make a call, and the display refused to respond to our touches until we had, again, restarted the device. During a photo session, we were taking some sample images with the camera, and then put the phone down. When we resumed a few minutes later, the error message "The camera can't be started" greeted us. Naturally, all devices suffer the odd glitch or brownout, but when these things happen regularly during a single week of testing, we suspect that unless the company deals with the issue -- and fast -- plenty of people will be beating a path to return their phones to the store. Now, BlackBerry promises that our performance woes are unusual, and that we'll receive a fresh unit to continue our testing -- so if we find anything different, we'll update you here.
One thing that BlackBerry, for all of its innovations, hasn't really improved upon here is its boot-up times. Yes, we know -- few of you even care how long it'll take for your phone to start from cold on those rare moments when you turn it off, but considering the lack of a removable battery, it may be something you quickly grow to care about. The boot-up clocks in at a minute flat, making it noticeably slower than other handsets.
One of the most interesting things about this handset is that it contains a Paratek antenna. BlackBerry (or RIM, as it was called back in 2012) bought Paratek Adaptive RF (also known as Paratek Microwave Inc.) on the promise that the latter's cellular gear could work miracles. In short, Paratek's antenna is designed to boost data transmission rates in areas with low signal, which should hopefully prevent dropped calls and speed up your downloads -- theoretically saving battery life. Another by-product of the system is that it can apparently avoid "death grip" problems by tuning the antennas to constantly find the best signal. So, we went hunting for areas where network performance suffered to see if the Z30 could do better than the other devices we regularly use for testing. Unfortunately, the answer is no. At least in our limited, real-world tests, we found no meaningful difference between the Z30 and offerings from Apple, Nokia and Samsung.
One of our biggest gripes with the Q5 was that call quality wasn't great; the audio was full of clicks, hisses and compression that'll annoy you if you're used to HD Voice calling. The experience was roughly the same here, with dropouts and the odd digital artifact that made conversations sound worse than an old-school satellite phone call on broadcast news. Data-wise, thanks to the lack of LTE across much of the UK, we weren't able to test the Z30's performance on bands 3, 7, 8 and 20, but found that it gobbled down data on Three UK's HSPA+ network as rapidly as on our other devices.
BlackBerry promises that this smartphone will give you 25 hours of battery life with "mixed usage," a euphemism we take to mean that it should last a day between charges. In our standard video rundown test, with the display set at 50 percent, WiFi on (but not connected) and social networks set to poll at regular intervals, the Z30 was able to crank out 12 hours and 58 minutes. Day-to-day, we charged the device up overnight and then used it through until bedtime without ever seeing the charge icon fall past the halfway mark. As such, we'd suggest that most users can leave the spare external battery at home unless they're going somewhere remote.
When Engadget reviewed the Q5, some of our readers felt that comparing that handset to similarly priced devices from other companies was unfair. This was because we weren't taking into account the enhanced security and enterprise-level features that BlackBerry offers on its handsets. However, a very recent InfoWorld study found that BB10 and iOS were comparable in terms of the security they offer, and that Samsung and Motorola Android devices were similarly secure, aside from the greater risk from malware. Considering that Samsung's Knox-enabled devices were given the same level of approval from the US Department of Defense, we do indeed feel comfortable comparing the Z30 to flagships from Samsung; not to mention Apple, Motorola and Nokia too.
It's worth mentioning that the Z30 will be launching first in the UK and Middle East (two of BlackBerry's traditional strongholds), with no word on a US
or Canadian debut (Update: Rogers has committed to carry the Z30). In real terms, that means you've either got to import it, or choose another BlackBerry 10 device. The company has admitted that there are only going to be four devices available between now and the start of 2014, with the Z10 (£300/$450), Q10 (£500/$550) and Q5 (£300/$360) rounding out the quartet.
If, however, you're merely in the market for any smartphone, then you can also try the 5-inch Galaxy S 4 ($600/£400), the 4.7-inch HTC One ($600/£500) and the 4.7-inch Moto X (in the US, the Developer Edition is available for $600). For the reasons of balance, it's also worth mentioning that the iPhone 5s ($650/£550), which runs iOS, and the Lumia 1020 ($800/£600), which runs Windows Phone 8, are also fine alternatives.
The BlackBerry Z30 has plenty of things going in its favor. It's well-designed, isn't cumbersome to hold and, despite its size, looks really stylish. Moreover, BlackBerry 10 is well-suited to a bigger display and the 5-incher here is a good one. So had the Z30 been the first BB10 device launched back in January, perhaps there would have been room for more optimism. We're always full of praise for devices with a strong battery and, while BlackBerry diehards will be annoyed that the cell isn't removable, a 13-hour intensive stint still means it should last for a full day of work or keep you entertained on a long-haul flight. However, we can't be universal in our praise because there are so many small things that add up to a frustrating experience. The constant crashes, middle-of-the-road camera and poor call quality erase much of the goodwill the handset has otherwise earned.
On one hand, the BlackBerry Z30 is the best BlackBerry 10 device yet, and if you're already a convert, this is the one we'd recommend. If you aren't a BlackBerry fan, however, then the situation's a little more nuanced. If you're looking to dump your Android, iOS or Windows Phone device in favor of the Z30, you have to ask yourself: Will you buy a device that really needs some urgent stability fixes -- not to mention the issues we've mentioned above? While we expect the Z30 to be cheaper in other territories, the £500 ($800) UK off-contract price will be another bitter pill for those looking to switch. The Z30 isn't a bad device by any means, just one that falls short of what we expect from a 2013-2014 flagship.