The stock camera app has one particularly neat feature I paid close attention to. It suggests certain settings and modes based on what it sees through the lens, like recommending HDR mode if it detects contrasting lighting, or burst capture if it spots a face in the shot. I accept these suggestions more often that I reject them, finding that I tend to get the best results if I follow the camera app's advice.
Like all cameras, the Leap's main shooter does its best work in favorable lighting conditions. Robust auto-exposure compensation makes for well-saturated snaps, and even when artificial light is at play, the phone is a good judge of white balance. Shutter lag is almost nonexistent, and I'm particularly fond of the HDR mode, which adds a bunch of extra depth to photos when used appropriately. It's no use when the light starts fading, however, as the gap between the three shots it takes to build the HDR image lengthens and you end up with a blurry picture that looks like an impressionist painting. In the twilight hours, the camera struggles to pick the appropriate settings. Pictures are either under- or overexposed more often than not, but it settles down when nighttime truly rolls around and it can show off its admirable low-light performance. It certainly doesn't give up when light is at a premium, nor does it crank up exposure to the degree that images appear flat and overly noisy.
It's not all gravy, however, as focusing can be a bit problematic. Half the time, the camera locks in almost instantly on whatever you're pointing it at, but other times it's prone to inexplicably darting around, searching for the correct depth. It's not the best camera for shooting in the macro range, either. The closer an object is to the lens, the less likely you are to be able to get it in focus. Strangely, continuous autofocus when recording 1080p video works dreamily. It hardly ever fidgets, instead transitioning smoothly from one focal point to another. Video quality in general (and accompanying audio) is pretty outstanding. A high frame rate is maintained regardless of how much you're moving around, and like continuous autofocus, the exposure and white balance settings are similarly stable. Clip quality drops substantially in low light, becoming horribly noisy, but that's understandable when stills are much easier to process.
The Leap's 8-megapixel camera is no substitute for a proper DSLR, of course, but it's more than capable of taking great-looking shots when the opportunity strikes. In fact, it's among the best smartphone cameras of this caliber I've ever used, so kudos to BlackBerry for that.
Performance and battery life
Inside, the Leap shares exactly the same internals as the two-year-old Z10: a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus chip, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage (the Leap takes microSD cards of up to 128GB, too). The Z30 is practically the same, albeit with a slightly faster 1.7GHz dual-core S4 Pro processor. Just because the Leap is the newest member of the family doesn't mean it needs to have the best raw specs, but that S4 Plus chip is a red flag. It's ancient, at least in silicon years. Even so, it hums along nicely in the Leap, and I can't really complain about everyday performance. That said, I can't shake the feeling consumers are being short-changed somewhat by the presence of this last-gen processor.
BB10 is quite animation-heavy. Whether you're minimizing an app to the home screen, swiping across to get to the Hub or dragging the quick-settings menu into existence, there are always elements that are appearing while others are disappearing. If you move slowly through the app drawer, for instance, you'll see a subtle transparency effect applied while one grid is in the process of usurping the other. There's a lot going on, and nothing immediately opens or closes; it transitions. The point I'm trying to make is: I'd assume the phone has a lot to process while all this is happening, but even with several apps running in the background, the Leap doesn't miss a beat.
You can fly around the device pretty much as fast as your fingers can take you, only having to pause for a second while your chosen app or message loads. Browser performance is as slick as you need it to be, too. Pages load rapidly and you'll only stumble across the odd desktop site where tiling is visible. So, the chipset might be antiquated, but it doesn't have a significant impact on user experience. Occasionally, the phone does exhibit the odd glitch. An app will hang for a split second longer than usual, or there'll be a slight pause in between tapping a text-entry box and the keyboard appearing. Other times, the phone simply ignores a tap or a gesture, but I'm not sure whether this has to do with performance hiccups or quirks in the OS.
Gaming performance doesn't leave much to be desired, either. Not having access to my favorite Google Play titles, and not seeing much in the BlackBerry World store, I've sought out graphically intensive games available on Amazon's Appstore. Ravensword: Shadowlands might not be the prettiest 3D RPG, but it's detailed enough to give processors problems. Not the S4 Plus, though, which handled it without incident if you discount the minute-long loading times. A few levels of Trials Frontier put it under a little more strain, but it only dropped a couple of frames here and there (although you wouldn't see that happen nearly as much with, say, a newer quad-core Snapdragon 400 chip). I reached the processor's limit with GT Racing 2, which froze up whenever there were more than two cars on-screen, rendering it unplayable.
I had to go out of my way to catch the Leap out, and the likelihood that anyone buying this phone will care about 3D gaming performance is slim to none. But, money is changing hands, and for what's effectively two-year-old guts stuffed into a new body. It's far from brimming in the connectivity department, too. The Leap's packing single-band (2.4GHz) WiFi 802.11b/g/n (with WiFi Display and Miracast support), Bluetooth 4.0 and GPS, which finds satellites frighteningly fast, by the way. A dual-band WiFi chip would've been appreciated, as well as some of the more mod cons like 802.11ac support and NFC. There are two BlackBerry Leap SKUs, one with an LTE radio that plays nice with all major North American carriers apart from Sprint, and another that's better suited to 4G frequencies in Europe and Asia.
It's rare for me to use a smartphone and be impressed with its battery life, but the Leap and its 2,800mAh reserve just keep on truckin'. Starting with a full tank, the Leap managed to loop a 720p video at 50 percent screen brightness for 11 hours and 5 minutes before calling it a night. Its battery saving mode kicked in automatically at 20 percent remaining, dimming the display and limiting processing power to give it that extra bit of longevity. Regardless, it's still one of the best results we've seen of late, alongside the LG G4, and it makes the difference in real-world usage.
Not since reviewing the excellent Sony Xperia Z3 Compact have I managed to get two full days out of a phone without needing to recharge. Granted, I probably don't spend quite as much time glued to the Leap's little screen as I do a typical Android phone, purely because I haven't been using as many apps; but, 95 percent of the time I spend on all phones is checking notifications and responding to messages. For that, the Leap is fantastic, and even under heavy usage conditions, you'll easily get through a long, busy day before it thinks about giving up the ghost.
The Leap is available from BlackBerry's online store and Amazon in the US and UK for the off-contract price of $275 and £200, respectively. Oh, and UK carrier Vodafone is offering the handset for free on contracts starting at £22 per month; no US networks have chosen to carry the device yet. In terms of competition, I can't help but look immediately at the Z10 and the Z30, since they are more or less identical to the Leap on paper. In the US, the Z10 is roughly $100 cheaper than the Leap at this stage in its lifecycle, and the Z30 will save you around $45. So, is it worth paying more for the Leap just because it's new, even if it's no better? The Z30 is arguably the more sensible choice, as it has the best processor of the bunch and long battery life, like the Leap. It's a little bit of a different situation in the UK, where the Z30 is actually £40 more expensive than the Leap, although the Z10 is significantly cheaper there too.
Perhaps there's something I'm just not getting, because with the Z30 around, I don't see much of a reason for the Leap to exist. BlackBerry is aiming the Leap at young, up-and-coming professionals wanting a device that makes them look busier than they really are. But, while the company is keen to flog as many as possible to you and me, we're not the true target market. Companies that run email exchanges through BlackBerry Enterprise Server and enter into 10,000-unit distribution deals are. The Leap is made by business for business: a serious-looking, reasonably priced device with tempting discounts on bulk orders. It's optional hardware offered to companies as part of the full BlackBerry package, in a form factor their employees are accustomed to. What's inside the device is of little importance, really, because there's no incentive to evolve the hardware as long as it keeps the email flowing.
Nonetheless, I can't help but feel that your everyday consumers, BlackBerry fanatics included, are getting the short end of the stick. A price of $275 isn't a nominal sum, especially when you're paying that for two-year-old hardware. Performance barely suffers, I admit, but that doesn't change the fact you can get better bang for your buck elsewhere. Take the Moto G, for example, which is widely considered a leading device where value for money is concerned. In the US, the 3G version of the second-gen Moto G is $180, while the 4G variant is £149 in the UK. Even though the LTE model isn't available in the states yet, I'd still argue this cheaper device would serve you better than the Leap. For one, it's packing an up-to-date processor and solid specs all-round, and being an Android device, all the apps you could ever want are just a few taps away.
Look hard enough and you'll find myriad Android devices with comparable specs (or better) in the same price range (or cheaper) than the Leap. BB10 has a number of good features, and I wish other platforms thought about creating a BlackBerry-style Hub of their own. But, with several misgivings and a lean app selection, I can't justify recommending the Leap over less-expensive, better-equipped Android handsets.
Viewed in isolation, the BlackBerry Leap isn't a terrible device; there's just nothing particularly exciting about it. The design is unimaginative, largely borrowed from the lesser-known BlackBerry Z3, and its size can make it cumbersome to use at times. And, for every positive note, there's always a "but." You wouldn't expect any better or worse than a 720p display on this tier of device, but the quality of the Leap's panel is poor. BB10 OS has some great features, especially the Hub, but a weak app catalog makes it hard to recommend over other platforms. Device performance is admirable, but that doesn't excuse the use of outdated hardware at this price point. The Leap's 8-megapixel main camera is surprisingly good considering the spec, and you gotta love that battery life, but are these enough to warrant a purchase? Perhaps I'm belaboring the point.
If you're a BlackBerry diehard, then you might be willing to forgive the Leap's shortcomings if you're ready to update (I use the term loosely), and it's not extortionately priced at $275/£200. In my opinion, though, you would be compromising where you needn't be. Pick out an affordable Android phone, or simply go for a cheaper BlackBerry if you must. I've been quite happy using the device for the purpose of this review. Like I said from the get-go, if your company gives you one for work purposes, most of my criticisms will be moot. Where productivity is paramount, the Leap shines. If you want a smartphone for your own personal needs, however, then there are better phones and better platforms for the job.