3 min read

BlackBerry Z30 review: Likeable, unremarkable

Things aren’t going well for BlackBerry. Phones aren’t selling. Carriers and consumers have lost interest in the brand. Even the corporations who loved BlackBerry’s defences against mobile dark arts now look elsewhere for protection. All this means the BlackBerry Z30 may be the last important smartphone to roll out of the company’s factory.

Is it any good?

The BlackBerry Z30 has been my main smartphone for the past week. My goal was to see if there’s any value left in the hardware brand.

BlackBerry Z30 – the good stuff

BlackBerry launched the Z30 late last year. Physically it is an unremarkable, yet likeable slim smartphone with a big five-inch display. This format works better with the BlackBerry 10.2 operating system than the smaller display on the earlier Z10. The case feels right and the camera is decent enough for everyday use.

Build quality is far more solid than the flimsy Z10. BlackBerry has done a fine job with the call quality — not that many consider this important with the latest crop of phones.

Most smartphones struggle to deliver a long day of battery life. The BlackBerry Z30 has enough juice to get you from a breakfast meeting through to an evening reception and even past dinner time.

Software a mixed bag

Apple and Microsoft build smartphones with clever interfaces to hide complexity. Google prefers to let Android users have access to the complexity to customise their experience. BlackBerry’s 10.2 OS is minimalist almost to the point of parody — there is no home screen, your starting point is an upward swipe gesture which depending on what you do next with your finger can take you either to the BlackBerry Hub or one of your recently used screens.

Before I bury the phone, let me finish with the praise. For all its faults, the BlackBerry software does two things well. First, it does multitasking better than any other smartphone. Second, it smooths the path between running applications with something the company calls Flow.

These two features could be extremely powerful in the hands of an experienced BlackBerry user. And that’s where the problems begin: BlackBerry 10.2 is so radically different from any other phone OS, it’s hard to drive and comes with a steep, steep learning curve.

Hard to learn

How difficult is BlackBerry 10.2? The first time someone rang my phone I didn’t have a clue how to respond. I missed three calls before realising that you have to swipe up then move a button to answer — none of this is obvious. There is no such confusion with any other smartphone. Anyone can pick them up and start working without the need for a training session.

I’m not going to pretend the rest of the experience was plain sailing. Although there’s little in the technology world that’s intuitive, most devices are relatively easier to get started with. You can be productive quickly. After days with the Z30 I’m still googling how to do simple things.

That’s a pity, because BlackBerry has built an operating system that focuses on communications first. That makes the phone a great work tool. There are also features making it easy to integrate into company systems — I’m sure CIOs and other corporate technology professionals would prefer the way they can lock down information on business phones.

Not much fun

When BlackBerry demonstrated the Z10 at a swanky lunch a couple of years ago, it emphasised the phone’s fun features. If they are real, they are buried deep under the surface. This is a tool, not a toy. There are games and entertainment downloads, but compared to other smartphones, the BlackBerry App store is more like a North Korean supermarket than a glittering pleasure dome.

There’s a lot to admire in the BlackBerry Z30. BlackBerry has nailed button-down collar smartphone essentials like battery life, security, call quality and managing communications. Sadly admirable isn’t loveable.

What does this mean? Don’t buy a Z30 unless your company insists and pays for it; you are a keen BlackBerry loyalist or you can’t find anything to whet your whistle among the massed ranks of iOS, Android and Windows Phone 8. Frankly, if none of them please you, the Z30 and the austere BlackBerry 10 OS is unlikely to put a smile on your face either.