BlackBerry Z30 deep-dive review: Upgraded software in a great 5-in. smartphone

The Z30 is new and improved for both enterprise and individual use -- but can BlackBerry stick around long enough to make it matter?

The 5-in. touchscreen BlackBerry Z30 smartphone may sadly become a modern-day fable, one in which pundits shake their heads over a great phone that just couldn't make it in the wider marketplace.

With a screen that's 38% larger than the 4.2-in. Z10 smartphone that shipped in late March in the U.S., the Z30 turns what was cramped touchscreen typing and navigation on the older model into a mobile user's dream device.

There are other physical improvements beyond the bumped-up size: four microphones instead of two, a beefy but non-removable 2880 mAh battery and a number of small-but-mighty productivity improvements within the new BlackBerry 10.2 operating system.

Sadly, the device could face slim sales, especially in the U.S. -- even worse than the disappointing sales of the Z10 that led to a near $1 billion write-down at the company. Nearly everything that has gone wrong with BlackBerry has little to do with the virtues of its latest devices' hardware and software -- and the same might someday be said for the Z30.

A company with problems

Buyers could be worried about what will happen to BlackBerry and its future support for the Z30, which could severely limit the phone's sales appeal. The Canadian company undertook a drastic reorganization in August that on Nov. 4 led to a $1 billion investment by several investors and the replacement of BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins with former Sybase chief John Chen as interim CEO.

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BlackBerry Z30

As the corporate drama plays out,Verizon Wireless will be the exclusive seller of the Z30 in the U.S., offering it sometime this month for $200 and a two-year service plan, a price that's in line with other similar phones.

The problem, though, is that this single-carrier approach could produce even fewer sales than when all four major U.S. carriers offered the Z10.

BlackBerry's biggest problem with the Z10 was not getting it on sale soon enough. The company suffered through years of failing to compete with Android phones and the iPhone with a responsive touch-screen BlackBerry device that had a decent browser and good styling. And, oh, there was -- and remains -- the matter of a shortage of great apps for downloading, even in the productivity area for workers (BlackBerry's mainstay audience).

There are currently 130,000 applications for phones using the BlackBerry 10 OS (like the Z30) -- a fraction of the 1 million or more in, say, Apple's App Store. BlackBerry has worked hard at adding apps, but there's a growing concern that app developers just won't stick with BlackBerry down the road.

BlackBerry has repeatedly assured its customers that they will get support for new phones going forward, both in an open letter in mid-October and in a statement issued after BlackBerry appointed its new interim CEO. Many analysts believe this support will continue and that Verizon is not likely to drop the ball. But before seriously considering a purchase of a new Z30, or a corporate purchase for multiple users, you may want to check the latest news about the company and grill your sales person about what happens to Z30 support if the sky truly falls at BlackBerry, whatever the reason.

With that caveat, it's time to look at what's clearly a great phone in both hardware and software.

Improved hardware

The styling of the Z30 is actually a vast improvement over the Z10, although it's still not an eye-catcher like an iPhone 5S in gold or the iPhone 5C in green.

Still, the Z30's new black body with silver trim and rounded edges fits the mission that was expressed in BlackBerry's preliminary second quarter results "to refocus on enterprise and prosumer markets, offering end-to-end solutions, including hardware, software and services."

On the other hand, some features of the Z30 -- such as improved video and photo capture -- show some concessions towards consumers. Still, the mostly-black look will keep it a good fit for the staid business world.

Compared to the Z10, it is still quite a change. The Z30 replaces the dull black lower front edge of the Z10 with silver trim, and a fine silver trim line is carried around the entire edge. On the upper edge, the glass front carries to the top edge, replacing another dull black bar on the Z10.

The other subtle styling change is a rounded edge on the back of the case that makes it easier to pick up the device from a desk or table than the Z10, which was squared off on all its edges.

Both the Z30 and Z10 are nearly the same thickness, with the Z30 at .37 in. and the Z10 at .35 in. The Z30 is 5.53 in. long, compared to the Z10 at 5.1, while the Z30 is 2.8 in. wide, compared to the Z10 at 2.5. The Z30 weighs 6 oz., a full 1.2 oz heavier than the Z10, but that's not out of line when compared to some other 5-in. smartphones on the market. It feels comfy to use and fit easily in my shirt pocket (and, I confess, my rear jeans pocket).

Both devices have the same ports. There are volume up/down and mute or voice command buttons on the right edge. A power/stand by button is centered on the top edge next to a 3.5mm headset jack (which is capable of stereo in the Z30). On the left edge, both devices have a micro HDMI-out port for output to HDTVs and monitors, and a micro USB port for charging and data transfer. A notification LED is at the top front under the glass.

The back can be pried off to get at the SIM and SD card slots, but I had an unusually tough time doing so on repeated attempts. The Z30 has a powerful battery under the back cover, rated at 2880mAh and advertised as handling up to 25 hours of normal use. I used the Z30 for browsing, talking, the occasional video and keeping it on standby each night, and I didn't have to recharge it for four days. I figure I got about 32 actual hours of use, about 25% more than the amount advertised.

Be aware that the battery can't be removed like the one in the Z10. On the other hand, the Z30 offers Qi technology for wireless charging.

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