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?

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Amazing display

I'm a big fan of big displays and the 5 in. Z30 screen might be just about ideal for me. The Z30 uses a Super AMOLED display that's rated at 1280 x 720 pixels with 295 pixels per inch (ppi). That's actually a lower resolution that the Z10 had at 356ppi, but I couldn't notice any difference.

BlackBerry said it used a different material in producing the Z30 display, which helps make the images appear clearer and brighter. Also, BlackBerry improved color density and contrast to make the screen more vibrant than that of the Z10 or other 5-in. displays on the market. Even so, BlackBerry says its Z30 screen uses 20% less power than the Z10.

The Z30's 5-in. display makes it easier to view multiple apps and services, such as the unified message center called the BlackBerry Hub.

There are other changes in the user interface that help the clarity in the display, such as shading on some of the smaller notification text. I know that I would never be able to read text that small on my iPhone, but the shading and other factors made it possible -- even effortless -- to do so on the Z30 without glasses. The display and these contrast improvements are nothing short of amazing.

Touch response and BlackBerry's processors

Touch responsiveness in the Z30 is better than that in the Z10, and was very consistent over many hours of use over several days. This is probably the result of many factors, including the use of a 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor. (There's also a QuadCore Adreno 320 GPU.)

The Snapdragon S4 Pro in the Z30 is only dual-core, even though Qualcomm makes a version of the Pro in a quad-core version. A BlackBerry spokesperson said the dual-core processor was used in the Z30 because it optimizes battery life and doesn't substantially degrade performance when compared to the quad core in performance tests. BlackBerry chose a quad-core graphics chip to improve speed and fluidity -- and it certainly works.

Improved sound

Four microphone ports (up from two in the Z10) are around the edges. Two tiny ports are on the edge below the volume control (for noise cancellation), another is at the top of the lower silver trim on the front, and the fourth is on the top edge. There are two speaker ports at the bottom edge, and another at the top edge, which is combined with the top mic and a fourth speaker at the top of the glass front.

BlackBerry combined all this with special software to bring what it calls a "natural sound" experience to audio and videoconferences and other communications.

I evaluated my review copy of the Z30 over video chat via BlackBerry Messenger and could definitely detect an improvement compared to the Z10. Stereo sound might not seem important for talking to somebody in video chat or over an audio conference call, but it can make the experience seem more real.

As the other person on the call moves left or right, you can detect the difference. In a crowded room on the other end of the call, you can even tell when a person in a group of callers is on one side of the room or the other.

The stereo speakers also rocked the streaming music I played over Slacker Radio. When the Z30 is placed flat on a desk, the stereo sound is perceptible and impressive.

The speakers and good video resolution also worked excellently for video chat. I never got inadvertently dropped during the chat, as has occasionally happened with other smartphones, although sometimes I did hear words clipped off short, as I've experienced with many audio conferencing devices.

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) video chat also can be used with Android and iPhone smartphones if those users have BBM downloaded.

Phone calls are better with the Z30 than on other smartphones, too, partly because of BlackBerry's new Paratek Antenna technology, which is designed to keep a call connected in areas where previous performance had been poor. The technology is proprietary to BlackBerry, although the company might eventually license it to others, the BlackBerry spokesperson said.

While I couldn't evaluate precisely how robust the Paratek technology is, I did notice that the phone never dropped a call.

The Z30 is equipped with an 8-megapixel rear camera and a 2-megapixel front camera, which is quite competitive with most other smartphones out today. The rear camera also has 5x digital zoom and auto focus with 1080p HD video recording, both really useful elements for a casual point-and-shoot photographer like myself.

All told, the hardware in the Z30 is a great improvement over that in the Z10.

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