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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BlackBerry 10.2

There are various important refinements in the latest version of the BlackBerry OS. However, I was disappointed that it still took more than a minute -- 64 seconds, on average -- to boot the device. This is a small improvement over the 71 seconds on average that it took to boot the Z10. Most smartphones take only half as long.

One satisfying addition is that notifications of emails and other updates appear right on the lock screen, instead of inside another portion of the phone that's harder to get to. A little bell icon appears and, when touched, will open with a line of information and a timestamp for each entry.

Other quick functions have been added to the lock screen, such as an icon that will launch the camera app. When the camera's launched, its shutter is activated by touching anywhere on the display.

Also from the lock screen, you can swipe down from the top to activate the sleep mode in the device, with an analog clock face appearing on the display that can be used as an alarm clock -- and you can set the clock from the lock screen. Notifications are automatically turned off when in this mode.

A distinguishing feature of the earlier OS version was the BlackBerry Hub, which acted as a universal inbox for email, text, BBM messages, other social media and updates from third-party apps. You swipe up and to the right to get to the Hub, and reverse the gesture to go back to what you were doing.

A new addition, Priority Hub, now allows users to get notifications and emails based on software that follows your prior conversations to see which people are important to you. If 100 emails arrive in an hour, Priority Hub will sort the most important ones for you to see under a separate tab, or you can arrange to have them put in the BlackBerry Hub message stream with a priority icon.

Priority is given to emails and messages in three ways: from people with your same last name; from people who have marked an email with "high priority" and from those who are responding to a conversation that you started. Users have the ability to turn each of the three on or off.

Another great improvement: Notifications -- including BBM messages- - come in a preview on the top of the display no matter what app or Web page you are in. You can tap to reply, or click an X to dismiss it. It even works with voice calls -- you can either take the call or dismiss the call with a swipe and have a quick pre-arranged response message (such as "I'm busy and I can't take your call") sent to the caller via text, BBM or email.

For first-timers on BlackBerry 10 devices, there are more in-screen instructions with 10.2, saying things like, "Swipe to the left" to reach another function.

All the achievements of BlackBerry 10.0 are still in 10.2, especially the Balance software that works with BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10. With Balance, corporate data remains inside a work perimeter on the Z30 that can be managed by IT staffers, while personal data, apps, photos and other content stay in a personal perimeter (outside of IT control). The calendar app and the Hub in the Z30 can contain both work and personal information, and users can launch apps from both the work and personal sides of the device and multitask between them.

BlackBerry 10.2 also still offers a universal search to pore through messages, contacts, apps and Internet searches on its fast BlackBerry browser, which allows use of Bing, Google or Yahoo as the search engine.

The BlackBerry touchscreen keyboard on a 5-in. display may make a convert out of any prior physical keyboard user. I was able to use two thumbs for typing, compared to only using one finger to touch keys on the Z10. It helps that the keyboard learns words commonly used over time, then offers them up as you type. When they appear, you can flick them up into the keyboard text area, or you can turn off that function.

I'd rank this BlackBerry keyboard as better than any virtual keyboard on the market, even those on the larger Android smartphones launched recently.

All told, the software innovations in BlackBerry 10.0 made it a great operating system, and 10.2 has added some true polish.

Conclusion

The Z30 is a great smartphone, offering a brilliant, responsive 5-in. touchscreen with valuable sound improvements.

The BlackBerry 10.2 software will please users of all types, but especially workers and older BlackBerry physical keyboard users who may be converting to a touchscreen for the first time.

I was put off by the lack of a removable battery and the truly long boot time. Some users might not find the device stylish enough, but if the black and silver body isn't flashy enough, you can buy a custom case that's more like a pocket protector in white (or black) leather.

On the other hand, the Z30 still suffers from a limited number of apps. It also may need to be protected from BlackBerry itself, as the company tries to re-invent itself under leaders that seem headed toward putting more emphasis on BlackBerry management software and less on devices and device software.

Time will tell what happens to BlackBerry as a company, but the Z30 is a striking device that should get full support from Verizon and BlackBerry over the next two years at least. Current BlackBerry users should definitely try it out, and even Android and iPhone users might want to play with a Z30 at the nearest Verizon store to see what they're missing.

This article, BlackBerry Z30 deep-dive review: Upgraded software in a great 5-in. smartphone, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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