Over the past three weeks I have been experiencing the recently released BlackBerry Z30 and uncovering what I feel is the best user experience from a platform perspective of any smartphone (or tablet) to date. Yes, there are applications I would like to have but, as will be mentioned further along, that is also improving significantly over time.
What do I mean by platform? It’s a combination of the hardware and the underlying operating system, including the browser, the display, the user interaction and, frankly, the device and screen size. As background I should mention that I also have an iPhone 5, an iPad Air and an Android tablet.
The Browser: building on its HTML5 speed and with several enhancements, it is definitely the fastest browser (check the HTML5 test, amongst others). Key is that using the browser I can meet the need for several mobile apps via their mobile web applications or Responsive Design websites, starting with Google Maps, Google+ and Google News. While the resolution of the display allows me to view most web pages without difficulty, when font size becomes a challenge, simply switch to Reader mode and font size issues go away. The larger screen size allows me to view most websites, especially in landscape mode, without the need for scrolling. For instance, I can readily follow activity in the Jira bug tracker portal for a current software development project when in landscape mode. Toronto Pearson Airport arrivals is another example of a Responsive Design site that accommodates the screen size.
The Display: The most surprising finding with the 5-inch, 1,280 x 720 Super AMOLED 295 ppi display is that I find it meets much of the need for the even larger display of the iPad Air or iPad Mini with Retina. In addition to its support for browsing mentioned above, YouTube videos are crisp and non-pixelating; photographs are rich in color depth. In the end reaction to any display is somewhat subjective; however, in practice, I have no hesitation to look up and follow communications, web activity, view live sports programming and use applications due to the screen size when I am away from my home base. My iPad Air usage has gone down significantly since acquiring the Z30, largely due to the visual impact of the display size and its overall color-rich graphics performance.
Audio: I have always been impressed with the stereo audio quality on BlackBerry. But, with the Z30, BlackBerry has incorporated what they call Natural Sound technology with improved audio hardware as well as the support for superwideband codecs on voice and video calling. I have noticed crystal clear audio on both BBM voice and video as well as Skype voice and video calls. Don’t know what superwideband codec (SILK?, Opus?) they are using, but its implementation is definitely noticeable compared to the voice quality of narrowband calls over the carrier voice channel.
One test for audio quality involves listening to a couple of symphony pieces that cover the entire bass to treble audio range as well as the dynamic range of the audio volume. The fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th as well as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with orchestra, chorus, carillon and canons provide excellent tests of the Z30’s overall audio. First, when listening on the Z30’s speakers, they have no issue with dynamic range; there no audio saturation. As for audio bandwidth, only the canons of the 1812 overture challenge the Z30 hardware; however, when streamed to either a top quality headset or an external Bluetooth amplifier/speaker (such as in my car – see below), the full deep bass of the tympani through to the explosions of the canons come through with ease. Instrumental soloists or groups, such as Classic Kennedy or the Canadian Brass, demonstrate the full audio dynamic of their individual instruments.
Automobile Integration: One low profile feature of BlackBerry 10 devices is its connection to vehicle audio systems. In fact, I can connect via Bluetooth to my Volvo CUV; beyond handling (hands-free) phone calls it also streams audio for BlackBerry Maps directions and my music collection. The music automatically streams from random playlists when i start up the vehicle if I don’t set up a previous album; often I find that is quite satisfactory. Caveat: results may vary by vehicle brand but I also find it works on Ford vehicles with Microsoft Lync. Warning: In Ontario distracted driving is becoming very expensive and about to also involve demerit points; hands free capability is becoming a requirement for using phones while driving.
The Hub: the key feature of the Hub is the consolidation of all my messaging and notification activity into a single application that is always running in background. Beyond multiple email accounts it also handles all my Facebook, Twitter direct, BBM, SMS and FourSquare messages. Notifications advise me of Skype activity, BBM Channel posts, new app upgrades. The BlackBerry 10.2.1 Hub has added a feature giving one touch access to all your message attachments – very handy when trying to recall them later.
Android Player: Not only has the Android Player in the BB 10.2.1 OS been upgraded to support the Jelly Bean feature set but it is also now possible to install many Android applications directly from their .apk files. Personally I use the Snap application as my Android store that connects to Google Play; once Snap is sideloaded it works like any other store – find the app and install directly. At this point my apps include Instagram, Netflix, PayPal, Starbucks, Harmony (for remote control of my home theatre system), TripIt, Yammer and several others. There are some limitations at this time, especially if an app involves yet-to-be supported Google Play Services’ location-based services. (Google Maps itself, along with Google+ and Google News can be accessed easily via the web browser.)
BlackBerry Maps: This is one application I regularly use in place of an embedded GPS in my car. Tap on an address in Contacts or a Calendar item and it brings up routing directions as well as estimated time to destination, incorporating real time traffic congestion information – very useful during Toronto’s rush hours or holiday weekends with clogged highways. As mentioned above it also provides audio instructions through the car audio system. BlackBerry Maps finds restaurants, hospitals and many other categories of points-of-interest by simply entering a name. Google Maps via the web browser provides a handy alternative that is also linked to the Z30’s GPS hardware.
Battery Life: Whereas I was changing the 1800 mah batteries on my Z10 at least once daily, I find I can get through an entire day without needing a recharge of the Z30’s 2880 mah battery (on which it is not possible to change batteries). The BB OS 10.2.1’s new App Manager is very helpful in identifying applications which can be heavy on the battery drain.
The Touch Keyboard: While many prefer the hardware keyboard of the Q10, I am totally comfortable with the touch keyboard of the Z30 for the same reasons as I mentioned about the Z10 keyboard. Most importantly I probably type about 20% – 25% of the characters I send in messages, logins, etc.
Bottom Line: The BlackBerry Z30 has become my primary smartphone. Its focus on managing communications, high quality display (including the 5″ display size), predictive text touch keyboard combined with its fast and versatile browser, all contribute to meeting my requirements to keep connected both at home and while on the road. I am quite comfortable leaving home with only the Z30 yet remaining current with email, news, sports and social networking activity while having access to public transit schedules, travel itineraries, lodging and coffee shop applications. As mentioned earlier it has reduced the use of my iPad Air and has me rethinking under what circumstances I will find it appropriate.
The one concern, applications, is being addressed by the features of the new Android player as well as the ongoing release of new “Built for BlackBerry” applications. Yes, there are a few apps I would like to have but they are not critical to, nor hindering, my ongoing personal or business activities. From another perspective, there are very few apps I use on the iPhone 5 or iPad Air that I would like to have on the Z30.
Full disclosure: The BlackBerry Z30 was provided to the author as a member of BlackBerry Elite, a group of BlackBerry users who provide user feedback to BlackBerry and assist with evangelizing the merits of this unique multi-tasking smartphone platform (but we don’t have any advance information on upcoming OS developments). There are no affiliate links in this post, nor has there been any monetary compensation provided for publishing this post. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author who does have a very small holding of BlackBerry shares and decades of business experience with multi-tasking environments. His main interest is in supporting a Canadian technology pioneer while at the same time getting maximum benefit from his smartphone.
And now see why J_Caloy is saying Bye, Bye BlackBerry Z10: