BlackBerry introduced the BlackBerry 10 platform in January, and in September showed off the Z30, its final smartphone for the year and one that completes the BB10 portfolio with now two touch-screen-focused options and two QWERTY hybrids, Vivek Bhardwaj, BlackBerry’s head of software, told journalists during a briefing Oct. 28.
Verizon Wireless will exclusively offer the Z30 starting in November, for $199 with a two-year contract.
While the QWERTY options satisfy two price points—the Q10 aims high, the Q5 at midmarket—the Z30 is designed for users that might be called the Samsung-tempted.
The Z30 features a 5-inch SuperAMOLED display covered with Gorilla Glass to its tip-top, versus the more restrained line below the speaker, where the 4.2-inch display of the Z10 stops. There’s a weave pattern on the back, not unlike Verizon Wireless’s newest Droids, and gone is distinct, straight evenness of the Z10, having given way to more common rounded sides.
The design elements make the Z30 look much more like a Verizon phone than a BlackBerry—though Bhardwaj said BlackBerry isn’t “tied to Verizon” and there’s nothing to stop it from later offering the Z30 through AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile.
Nothing, of course, except the carriers’ fears of taking on a dud. (T-Mobile recently stopped stocking the Z10, saying that while it would continue to support the phone, it didn’t want to stock a phone for which there was so little user interest.)
BlackBerry is hoping to stir up a bit more user interest in several ways. There’s that large, vibrant display; a battery that, in mixed-use scenarios, can last more than 24 hours, according to Bhardwaj; and new antenna technology from BlackBerry-acquired Paratak.
“They have a very unique solution we’re using for the first time,” Bhardwaj said. “Most antennas in phones are fixed, or calibrated for a few conditions. But what the Paratek solution does is re-tune on the fly, depending on the conditions. If you’re in a low-coverage area … it recalibrates the antenna so it’s optimized for that lower-coverage area.”
BlackBerry also gave the Z30 six microphones, which circle its exterior.
On a conference call, “you can actually tell where people are sitting, it gives you such a strong spatial awareness,” Bhardwaj said.
Called BlackBerry Natural Sound, it can better capture audio in a video at a concert, say, but also drown out ambient noise during a call to someone in a busy place.
On the software side, BlackBerry upgraded the Z30 to BB 10.2. One major change in the OS addresses a challenge so many apps are lately out to solve: sorting through too much email. In the Hub, 10.2 features a Priority Hub. The OS learns, as you use it, what’s a priority to you, though it’s easy to also designate contacts or conversations as Priority.
Also new are notifications that run at the top of the device, enabling a user to see a communication that comes in—a text, or an email, for example—while doing something like taking photos or reading in the browser. Without ever leaving the app, one can also respond.
Another little time-saver is on the locked screen. Where before a user could see, without unlocking the screen, that she had new emails and Tweets, now she can even read them, or parts of them.
They’re nice improvements, but are they enough? And why another touch-screen-focused device, when BlackBerry’s last earnings report made clear the Z10 isn’t selling? (The company sold 3.7 million smartphones during the quarter, the majority of which were running Blackberry 7, and posted a quarterly loss of $965 million.)
“It’s about the complete portfolio, and being able to offer it as a choice,” Bhardwaj said again. Maybe a customer goes into a store for the Z10 but decides he likes the Z30 better, or vice versa. “We’d rather we are cannibalized by our own products.”
While he wouldn’t talk about the company’s pending sale, Bhardwaj suggested it was nothing that should keep buyers away.
The average buyer, he said, just wants a great phone, he or she isn’t asking about the company’s financial standing. The idea that people are looking beyond product shelves into the details of companies is wrong, he said. “We have to break some of that distortion.”