no denying the fact that BlackBerry (the company formerly known as
Research In Motion) has serious problems. Five years ago, everyone from
students to housewives to businessmen was willing to pay a lot of money
to own a BlackBerry. Three years ago, Android and the iPhone began to
make QWERTY phones feel seriously clunky and old-fashioned. Two years
ago, we were hoping that the new BlackBerry 10 platform and devices
based on it would reinvigorate the company, but ridiculous pricing and
questionable decisions at every level destroyed any chance of that
Ever since the launch of the Z10 a year and a half ago,
we've been waiting for lower-priced models that might offer better
value for money and wouldn't be completely overshadowed by Android. As
it stands, there are very few BlackBerry loyalists left, and the
majority of those who have moved on to Android or iOS are not going to
give the company another chance without a lot of very good reasons.
Let's find out if the new BlackBerry Z3 delivers.
Look and feel
really does know how to build beautiful phones. The Z3 is ridiculously
good looking and its construction quality is impeccable. As of now, it's
only available in black but we wouldn't be surprised to see a white
edition in the future. The front is all smooth glass, and there really
isn't much bezel space around the screen itself. The rear is made of a
texturised soft-touch plastic with the classic BB logo in the centre.
For better or worse, the battery is non-removable.
The camera and
flash are in the top-left corner of the rear, much like they are on the
older Z10. A plastic flap on the phone's right edge covers the SIM and
microSD card slots, while the power button is placed towards the top of
the left edge with the volume controls and voice command shortcut
button below it. The Micro-USB port is on the bottom and 3.5mm headset
port is on the top. The Z3 doesn't have a mini-HDMI port, which sets it apart from its higher-end siblings.
Z3 feels good in the hand even if it is just a bit too heavy. It's
slim, slick, and very well put-together. In fact it could put several
high-end phones to shame in this regard.
Features, specifications and software
good news and bad news - while the Z3 is brand new and undoubtedly
good-looking, it's built with mostly utilitarian components. The
processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 with integrated Adreno 305
graphics, but there's a generous 1.5GB of RAM to keep things humming
along. The screen is a bit of a letdown at 540x960 pixels despite its
large size. There's Wi-Fi b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 along with A-GPS, FM
radio, an accelerometer and a proximity sensor. There's only 8GB of
internal storage space, but microSD cards of up to 32GB are supported
(and 64GB cards might work unofficially).
The main attraction is
of course the BlackBerry 10 OS. The Z3 comes with version 10.2.1 which
is considerably improved over the version that originally shipped with the Z10. The
phone might be physically similar to pretty much every other
touchscreen smartphone out there, but the BlackBerry OS takes quite a
bit of time and effort to get used to, even for users of older non-touch
For starters, there are no buttons of any sort to help you
move through the OS; you have to remember to use gestures instead.
This is problematic because things aren't always laid out as you might
expect them to be, making navigation unpredictable at times. For example, there's no universal "back" or "home" gesture, and getting in or out of the Hub (described later on) isn't the same as launching and quitting apps. Moreover,
you have to move your thumb quite a lot over the large screen which
takes longer and requires more effort than a simple button press would
The Z3's lock screen is pretty plain. There is of course a
large clock, plus assorted status indicators. You'll see a list of
notification icons down the left, and tapping on any of them will bring
up details of your missed calls, messages, emails or social network
alerts - you can choose not to display these details in the security settings.
There's also a pull-down shade which takes you into bedside mode. This dims the screen and displays a large illuminated clock on which you can easily drag dots
indicating the times each of your alarms will ring.
the screen, you'll see four large thumbnails representing your most
recently used apps. A swipe to the right will bring up the BlackBerry
Hub, and swipes to the left will take you through as many pages of app
icons as you have. The thumbnail page isn't like conventional app
switchers - it shows only four apps - and so its utility is rather
limited. You can never be sure that an app you want is going to be there
- in fact it gets in the way when you need to get to the app shortcuts.
This is also when we really miss having a home screen or at least a tray
that frequently used apps can be pinned to. Of course you can rearrange app icons in the grid any way you like, but the grid itself is always at least one level away from whatever you're doing. You have to go through the recent apps screen to reach it. Android lets you pin shortcuts and widgets to home screens and even iOS has at least a dock that stays constant on all menu pages.
Exiting any app
(with a swipe upwards from below the edge of the screen to above its
middle point) brings you back to the page of recent apps. While
performing the gesture, you'll notice a column of notification icons just
like the ones on the lock screen. It's a great way to constantly be
aware of things you might have missed. Incidentally, swiping down from
the top of the screen brings up a set of quick shortcuts, but there are
no notifications here. This is something every other platform has
standardised on, so not finding them here is a little disorienting at first. The
settings aren't consistent - sometimes you'll see the system-wide panel,
sometimes you'll see app-specific controls, and sometimes you'll get
nothing at all - which means you can't always quickly get to things like
the screen brightness or Bluetooth.
You can get to the BlackBerry
Hub by swiping to the right from the screen of thumbnails or by swiping
up and then right from within any app (except if you're in landscape
mode, in which the swipe-up motion is awkward and the swipe-up-and-right
gesture doesn't work at all). The Hub is truly unique amongst all
smartphone platforms, but like everything else, it takes a while to get
This is where all your email, messages, app
notifications and even missed call alerts can be found. You can add your
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Evernote and calendar accounts as well.
There is no separate email app; the hub is baked into the foundations
of the phone's OS itself. For some reason, though, there's still a
shortcut icon for Text Messaging in the launcher which leads you to the
Hub. You just have to remember that you can't exit the Hub like it's a
regular app; you can only swipe to the left.
BBM is still a major
part of the BlackBerry ecosystem and there are more features for
BlackBerry 10 users than there are for iPhone and Android users. It's
also integrated into the Hub as a first-class citizen, whereas some
other app alerts are just lumped under Notifications. BBM has several
strong features compared to today's dominant messaging apps, especially
in allowing you to control who can message you. Even so, none of this is
enough to drive anyone to choose a BlackBerry phone over the
competition. BBM just isn't the powerful draw it once was.
is also very proud of the keyboard it has developed for all-touch
BlackBerry 10 devices. We found that in regular usage it was just a bit
too large for comfortable typing. Either the company hasn't scaled it
appropriately for this screen and resolution, or it's just too spaced
out. Each row is separated by a thick bar reminiscent of the ones on the
old BlackBerry Bold phones, which is just unnecessary. One very nice
touch is that special characters are arranged exactly as they would be
on a desktop keyboard.
The two major keyboard features are the
Hinglish dictionary and the swipe-to-autocomplete gesture. Hinglish is
pretty neat, since it mixes in transliterated Hindi words and suggests
them in context as you type. You can scatter Hindi words into English
sentences or just type as usual. If you've ever felt that your natural
style was hampered by English autocorrect, you'll love this. Swiping to
complete becomes natural fairly quickly.
The Z3 comes with a
number of useful apps: FourSquare, Evernote, DocsToGo, Facebook,
Twitter, LinkedIn, Adobe Reader, YouTube and DropBox. Most of the
built-in apps are quite polished - the Calculator, for instance, has a
built-in unit convertor and even a tip calculator.
World app is a bit of a pain to nagivate, and searching for anything
will throw up app, music and game titles as results. Many common apps
can be found natively for BB 10, but the appeal is that a huge number of
Android apps will work as well. You can use third-party app stores such
as Amazon or SildeMe, or find installable APK files anywhere on the
Internet (if you're sure the source is safe). Installing is as simple as
tapping the file name in the browser's Downloads list or in the File
The voice search and command feature isn't as
capable of deciphering plainly spoken instructions as Siri or Google are, and will often
search for exactly what you say. It's possible to tell the Z3 to compose
a message, set alarms, get directions, and read your email out to you.
The Z3 didn't do very well at filtering out noise to decipher commands
(and of course had trouble with Indian names), but it's pretty versatile
Annoyingly, you can't plug the Z3 into a PC and access its internal
storage space. A microSD card will show up as a removable drive if
you're using one, but the only way to get media onto or off the phone
itself is to use BlackBerry's included desktop software (or use the File
Manager app to manually copy files to the microSD card or share them
via email, BBM, etc).
Z3 is a budget phone and it shouldn't be surprising that its camera
isn't anything to get excited about. Still, shots are decent enough when
the lighting is good, and you can post them to social networks without
any problem. At full size, it's obvious that the camera struggles with
details and that there's a lot of compression going on. We noticed that
the camera had trouble focusing in low light, but the flash is
surprisingly powerful. Video is again not spectacular, and the front
camera is entirely forgettable.
(Click to see full size)
The camera app is a bit too
simplistic. You can't really compose shots or do anything but wait and
hope that the camera focuses on what you want it to, since tapping
anywhere on the screen takes a photo - presumably, the decision not to
have a tappable button on screen was made more for aesthetics than
usability. You can choose between a normal shooting mode, image
stabilisation mode, burst, and HDR. There are also hardly any options -
you can turn the flash on and off, choose between three image aspect
ratios (but not sizes), and use one of only four scene modes (action,
whiteboard, night and beach/snow). There is no manual control
whatsoever, not even exposure, ISO or white balance.
usage was marked by occasional jitters, and there were sometimes
momentary pauses on black screens while transitioning from one task to
another. Despite looking and feeling like a high-end phone, the Z3
definitely does not deliver a premium experience. The gestures also
frankly add a delay to getting things done, especially since they don't
always work. Gestures might give BB 10 devices a clean look, but there's
nothing as quick and simple as hitting a Home button.
Not all our
Android benchmarks are available for the BlackBerry 10 platform. The
browser-based tests, SunSpider and Mozilla Kraken, indicated performance
on par with that of entry-level smartphones such as the Nokia Lumia
630. Quadrant scores were equally disappointing, although it should be
noted that we ran the Android APK in the absence of a native BB 10
The built-in speaker is pretty loud and works well for
voice, but music is just too thin and tinny. Predictably, 1080p videos
were jittery but 720p versions of the same clips seemed to play much
better. We did notice that the phone got a bit warm when playing HD
content. This is also when the low screen resolution really becomes
The battery test result was massively disappointing -
the Z3 lasted only 4 hours and 55 minutes in our video loop test. For a
phone that claims over 15 hours of talktime, this is not a good sign.
With ordinary usage, consisting of sporadic calls, messages, Web
browsing and a bit of gaming, we noticed that the Z3 lasted comfortably
through a full day and night.
The BlackBerry Z3 is
priced just slightly lower than the now-ancient Z10 (Review), but thanks to rapid
improvements in both hardware and design it's quite a bit better than
its predecessor in some ways. Awkwardly for the company, it's also very
competitive with the more recent Z30 (Review) which costs around twice as much.
In terms of value for money, this is the best all-touch BlackBerry
available right now.
But it's unclear who exactly would be
interested in buying this phone - surely not the legions of former BB
fans who have defected to Android and iOS over the past year or two, and
surely not those still sticking with older BlackBerrys because of their
It's too expensive to be most people's first
smartphone, so that rules out another potential audience - BlackBerry has missed out on a potentially crucial market there, at least till
the inevitable price cuts hit.
Could it be anyone's second phone? One
dedicated to work, alongside an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy for personal
use and entertainment? Perhaps. The Z3 is fantastic for hardcore
email and messaging - as long as you don't demand a physical keyboard.
Notifications are top-notch and there are loads of useful shortcuts
everywhere. The ability to prioritise, stay aware of and respond to
communications is quite unmatched on other platforms. Those who have
switched and miss having that kind of power might be tempted to give the
Z3 a try.
There's an even bigger question: will this be the
device that finally saves BlackBerry? Of the few phones launched in the
past two years, this one stands the best chance. All the company has to
do is actually launch it outside of core developing markets, which for
some reason is currently not the plan.
We wish BlackBerry had
hit this price point right from the beginnings of the all-touch BB 10
platform. It will be really interesting to see how the upcoming Classic
and Passport devices with keyboards turn out, in terms of pricing and
In that context, the BlackBerry Z3 is a solid phone.
Comparing specifications and capabilities, it doesn't look good next to
Android-based phones in its price range. On the other hand, if you value
build quality, deal with hundreds of emails per day and don't have any
use for multimedia features, it comes out on top. This phone delivers on
the classic BlackBerry promise, finally updated for our century, for
those few who still want that.
BlackBerry Z3 in pictures