By Michael Oliveira, The Canadian Press
TORONTO - It's not the best timing for BlackBerry to have just released the Z30, a five-inch smartphone billed as a bigger, better version of the Z10.
The Z10 was part of BlackBerry's much-ballyhooed comeback attempt centred around its reinvented operating system, BlackBerry 10.
But the phone didn't sell well, to put it mildly, and now BlackBerry is slashing jobs and costs as it tries to refashion its business for a potential takeover — or a fire sale that could see the company broken up and sold for parts.
The problem wasn't that the Z10 was a bad phone.
American tech reviewers who relished opportunities to take shots at BlackBerry gave the Z10 good marks. But not great marks. The Z10 was seen as a good phone but not nearly strong enough to sway iPhone and Android fans from their devices.
The Z30 suffers from the same problem as the Z10.
It's a decent enough phone. It does a few things better than its competitors, and all but the most demanding of users would probably consider it a fine mobile tool.
Unfortunately for the company — and the thousands of employees who need BlackBerry to catch every break it can if they're to hold onto their jobs — decent and fine aren't enough to compete in today's crowded smartphone market.
While it seems puzzling that BlackBerry would release another phone now, work on the Z30 dates back more than a year, to back when the company was still hoping that BlackBerry 10 would change its fortunes.
It was last summer when BlackBerry vice president of design Todd Wood was in Germany working with engineers on a phone with a bigger screen. They had watched Samsung have great success with the S III, with a 4.8-inch screen, and the even larger Galaxy Note phablet, with a 5.3-inch display.
"Every year we survey (consumers) and we actually design different sizes of devices, and what we realized is every year it seems the new normal is getting a little bit larger," said Wood of the decision to go bigger.
"We actually make designs that go too far, because you want to test those extremes. And we lay them out on the table and have people test them and statistically you can see where those sweet spots are."
The sweet spot turned out to be five inches, which was a good size upgrade from the 4.2-inch screen on the Z10 but still manageable to hold in one hand.
Longtime BlackBerry users moving up to the Z30 from an older device will be pleased with the sharp quality of the screen — although it's not the best on the market. With a pixel depth of 295 per inch, it's a little less than the latest iPhone and considerably less than Samsung's Galaxy S4. But whether looking at text, photos or videos it's unlikely that many users will be disappointed by the device's sharpness.
The other big upgrade for the Z30 is battery life, with BlackBerry claiming it will run for 25 hours of "mixed use" or 18 hours of talk time, compared to 10 hours of talk time for the Z10. The Z30 should definitely last a full day for most users, unless they're watching hour after hour of video and using WiFi or a mobile network virtually nonstop.
The Z30 also has a surprisingly strong set of speakers built into it, which can be cranked to a decent volume with clear sound.
There are a few more cool features new to the BlackBerry platform but they're not exclusive to the Z30. The latest version of the BlackBerry operating system, 10.2, is preloaded on the Z30 and will soon be available for the Z10, Q10 and Q5.
One of the best new features is a pop up notification system that appears at the top of the screen when a new email, text or BBM message arrives, previewing the sender and a bit of the message. If it happens to be a BBM message, users can reply to it without leaving the app they're in. For those who are constantly bombarded by incoming messages — which is common to many BlackBerry users — it's a handy feature that alleviates the need to constantly check the inbox.
A feature called Priority Inbox also helps users who are deluged with messages by sorting out the most important ones, both automatically and with user settings.
There are literally dozens more improvements to the new operating system but none that would really cause an iPhone or Android user to take notice and consider a change to Team BlackBerry.
And those users who are accustomed to having access to virtually endless numbers of apps to download will still find BlackBerry World is woefully stocked.
BlackBerry's guide for reviewers highlights that the popular productivity app Evernote was added last month — although it has long been available to iPhone and Android users — and refers to its built-in compass and clock programs as "showcase apps."
When you're focusing on a compass or clock app — as slick as they may be — it's not a good sign.
BlackBerry fans who have wilfully ignored the relentless doom and gloom surrounding the company's fate and aren't overly annoyed by the app selection issue will likely be pleased with the Z30. Consumers who aren't tied to any particular platform and want a phone that does a good job of browsing the web and managing email and social media will also find it's up to the job.
But given how few consumers embraced the Z10, which was released to positive reviews but never caught on, there's little chance of the Z30 doing much to bolster BlackBerry or help its turnaround efforts.