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A first look at BlackBerry's giant Z30 and cross-platform BBM app

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While BlackBerry seems to be preparing for the worst, it's also readying two of its more interesting new products: a cross-platform version of its classic BBM service and the 5-inch BlackBerry Z30, a more powerful and larger cousin of the Z10. The two don't come out for two days and a week, respectively, but we've gotten a quick look at both.

BBM has been a long time coming, and the result is a fairly slick-looking app with the bright, flat design language we've come to expect from just about everything. Coming to both iOS and Android this weekend, it runs on the same servers as its native BlackBerry counterpart, and BlackBerry is selling the service partly as a secure alternative to existing competitors. That said, its user experience doesn't have any immediately notable advantages over services like Whatsapp. The design includes just about everything you'd expect: a slide-out side menu includes group messaging features and other settings, while a contacts list lets you talk to individual users. Normally, you'll likely be making contacts online, but if you'd like to do it in person, there's both a PIN and a QR option.

The iOS app we saw is simple and pretty intuitive at first glance, but there's nothing really compelling to people who haven't already invested in BlackBerry's ecosystem. While BBM was early to over-the-top messaging, it's late to the cross-platform game, and we didn't find any pleasant surprises in the few minutes we spent with it.

The Z30, by contrast, is immediately eye-catching, if only because of its size. Even if 5 inches isn't too unusual now, it's still a big phone, and the pre-production model we saw was made larger by a thick faux-leather case that won't be on the final version. Without the case the phone was backless, but assuming the shell adds the millimeter we were told it would, it'll be fairly thin considering its sizable battery. Unfortunately, the design itself isn't much to speak of. The bottom chin has a sleek metallic sheen, but the bezel is otherwise frustratingly shiny and cheap-looking, and the screen itself is serviceable but not spectacular. Sound quality is also supposed to be much improved, and it certainly did seem clearer than the Nexus 4 we used for comparison.

The Z30's BlackBerry 10.2 OS is meant to be best when used over time — its "learning" feature slowly figures out the most important messages you want and collects them on a "Priority Hub" — and while new features like notifications are welcome, it's hard to gauge their usefulness without spending some time with the phone. With the Z30 coming out next week in the UK and Middle East, then rolling out elsewhere this fall, it won't be long until those features are put to the test — along with BlackBerry enthusiasts' fondness for giant screens.