The leading BlackBerry gets its most important makeover yet. (November 10th, 2009)
RIM is not typically known for revolutionary new phones that are entirely different than previous models. The BlackBerry Bold 9700 certainly stays consistent as it is represents an evolutionary step forward from the Bold and other previous BlackBerries. While it’s apparent that RIM has put a lot of work into perfecting the Bold, is it perfect for converting iPhone and Windows Mobile users into devotees?
Product Manufacturer: Research in Motion
Price: $200 (two-year contract, T-Mobile)
- Trackpad a much better input than the trackball.
- Higher-resolution screen.
- 3G for T-Mobile users.
- Wi-Fi calling and visual voicemail (on T-Mobile/Rogers).
- Significantly improved camera for still shots.
- Clear calling on 3G and Wi-Fi.
- Capable if unspectacular e-mail, GPS and music playback.
- Good battery life for a 3G device.
- BlackBerry OS 5.0 still at times ungainly.
- Poor video capture.
- Internet, GPS and media no longer class-leading.
- App World not as extensive or as easy as iPhone's App Store.
ergonomics and design
When picking up the new Bold we were immediately struck with the clarity and size of the new screen. At 2.44 inches across and 480x360 pixels, the Bold 9700's screen is one of the largest and clearest we've seen from RIM yet. Unfortunately, testing proves that it also isn't as bright as we would like. It's a beautiful sharp, large screen, but it's also too dim. The other major improvement besides the screen on this Bold, though, is the form factor. The unit is of ideal size and weight, easily pocketable, and fits well in the hand.
The Bold features a typical BlackBerry keyboard mostly borrowed from the original Bold and the Tour. We had several past BlackBerry users and some novices try the keyboard, and all found it easy to use. The novices adapted quickly and the veterans felt right at home. The Bold 9700 is the first BlackBerry to come equipped with a trackpad instead of a trackball, however. Everyone that tested the 9700 found the trackpad just as easy and intuitive in the keyboard; in some cases, the trackpad was even compared to the iPhone in terms of responsiveness and accuracy, which can't be said for its sometimes clog-prone and physically demanding predecessor. This new feature from RIM is a certifiable success.
Other than the typical BlackBerry buttons above the keyboard there are only a few notable physical features on the phone. The left side of the phones features the now requisite 3.5mm headphone jack, a USB port, and the signature activity button while the right side holds the volume toggle control. The top left portion of the Bold 9700 functions as a sleep button that locks the keyboard and dims the screen, a feature that can at times be sensitive but is often sorely missed on competing devices.
interface and apps
From a software standpoint, the Bold 9700 has the typical BlackBerry OS look and feel despite the use of BlackBerry OS 5.0. For veteran BlackBerry owners this familiarity is welcome and expected. For would-be iPhone converts, however the plain fonts and long text-driven menus prove sterile and boring. If RIM really wants to market BlackBerry products to home users instead of business-oriented workers, we feel that they'll need to soften up the look and feel of some of the deeper menus and find a way to streamline navigating settings.
Multitasking on the Bold is very simple -- and still a feature its most obvious rival lacks. The BlackBerry key almost always shows a 'Switch Application' option to jump between tasks, and hopping between various apps is almost always seamless and quick.
Like previous BlackBerry models before it, the Bold 9700 has a built-in GPS receiver and BlackBerry Maps. We found that the device found our location fairly quick once it located a suitable number of GPS satellites to work with. The mapping software computed and loaded directions quickly. We even planned a trip from LA to New York City which computed and appeared in a few short seconds. While appreciated, it does now face pressure from Google Maps Navigation on Android and provides feats that are still absent in BlackBerry Maps, like text-to-speech directions and a bird's eye view.
browsing, e-mail, and messaging
BlackBerry products are known for their productivity features and integration with other email and calendaring systems. In testing the new Bold 9700 we therefore had to put the Internet, e-mail, and messaging apps through the paces, starting with the web browser.
The internet browser application on the Bold is still all-around good, but we feel that it suffers from the BlackBerry's lack of touch-based input. All of the pages we tested loaded quickly and rendered relatively accurately. Here, the trackpad's mouse-like behaviour was a decided edge: those companies with mobile -optimized sites were very easy to use with much more responsiveness and few of the hassles that come with non-touch input. Full-size pages with a larger format than that of the BlackBerry's screen were also usable; the Bold 9700 makes zooming in and out simple, but it's certainly at a disadvantage to its competitors like the Palm Pre and Apple iPhone that can zoom in or out via a pinch or a double-tap. It simply takes more time to navigate large format pages with the Bold than other phones, including RIM's own Storm2.
We tested the BlackBerry e-mail application with one of our personal Gmail accounts, which highlights RIM's recent efforts to improve its links to the cloud. Gmail integration on the Bold is excellent as the Bold even supports Gmail specific actions, like archiving. Setting up an account automatically loaded all contacts, though calendars have yet to automatically sync. As you'd expect, push e-mail as a whole still represents RIM's key selling point and delivered mail almost instantaneously, with messages easily viewed and edited. The iPhone does have advantages, such the as quicker mass deletion of messages, but still faces a stiff fight.
SMS and text messaging on the Bold is easy and works well, as do the AIM and Google Talk apps. We still have yet to find a use for BlackBerry Messenger, though.
Even with all the aforementioned business, communication, and productivity features the Bold can still double as a media device, including in its web browser. We started by pointing the browser to YouTube and watching some videos: these loaded quickly and playback was smooth despite the limitations of streaming. We also watched some preloaded video that came on the Bold that appropriately looked gorgeous given the sharp, high-density screen.
From a multimedia capture standpoint we were also impressed. The 3.2 megapixel camera is accompanied by autofocus and a flash, and we were pleasantly surprised by the final quality of the pictures. The pictures below of the M&Ms were taken in natural lighting, while the flower picture was taken with flash; we'd still avoid when possible but like the option. While not professional-grade, the camera alone may be enough to convince original Bold owners to trade up.
After taking some test pictures we turned on a small 13-inch TV to record some test video. It's here that RIM's inexperience with video became all too apparent: image quality was just average, and the audio pickup was terrible. We're not sure why the mic is tuned so low and without gain adjustment, but it's a far cry from more sensitive competitors that often produce better video.
We also tested out music, which while not iPhone-level has still been a relative advantage compared to the lacking software in Windows Mobile and even Android. Audio quality was excellent, and the application was easy to use with a hierarchical organization similar to most popular music apps. It won't replace a dedicated music player but is enough that it can fill in as an all-in-one device for some. That's also now true for Mac users given the recent introduction of Desktop Manager for Apple's systems, as it can bring in iTunes content much more easily without having to use a third-party conduit app. Bluetooth headphones paired up with no trouble and functioned well.
phone features, Wi-Fi calling and battery life
Beyond all its extras, the Bold is still a phone, and as a professional device it would fail outright if it didn't have the right features and quality. The Bold comes through with a decisive victory in this department with some clear advantages and excellent audio quality.
Perhaps the best component is Wi-Fi calling, also known as HotSpot Calling, for those who get either the T-Mobile or (in Canada) Rogers editions. When connected to a wireless LAN and with HotSpot Calling active on your service, the Bold directs all of its calls over the Internet and doesn't count those minutes as usage, even if you wander far enough to switch to the cellular link. For individuals with wireless at home and the office, this can often drastically reduce actual call time and the need for a particularly expensive main phone plan. Call quality over Wi-Fi is the same as over T-Mobile's 3G network -- that is, loud and clear -- but is appropriately more resilient against reception problems indoors. The speakerphone, earpiece and mic are excellently calibrated.
Next to the Wi-Fi calling support, T-Mobile also bundles in a Visual Voice Mail app. With the exception of the touch interface, this works just like Apple's and firmly levels the playing field. We also tested the phone's voice dialling and were impressed that it could recognize even unconventional names when asked.
The phone is rated at 21 days of standby time and 6 hours of talk time for battery life. We charged the Bold upon arrival and did extensive testing for several days with heavy voice and data usage. In practice, these numbers are largely accurate and impressive given how quickly many smartphones deplete themselves. We even left the 3G and Wi-Fi connections on indefinitely and played with many obviously battery-taxing software like media players and games.
For existing BlackBerry owners, the Bold 9700 is potentially more than the sum of its parts. The trackpad interface is the most welcome change from the traditional BlackBerry formula, but we also appreciate the extra screen real estate compared to prior models. A much better camera can't be ignored, either. On the software front, the implementation of Wi-Fi calling and visual voicemail from T-Mobile are perks and, notably, come without sacrificing 3G like on older T-Mobile BlackBerries. AT&T doesn't yet have an equivalent to HotSpot calling, so this may tip the balance for some.
There are a few flaws RIM should address, but not all are serious. Aside from needing to brighten the display, the long, plain, and not always intuitive BlackBerry menus still leave something to be desired. While effective, they won't have most giving up a recent competitor.
Still, the 9700 may only be an evolutionary improvement over previous BlackBerry models but has evolved into an extraordinary, much more well-rounded smartphone. For buyers looking for a non-touch device, it's a very compelling mix of many of RIM's strengths in a single handset.