RIM comes out swinging after Android and iPhone (September 18th, 2011)
Product Manufacturer: Research in Motion
Price: $150 to $300 (3 yrs, Bell to 2 yrs, T-Mobile)
- Excellent keyboard.
- Top-tier build quality; thinner.
- Larger, multi-touch screen.
- Much, much faster.
- Long battery life.
- 3D apps at last.
- Solid call quality.
- Good video quality.
- BlackBerry App World improvements.
- Outgoing, slightly outdated BlackBerry 7 OS.
- Few apps that still aren't as easy to find as elsewhere.
- Expensive for what you get.
- Only adequate still image quality; no autofocus.
- Screen is small for those used to full touch phones.
For much of 2011, many had counted RIM out: many 2010 BlackBerry phones were old as soon as you opened the box, and it wasn't clear that it would ever adopt features Android and iPhone users took for granted, like 3D gaming, HD video, or even just fast web browsing. The BlackBerry Bold 9900 is the vanguard of a complete overhaul that could prove the doomsayers wrong. But does it? We'll answer that in our BlackBerry Bold 9900 review.
Design: the body, the keyboard, the screen
The Bold has always been the standard bearer for RIM's line, and it has usually had the best feel and looks. When the 9780 arrived, however, many were worried RIM was trimming costs and cheapening the line; it didn't feel like a flagship anymore.
Thankfully, the Bold 9900 isn't just a return to form, it's at a level of quality RIM hasn't been to before. Gone is the seemingly all-plastic trim in favor of a glass composite material back and real steel instead of the fake chrome of before. It may be taking crib notes from the iPhone 4, but arguably, that's a good thing; more than any BlackBerry that has ever existed, it exudes quality. You'll want to take care of it, and it feels much more pleasing in the hand, as it should for a phone that's as likely to be owned by a corporate executive as anyone else.
It's a lot thinner, too. No one will confuse it with an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy S II, but at 0.41 inches it's not much thicker than the iPhone and yet is still entirely accessible. Pop open the back and you can pull the battery or load in a microSDHC card (up to 32GB), though you'll realistically want to do the former before the latter. RIM gives the phone 8GB of built-in storage that should be more than enough for casual use, although only about 6.2GB is free for something other than the OS and preloaded apps.
Controls and extras around the side reflect RIM's newfound attention to an upscale feel. The volume rocker, mute button, and convenience key all have a short but sure press. The wake button is slightly more mixed: it's great feeling, but we noticed a few moments where we pulled the 9900 from our pocket already woken up. We would likely have recessed it more. A nice touch is the pair of contact points for a charging dock.
By far the highlight of the device, though, is the keyboard. Most consider the Bold 9000 the pinnacle of RIM's keyboard design for its wide spacing and comfortable feel; this is better. As the phone's about six percent wider and also taller, it's very easy to accurately hit each of the sculpted keys. Each of them has a short, authoritative travel that's still fairly quiet. We'd still argue that typing on a touchscreen is faster, as you don't need function key combos to type numbers or other special characters, but if there were ever a phone that would make a convincing case for wanting a hardware keyboard, this is it.
Other controls are very familiar and include the signature trackpad and navigation keys. In the dark, however, you'll find a much-needed backlit control set, the first ever for a BlackBerry. If you've ever tried to text a friend while at the nightclub or type directions for the bus while on the street afterwards, you'll appreciate it. The Bold uses ambient light sensing to gauge whether the backlight is needed and tends to work well.
Of course, the 9900 controls are defined by one very important addition that's new to the Bold: a touchscreen. While the Storm and Torch have done this before, the 9900 is the first BlackBerry to have both a touchscreen and a fixed QWERTY keyboard. We'll go into depth on the experience later, but we'll say now that it's arguably how a BlackBerry should go, since you never have to remember to slide out a keyboard like on the Torch 9800/9810 nor rely solely on either buttons or touch.
At 2.8 inches and a 640x480 resolution, it's certainly the best looking display yet seen on the Bold. It's not quite Apple Retina Display sharp, but pixels are largely non issues here. Colors are vibrant, but we noticed that the richness is visible when you're near head-on. Tilting significantly in any direction tends to wash out the colors, even if the picture itself is visible.
Touch input itself is accurate and quick. Gone are the days of the poor SurePress screen from the Storm, where the need to push downwards and the generally early state of the screen led to a lot of unintentional input. As a rule, the multi-touch input is quick and accurate, although veteran Bold and Curve owners will need to get used to a smudge-laden screen that needs occasional cleaning.
BlackBerry 7 and performance
Although it's badged as a whole new OS revision, make no mistake: BlackBerry 7 is really more 6.1 than a whole new revision. The interface isn't a fundamental break from BlackBerry 6, so if you didn't like the earlier OS, the layout by itself won't change your mind. Having said this, the core of the OS is generally just fine. RIM's real issues are rooted in the necessary holdovers from supporting the earlier OS: some at times important features are buried in contextual menus, and many settings or other options are in RIM's all too familiar endless lists. We're looking forward to when devices using a variant on the QNX-based OS from the BlackBerry PlayBook come in, since it's much more visually driven, even if we hope phones don't have to rely on bezel gestures like the tablet.
That's not to say that there aren't important changes, some of which really do improve your perception of the OS. The browser alone is worth it if you're a veteran BlackBerry user who wants to reach the web. BlackBerry 7 uses a much more recent version of the (Apple-developed) WebKit engine, and in tandem with the faster processor and 14.4Mbps HSPA 3G, it's now close enough to the iPhone 4 or a modern Android phone as to be an enjoyable experience. Quirks are few, though they exist: the 2.8-inch screen feels short if you're used to reading articles on the tall portrait screens of other devices, text rendering is often plain, and Adobe Flash (as problematic as it is) will never come to the pre-QNX devices, although HTML5 makes up for that on video-focused pages. Still, the 9900 is the first BlackBerry where the web feels like a first-class citizen, not just an if-you-have-to inclusion, and it's all the better as a result.
Other additions are subtle and sometimes really just rollups of earlier features. Voice-guided search is really there to stay competitive. It's not especially accurate, and on a phone with an always-up keyboard and a good instant search feature, it's often faster just to type. BlackBerry Balance and Protect are handy for keeping work separate from home or safeguarding a phone if it gets lost, but neither are completely new or exclusive to RIM. We do like the ability to customize which panels you see on the home screen. If you got frustrated with wading through favorites and downloads just to get to what you wanted, you'll like BlackBerry 7.
A quick note on GPS positioning: while the stock BlackBerry Maps app isn't very useful for more than basic directions and isn't good at searching, the GPS itself is very quick, often getting an accurate lock within a few seconds.
More than anything, it's the fluidity of the experience that makes it feel like a thoroughly modern smartphone. RIM has dropped the aging 624MHz Marvell processor from 2008 and swapped in a 1.2GHz Snapdragon. With hardware graphics acceleration (dubbed Liquid Graphics by RIM) and 50 percent more memory at 768MB of RAM, the new Bold has virtually instant response and spends much less time waiting. The infamous BlackBerry "loading" hourglass is much less present, and unlike on earlier phones, you're often still free to do something else when that icon appears. It isn't as fast from a heavy duty work perspective as dual-core phones like the Samsung Galaxy S II, HTC Sensation, or (presumably) the fifth-generation iPhone, but for just handling common tasks and basic multitasking, it's seamless.
Some of the improvements are specific to the Bold 9900's interface. The mix of the touchscreen and fixed keyboard is a surprisingly powerful combination. You're never at a loss for how to control the phone: you can tap the screen, glide over the trackpad, or type a shortcut, and you'll often find yourself doing a combination of all three without consciously thinking about it. As such, you almost always have enough precision or speed to do what you want. The experience appears more integrated than on an Android phone like the Motorola Droid Pro, so while Android is more flexible, RIM's work is somewhat more satisfying.
BlackBerry App World and the arrival of 3D apps
Although not preloaded, BlackBerry App World 3.0 and the Bold 9900 arrived at virtually the same time and define each other, as do some of the new apps. The new portal isn't quite as much of a revolution as suggested by the version number, but it does make for a much more visual experience that's consistent with the interface of the OS itself. It surfaces more of the categories in an easier to understand way, and so you're much more likely to find a relevant app. RIM is now highlighting apps that it thinks are worthwhile, including by group: it will round up some of the better apps to use during a commute, for example.
The store itself is now more mature as a whole. Titles have in-app purchases, and it's noticeably easier to both sign in on an account and manage how you pay for apps. Even though BlackBerry phones are still heavily focused on tying service to a specific phone, it's easier now to shift to a new phone with a BlackBerry ID, as well as to set up more elaborate payment options like carrier billing or PayPal.
With that in mind, there's still a few problems, some of which RIM might not escape that easily. Apart from the home page and games section, there isn't a lot of app highlighting. You can see the top free, top paid, and most recent apps, but you'll never see any special treatment given to productivity apps, for example. We'd also add that RIM delves too deeply into sub-categories: it's occasionally handy, but "document tools" is only marginally more useful than a general productivity group.
There's also the question of app quantity. RIM has over 40,000 BlackBerry apps; on a BlackBerry 7 device like the 9900, however, many pre-6 apps (and occasionally, pre-7) won't run and won't show in the store. That's a far cry from Android Market or the iOS App Store, where it's reasonable to assume that almost all the 250,000 or 400,000 apps in the respective stores will still work. That can't entirely be changed, but especially with the extensive sub-categories, it's very common to find just a couple of dozen apps in a given section where the same area would have hundreds or thousands elsewhere. Many core apps are covered, but it's the difference between having just one good app to use versus 10 or 20.
RIM can tout one addition specific to BlackBerry 7 phones such as the new Bold: 3D apps, particularly games. The Snapdragon chip's Adreno 205 graphics, along with OpenGL (Open Graphics Library) support, finally allows for the dimension, which has been present on rival platforms since 2008. We've tried a handful of 3D titles, and while it's slightly odd to be playing a 3D game on a QWERTY keyboard phone that looks meant for the boardroom, the performance and experience are on par with modern smartphones, suggesting RIM has caught up quickly.
It remains to be seen how much support RIM will get for 3D gaming given the years it's spent trying to pitch the BlackBerry as a business-first platform. Suffice it to say that the number of 3D apps of any kind on App World is very small just a few weeks after the 9900 reached stores. It's difficult to say whether there will be many more, or if developers are waiting until the PlayBook-based OS and a more futureproof platform to work on.
Camera apps and image quality
Photography has never been RIM's biggest focus -- you can buy a 9900 or 9930 without a camera for extra-secure offices -- and the camera app design reflects this. The camera app has a few settings, such as flash control, resolution, scene presets, and image stabilization, but you won't find white balance, light sensitivity, or other settings that some cameras have. It's arguably made up for through the convenience key and speed. If you don't reprogram it, the side key gets you to the camera app very quickly, and there isn't much shot-to-shot lag like we've seen on some phones.
Image quality is mixed. Although the new Bold has a five-megapixel camera, it lacks the autofocus from the Torch series in order to reach that relatively thin profile. As a consequence, you can't shoot macros or otherwise adjust focus; if a flower or a friend is too close, it will always be a blur. Still images are generally acceptable outside of this limitation. They tend to have a burned-in look (including clearly clipped white highlights) and will get visibly noisy with even moderately low light, but they're sharp and reasonably faithful to the scene at hand.
Flash is strictly adequate and will light up your friends' faces in a nightclub, but not much more. We'd say the 9900's camera is good enough for incidental street shots or tagging a Foursquare picture, but not the creative photography possible with an iPhone 4 or an HTC Incredible S. For us, that's perfectly reasonable given the nature of a BlackBerry; it's just not as advanced as with some peers.
Video quality takes a major step forward here. The Bold 9900 can finally record HD video, kicking up to 720p (1280x720) from VGA (640x480) or below on older BlackBerry models. There's definitely some artifacting. It's not glaring, though, and the image remained surprisingly sharp and well-exposed, handling motion and the transitions between light and dark fairly gracefully. Audio quality was unexpectedly high as well, with sound being fairly rich and subtle in average sound conditions. You still wouldn't want to record video professionally, but the resulting footage is easily worth posting to YouTube, something that you can do from the app.
Call quality and battery life
RIM still stakes some of its reputation on call quality. The company has little reason to worry right now: voice quality is generally good on both sides and loud if the speaker is properly up to your ear. Speakerphone use, as you'd hope for on an enterprise phone, is also good given that the speaker is clearly exposed. If you're looking for the highest quality, we'd currently give the nod to the Galaxy S II.
We were trying the GSM-based 9900 and not the CDMA-based 9930, so we can't vouch for differences in voice quality. Some give the nod to CDMA for voice quality, so those on Sprint or Verizon may get better calls. We'd take the difference to get the 14.4Mbps 3G present on most other carriers, though. Longevity has always been a staple of the BlackBerry, too. Some BlackBerry veterans were alarmed, then, when RIM dropped the battery capacity from 1,500mAh on the 9780 down to 1,230mAh on the 9900 and 9930. In theory, with a faster processor, it should run out very quickly. RIM gives between six to six and a half hours of talk time, which isn't long when others are claiming seven or eight.
In practice, we found that there's not only enough battery but that it lasts a conspicuously long time, especially in this era of 4G Android phones that sometimes need to be charged twice a day. Even with a day of fairly heavy use for some calls, e-mail, photography, Twitter, and the web, we still had more than half of the battery left; lighter days could easily see the phone barely touched. Standby life is also controlled, and the battery drains only a few percent where we've seen others lose a fifth of a full battery charge just being left idle. RIM's well-known data compression likely has a lot to do with it, since the 3G or Wi-Fi radio spends less time online.
If you've been using a BlackBerry for one or more generations, the Bold 9900 and 9930 should almost automatically become your favorite BlackBerry of all time. In many senses, it's the culmination of everything RIM has done so far in a package that mostly pulls it off. There's an exceptional keyboard, a good touchscreen implementation, and long battery life. Moreover, it's finally up to par in performance and feels like it's getting the build quality RIM has owed for awhile.
There's no doubt, then, that RIM can easily get its loyal fans back. But what about those who've already bought into Android or the iPhone? That's where we feel RIM still has an uphill struggle ahead. While the Bold is a very accomplished device, there's no question that you can point to other 2011-era phones if you want more. If you're into gaming or media, both Apple and Google can point to phones with bigger screens (sometimes much bigger), faster processors, and more apps to use them with. RIM itself has the Torch 9850 and 9860 if you want bigger. You also don't have to use a BlackBerry to get a good keyboard when phones like the Motorola Droid 3 (XT860) exist, although we'd say RIM still holds an edge there.
More than anything, it's the cost that might break some potential buyers. The prices vary widely from carrier to carrier. The cheapest we've seen so far is at Telus in Canada, where you'll pay $150 if you're willing to take a long three-year contract. Rogers and Sprint in Canada and the US charge $200 with varying contract sizes, however, and the prices climb even higher to $250 at Verizon and a staggering $300 at T-Mobile.
At those higher prices, it's just not worth it unless you absolutely have to have a BlackBerry; that's as much as a high-end iPhone at multiple carriers or an LTE-equipped Android phone at Verizon. If you can afford to wait, RIM has a tendency to cut prices quickly or arrange buy-one-get-one deals, so consider holding off if you're sensitive to the initial price.
There is also a slight concern for the longevity of the platform. RIM recently said it expects BlackBerry 7 to still be in the majority into late 2012 even as its QNX-based phones filter in, but they'll primarily occupy the mid-range and low-end spectrums. Certain apps, most of all games, are likely to be optimized for the new platform first. We're comfortable enough to buy in, although we'd warn to only assume about two years of support before BlackBerry 7 starts fading away.
Even with all these concerns in mind, we're happy with the Bold 9900 just because it puts RIM back on the map. It's proof RIM wants to do more than sit on its laurels and that it's capable of getting notice. Will it draw you away from a Droid Bionic, Galaxy S II, or iPhone 5? Probably not, but we've heard of a few deliberately dropping Android for the 9900 simply because they want to get back to a more integrated, cohesive experience again and like what they see. That alone might say a lot about what RIM has pulled off.