BlackBerry Bold 9000 review

Before the iPhone came along, Research In Motion (RIM) had the final say on smartphones with its legendary BlackBerry range of mobiles.

Since the iPhone arrived on the scene, the market for smartphones has exploded. Moving way beyond the enterprise territory and into the hands of consumers, who are just as eager as business users for mobile internet and email.

Rather than let Apple have the market to itself, RIM has struck back with this – the BlackBerry Bold 9000. A valiant attempt to wrest back the upper hand in the smartphone market. Like the iPhone, this is a serious attempt to please business users and consumers who want their phones to do everything. The BlackBerry Bold 9000 is a quad-band handset with both HSDPA (high speed downlink packet access) 3G and GPS navigation.

And, with its black fascia and silver bezel it looks a lot like the iPhone. RIM assured us that the phone had been in development for three-and-a-half years and that the style is an evolution of earlier BlackBerry phones. Still, if you ever wanted to know what an iPhone would look like if Apple had gone down the scroll ball and keypad route, look no further.

With its black fascia and silver bezel, the BlackBerry Bold shares many design motifs with the iPhone

The handset we tested is on the Vodafone network, but T-Mobile announced last week that it will also be selling the Bold, while RIM tells us that in time all UK networks will be selling it. Prices will vary according to contract, but as a rule of thumb you can expect to get the phone for free on a £45 per month contract.

First impressions are extremely favourable: this is a superb-looking smartphone with strong lines and a gorgeous screen. BlackBerry handsets traditionally come with leatherette cases in which to store your precious gem – the Bold meanwhile has a leatherette back, into which is set the 2mp camera and video capture unit.

A broad, flat handset that nonetheless fits comfortably in the palm, it’s noticeably heavier than other BlackBerry handsets although slightly lighter than the iPhone 3G. The look is clean and modern. This is helped by the fact that there’s a smart silver magnesium-alloy trim around the Bold’s circumference with silver lines separating each line of keys on its full Qwerty keypad. These ‘frets’ between the rows of keys help distinguish between them – a device that Bold’s designer borrowed from the guitar (though we think RIM’s reference to the keys being on a musical stave is stretching the analogy somewhat).

Looks a charm
Viewed from the front, the BlackBerry Bold is much flatter than previous models, and the keys don’t protrude as much as on the 8800 series models (those with the famous scrollwheel on the handset’s righthand edge).

The transmissive LCD screen is not touch sensitive and feels much sturdier than the tough plastic coating on the consumer-focused Pearl range. The overall effect is smarter, classier and more desirable. We even dare go so far as to say that the Bold is as good-looking as the iPhone and, for business executives, it’s more corporate style may make it the preferred choice.

Initially available only in piano black, which nicely sets off the silver accents, RIM hopes that the Bold will quickly become the sort of desirable product that everyone wants to make their own, with different fascias and onscreen customisations. Just the sort of thing we can imagine City wideboys and business fashionistas doing. It’s a handset for the discerning consumer, but it will also appeal strongly to the executive.

Sight and sound
The display itself is much improved, with a half-VGA 480 x 320-pixel resolution and the ability to display 65,000 colours. The result is a detailed and very vibrant screen from which photos and video seem to burst forth. The effect, says RIM’s Rob Orr, is a direct effect of the glass of the Bold’s screen now being flush against the lens rather than separate from it.

DivX and some xVid video codecs are supported, as is WMV (Windows Media Video) and H.264. For audio, the Bold can play the key formats of MP3, AAC and WMA9/10.

Another notable improvement is in the microphone and speaker. We were able to comfortably watch a trailer for a Hollywood blockbuster without needing to plug in a headset to catch the dialogue, and also found it worked well as a voice recorder.

As with other BlackBerry handsets, it can be all too easy to depress the voice command hardware button on the Bold’s exterior and find yourself being prompted to ‘Say a command’. However, you aren’t stuck with the feature set its maker provides. Pressing on the BlackBerry button lets you move, promote or demote items from the main screen and you can create a mini taskbar of frequently-used apps that you can jump straight to. In addition to this, there are almost as many predefined and user-assignable shortcut keys as you care to dream up.

We were very much enamoured of the new user interface RIM has dreamt up for the Bold, the BlackBerry OS 4.6. We learnt from its product manager that Research In Motion’s policy is to apply all innovations introduced on one generation of handset to successive models. Gone are the outdated looking large coloured icons and the signature background image of the highway disappearing over the horizon. Instead, application icons are now sharper, brighter and defined with a thin white border that separates them from the smart black background on which they sit. You can alter this background to something more personal, but we really like what RIM has done here and think many users will be more than content with this sharper, more modern look.

When you first start using the Bold, you’re presented with an array of six function icons along the bottom of the screen. These equate to lock, email, contact book, calendar, Web browser and GPS navigation.

The time, date, phone network, connection status, battery life and signal strength are all listed in a translucent bar at the top of the screen. All of this is customisable, of course.

When emails arrive in your inbox, a small red number appears at the top of the email envelope icon telling you the number of waiting mails. Users of the iPhone will recognise this useful setup.

Playing the keys
Texting and composing emails on the Bold is an efficient process too. RIM told us that its own tests showed that the Bold has “the highest typing rate of all Qwerty handsets”. It’s probably here – if anywhere – that the Bold bests the iPhone 3G. People who text and email a lot will find the BlackBerry more forgiving on the thumbpads than the virtual keys of the iPhone. However, the flip side of this is that the predictive text of the iPhone is second-to-none, and when you do miss-type the BlackBerry Bold does not catch mistakes as well as the iPhone. We found the process of having to press delete to catch mistakes incredibly frustrating after a year of iPhone predictive text perfection.

Email delivery was speedy though: no sooner had we typed in our test email messages and pressed the central orb to initiate the send than the message popped up in our work email.

We tested the email delivery to three separate POP3 email accounts and another corporate email address – all were delivered almost on the instant. Attachments are supported, so we tried sending and opening attachments on our Bold.

Sure enough, we were able to open Jpeg images, zoom in to them and view as fullscreen. When we elected to save a file, we got a helpful warning that doing so could be an expensive business.

We had no problem opening our sample rtf Word file either – the 22kB file opened and was resized to fit the dimensions of the Bold’s screen in less than two seconds.

The bright backlighting of the handset ensured a clear contrast between the text and the background and we had no difficulty reading through the 2,500 word document. Bold and italic formatting was preserved, as were hyperlinks.

On the Web
The Web browser is fast too, loading the Macworld UK Web site via WiFi in just 20 seconds, a good 10 seconds faster than the iPhone 3G. Using a 3G connection, graphics-heavy Web pages still took a few seconds to load large images, while less bandwidth-intensive furniture like site logos and headers quickly appeared. Text on Web pages was visible and properly readable in three to four seconds.

We could even zoom in and start reading reviews on the Macworld Web site pretty much as soon as their headlines appeared.

However, we really missed the iPhone’s touchscreen. Using the scroll ball to navigate pages is a poor cousin to the iPhone’s multi-touch capability. You can zoom in by pushing the ball, and back out with Return button. All of this felt extremely clumsy after using the double-taps and pinch motion from Apple’s iPhone browser.

The screen is also noticeably smaller than the iPhone 3G, which is a compromise with the keyboard. Mind you, it’s a very good screen. To get an idea of the quality of the screen, it’s worth picking up the Bold in your local phone shop and scrolling to the Video section under the media player section. The Speed Racer trailer preinstalled on our sample was most impressive.

Other important points to note about the BlackBerry Bold are its media management and playback credentials. The BlackBerry Bold has a wide range of video and audio capabilities, plus a regular 3.5mm earphone jack and the aforementioned speaker. On the PC, RIM has enlisted respected audio/video software specialist Roxio to come up with a media manager that helps you identify and categorise your photos and music.

On the Mac? Nothing. No media management software, no syncing software, nothing at all. Compared to the iTunes integration employed by the iPhone this is a poor show. To put music and video on the BlackBerry Bold you must drag the files into a folder through the Finder. How old-fashioned is that?

Our sample came with 1GB of card memory to complement the built-in 128MB, with microSD cards accepted via a slot on the left edge. This currently limits storage to 8GB although microSD capacities of up to 16GB are expected to be available before the end of the year.

The lack of syncing support extends to information. RIM seems to be content ignoring the Apple market and leaving sync support up to third-party support. There are two options available to you, the first is PocketMac with PocketMac for BlackBerry; the second is Mark/Space with Missing Sync For BlackBerry.

Both are great programs that outperform Apple’s syncing option for the iPhone 3G in many ways (you can sync Notes and Tasks, for example). Sadly, neither currently works with the BlackBerry Bold 9000. PocketMac for BlackBerry fails to work completely, Missing Sync For BlackBerry can sync Address Book contacts but nothing else. Part of the problem with RIM not making its own Mac software is that you need to wait for these third-party companies to create the software. We’re in no doubt that updates from both programs will arrive in the near future. We will keep an eye on this situation and inform our readers when the updates are ready.

RIMs focus on the PC platform is somewhat understandable, after all it’s famous in the enterprise market and the PC platform is what the enterprise market mostly uses. However, it strikes us as somewhat ironic that while Apple is busy muscling into RIMs enterprise space, RIM isn’t doing the same to Apple in the Mac market.

OUR VERDICT

You may have got the feeling that we’re impressed with this smartphone, and we are. However, we are equally unimpressed by RIMs failure to develop Mac-specific software. Frankly, it’s lazy to focus on the PC market when Apple is muscling in on your home turf.

The BlackBerry Bold 9000 has much in common with its rival, the iPhone 3G. It’s a fantastically well-connected, well-designed and well-constructed smartphone and it has a key feature that the iPhone lacks: a keyboard.

The lack of a touch-screen makes it deficient in other areas though – notably the Web browser – which is not as easy to use as Apple’s offering, despite being significantly faster.

If RIM had got its act together and created software to match it could have dealt Apple a bloody nose. As it stands the BlackBerry Bold 9000 is far less interesting for Apple users than it deserves to be. Mac owners should stick to the iPhone 3G, or wait for either PocketMac or Mark/Space to pick up RIM's slack.


Editor's note: This review has been updated with information regarding Missing Sync for BlackBerry from Mark/Space.

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