Allow us to introduce the Bold 9780: a near replica of the Bold 9700, but for a few aesthetic refinements and with the latest firmware installed. We're not kidding when we say "near replica". We got out a ruler to see just how similar the design of the 9780 is to the 9700 and we were hard-pressed to spot any differences. Research In Motion (RIM) has done away with the subtle stainless steel trim of the former, but this slight cosmetic difference aside, they are basically the same phone.
These similarities continue on to the handset's four-row full QWERTY keyboard, a BlackBerry staple. Though RIM's used an ever-so-slightly larger print on these keys, they remain untouched. Each key is raised to an asymmetric peak, aimed towards helping you type efficiently with two hands, and as always RIM makes excellent use of the tiny footprint available to lay these keys out.
Around the edge of the 9780 you'll discover a 3.5mm headphone socket, a micro-USB port and buttons dedicated to volume control and access to the handset's 5-megapixel camera. Speaking of the rear-mounted camera, snap-happy photographers will be chuffed to find the image sensor assisted by an LED flash, plus an autofocus feature in the camera's software settings.
The difference between the older Bold and the 9780 really takes shape when you switch the handsets on. BlackBerry OS 6 offers a few key changes to the previous version, some adding much needed functionality, some improving convenience and some that simply make your BlackBerry more beautiful. Gone are the text-only menu listings of the still lengthy settings menus.
Those familiar with BlackBerry OS 5 will love the new home screen layout. Previously, you could either select a favourite app to launch or roll the trackpad up to change your profile to silent. With OS 6 all areas of the home screen are selectable, you can highlight the notifications counter to access your latest messages, you can select the top row of the screen to adjust your wireless settings or set an alarm. You'll also find a magnifying glass icon beside the notifications panel acting as a shortcut to the new universal search feature, though it can also be accessed by pressing on any letter on the keyboard.
The applications tray is now categorised with five panels separating apps for quick discovery; there's All, Favourites, Media, Downloads and Frequent, the last two categories auto-populating as you use your phone.
These are all excellent enhancements for the BlackBerry platform, but the new layout, especially the home screen, is obviously designed for touchscreens; a feature the 9780 doesn't have. Tasks like navigating the app drawer and surfing the web are simply faster with a touchscreen, and in this time-poor modern age using the finicky touch pad to guide oneself around the new OS 6 can be a little frustrating.
Media, camera and the web
Besides excellent calling and messaging features, of which this handset has in spades, the next most important aspect of any modern smartphone is the web browser. BlackBerry OS 6 delivers a new WebKit-based browser to the mix, and it makes a huge improvement over all older devices running OS 5. Pages render as you'd expect them to on a desktop browser and the contents of web pages resize quickly and accurately when you zoom in and out.
It's a shame then that RIM has chosen to use a Wi-Fi radio that is not compatible with the wireless N protocol. This may sound like a small complaint, but we suspect that the business users this phone is aimed at will agree that wireless N should be a standard inclusion in a smartphone in 2011.
The media player on the 9780 is much the same as we've seen on previous BlackBerrys and this is a good thing. The same can be said for the 5-megapixel camera; RIM is constantly surprising us with the outstanding photo quality it delivers in its smartphones, and the 9780 is no exception. The camera software features a full range of user adjustable settings, and the photos we've taken, even in low light, show vivid colour and nice, sharp focus.
While the manufacturers developing Google Android smartphones are nearing PC-like specs with dual-core processors, RIM is content powering its BlackBerrys with significantly less powerful chipsets. The Bold 9780 runs on a 624MHz processor with 512MB RAM, and while this is more than enough to move about the menus smoothly, and to send emails and make phone calls, heavy web browsers will feel the pinch as the 9780 chugs along loading data-heavy web pages. In fact, comparing a common web page load on the same Wi-Fi network, the 9780 was nearly 100 per cent slower compared with some Android-powered devices we compared it against.
Web page load times (sec)
- BlackBerry Bold 9780
- Apple iPhone 4
- HTC Desire
- Motorola Defy
- Short bars equal better performance 16 15 8.5 9.5
This result was made worse when we switched back to the unlimited BIS internet access on Vodafone's 3G network. With a clean page load of the same web page, it took the 9780 an arduous 52 seconds on one attempt, and 31 seconds to reload the same page with certain elements in the cache. From a productivity standpoint, let alone a patience standpoint, this is unacceptable.
RIM prides itself on the battery life of its devices and the 9780 is no exception. The Bold 9780 is powered by a 1500mAh battery and even with heavy usage we struggled to burn through the battery in a single day. Those who don't use their phones for every waking moment of a business day can expect to see at least two full days between charges.
The Bold 9780 maintains BlackBerry's excellent reputation as a brand that delivers solid smartphones with excellent personal communication. But is this enough with the competition so hot on the heels of the mighty BlackBerry? Though we can imagine thousands of business professionals getting excellent use out of this device, we have been disappointed with the web browsing experience and its lack of distinction over previous models.
But for all the fuss we made at the beginning of this review about the phone looking identical to the last Bold release, the truth is that the 9780 is still a beautiful phone. BlackBerry OS 6 is also beautiful, but with its new home screen design, it is crying out for a touchscreen and is better suited to the BlackBerry Torch smartphone. With this in mind, and considering the Torch is available on the same comparatively expensive phone contracts (at the time of writing), we recommend taking a look at the Torch before committing to this new Bold.