The BlackBerry Bold, the flagship handset for Research In Motion (RIM), celebrates its fourth iteration in 2011 with a design more reminiscent of the original Bold 9900 than any of its more recent predecessors. Like the original, the Bold 9900 seems flatter, squarer despite its heavily rounded corners and has a slightly larger footprint than last year's Bold, the 9780. It is also, in our eyes, the most attractive Bold yet.
A short history of BlackBerry Bolds: from 2008 until today.
We love both the look and feel of the 9900. The front face of this phone will be extremely familiar to anyone who has handled a BlackBerry in the last five years, with the iconic combination of screen, navigation panel and full QWERTY keyboard. On the back, RIM opts for a unique twist to the formula, with an attractive carbon fibre battery cover, which gives a slightly holographic appearance when you turn the handset under light. Above the battery cover, you'll find the handset's 5-megapixel camera lens and LED flash.
The 2.8-inch display is a stunner, with rich colour reproduction and excellent contrast. Its 640x480-pixel resolution might seem lacking besides the pixels we've seen in iPhones and Androids, but in a screen this size, the VGA resolution packs in more than enough pixels to provide super sharp images and text. It is also a capacitive touchscreen, giving users the option to navigate the phone using the screen, or defer to the optical track pad and keyboard, depending on what they find faster and more comfortable.
More importantly for many BlackBerry users, the QWERTY keyboard is, again, a standout. The keys seem flat with tapered edges, but, after using the Nokia E6 only a few weeks ago, the quality of this keyboard's design is obvious to us. We wouldn't even class ourselves as experienced BlackBerry keyboard users, but, after only moments, we were confidently typing long messages with a minimum of errors.
The beauty is, as they say, only skin deep, especially with the well designed BlackBerry OS 7 lurking just below the surface here. OS 7 is the latest version of the BlackBerry smartphone system, and although the changes it brings in comparison to version six might seem invisible to the naked eye, it does feel like a more polished system overall, especially in regards to set-up and touchscreen use.
The BlackBerry OS 7 has great-looking new iconography, and a strong connection to your BlackBerry ID.
Setting up a BlackBerry in OS 7 pays particularly close attention to logging you in with a BlackBerry ID, which is essential to accessing the App World, amongst other things. It also has you sign in to as many social networking and email accounts as you use on a regular basis. Once logged in, all new notifications will pass through the unified BlackBerry messaging inbox, which we find to be extremely handy.
BlackBerry OS 7 brings a few aesthetic tweaks with its simpler design, and, overall, we've really enjoyed using it. The iconography is well designed, with lovingly shaded detail, and although this may seem like a frivolous aspect of a smartphone to praise, it definitely elevates the user experience nonetheless.
Better than sexy icons and carbon fibre battery covers, the Bold 9900 has one killer feature: its web browser. BlackBerry browsers have also been hit and miss, plagued with latency issues and clunky navigation. The Bold 9900 has none of these problems, with the touchscreen to rip through page navigation and a powerful new rendering engine bringing up pages fast and delivering them to screen seamlessly.
With the combination of the touchscreen and physical keys, you always feel like you have multiple ways to achieve your next step in this browser. You can press and hold on the screen to bring up a full menu, or use the "BlackBerry" button to see the standard menu overlay. You can double tap on-screen, or use a pinch-to-zoom gesture to zoom in and out on content, and the browser will resize text to make it as easy to read as possible.
There's no Adobe Flash support in the browser, though, which iPhone users will know is both a blessing and a curse. It is a shame not to be able to view any interactive element on a page (although some videos will play in a separate streaming tool), but without Flash, pages load significantly faster. If Flash is a must for you, you will still have to turn to Android to get the full experience.
As you'd expect, the Bold 9900 comes with a number of business-focused applications and features, but there are quite a few elements that we are coming to expect in a smartphone, which RIM has overlooked in this handset's design. There's HSPA 3G data connectivity, Wi-Fi (b/g/n protocols compatible), Bluetooth and GPS. There is also some great business software installed, including Quickoffice, Adobe PDF Reader and BlackBerry Protect remote management software to lock and wipe the phone if lost or stolen.
This is a pretty standard mix of business tools, although this can, of course, be extended by downloading new apps from the BlackBerry App World. We were disappointed, though, that RIM has chosen not to include extended (but now common) connectivity features, like a micro-HDMI port for showing presentations to clients using only the handset, DLNA media sharing for streaming media content to compatible TVs and media centres or the ability to use the Bold to create a Wi-Fi hotspot and share your 3G data with a laptop or tablet. This final feature in particular is sorely missed, as it is a feature built in to Android phones and the iPhone, and an app that came free on the Nokia E6. For some people, these missing features will be noted at the point of sale, and they could very well mean the difference between someone buying a Bold or choosing an Android smartphone instead.
If there's one key difference that defines this year's Bold from previous iterations, it's the new 1.2GHz processor under the hood. RIM, like Nokia, has been under-powering its handsets over the last couple of years, whilst simultaneously enhancing its software with increasingly processor-intensive services. With this big bump in power (of nearly two times the clock speed) the Bold 9900 breezes through almost any task you can throw at it.
Battery life lives up to RIM's excellent reputation for power management, delivering well over a day of use with push delivery turned on for a business email account and several social networks. This would also be significantly extended, using the auto on and off settings unique to BlackBerry handsets.
The Bold 9900 is a worthy update in this branch of the BlackBerry brood, and although it feels leagues ahead of the other BlackBerrys out at this time, there are several key features missing when you compare it against the rest of the smartphone landscape. In other media-focused phones, features like Wi-Fi hotspot and HDMI-out are frivolous additions, which probably see limited use, but we'd argue that this wouldn't be the case in the hands of a BlackBerry business user. The power to deliver a presentation without a laptop or to share your data with colleagues is a powerful proposition, and a missed opportunity in this release. That said, the Bold 9900 is still the best BlackBerry we've seen all year, and a must-have upgrade for any self-respecting crackberry.