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11/13/2009
05:10 PM
Marin Perez
Marin Perez
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Thoughts On The BlackBerry Bold 9700

I've been putting the latest top-of-the-line BlackBerry through the wringer, and it shouldn't be surprising that this is a rock-solid smartphone. But I did have a few minor and major concerns about our favorite messaging smartphone, and continue reading for a full review.

I've been putting the latest top-of-the-line BlackBerry through the wringer, and it shouldn't be surprising that this is a rock-solid smartphone. But I did have a few minor and major concerns about our favorite messaging smartphone, and continue reading for a full review.Hardware

The first Bold was a big, tank-like smartphone and I loved it. It had heft and weight, and the size meant there was a spacious keyboard. The original Bold just screamed, "You can have your fart apps, I want to do business on my phone." The Bold 9700 is far sleeker, lighter, and greatly reduces the footprint of the device. It's easily pocketable, the screen's gorgeous, and the side and top keys are easy to manage. So what's wrong with it? Nothing really, but part of me misses the old design. There was something unique and almost imposing about it, whereas the new one is hard to differentiate from the Tour. Don't get me wrong though, RIM did a remarkable job designing this device.

One of the biggest improvements is inside the device, as RIM put in a speedy 624 MHz processor and 256 MB of RAM. Both of these help the Bold 9700 zip along doing nearly anything. In a week and a half, I've yet to see the dreaded spinning clock - this loading sign was the unofficial logo of the BlackBerry Storm. Another huge improvement is RIM ditching the trackball for an optical trackpad. They've been doing this since the Curve 8520, and as we saw with the BlackBerry Tour, trackballs can cause a lot of problems. The optical mouse takes a bit to get used to if you're a BlackBerry fan, but once you're comfortable with it you'll never want to go back to a trackball. I only wish the pad itself were a bit larger but it's integrated nicely into the layout.

The critical component of any BlackBerry is the keyboard, and RIM definitely brings the goods here. Not quite as large as on the Bold, but RIM seems to have found a beautiful mix of the Bold and Tour keyboards - it has the right amount of feedback, easy to find keys without looking thanks to the "frets," and there's just enough space between the keys to avoid accidentally hitting the wrong letter. Their auto-correct software is also top-notch as well, so you can rest assured that this is a great mobile e-mail and messaging phone.

Overall, it's not quite as flashy as the older model, but the Bold 9700 is a well-designed smartphone that doesn't sacrifice much for its small footprint.

Software

The Bold 9700 rocks the 5.0 operating system which means … well, it's pretty much like the other BlackBerry smartphones but with a bunch of cool transition animations and an improved user interface. That's not being fair, but the latest firmware is a gradual evolution of the already-rock-solid-but-aging BlackBerry OS. You should know the score by now: it's a smooth messaging beast that will tie into nearly every enterprise's infrastructure, you'll wind up hitting the BlackBerry button a million times to dig through menus, and the app ecosystem is getting better but doesn't compare to the iPhone or Android.

The new hardware makes sure the OS is speedy, and I've been multi-tasking and messaging away without any hiccups. I spent much of this week at the BlackBerry Developer Conference and saw a ton of encouraging signs that RIM's taking its developer ecosystem seriously, and the company is giving content creators deep hooks into the system. But one can't help but feel that the BlackBerry OS needs a major overhaul to better compete with more modern platforms like iPhone, Android, or even maybe webOS. My buddy the Boy Genius said it best in an open letter to RIM:

Their OS architecture is fantastic, their use of security is what makes them so trustworthy. But, as each handset release comes closer and closer, people start to see the bigger picture. And that's the fact that RIM's OS is more than antiquated, it's borderline laughable. But it works, you're thinking, so what's wrong? I've been saying this for years, but it wasn't designed to do anything the BlackBerry does now. Imagine scotch taping car parts to a 200hp engine and see how far that gets you. Obviously, it's just a viciously rough metaphor, but we believe a correct one.

That's the bad news, but the good news is RIM has all the tools in place to deliver an even-more amazing smartphone experience with some better OS software. Speaking with some executives this week at the conference, I learned that some RIM executives are well aware of some of the weaknesses in the platform and they sounded convincing when they told me they'll fix them.

That's more of a big-picture issue though. The Bold 9700 may not have the UI or apps of some of its competitors, but it's by far the best mobile messaging smartphone out there, and it's still the best bet for mobile professionals.

Call Quality, Web Browsing, Multimedia

Call quality was excellent, as callers were loud and clear and told me I sounded clear. I was using a T-Mobile version in San Francisco and didn't drop a call, had reception most places I expected, and the 3G data was fast and had large coverage. Both versions have Wi-Fi and GPS, but the T-Mobile version has the added benefit of being able to make calls over Wi-Fi via the Hotspot@Home or Wi-Fi Calling with MobileOffice services.

Web browsing was solid - RIM's browser definitely lags behind the competition, but I was able to get to most of the sites I wanted to and many rendered well. There are still problems with JavaScript and resizing certain sites, but the quality is far higher than you'd think if you read a lot of tech press. Still, I cannot wait for the WebKit-based browser that's coming to BlackBerry smartphones next year.

The camera has been bumped up to 3.2-megapixels and there's a flash, zooming, and auto-focus capabilities. I thought the pictures were fairly crisp with good colors, but there is a bit of a shutter lag. BlackBerry smartphones have quietly been morphing into solid multimedia players, as the Bold 9700 is an above-average music player and the videos were crisp and clear. I'm still a little miffed that you can't download some podcasts over the air, but the inclusion of a standard headphone jack is always appreciated.

The Final Take

The Bold 9700 is still a messaging master, and it does actually look really good, but a small part of me still misses its chunky older brother's design. However, this is the best BlackBerry that RIM has ever produced, and it's still the best device for hardcore business users. With that said, it lacks the panache, app ecosystem, and overall flair of the iPhone and some Android devices. The handset will cost about $200 with a new two-year contract, and it's available for AT&T and T-Mobile.

Be sure to drop me a line with any questions you have about the Bold, and if you've picked one up, let me know what you think. Feel free to leave a comment below, drop me a line at mperez@techweb.com, or tweet me @marinperez. I also purchased a Motorola Droid last week, but I wanted to give it a good amount of real-world usage before giving my review. Look for my take on the Droid next week, and let me know if there are any specific questions you have.

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