The BlackBerry Bold 9930. You’ve got to hand it to RIM — the company may be spinning its wheels, but it’s certainly not sitting still. While we’ve been hearing rumors and seeing leaked photos for some time, Research In Motion is finally about to release a slew of new products into the smartphone market. Most notable among those products is a new version of the company’s operating system (number 7), and a follow-up to the incredibly successful BlackBerry Bold, dubbed… the BlackBerry Bold 9900 (9930 if you’re talking about the CDMA variety, which I am).
I had a chance to take a look at all of the company’s latest offerings, a set of phones equipped with nearly-identical internal hardware, but in a variety of form factors. Those devices include the aforementioned Bold, the follow-up to last year’s Torch — the Torch 9810 — and a new entry, the all-touchscreen Torch 9850 (a spiritual successor to the Storm line). I chose to focus on the Bold 9930 for this review.
Is this the device that BlackBerry fans have been waiting for? Will it be able to attract a new audience? And more importantly, can this new phone (or any models in this collection of handsets) and refreshed OS bring RIM back to the land of the living in the smartphone game? All that information — and more — is securely tucked away below the fold, so read on for my full review of the BlackBerry Bold 9930 and BlackBerry 7.
Hardware / design
BlackBerry fans will immediately fall in love with this phone
If the Bold 9930 looks slightly familiar to you, don’t be surprised. The phone is nearly a shot-for-shot remake of the original Bold, the 9000. Of course, the remake has had some edits made to it, and the new device is thinner, more solidly built, and feels far better in your hands. The device is actually slightly wider than the original Bold, but its thickness clocks in at 0.41 inches; compared to the 0.59 inches of the original, that’s a pretty noticeable difference. The 9930 is also lighter, coming in at 4.59 ounces, yet it’s heavier than the Bold 9700 (RIM’s second model in the Bold line).
As far as industrial design goes, this might be the most beautiful BlackBerry RIM has ever made. The original Bold was widely considered to be an iconic smartphone, and the new version follows in its footsteps as much as it ups the ante. The phone is classic BlackBerry — a small, glass-covered screen up top with a spacious hardware QWERTY keyboard below. The 9930 sports a real stainless steel bezel that surrounds the edges of the phone, while the back is one part soft-touch finish and one part polished, patterned plastic. The metal band is broken by a 3.5mm headphone jack, a Micro USB port, a camera button, volume buttons, and a play / pause key. Along the bottom of the screen you’ll find the usual BlackBerry hard keys as well as an optical trackpad, and this time around, that display is a capacitive touchscreen — a first for the Bold series.
If you’re a BlackBerry fan, you will immediately fall in love with this phone. This is what the brand is supposed to be about — tough, clean devices that feel great in your hands, are great to type on, and look like they’re all business. In a sea of similar slab, all-touchscreen devices, a phone of this caliber is a sight for sore eyes.
Internals / display
All three of the new phones (the two Torches and the Bold) tout nearly the same internal design. The Bold 9930 packs a 1.2GHz, single-core Snapdragon CPU into its svelte frame, along with 768MB of RAM, 8GB of onboard storage (a microSD slot allows for another 32GB), Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1, and an AGPS chip.
The 2.8-inch display on the Bold is a gorgeous and crystal clear 640 x 480 LCD. RIM is boasting a pixel density of 287 ppi, and it definitely shows. The screen is one of the crispest and cleanest I’ve seen on a mobile device, with solid, deep blacks, and rich, warm colors. Touch response was superb on the display, though I did have some trouble with missed or unwanted touches. It seems a little overzealous when it comes to finger tracking. I also noticed a similar problem with the trackpad. Perhaps it has something to do with the tininess of this screen — working within the confines of such a minuscule display can feel constrictive, and it certainly doesn’t leave much room for error.
The phone also sports a 5-megapixel camera and LED flash on its back which is capable of 720p HD video capture (more on that in the camera section).
The device supports a wide range of networks, including Verizon’s CDMA / EV-DO Rev. A bands, as well as 2100 / 900 UMTS and 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900 GSM frequencies. If you want 3G on a GSM network here in the States, you’ll have to go with the variation of the model I tested, the North American 9900. The device is also equipped with a compass as well as an NFC chip, though there don’t seem to be any near-field apps available here just yet.
The screen is one of the crispest and cleanest I’ve seen
Easily one of the best hardware keyboards I’ve ever used
You would expect the new flagship phone of the BlackBerry line to have a killer keyboard... and you’d be right. The QWERTY on the Bold is easily one of the best hardware keyboards I’ve ever used. If you’re already a Bold user, this will make you feel right at home. If you’ve been craving a tactile experience from a phone keyboard, you’d be hard pressed to do better than this.
Still, I found myself making just as many — if not more — mistakes on the Bold than I normally would on a virtual keyboard, and I believe this is because unlike the on-screen keyboards of Android, Windows Phone, or iOS, RIM hasn’t put enough focus on its predictive text engine. The OS provides options for quick corrections and word suggestion, but it feels clunky and awkward when you’re trying to move quickly. Choosing a correction and going back to fix mistakes seems to require more steps than necessary, and the text anchors in the OS can be jumpy.
If the company were to combine the QWERTY of the Bold with prediction and correction more akin to other platforms, typing would be a breeze. As it stands now, there’s definitely a learning curve. Still, the more you bang on it, the better you get, and you can’t knock the satisfying feeling of knowing exactly where your fingers are, even if you’re not fully focused on the device.
RIM makes some big claims about zero shutter lag for the Bold’s camera, and the real-world performance doesn’t disappoint. The device is able to capture clear and crisp images quickly with virtually no catch-up. I would be more enthusiastic about the camera, however, but for one big flaw. The Bold 9930’s camera is an Extended Depth of Field model — a slightly better version of the fixed focus lenses we used to see on phones all the time. In 2011, a fixed focus camera on a smartphone feels really backwards. Moving from almost any other device I’ve recently used to this camera was quite a shock. It’s one of those "don’t know what you got till it’s gone" situations, but not being able to get up close and personal with subjects (animate or inanimate) really puts a damper on the pic-snapping experience.
Other than the fact that you’re stuck with a single range, images on the 9930 looked great with little fiddling. Video was even more impressive than stills — the Bold is fantastic at shooting smooth, crisp 720p clips. Image stabilization is a provided toggle, and it proved to be invaluable when moving around with the phone and capturing video. It’s unfortunate that the phone doesn’t have auto-focus — the performance of the sensor and software is a great selling point, but it’s hard to fully endorse.
One other note. It’s 2011 and none of these phones have front-facing cameras? That’s pretty retro of you, RIM.
The lack of auto-focus could be a dealbreaker
The Bold 9930 performed a bit worse than previous models
You would expect most BlackBerrys to have excellent battery life... so I was surprised to discover that the Bold 9930 performed a bit worse than previous models I’ve tested. That’s not to say that the phone has poor battery life, but it seems clear that the combination of the new hardware and the new software is sucking down more juice than earlier iterations did.
While I didn’t have enough time in the review period to do a full battery test, the Bold was more than capable of getting through a day of fairly heavy use without needing a recharge. However, the battery was significantly drained after a long session of calls, web browsing, Twitter syncing, and general phone use. You can expect to end your days with around 15-20 percent battery life, but if you’re a heavier talker, that could be markedly reduced.
Reception / sound quality
As with most phones on Verizon, and most BlackBerry devices, the reception on the Bold was excellent. I had no dropped calls or interference when using the device, even in areas I typically see trouble (elevators, the lower floor of my house). Calls sounded bright and well-balanced through the earpiece, though I was somewhat disappointed by the speakerphone.
The speaker on the device isn’t poor by any means, but compared to the output of the original Bold, I found the new version’s audio to be somewhat shrill. The emphasis here is on midranges and highs, which is understandable given the device’s thin profile. On speakerphone calls, it was passable, but occasionally when listening to music the speaker would distort in a pretty noticeable manner. It’s not a deal-breaker, but I would have liked to have heard a slightly clearer signal on a device that feels this high-end.
Reception on the Bold was excellent
Of course, the software story for the Bold 9930 (and all of the new BlackBerry phones) is kind of a big deal. It wasn’t so long ago that RIM introduced BlackBerry OS 6 — a substantial recut of its aging operating system. Less than a year (and one failed product launch, the Torch) later, the company shook off the cobwebs and brought OS 7 to the public.
If the system looks similar, don’t be surprised. According to the rumor mill, this version of the OS wasn’t meant to be more than a halfway point in the numbers game. That’s evident when you use the software as well — though there are some very notable differences between this operating system and the one that shipped with the original Torch.
For starters, the OS on the Bold is much faster and much smoother than on any previous BlackBerry phone. It simply screams when it comes to general performance. OS 7 utilizes a new graphics component the company refers to as Liquid Graphics, which is really just RIM taking advantage of the fact that the phone renders on-screen action quickly thanks to the updated software and significantly faster CPU. But what a difference it makes. Everything about the core OS functionality feels smooth and speedy. Both trackpad and touchscreen response is excellent, and most general tasks — managing mail, zooming through menus, or searching — are carried out painlessly by the Bold.
The Bold in use
In particular, the browser on the phone is greatly improved, now rendering pages quickly with hardly any checkerboarding when flicking through long or wide sites. Pinch to zoom works smoothly, as do double taps to zoom in and out of content. It feels solid and modern. Using the Bold’s browser for the first time, I was struck by how different it really seems compared to previous offerings from the Canadian company. It feels competitive.
General tasks are carried out painlessly by the Bold
The company has also made a few other interesting additions, including preloading the augmented reality software Wikitude, and a full version of Documents To Go. RIM has also tweaked, cleaned up, or fixed a number of other spots on the phone which make using the Bold a more enjoyable experience, such as adding voice input to its universal search functionality. Developers are also now able to tap into OpenGL support on the new devices, so decent 3D gaming could be coming to the platform. There are a few titles in RIM’s App World (such as the amusing 3D Rollercoaster Rush Jurassic 2) that take advantage of the APIs, and performance was surprisingly good.
The new world
That’s not to say this is a whole new world. Make no mistake about it — this is very much the same OS which the original Torch shipped with, which is still an extension of a very dated operating system. That means that you’ll still face RIM’s mountain of contextual menus, lists, and arcane methods of getting the phone to do what you want it to do. Installing apps remains a slow and system-stalling experience, often requiring a reboot, and even basics like choosing an email address or sending a text message feel… well, a bit crusty. Even unlocking the phone with a password seems to have one extra, unnecessary step. Sometimes it just feels like a chore to manage the device. And that’s the real downfall of the Bold and two new Torches — they’re still running a dead-end OS.
The current BlackBerry OS feels like an old horse that’s been hopped up on adrenaline and steroids and forced to run one last race. It’s clear that RIM is pushing it to its limits — and they’ve even added some nice new components — but it’s also clear that this isn’t the future of the company’s platform. According to rumor, RIM is set to adopt its new QNX platform for future devices. And why not? It’s already made the choice for its flagship tablet, the PlayBook.
And that’s the tough part about reviewing all of these new devices. The software makes them feel like the last of their kind — a relic from a different time still struggling (and failing) to keep up with modern innovations.
The Bold 9930 is an excellent BlackBerry. Probably the best BlackBerry ever made. If you’re a fan of the phones and platform, and you’ve been waiting patiently for the next great device from Research In Motion — this is it. If you’re already committed to the OS, whether it’s because of a particular piece of software, a love of BBM, or the great keyboards, this device is probably a dream come true (as long as you know what you’re getting into).
But what about the other segment of the market? The buyers who haven’t owned a smartphone and are trying to pull the trigger, or BlackBerry users frustrated by the platform’s lack of progress, or potential switchers? Well the truth is, this is a tough device to recommend to those buyers. In my testing, I couldn’t find a single situation in which I felt like the Bold would outperform an Android, Windows Phone, webOS, or iOS device. Honestly, the Bold’s browser is good, but not as good as even a mid-level Android phone. The third-party app situation is simply pitiful from both a numbers and quality standpoint. The general performance of the phone is solid, but remarkably underwhelming when put up against an iPhone or other current device.
In short — this is a die-hards-only phone, one of the last of its breed, meant for a very specific customer. For everyone else: until RIM can deliver a truly modern experience and bring developers to the table, I suggest you keep looking.