Last summer, RIM introduced the world to the BlackBerry Bold 9900 and BlackBerry 7 operating system. In spite of adding a faster processor, slimmer profile, and the nebulous Liquid Graphics, that combination failed to spark imaginations or stem the tide of dissatisfied BlackBerry customers upgrading away from the platform. None of that is going to change dramatically with the arrival of the Porsche Design P‘9981, which is — internally at least — a reissue of the 9900, using the same processor, memory, display, camera, OS, and even battery.
Still, Porsche has been running a Design Studio since 1972 and has the iconic aesthetic of the 911 — a look that’s endured for nearly half a century with only small alterations — to vouch for its ability to create timeless products. In adding the P‘9981 to its exalted portfolio, Porsche Design must believe that it can fashion out a smartphone capable of standing apart from its peers, much in the way the cars of its parent company do. So does it succeed — can excellence in design transcend humdrum components and milquetoast software?
You've never seen a BlackBerry quite like this before
The first thing you’re confronted with upon obtaining one of these fancy BlackBerrys is the sheer bulk of the package they come in. Nearly the size of a shoe box, the matte black container has a high-quality soft-touch finish and a flap door held in place by magnets. It’s evidently meant to be kept around after unboxing. Inside, there’s even more blackness — the one color that pretty much never goes out of style — covering a velvety tray that houses the P‘9981 and its included dock. Lift that up and you’ll find the second tray, hosting your BlackBerry PIN card and user guides, below which resides the third level of luxurious velvet, ensconcing power adapters, cables, and a headset with in-line mic.
Beyond the self-evident excess of its dimensions and materials, the box also clues you in to the fact that this is a Porsche-branded phone first, with the BlackBerry logo present as a sort of subtitle. The P‘9000 series is Porsche Design’s subset of electronics products, currently populated by four LaCie external storage drives and the P’9981 smartphone. Why that pesky apostrophe has to figure in every product name, however, remains a mystery.
Some will love the angular look, many others won't
Once you’ve negotiated your way past all the wrappings, you’re left with the aforementioned BlackBerry Bold 9900 in a shiny new shell. Hardware layout is identical: the right shoulder houses the volume buttons, which sit either side of a pause / mute key, while the so-called convenience key is positioned further down the side, just to the side of the keyboard. Its default action is to bring up the camera app, a sensible purpose given its position. The left side is host to the 3.5mm headphone jack and a Micro USB port, the top is graced by a centered lock button, and the bottom is where you’ll find two dock connectors and a notch for opening the back cover.
The rear shell is pretty rigid and covered in real leather on the outside, while its inside includes a built-in NFC antenna, exactly as with the Bold 9900. Attaching to the body of the phone with tiny, nearly invisible latches, this cover has a tendency to get loose pretty easily and I had a persistent issue with its top right corner (near the headphone port) sitting ajar. A 1,230mAh battery and a preinstalled 16GB microSD card sit under the ill-fitting leather bindings.
Next best thing to an edge-to-edge screen is an edge-to-edge keyboard
As with the Bold 9900, the mouthpiece on the P'9981 is disguised in the bottom of the keyboard — my guess is that it sits behind the small incision to the side of the right Shift key. The keyboard itself might be the biggest, and most controversial, change from the traditional Bold design. Keys still feature a ridged design and their spacing is good, spanning the full width of the P‘9981, however the experience of using this keyboard is manifestly different to anything you may be used to. Firstly, the ergonomic curve of the Bold 9900 keypad is gone, replaced by a rigidly square layout. I don’t think that change has been for the better — like most of the Porsche Design-imposed changes, this serves to enhance the aesthetic of angularity and, dare I say, masculinity, rather than to make the user experience any better.
The Bold 9900 also has taller keys, though I wouldn’t say shrinking them down has cost the P‘9981 much in terms of usability. Where it downgrades most tangibly is in the feel under your fingers — whereas the 9900 had a leathery texture, the P‘9981 goes for all-metal keys that feel correspondingly cold, hard, and unfriendly to the touch. Having said that, the Bold 9900 pretty much set the benchmark for physical keyboards, so not being quite as excellent doesn’t make Porsche’s effort a failure. It’s still very good — I just fail to see how a redesign of the flagship BlackBerry that makes its keyboard harder to use can be considered a success.
Keeping up its preference for 90-degree angles, Porsche also removes the curve from the five-button arrangement above the keyboard, splitting each one into an individual squarish shape. The center key still functions as an optical trackpad and does so well, though of course there’s the capacitive touchscreen above as an alternative input method. Much like the keyboard they sit next to, these hard buttons don’t feel like an upgrade — they’re decorated with garishly oversized labels and made out of a glossy material that generates a seriously unattractive squeak when pressed in. Key width and travel are also inconsistent, a worrying shortage of attention to detail on a phone that’s supposed to be all about the little things.
Porsche’s choice of stainless steel for a large chunk of the construction results in an increased weight, up to 155 grams / 5.5 ounces, which results in a heft that I find reassuring. Setting aside the poor fit of the back cover, build quality on the P‘9981 is predictably high and I’d expect it to last for a mighty long time and through a good few spills and thrills. That being said, you’ll probably tire of using it long before it wears out — Porsche’s fetish for straight edges makes this phone look distinctive, but it also destroys its ergonomics. There’s a reason why RIM curves every corner on its BlackBerrys and departing from that softer design has been a downgrade. It’s sufficient to say that if you want the best keyboard and physical design on a BlackBerry, you’ll stick with the Bold 9900.
287ppi is a nice headline spec for RIM and Porsche to tout with the P‘9981, but neither the 640 x 480 resolution nor the 2.8-inch diagonal size are flagship smartphone numbers. Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus and a number of other phones are already doubling the wider part of that resolution with 1280 x 720 screens. That being said, for a display that lacks any fancy AMOLED or Super-branded technology, the one on the P‘9981 does a fine job. It’s bright without washing out images and exhibits good saturation and color accuracy. Touchscreen sensitivity also works with near-perfect reliability, though the OS has issues of its own, which will be detailed below.
There's only so much you can do with a tiny 2.8-inch display
Battery life, reception, and audio
As noted above, the same 1,230mAh battery that powers the Bold 9900 is present in the P‘9981. That only makes sense when you consider that everything else inside these phones is identical as well. Of course, it’d have been nice for the Porsche brand to bring some hardware upgrades along with the indulgent external trappings, but that was not to be. In practice, I got through a day and a half pretty comfortably, while syncing my Gmail account and doing some web browsing, though that time quickly shrinks if you start using the phone more intensively — such as for shooting photos or playing back video. It idles very well, but can’t camouflage over its limited battery capacity when the processor is used at full speed for extended periods of time.
In classic BlackBerry fashion, the P‘9981 gave me little cause for complaint when it came to reception. It picked up and held on to a signal as well as can be expected and generally delivered excellent call quality. Its loudspeaker also gets commendably loud and produces decent output quality. The same can’t really be said of the bundled headset — it’s adorned with Porsche Design's initials on each shiny ear bud, which is about the only thing setting it apart from the typically poor headphones populating smartphones boxes. Both audio quality and noise isolation are mediocre.
A battery half the size of the Galaxy Note's for a screen about as small
Good video and decent image quality are held back by the limitations of EDoF
The best thing about the camera on the P‘9981 is its speed. The side-mounted convenience key can bring up the photo-taking app in a flash (pun very much intended) and capturing moving objects like cars seemed to be no problem. You can take a shot by pressing the camera icon on the touchscreen, using the center hard button above the keyboard, or with the convenience key. You’re then asked to accept or reject the image and can proceed to shoot another. It’s all very smooth and effortless, with almost no processing delays. Another thing I liked about the camera app is the ability to press Backspace on the keyboard to delete and Enter to confirm deletion — a handy combo of shortcuts (standard across BlackBerrys) that makes trimming out unwanted pictures a breeze.
One of the reasons for this camera’s quick operation, and simultaneously its biggest downside, is that it’s an EDoF (Extended Depth of Field) shooter: everything beyond a certain distance is in focus, meaning it doesn’t have to perform any autofocus maneuvers. The result of this fixed focus setup is that your ability to capture any closeups is severely hampered. Okay, it’s not hampered, it just doesn’t exist. Beyond the silly minimum shooting distance, image quality is acceptable, verging on good. RIM is less aggressive with its noise reduction than other phone companies, resulting in more graininess appearing in shots, but that does also lead to more detailed and less smudgy pics. Chroma noise — instances where you see sprinkles of color that shouldn’t be there — is a particular problem, as evidenced in this image. The flash is strong enough to wash out nearby subjects, but you won’t be worrying about that since the camera itself won’t be in focus for anything too close to it.
Video is captured in 720p resolution and results look impressive. Moving objects are handled well, audio is recorded accurately, and there’s even a software image stabilization option, which tries to steady the camera when you’re shooting and moving at the same time.
Because of its ease of use, I wouldn’t object too much to making this my regular smartphone camera, though be aware that there are others, such as the Galaxy S II and Galaxy Note from Samsung or the iPhone 4 and 4S from Apple — that produce significantly better results and have the ability to autofocus as well.
Underwhelming, disappointing, limited, outdated, efficient, responsive, uncompetitive. Those are my seven epithets for BlackBerry 7. You’ll notice a couple of them were actually positive, so let’s start with those. Liquid Graphics is RIM’s marketing term for the addition of hardware acceleration in the BB 7 user interface and relates most directly to its speed and responsiveness. I find it something of a misnomer as the title suggests fluid animations whereas the interface is mostly static — although when you do start to scroll through those text-based context menus and grids of unhelpfully similar icons, it flies! Every bit of interaction you have with the UI and native apps is smooth and quick, though I’d be more impressed if it looked and acted a little less like an Excel spreadsheet.
For example, in order to toggle between views in the Calendar app, you have to press the BlackBerry logo-covered menu button, scroll to "View" in the pop-up text menu, then slide to the right to make your selection. It’s a total Windows 98 moment. And if you’re wondering why RIM doesn’t just go all the way and give you a mouse cursor, it does! You’ll find it in the web browser, which is mercifully much improved from previous iterations of the OS.
The addiction to a menu-based interface may have been forgivable, but in some spots like the Pictures app, the menu doesn’t default to the top of the list (i.e. you can scroll to see more options both above and below your current position), meaning that some people might never even be aware that they can access more settings by scrolling up. You could argue those are just foibles you have to accept with a 2.8-inch screen, but whose fault is it that we’re dealing with this limitation in the first place?
Another fingernail on the BB 7 chalkboard is the fact that most apps obscure the clock. You still have a status bar, so they’re not taking up the full screen, RIM just doesn’t seem to think that you’d care to know the time when looking at the browser or BlackBerry Maps. In-app performance also isn’t on a par with browsing through the UI, with the Pictures app in particular bogging down if you scroll through images too quickly. 1080p video playback through YouTube also caused the P‘9981 problems, exhibiting consistent stuttering throughout.
Compounding my annoyances with this phone, the non-BES email client doesn’t sync email correctly. I set up my Gmail account on the P‘9981 and, though it received incoming messages quickly and reliably, it almost completely ignored any interaction I had with emails on other machines. It would take literally hours for the fact I read and responded to an email on my desktop to be reflected on the phone. I’m sure there are workarounds available, but would describe that as a less than optimal situation. This chronic issue has also been apparent on the Bold 9900 and many other BlackBerrys before it.
In fact, everything I’ve said about software so far is equally true of the Bold 9900 as it is of the P‘9981, it’s basically the same software. The only difference is a Porsche Design theme, which alters the typography and iconography. In trying to keep a consistent visual style across icons, the new look makes them almost indistinguishable, once again effecting change for the worse while pursuing the spurious goal of looking pretty.
It's like Windows 98 on your phone, what's not to love?
In case it wasn’t clear from the foregoing, this phone has excited a deep level of antipathy in me. BlackBerry 7 was an uncompetitive OS the moment it launched and hasn’t aged well since then. The one thing that RIM really got right with the Bold 9900 was actually its design, which was attractive, contemporary, ergonomic, and durable. So now we’re being graced with a device that tries to fix the good parts and rehashes the bad with impunity. The P‘9981 simply doesn’t have a reason to exist. It fails to improve on anything about the Bold, introduces issues of its own, and — wait for it — costs around $2,000. I’ve intentionally kept the price out of this review in order to give this phone a fair hearing, but its presentation of dated software and so-so hardware leaves the verdict unequivocal. Whatever Porsche Design was trying to achieve with its first smartphone, it failed.