Last year, RIM gave the BlackBerry Bold a much-needed update by slimming its profile, upgrading its camera, and replacing the trackball with a slick optical trackpad. Since then, a bunch of new BlackBerrys have come out with the brand new OS 6, most notably the BlackBerry Style 9670 and the BlackBerry Torch 9800. It’s been promised that the faithful old 9700 would be eligible for a software update eventually, and we’ve indeed seen it in action, but RIM apparently thought it prudent to give the hardware a bit of a refresh while they were at it upgrading the OS.
The BlackBerry Bold 9780 will look awfully familiar to anyone who has put thumbs to a 9700. What’s new? Well, the camera has been cranked up to 5 megapixels from 3, the RAM has been increased to 512 MB from 256, and it comes running BlackBerry 6 right out of the box. Those modest changes might not be enough to win over someone who picked up a 9700 in the last year, but for those closing in on their second year with something older, like the Bold 9000, it might be worth looking at. And hey, what about those who have never touched a BlackBerry in their lives? Will this buttoned-down business-looking phone hold any appeal for them, especially with such shiney gadgets like the iPhone 4 and a multitude of Android options out there?
Available for $129.99 w/ 2-year contract from T-Mobile
Specifications (Specs – sheet)
- 2.4-inch HVGA (480 x 360) display
- 624 MHz CPU, 512 MB of RAM
- 5 megapixel camera with autofocus and flash
- 3G via HSPA, Wi-Fi b/g
- GPS, Bluetooth 2.1
- microSD (support for up to 32 GB)
- 3.5mm headphone jack
- BlackBerry OS 6
- 6 hours talk time, 22 days standby
- 109 x 60 x 14 mm, and 122 g
- Excellent battery life
- Tried-and-true form factor
- Solid (if mostly superficial) enhancements in OS 6
- Currently limited app support
- A bit boring for the average consumer
As mentioned, the BlackBerry Bold 9780 makes some decent updates to its specifications, like having a 5 megapixel camera and some added app memory, but otherwise, it really is identical to the 9700. It has the same classy faux-leather battery door, fretted, ergonomic keyboard, unified mute/lock key on top, and sharp lines of the original.
I used to bemoan the 9700 for shaving a few millimeters off the width from the 9000 since that made for tighter typing and less screen real estate, but the change is small enough (about 6 mm) that if you’re upgrading, you adapt pretty quickly. Transitioning from the Torch to the 9780, I found the keyboard to be roughly the same size, if angled a little differently. The lack of a larger screen bugged me a bit at first, but the trade-off in battery life is substantial (more on that later).
Overall, it’s hard to get too excited about the hardware because so much of it is exactly like the 9700. It still feels smooth, slim, unified, and classy, but not new if you’ve handled the Bold 9700 before. Even the layout will be dreadfully (or comfortingly) familiar to anyone who had used an 8800 back in the day. The few upgrades in camera and memory are nice, but expected.
The BlackBerry Bold 9780 comes with OS 126.96.36.1995, which is more or less the same as the BlackBerry Style. Again, we’re dealing with a smaller screen and navigating solely by trackpad. For those uninitiated with BlackBerry, the OS has been spit-polished over decades for efficient messaging. It all started with e-mail, but since then, Research In Motion has spread to social networking, instant messaging, multimedia sharing, and usual phone-y stuff, like texting and calling. You navigate using the four-way directional touchpad in the middle, access actions through the menu key to the left of it, and launch them by clicking the optical pad – a bit dry, but it’s worked for BlackBerry for a while. You can also summon up common tasks by holding down the trackpad, which is more graphically rich than the short menu you used to get on the trackball models.
The most recent phone calls, messages, and calendar items show up by clicking the notification bar at the top middle where icons usually pop up. Also from the home screen, you can launch into a device and web-wide search simply by typing from the home screen. Third-party apps can plug into both universal search and the notification bar, though I find checking messages from the notification area irritating since you can’t go to the next or previous messages without backing out.
Multitasking is easily done by holding down the menu key, revealing a nice grid of what’s currently active. Application selection is still hurting a bit in comparison to platforms like iPhone and Android, which were built from the ground up with third-party apps in mind, but it’s easy to find most of the important stuff in RIM’s official store, App World.
When it comes to this BlackBerry Bold in particular, there are still a lot of apps that haven’t updated for 9780 compatibility, which at first I thought was odd since it has the exact same screen resolution as the old 9700, however, being loaded with OS 6 might mean that there’s just a bit more time-consuming tweaking to do. No doubt it won’t be a big issue after app developers have had some time to catch up.
RIM recently updated BlackBerry Maps, their native GPS app, for more countries, but for most stuff I would still side with Google Maps for Mobile. Some free, traditional, turn-by-turn driving navigation from either party would be really sweet, especially since it’s been available on Android and Symbian for a long time now. Jussayin’. At least BlackBerry can chill out with iPhone on not having a free option yet.
As nice as the new OS looks, complete with user-friendly settings menus and smooth transition animations, the default theme still confuses me in how it’s set up. RIM has moved away from the old scarce home screen which launched into a full list of apps after hitting the Menu key. Now you you have a little bar that can pull up a kind of windowshade to reveal or hide application icons. You also swipe left or right to switch between All, Favourites, Media, Downloads, and Frequent filters. Firstly, there’s no real reason to hide any of those icons on the home screen; it’s not like there’s anything other than the wallpaper to look at. Maybe it would work if a section of the notification bar came down every time you pushed the icon tray down, and slid back up the more apps you wanted to see. Theme devs? Get on that.
Secondly, the filter system is only intermittently helpful. Because there tends to be a lot of overlap between the automatically generated filters, like Frequent and Downloads, you’ll have some redundant presence, which effectively translates to wasted swipes. Even if just the first four icons were mutually exclusive from the other filters, then at least you’ll always see something new with each swipe. Having to swipe multiple times just to get to the filter you want (if you’re lucky enough to remember if it’s to the left or right of All) just adds to the hassle. Overall, it looks good, but is mostly useless. Check out third-party themes for something more reasonable.
Aside from that, personal information management is exceptional on BlackBerry in general, especially when it comes to contacts. Native two-way sync with GMail, Yahoo!, Windows Live, and (of course) Exchange accounts means you can pull in most of your existing contacts. Plugging in with instant messaging contacts and social network friends lets you see their latest updates in your address book, and replace their caller ID picture with whatever they have up on their profile. It’s a bit of a pain to set up initially, but once you have everybody paired up with the right contacts across a variety of networks, the address book becomes a really powerful hub. I just wish that the enterprise-grade Google Apps would sync like the standard consumer edition… For those who want to drink from the social network firehose, RIM includes a Social Feeds app that amalgamates social network and instant messaging status updates and jams ‘em all down the same pipe. You can drill down into the respective apps if you want to do anything other than view, or you can post to multiple networks at once.
Overall, BlackBerry 6 on the 9780 offers some significant visual upgrades compared to anything older than the Torch. Unfortunately, the well-known lack of quality app selection is compounded by an absence of compatibility for some of my top picks. Even the native browser is identified as a Torch when visiting Facebook’s mobile site.
The WebKit browser that comes with BlackBerry 6 is definitely a nice improvement on the old one. The implementation of multiple tabs is very slick, and web page rendering is highly accurate. Sometimes the number of tabs can pile up a little high, since every time you click on a new link in an e-mail or where-ever, it’s in a new tab. I worry that we won’t see Flash 10.1 support until QNX’s operating system from the PlayBook tablet comes to smartphones, but whatever the case may be, the longer RIM waits, the more of a head start Android gets. At least eventually getting Flash is better than never getting it, eh iPhone? Although the browser lacks the pinch-to-zoominess of the Torch, it has an equally-natural shift-plus-swipe mechanic in place to view the smaller details. I’d also like to give a shoutout to Untappd, who have made a great check-in network for beer using only a web-based interface. The icon is nice, big, and high-res when saved to your desktop, it’s location-aware, and the UI is almost as good as any native app.
Even though Android and iPhone browsers might have it licked, the BlackBerry browser is still completely usable, and should handle the vast majority of tasks you need done – maybe just not as fast or as smoothly as you might like.
The BlackBerry Bold 9780 fared reasonably well as a music player. I tend to use my Torch for tunes pretty much all day long, facilitated either through my 16 GB microSD card (supports up to 32 GB), or through a streaming app like Slacker or, if you happen to be in the U.S., Pandora. For those that swap songs around frequently, the BlackBerry Desktop Software has Wi-Fi music sync available. The native media player shows cover art when available, and comes with some great equalizer options – I pretty much always leave bass boost on, but you can chose jazz, rock, hip-hop, and a bunch of others. External keys like the volume rocker and top-mounted pause/play/mute key make it easy to control on the go, though I still find the design of the top keys a bit too easy to accidentally bump. Alas, RIM’s been doing it since the first Storm, and is showing no sign of stopping.
The external speaker on the back is definitely good enough for conference calls, and generally loud and crisp enough for music, but I find busy rock tunes tend to get distorted, and there’s a usual lack of decent bass. I still wonder why RIM never kept up with the multiple sound port design that they used on the Bold 9000 – the sound on that thing was bomb.
Video playback is getting a little bit better, but particularly large video files are just too much for the 9780’s 624 MHz processor. Besides having trouble keeping up syncing audio with a 402 MB .WMV file I was testing, the Bold had a pretty hard crash half-way through aton point. Smaller video is fine, and YouTube streaming works hunky-dory for videos that are mobile-enabled.
The BlackBerry Bold 9780’s camera is really good, and can easily replace a point-and-shoot so long as you’re not too picky. OS 6 includes a lot of different presets for varying light conditions, like Party, Night, Close-Up, Portrait, and lots of others. The autofocus is reasonably quick (which, as far as smartphones go, not that quick), there’s a bit of digital zoom there that I wouldn’t use unless absolutely necessary, but the flash is awesome; in fact, I spend a lot of time with the video camera app open just to use the thing as a flashlight (P.S. you’re a sucker if you buy a flashlight app). Maybe I’m crazy (or just took a crappy shot with the Style), but I think at least the close-up software has been improved. Compare this shot with that taken on the BlackBerry 9670, which also has a 5 megapixel camera.
Battery life is probably the Bold 9780’s biggest selling point when compared to not only other recent BlackBerrys, but other comparable smartphones. With the screen brightness all the way down, and heavy usage (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 3G, and lots of e-mail checking), not only will the 9780 last the day, it’ll make it through the night with a bit of life left. I bet if you were judicious and toned down usage to casual, turned off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and stayed on 2G, you could probably make it to lunch the next day, or even the next night if you kept it turned off during lulls. The relatively big 1500 mAh battery certainly helps, but the Bold also has a smaller screen than a lot of smartphones these days, and that goes really far. RIM lists the 9780 as handling 22 days standby, 6 hours of talk, and 36 hours of music playback.
Call quality was acceptable, and I didn’t have any problems with dropped calls. The 9780 has support for UMA, and if your carrier does too, then you can make some cheap calls over local Wi-Fi networks. In my experience, that service has been seamless and solid.
There’s no bones about it – the BlackBerry Bold 9780 is a very down-to-earth, predictable iteration on the brand, and some people wouldn’t have it any other way. Between the Style and Torch, there haven’t been any more traditional BlackBerry models since the Curve 9300, and for high-powered suits, that entry-level device just lacks the polish they want. The enterprise pigeonhole is a little unfair for BlackBerry these days, but when you look at a phone like the 9780 that is nearly identical to just about any BlackBerry from years ago, you can tell RIM is trying to keep some appeal with those who have a distaste for change.
In terms of straight-up specs, the Bold 9780 might not compete with the high-end smartphones available from other manufacturers today, but it does offer more than enough for folks who simply want a communication tool. Yeah, there are a few apps available, but if that’s a deciding factor in purchasing, Android and iPhone have any BlackBerry beat. If you’re looking for a toy, get an iPhone, if you’re looking for a pet project to tweak on weekends, get an Android phone, and if you need to communicate, get a BlackBerry.
I would recommend the BlackBerry Bold 9780 to anyone who well and truly needs to stay connected. The top-notch battery life, comfortable keyboard and sharp screen make for a phone that you can count on day-in and day-out. The few refreshed features, like 5 megapixel camera, added app memory, and OS 6 are nice perks, but probably not worth the upgrade from the 9700, especially with an impending OS update.