By the time the BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930 was announced, we had already seen plenty of it, going all the way back to prototypes that were little more than Bold 9000s with a touchscreen and no trackball. Many critics were already bored of RIM’s buttoned-down, traditional QWERTY candybar layout, and the samey look of the new operating system, but those of us that had a chance to play around with it knew that the performance was leagues ahead of anything RIM had done previously. While a few other next-gen RIM smartphones are launching alongside the Bold, the 9900/9930 will be spearheading BlackBerry’s latest push. The big question remains: why get one if dual-core QNX-powered BlackBerry smartphones are coming out early next year? Is the new breed of RIM devices enough to sate BlackBerry loyalists, nevermind remain appealing to the smartphone market at large? Check out our full BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930 review to find out.
- Slim, executive-feeling design
- Super-smooth and responsive software
- Still handles messaging like a boss
- Same BlackBerry experience with minor tweaks
- Limited screen real estate
- NFC dependent on carrier
In terms of feel, the new BlackBerry Bold hearkens back in a lot of ways to the Bold 9000. It's wide, but much slimmer than the original. The keyboard is actually 6% bigger than the BlackBerry 9000, making it the roomiest, most comfortable keyboard of any BlackBerry to date. Even within the greater sphere of smartphones, I'd be hard-pressed to name a device that's as nice to type on than the 9900/9930. Heavy-duty texters will be able to appreciate the keyboard more than anyone, but if you're more into apps and media, the 2.8 inch screen may be too small for your liking. The metal bezel certainly adds an executive feeling unseen in BlackBerry devices to date. If RIM had included the classic leather battery doors too, then you'd have a real premium-feeling device. It's worth noting that the 9900/9930 re-introduces charging contacts at the bottom, making for seamless, wire-free juicing with the right dock. It's been a feature that has often been overlooked, but RIM's been doing it for awhile, even before webOS phones made inductive charging cool.
The BlackBerry 9900/9930 earns most of its build quality points for the stainless steel band around the outside. Traditionally, RIM stuck with a cheap-feeling painted plastic, so it's nice to hold something solid for a change. Even the convenience keys are stainless steel, which really drives home the quality. The keyboard is sufficiently clicky, but don't require a lot of force to press, which, combined with the roomy size of each key, makes for very relaxed typing. The rear of the device has a border of soft-touch rubber, and the battery door is made of glossy plastic which covers a carbon fiber weave pattern. I'm sure that smooth battery door won't age gracefully and show scratches overtime, but the front display handles scratches like a boss. Some casual friction doesn't seem to leave any mark, which should be expected from any high-end smartphone at this point.
Overall, the BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930 feels tight and well-constructed. I suspect that it could weather a good couple of years-worth of e-mails before wear and tear become a serious concern.
The metal band around the outside of the BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930 adds about as much class as it does physical sturdiness, but aside from that, a lot of the design choices are going to be familiar. RIM has ditched the dual mute and lock keys on top, and have instead separated them so the mute/pause/play key sits nicely in the middle of the volume rocker. I'm really happy about this decision, because it was far too easy to accidentally unpause your music when putting a BlackBerry into your pocket top-down, or lock the device with a stray bump. Now the lock key on top is nicely receded into the body, much like the old 9000, and the mute key is logically placed with the other media controls. The four navigation keys and optical trackpad are unchanged, though they're about as flush against the touchscreen as you can get short of making them part of the front face, like the Curve 9300. It seems to me that anyone who would be willing to carry a phone as wide as the Bold 9900/9930 would expect a big touchscreen, but for those who pump out a ton of e-mail and other text messages, the room is best spent on a stellar physical keyboard. In terms of overall style, the phone's very classic BlackBerry; to me, that means sharp, smooth, and dark, but I'll leave it up to you to decide if that look has been done to death.
The BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930 launches with OS 18.104.22.168, and though things run much more smoothly than usual, it's still the same basic experience as you would expect from a RIM smartphone. That means a laser focus messaging in all its forms, including e-mail, text messaging, instant messaging, Facebook, and Twitter. All of those communications are pushed into the Messages folder, and can all be linked within the native address book, so each person's latest correspondence is readily visible.
There are still some shortcomings of the Java-based BlackBerry OS, like the fact that many apps require a whole system reboot to complete installation. There's still no way to identify duplicate contacts and merge them, though when adding new contact information, you can now opt to add it to an existing contact rather than making a brand new one. E-mails are still truncate based on size, though that limit is due to get bumped up a notch. There's no native means of taking a screenshot, pushing you to buy something third-party. On the plus side, Gmail conversations are now threaded within the native Messages app, along with Google-specific stuff like archiving, labels, and stars; those features used to require you to view Gmail from its own dedicated inbox rather than amalgamated with all of your other stuff.
Application selection still isn't great, though 3D, BBM, and augmented reality support do open up a few doors for developers. Though there's 768 MB of RAM for apps to run within, only 190 MB or so is actually dedicated to app storage. Seeing as applications are rarely bigger than 7 MB and there are so few quality titles in App World (nevermind any updated for OS 7), it would be a real challenge to actually fill up all that room. Besides, those new 3D games can store a lot of its textures and models on SD card memory.
As snappy as the software is, I still experienced a few hiccups. After draining the battery dead, I got a pretty vicious looking crash on reboot, which eventually resolved itself over time. For a little while, the video camera gave me an error saying it couldn't start the viewfinder, which was resolved with a battery pull. I needed to do another battery pull after a factory reset when I just got a blank screen once the intro video was done. Staring at an hourglass doesn't happen much anymore, except when you're downloading something from App World.
The software on the Verizon device has also been used to lock out near-field communications, a feature that was to set the Bold apart from the other OS 7 handsets. Although NFC isn't a big deal right now, it's pretty much guaranteed that in a few years time, we'll all be paying for stuff by tapping our phones on sensors at stores. It's a bit of a vicious circle, since stores and banks are waiting on customers owning compatible hardware to start installing sensors, and phone manufacturers are waiting on businesses to have sensors so NFC is a sellable feature. That said, it's not a huge tragedy that there's at least a temporary software block on NFC, but seeing as this was an advertised feature that would set the 9900/9930 apart from the other OS 7 devices, its absence is noticeable. AT&T and T-Mobile are also expected to have a similar block in place.
What does sting is the fact that mobile hotspot was expected in all of RIM's OS 7 devices, but as it turns out, none of them will have it. This is standard across iOS and Android, so it's really not asking too much. It's a huge utility for folks carrying around tablets, laptops, and are surrounded by friends that could use a bit of spare data. RIM's notoriously subservient to carriers, however, and there's little reason for service providers to be supportive of mobile hotspots - that's why they sell internet sticks and separate data plans, after all. In the best case scenario, this is just another software block held in place until carriers finish up testing.
My last qualm over the software is that there's very little change. There's voice-activated universal search that works well enough, 3D games are possible through the additional horsepower, and augmented reality apps are now enabled through the included magnetic compass, but let's face it, other manufacturers have been bundling these features for years now. Let's take DLNA media sharing, for instance. This is an easy, universally-accepted way of sharing music, pictures, and video to Wi-Fi-enabled home entertainment systems. It's been around for years, and many Android phones have adopted it. If you've bought a high-end TV in the last couple years, odds are good that you've got DLNA in your house. RIM, a company born and bred for engineering, is surely able to figure out DLNA, so why not include it? Security issues? Battery life? Stubborn, blind upper-management unable to grasp the marketing appeal of such a feature? Whatever the reason, all end-users see is that BlackBerry doesn't have it, and the competition does, which strikes me as an attitude that can be equally applied to RIM's other shortcomings, like app selection.
The 5 megapixel camera on the back of the Bold 9900/9930 differs from that on the last generation BlackBerry devices in two ways. For one, it can record 720p video. Secondly, it's using an enhanced depth of field lens, which means no autofocus. In practical terms, that means the camera sucks for taking close-up pictures. Of course, it does mean you don't have to wait for the focus mechanism to kick in when you take your shots, so it's easy to take one after another.
All of the usual features are still in there, like a wide variety of presets for night time, party, sports, beach, and a new face detection option. There aren't as many manual adjustments as on some other smartphones, such as brightness or contrast. As for the shots themselves, the colour is a little on the flat side, and there's a noticeable amount of noise, but as far as smartphone cameras go, pictures taken on the Bold are good enough. There's a video sample on YouTube below, or you can download the original file here. You an take a look at my Torch 9800 review to see how the shots stack up against RIM's last camera.
The music app is largely unchanged, with the usual equalizer presets, album art, playlists, and universal search integration still intact. I'd really like to see universal search have separate sections for artist, album, and playlists, rather than only scanning for individual tracks. The hardware volume controls still offer intuitive track skipping, and the new positioning of the pause/play button is sensible and useful. The Amazon MP3 store and Slacker Radio are both preloaded, and solid options if you're looking to buy your tunes à la carte or go the subscription route. Of course, the BlackBerry Desktop Software has Wi-Fi sync built in if you already have a big Windows Media or iTunes library to keep synced up. Everyone suspects RIM will be launching their own music service shortly, though I'll be curious to see if it's competitive to the third-party options already available. The additional 8 GB of local storage is a nice touch, and will likely be good enough for light users to not have to bother with a 16 or 32 GB microSD card.
Video runs very smoothly, though there are still some decoding limitations. The 9900 wasn't able to render a 1080p .mov trailer for Cowboys and Aliens, though it handled a 720p .wmv of Diggnation with little trouble. Even though you might not be particularly prone to watching full movies on the relatively small screen, it's sharp, bright, and smooth enough to be viable for short videos downloaded through the native Podcasts application. If videos are a big deal for you, consider taking a look at the BlackBerry Torch 9850/60.
The native BlackBerry browser is leagues faster thanks to the processor upgrade to 1.2 GHz, and new OpenGL rendering, which ultimately results in vastly improved load times and responsive pinch-zooming performance. The 768 MB of RAM also lets you keep a lot of tabs open at once without skipping a beat, which is bound to happen when you're opening web pages from multiple sources and forgetting to close them once you're done. I got up to 9 pages open simultaneously and everything was still running perfectly fine; that's definitely not something you could say about the older OS 6 devices. Checkerboarding still happens on particularly busy pages, but the web browsing experience on the whole is altogether enjoyable. Of course, if you're doing a lot of web surfing, you might want a bigger screen, like what's being offered on the Torch 9850/60. The browser doesn't support Flash, so YouTube videos still aren't rendered in-line, though you can always visit the mobile site and cross your fingers that your video's offered for mobile.
Call Quality And Battery Life
The BlackBerry Bold 9900 and 9930 are powered by a 1230 mAH battery, which is a significant step down from the 1550 mAH battery included with the Bold 9700. That said, out of four full days of use, I haven't been able to get through one with a single charge; at the latest, it would last until about 8 PM, which might be good enough for you, but it's not for me.. Maybe it has something to do with my roaming in Canada with Verizon device, so your mileage may vary, but the BlackBerry Bold 9930 fell well behind my battery life expectations for RIM and smartphones on general. I sincerely hope that it's the exception rather than the rule, but I've heard folks with the GSM version, the 9900, are having just as much trouble. When you consider this thing is running essentially the same software with a screen that's twice as sharp and a processor that's twice as fast, it's no surprise that a smaller battery can't hold up. Honestly, I would happily tack on another 2-3 mm of thickness if it meant having decent battery life again and autofocus in the camera.
Call quality is up to snuff, and the rear-mounted speakerphone is loud enough to be useful, though nowhere close to the quality of its spiritual predecessor, the Bold 9000.
The Final Take
The bottom line is, if you're a BlackBerry lover, and have been packing something like the BlackBerry Bold 9780 for this long already, you can probably hold out for another 6-8 months for the first QNX BlackBerry, which will be running an operating system much more likely to be supported in the long haul. There is a bit of a gamble there, though; if the PlayBook has shown us anything, it's that the platform has a lot of function gaps to fill, and if they aren't ready in time for the QNX smartphone launch, then the Bold 9900/9930 may be more functional for the immediate future. While I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the BlackBerry 9900/9930 to get an upgrade to the new OS, the rumour that RIM's first QNX handset is using a single core processor and thus not dependent on a dual-core processor offers some hope for backwards compatibility.
Between the loss of features like autofocus on the camera, the failure to include functions as advertised like NFC, the conspicuous absence of expected features like mobile hotspot, missing consumer electronics industry standards like DLNA home media sharing, and falling behind in old standards like battery life, I'm finding it hard to recommend the new BlackBerry Bold. The fact that the 9900/9930 is smooth and responsive isn't a feature, no matter what trademarked name RIM gives their rendering engine; it's what BlackBerry should have been all along. Augmented reality and voice-activated universal search are both nice touches, but as far as I can tell, these are the only real new tricks the Bold 9900/9930 brings to the table. I've yet to really dive in to the the Torch 9810 or 9850, but I fear they're going to be more of the same.
The feel of the device is great though, and that can't be denied. The screen is sharper than ever, and extremely responsive. For BlackBerry diehards that want a big honkin' keyboard in a slim package, the Bold 9900 will fit the bill so long as they're willing to pay a premium up-front for the device cost at launch. With a bit of patience, I'm sure that $250 pricetag will get knocked down a hundred bucks. For anyone looking for something game-changing (or at least competitive) from RIM, you'll have to wait until the first QNX phones hit the market.
How do you new BlackBerry 9900 owners feel about your purchase?