BlackBerry crop comes up sweet, sour: Review roundup

CNET rounds up its latest BlackBerry OS 7 handset reviews.

This week we had a chance to review RIM's latest crop of BlackBerry handsets, which the company initially announced at BlackBerry World back in May of this year. They are the BlackBerry Torch 9810, the BlackBerry Torch 9850 (the Torch 9860 is the same phone but for GSM carriers), and the BlackBerry Bold 9930 (similarly, the Bold 9900 is its GSM sibling).

The one unifying characteristic they share is that all of them ship with the BlackBerry OS 7. OS 7 improves upon OS 6 with voice-activated universal search, Liquid Graphics technology that promises better graphics and animation, support for augmented reality applications, a new browser that features a just-in-time JavaScript compiler and HTML 5 video support, support for NFC payments, and a long list of preinstalled apps that includes a premium version of Documents To Go, BlackBerry Balance, BlackBerry Protect, and BBM 6. Yet, as we mentioned in our Torch 9810 review, the user interface looks and feels the same as before. Those expecting a completely different OS like QNX will be disappointed. We're not saying it's a bad operating system, but we wanted a little bit more than just a refresh.

To run OS 7, RIM has kicked up the hardware specs of the new phones by a few notches. All of them now have a 1.2GHz processor, a 5-megapixel camera with 720p HD video recording, and a digital compass for the aforementioned augmented reality support. As you might expect, all of them also have the usual Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth connectivity features and all the goodies that smartphones bring, like e-mail support and social networking apps. The Sprint and Verizon versions of these phones have dual-mode chipsets that allow them to work on both CDMA and GSM networks.

Even though most of the specs are the same, however, the phones come in three distinct form factors.

The BlackBerry Torch 9810 is perhaps the lowest-tier offering of the lot. The portrait slider form factor remains largely the same as its predecessor, the Torch 9800, and the overall look and feel is very similar too. The main difference is its display: the VGA display is richer and sharper than before, and we felt it was more responsive as well. The keyboard is also just a touch wider and larger, but the change is minimal. We don't think most people would notice. Fortunately, the Torch 9810 is also the most affordable handset on the list, at only $49.95 after a rebate and a two-year contract with AT&T. That's really quite a good deal for the improved hardware specs, even if it's mostly under the hood.

Moving up the chain a little, we get the Torch 9850. This is RIM's first all-touch-screen phone after the failed efforts of the Storm and Storm 2. We're happy to see that RIM decided to forgo the SurePress technology of the Storms and just went ahead with a regular capacitive touch screen instead. For a midrange smartphone, we actually rather liked the Torch 9850. The display is crisp and colorful, and the slim design is sharp and modern. Some might be nervous that the Torch 9850 lacks a physical keyboard, but we were mostly satisfied with BlackBerry's efforts at a virtual onscreen keyboard. It's spacious and responsive, and the autocorrect suggestions were accurate most of the time. It's priced at $149.99 after a two-year service agreement with Sprint, which we think is fair.

Last but not least is the flagship phone from RIM, the BlackBerry Bold 9930. Naysayers might scoff at the old-fashioned slate QWERTY form factor, but we think RIM has decided to stay true to its roots with this phone by offering a premium version of the iconic BlackBerry. At 10.5 millimeters, it's the thinnest BlackBerry yet, which gives it a svelte and attractive profile. The whole phone is made out of high-quality materials, from the glossy plastic on the back to its stainless steel sides. RIM has also widened the body back to the way it was with the Bold 9000, which results in a larger display and a roomier keyboard. And what a keyboard it is--it's so spacious and tactile that it ranks as one of the best mobile keyboards this year. The Bold 9900/9930 is also the first Bold with a touch-screen display. We were skeptical about this at first, but it proved to be very useful in scrolling through long Web pages and pinching to zoom. The Bold 9930 is certainly the best QWERTY BlackBerry phone we've seen to date.

Unfortunately, we're not at all happy with the Bold 9930's $249.99 price tag (that's after a rebate and a two-year agreement with Verizon Wireless). We're even more disappointed about the $299.99 price that T-Mobile is charging for its Bold 9900 . It seems odd to us that RIM would get the pricing for the Torch 9810 and the 9850 right, but miss the mark with its flagship smartphone. While we liked the specs on the Bold 9930, it doesn't really match the high-end performance Android smartphones that are out there. Seeing as OS 7 isn't a great upgrade from OS 6, we just want the Bold 9930 to be priced appropriately to remain competitive.

We do think that BlackBerry enthusiasts would enjoy any of these handsets, depending on their design preference. The Torch 9810 is a deal, and the Torch 9850 gives us hope that RIM is finally getting the touch-screen form factor right. Even though we cringe at its price, the Bold 9930 is a phone BlackBerry diehards will love. However, we're not sure OS 7 is worth the upgrade and it seems RIM still has quite a hill to climb to win over the masses.

 

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