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Promised since last summer, Sprint and RIM have finally brought a Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerry Tour to market. Though it dropped the Tour from its name, the RIM BlackBerry Bold 9650 improves on the Tour, not only by adding Wi-Fi but also by doubling the onboard memory. It also retains some of our favorite features, such as the world-roaming capabilities and compact QWERTY design. Admittedly, in the fast-paced world of smartphones, the Bold 9650 doesn't really rank as the most exciting or cutting edge. However, not everyone needs that, either, and if it's a simple messaging smartphone you're after, the Bold 9650 is most definitely a solid choice, particularly for Sprint's globetrotting business customers. The RIM BlackBerry Bold 9650 is available now for $199.99 with a two-year contract and after a $100 mail-in rebate.
Users coming from the BlackBerry Tour won't need much time to learn their way around the RIM BlackBerry Bold 9650 since it's very similar in design and function. Though slightly heavier than the Tour (4.8 ounces vs. 4.6 ounces), the Bold is exactly the same size and features the same display, external controls, and keyboard. Being alike isn't a bad thing, since we love the QWERTY keyboard and overall design, but of course, we'd also love to see some new hardware from RIM.
That said, the Bold 9650 does offer one change and that's the addition of the optical trackpad. The smartphone joins RIM's latest devices in replacing the trackball with the trackpad for navigating through the phone's menus, and it's a change we don't mind at all. We found the transition from one to the other easy, and the trackpad is very responsive. You can change the control's sensitivity (both horizontal and vertical) in the Options menu, if you find it moves too fast or slow. Also, one long-term advantage of the trackpad is that you won't have some of the problems associated with the trackball where it stops working after extended use or if it gets dirty.
Sprint packages the BlackBerry Bold 9650 with a healthy number of accessories, including a travel charger, a USB cable, a 2GB microSD card, a SIM card, a wired stereo headset, a belt holster, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.
Much like the design, the RIM BlackBerry Bold 9650 retains a lot of the same features as the Tour, with a couple of exceptions. First, the Bold now has integrated Wi-Fi (802.11b/g), so you don't always have to rely on 3G for data connectivity. The phone offers a number of Wi-Fi options and tools as well, including diagnostics, DNS lookup, ping test utility, WEP encryption, and more. The other difference is that the Bold 9650 offers double the onboard memory of the Tour at 512MB, which gives you more room for apps
Now, though the Bold 9650 was announced alongside BlackBerry OS 6 at the RIM's Wireless Enterprise Symposium, we won't see the revamped OS till Q3. That means, for now, the Bold 9650 runs BlackBerry OS 5.0, so you have to deal with the same subpar Web browser.
On the bright side, the Bold 9650 continues to offer dual-mode functionality, so the phone supports both CDMA and GSM technologies for world-roaming capabilities. Domestically, the smartphone uses Sprint's CDMA/EV-DO Rev. A network for calls and data, but will then automatically detect and switch to the international GSM bands when you're traveling internationally. You'll also be able to get 3G data while overseas since the handset supports the 2,100MHz UMTS/HSDPA band. We strongly recommend checking the international roaming rates so you don't go into sticker shock when you open your phone bill. As mentioned earlier, Sprint ships the Bold with a SIM card, but if you prefer to switch it out for a SIM card you purchase while abroad, you can do so; just be sure to speak with Sprint Customer Care before you leave.
Aside from world roaming, the Bold 9650 has a speakerphone, voice-activated dialing (over Bluetooth as well), smart dialing, conference calling, speed dial, and text and multimedia messaging. GPS and Bluetooth are also onboard; supported profiles for the latter include those for mono and stereo Bluetooth headsets, hands-free kits, AV remote, serial port profile, and dial-up networking.
E-mail remains the selling point of BlackBerrys and the Bold 9650 is no different. The handset can sync with your company's BlackBerry Enterprise server to deliver corporate e-mail in real time and supports Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino, or Novell GroupWise. With BlackBerry Internet Service, you can also access up to 10 personal/business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts and there's a built-in attachment viewer for opening Microsoft Office documents, Corel WordPerfect, PDF, JPEG, GIF, and other files. For quicker communication, you can swap PINs with other BlackBerry owners and chat via BlackBerry Messenger or you can sign into one of five other instant messaging clients preloaded on the handset, including AIM, Google Talk, and Yahoo.
The Bold 9650 also ships with several social networking apps (Facebook, MySpace, and Flickr) and Sprint services, such as Sprint Navigation, Sprint Football Live, Sprint TV, and the Sprint Music Store. More titles are available through the BlackBerry App World, though the selection of apps is a bit limited compared with Android devices and the iPhone.
The Bold's multimedia capabilities aren't much to write home about, but they get the job done. The smartphone's media player doesn't have a fancy interface but supports MP3, WMA, AAC/AAC+/eAAC+, MIDI, and AMR-NB music files and MPEG4, WMV, and H.263 video codecs. The smartphone is also equipped with the same 3.2-megapixel camera/camcorder that the Tour has; it took OK photos. Outdoor shots came out well, but there was a bit of a hazy effect on indoor photos, and colors were slightly washed out.
We tested the dual-mode (CDMA 800/1900; GSM 850/900/1800/1900) BlackBerry Bold 9650 in New York using Sprint service and call quality was mostly good. We could hear our callers with little problem. Admittedly, we could detect some slight background noise, but it wasn't disruptive enough to prevent us from continuing our phone call. Our friends said that the audio was a bit tinny and occasionally muffled on their side, but again, it was clear enough that they could continue the conversation.
Speakerphone calls were quite decent. The audio was a bit hollow, but we were impressed by the clarity of the calls and ample volume, even in louder environments. We had no problems pairing the phone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset or the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.
Sprint's 3G provided reliable coverage throughout Manhattan and delivered great speeds. CNET's full site loaded in 31 seconds, whereas CNN's and ESPN's mobile sites loaded in 6 seconds and 9 seconds, respectively. Of course, the joy of swift speeds is dampened by the clunky Web browser. The new WebKit browser can't some soon enough. We were able to watch YouTube videos from the mobile site; they took a few seconds to load but played back without interruption. The image quality was murky, as were clips from Sprint TV. The latter also had some synchronization problems between video and audio, but our MPEG4 videos played back beautifully, albeit a bit straining on the eyes given the Bold's smaller screen size. Music playback was rich, full, and comfortable, since we could use our own headphones via the 3.5mm jack.
The Bold was a solid performer throughout our testing period. It was responsive and kept up with our demands, with minimal delays. The Bold 9650 comes with a 1,380mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 5 hours and up to 13 days of standby time. In our battery drain tests, we were able to get 6.5 hours of continuous talk time on a single charge. According to FCC radiation tests, the Bold has a digital SAR rating of 1.35 watts per kilogram and has a Hearing Aid Compatibility Rating of M3.