It's been a good six months since Research in Motion first announced the RIM BlackBerry Bold (aka RIM BlackBerry 9000). Originally slated for a summer release on AT&T, the launch date kept getting pushed back...and back. Frustrated with the delays and wooed by other new smartphone releases, we moved on (and so did many of you) and nearly gave up on the Bold. However, now that we finally have it hand, the love affair has begun all over again.
The BlackBerry Bold delivers on a number of fronts. Its half-VGA display is one of the sharpest screens we've seen on a smartphone, which, combined with the stereo speakers, really boosts the multimedia experience. The Bold also ships with the latest BlackBerry operating system, new productivity applications, and support for HSDPA, Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth. This is on top of all the great messaging capabilities. Of course, it's not perfect. The smartphone isn't the sleekest device on the block, and the Web browser could use more work. It's also not going to have the mass appeal of an Apple iPhone 3G, nor would we recommend it to the general consumer. With its feature set and strong e-mailing capabilities, the BlackBerry Bold is very much a business-centric smartphone, but what is offers mobile professionals is a premium device that can handle work and play. The RIM BlackBerry Bold will be available November 4 for a slightly pricey $299.99 with a two-year contract and after rebates and discounts.
When you first lay eyes on the RIM BlackBerry Bold, the words "sleek," "sexy," and "cool" don't exactly to come to mind. At 4.5 inches high by 2.6 inches wide by 0.6 inch deep and 4.8 ounces, the Bold is bulky and wide, making for a bit of a tight fit in a pants pocket. It doesn't exactly take your breath away like the iPhone 3G, but that's not to say it's a bad-looking phone. The black chassis and silver trim are attractive enough and the rounded edges give the handset a streamlined design. Plus, if you turn the phone over, you'll notice that the back has a leatherette texture (no more slick plastic), providing a sophisticated look. If you want to customize your device a bit, RIM will sell replaceable backplates in different colors, including blue, gray, and red, for $29.99 each, which is a little pricey in our opinion.
Now while the overall design isn't particularly flashy, the true beauty of the Bold lies in the display. The smartphone boasts a 2.75-inch half-VGA, non-touch screen that shows off 65,000 colors at a crisp 480x320-pixel resolution. It's quite possibly the best-looking screen we've seen on a smartphone to date. The iPhone and HTC Touch Diamond come close, but we did a quick comparison between the iPhone and Bold and found that pictures on the Bold looked slightly smoother and crisper. Colors pop on the screen and video playback was truly impressive (more in the Performance section).
With such a beautiful screen, we're glad to see that the BlackBerry Bold features an updated user interface, much like the RIM BlackBerry Pearl Flip 8220. Some of the new icons are a bit difficult to identify at a glance (e.g., downloads, applications, and settings), but as you scroll over, each item is identified by name along the bottom. As usual, you can customize the home screen with various themes, background images, font size and type, and backlight brightness and time out.
Below the display, you get the standard navigation controls, which include Talk and End/power keys, a menu shortcut, a back button, and a trackball navigator. The one benefit of the phone's wider size is that these buttons are plenty large and easy to press. The BlackBerry Bold has a QWERTY keyboard that RIM likened to a modernized Curve keyboard, but it reminded us more of the BlackBerry 8830. We know some 8800 series users had issues with the keyboard, but we didn't have any problems with the Bold. The keyboard buttons are of a good size and have a nice tactile feel to them. We were able to compose e-mails and text messages with minimal errors. They're also backlit for easy typing in darker environments.
On the left spine, you will find a 3.5mm headphone jack, a mini USB port, a customizable shortcut key, and a microSD/SDHC expansion slot. The right side holds the volume rocker and another user-programmable convenience key. There's a mute button on top of the handset, and the camera and flash are located on the back.
AT&T packages the RIM BlackBerry Bold with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a wired headset, a software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ringtones, and help page.
The RIM BlackBerry Bold isn't just bold in looks but also in the features department as well. To start, it's the first HSDPA handset for the company, bringing you data speeds of up to network for a broadband-like connection on your mobile device. There are multiple factors that affect 3G speeds, such as where you live and how many people are on the network at one time, but you can expect speeds around 400Kbps to 700Kbps (with the potential to hit up to 2Mbps). The Bold supports the 850/1900/2100 HSDPA/UMTS bands, so you'll be able to get 3G coverage in other parts of the world, including Europe and Asia.
Just of note, RIM said the reason why it waited so long to bring an HSDPA device to the market is that it wanted to make sure that battery life wouldn't be sacrificed at the expense of including the 3.5G technology. The company also attributed part of the launch delay to rigorous 3G testing in order to avoid the problems that affected the iPhone 3G. So far we haven't had any problems with 3G coverage, but we'll continue to test the phone over the next few weeks (more on this in the Performance section section as well).
Other phone features of the Bold include quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, conference calling, voice-activated dialing, speed dial, and text and multimedia messaging. The mobile also has background noise cancellation technology to help call quality, and you have the option to boost the bass or treble levels when on a call. The address book is limited only by the available memory (the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts) with room in each entry for multiple phone numbers, e-mail addresses, work and home addresses, job title, and more. For caller ID purposes, you can assign a photo to a contact as well a group category--business or personal--or one of 32 polyphonic ringtones. Bluetooth 2.0 is onboard for use with mono and stereo headsets and hands-free kits. There's also support for the serial port profile and dial-up networking.
Wi-Fi and GPS are also onboard. The integrated Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g) provides an alternative method for surfing the Net so you don't always have to rely on 3G. You can manually add a network or the smartphone can automatically scan for available networks; our review unit had no problem finding and connecting to our wireless network. There are also Wi-Fi tools, such as diagnostics, DNS lookup, and site survey. The BlackBerry browser has always lagged behind the competition with poor navigation, but there have been improvements over the year. The Bold has a full HTML Web browser, and you can choose from various two views, such as Page View or Column View. In addition to zoom in/out functions, there's also an onscreen cursor that you can move in any direction and place on any part of the page where you can click a link. It's still not an ideal situation and the Web browsing experience is nowhere near the iPhone's, but it's better than previous BlackBerrys.
The GPS is both autonomous and assisted, using both satellites and cellular triangulation to find your position. You can get maps and text-based, turn-by-turn driving directions with apps like BlackBerry Maps and Google Maps for Mobile, but if you want any real-time tracking and voice-guided instructions, you'll have to use a location-based service. The BlackBerry Bold is set up to work with AT&T Navigator and AT&T Navigator Global Edition. Currently, you can get a 30-day free trial of the service; afterward, it will cost you $9.99 per month for unlimited access or $2.99 for one day. Also be aware that data charges apply for route information.
The BlackBerry Bold ships with the latest BlackBerry OS 4.6, bringing the aforementioned updated user interface as well as new functionality. E-mail, of course, remains the strongpoint of the BlackBerry Bold. It can sync with your company's BlackBerry Enterprise server, with support for Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino, or Novell GroupWise, to deliver corporate e-mail in real time. With BlackBerry Internet Service, you can also access up to 10 personal/business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts. Like all recent BlackBerry models, the Bold has a spell-check feature that will look for errors in e-mails and memos, but not text messages. There's also an attachment viewer for opening Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Corel WordPerfect, PDF, JPEG, GIF, and more.
Given the business focus of the Bold, it's good to see that the smartphone now comes preloaded with DataViz Documents To Go Standard Edition, so you can now edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files as well. If you want the ability to create new documents, you will have to upgrade to the Premium Edition. We had no problems opening and working on Word and Excel documents, but we can't imagine doing more than minor edits on the Bold or any other smartphone for that matter. Other PIM applications include a Calendar, a task list, a memo pad, a voice recorder, a calculator, a password keeper, and more.
The BlackBerry Bold has plenty of multimedia options, and with the smartphone's brilliant display and awesome speaker, we think it's one of the main highlights of the phone. The built-in media player can play various music and video formats, including MP3, WMA, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR-NB, and MIDI music files, and MPEG4, WMV, DivX4, XviD (partial support), and H.263 video clips. There's a search function, playlist creation, shuffle and repeat, and you get a full-screen mode for video playback. The included software CD also contains a copy of Roxio Easy Media Creator, so you can create MP3s from CDs and add audio tags. The Bold also works with the BlackBerry Media Sync application so you can load your iTunes library. The Bold has 1GB of onboard memory and 128MB of flash memory onboard, while the expansion slot can accept up to 16GB cards.
The BlackBerry is equipped with a 2-megapixel camera with flash, 5x zoom, and video recording. For still images, you have your choice of three picture sizes and three picture qualities. There are white balance settings and color effects that you can add to the image. Thanks to the built-in GPS, you can also geotag your photos. In video mode, your options are limited as you only get three color effects and two video formats (normal and MMS).
Picture quality was decent. Images looked sharp and clear, but colors were a bit pale and washed out. Unfortunately, video quality wasn't so great. There was quite a bit of pixelation (enough to be distracting) which was disappointing since other videos looked amazing on the Bold. This, of course, has more to do with the camera than anything else.
We tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900; UMTS/HSDPA 850/1900/2000) RIM BlackBerry Bold in San Francisco using AT&T service and call quality was good. Voices sounded clear on our end with very little background noise, and we had no problems using an airline's voice automated response system. Our friends reported similarly positive results with no major complaints. The speakerphone was decent. The sound quality diminished a bit, but we were still able to carry on conversations just fine. We didn't experience any reception problems or dropped calls during our review period, but we'll continue to test the phone and report any issues that come up. We successfully paired the Bold with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.
The RIM BlackBerry Bold is equipped with a 624MHz Intel PXA270 processor, whereas previous BlackBerrys had 312MHz processors, so technically, you should enjoy smoother and faster performance. During our test period, we found this to be mostly true. There were just a couple of slight delays; for example, the smartphone had to think a bit before starting a slide show. However, for the most part, the response times were fast, whether we were working on a Word document or launching the media player.
Web browsing is probably the one area that could stand for some improvement. While the page load speeds were good, whether on 3G or Wi-Fi, the browser left much to be desired. There's a lot of switching views and zooming in and out to get to the right section of a page, so it's not as seamless of an experience.
The multimedia performance on the BlackBerry Bold is amazing. We were blown away (literally) by the amazing sound that came out of the phone's dual stereo speakers. We haven't heard such full sound from any smartphone before, offering a nice balance of treble and bass, and there's plenty of volume. Of course, we're delighted there's a 3.5mm headphone jack built in and you also get 11 equalizer settings to enhance the sound. Watching videos on the Bold is incredible, thanks to the half-VGA display. Playback was incredibly smooth with barely any blurriness.
The RIM BlackBerry Bold features a 1,500mAh lithium-ion battery with a rated talk time of 4.3 hours and up to 10.5 days of standby time. The Bold blew the rated talk time out of the water in our battery drain tests, lasting a total of 7 hours on a single charge.