Research In Motion finds itself in a bit of an odd spot these days. Although its BlackBerry line of smartphones continues to be popular among both consumers and the enterprise, a seemingly ever-increasing number of devices from other manufacturers threaten to eat into the company's market share.
Faced with such a challenge, some companies may be tempted to try something radical; but as the new BlackBerry Bold 9700 shows, RIM's strategy is to emphasize what originally allowed them to become a dominant player in smartphones in the first place.
The form-factor of the Bold 9700 follows closely in the footsteps of the Bold 9000, although it is a little slimmer and lighter than its predecessor. At 4.29 inches long, 2.36 inches wide, 0.56 inches thick and with a weight of 4.30 ounces, the Bold 9700 fits comfortably in the palm. The leatherette backing gives the device something of an "executive" feel, and prevents it from sliding around on a slick surface such as a metal desk.
In keeping with RIM's stick-with-the-basics philosophy for the device, the Bold 9700 includes a physical 35-key qwerty keyboard and no touchscreen. Onscreen navigation comes courtesy of a trackpad; RIM seems to have entirely abandoned the trackball, which will come as a relief to those users frustrated with that feature's tendency to clog or break.
Upon turning on the Bold 9700 for the first time, users will notice the brightness and resolution of the screen, something that Research In Motion is understandably emphasizing in their media materials related to the launch. The high-resolution 2.44-inch screen features a 480x360 pixel color display and supports more than 65,000 colors. Video and images seem noticeably but not astoundingly sharp.
Along those lines, the Bold 9700 comes with a 3.2-megapixel camera that includes standard-issue auto-focus, image stabilization, flash and 2X digital zoom. In addition to still images, users can also record video in either normal mode (480 x 352 pixel) or MMS Mode (176 x 144 pixel). The camera is much better than the one integrated into the Bold 9000, which was functional but snapped muddy images if lighting conditions were less than ideal; with the Bold 9700, images are substantially sharper, with clear colors.
The device tested by eWEEK utilized the T-Mobile network. Over three days of testing, calls were relatively clear in Manhattan and Brooklyn, with one dropped connection and minor interference at some moments; however, quality of coverage could vary wildly in other areas of the country. The 3G connection loaded Web pages fairly quickly, although the lack of touchscreen continues to make online navigation a bit of a chore.
RIM claims that the Bold 9700's 1500 mAh removable Lithium-cell battery will provide 6 hours of talk time, 21 days of standby time, and 38 hours of music playback. After three days on continuous standby, and roughly one hour of talk time and three hours of Web browsing, eWEEK's test device is still at roughly 80 percent battery power.
Although the BlackBerry is not known primarily as a media-friendly device, music playback was notably crisp and clear. The music navigation is basic and intuitive-you can cycle through artists, albums, genres, "All Songs," "Shuffle Songs," and playlists-but lacks the bells-and-whistles of the iPhone or the Zune HD. The Bold 9700 supports MP3, WMA9 and a variety of professional audio formats.
Many of these software improvements, however, seem more like minor tweaks than substantive upgrades. Web pages seemed to load in the browser at roughly the same speed as with previous BlackBerry devices; and as for the graphical improvements in the interface-maybe the icons seemed to glow a little brighter, with slightly sharper lines, but overall the new version of the OS appeared a virtual carbon-copy of the previous iteration.
Those who rely on applications such as Word to Go and Slideshow to Go, which allow lightweight editing of documents on the BlackBerry device, will be relieved to learn that all those features are still present. For those who enjoy procrastinating with games such as BrickBreaker, those applications also continue to reside on the Bold 9700. Customers using BlackBerry Enterprise Server 5.0 will be able to manage e-mail folders, access remote files, and juggle their calendar.
While the device continues to play to RIM's strengths, the question becomes how much longer those strengths will allow the company to maintain its standing among a business community with increased exposure to competing devices from a variety of manufacturers. On the other hand, many business users are looking more for functionality than the ability to watch television shows or access Facebook, in which case the BlackBerry could hold enduring appeal.
The Bold certainly seems a more comfortable fit for the RIM line of devices than its BlackBerry Curve 8520 smartphone, released in August as an overt attempt to appeal to a more consumer demographic.
Although that device boasted the usual BlackBerry functionality and applications, it included more robust multimedia options. Along the outer rim of the Curve, RIM had placed a "Play/Pause/Mute" key, along with a "Previous" and "Next" key, so users could cycle through multimedia files. These dedicated media keys seemed tailor-made to appeal to the iPhone set, but the marriage between traditional BlackBerry form-factor and portable media player seemed an awkward one.
By contrast, the sides of the Bold 9700's casing include a miniature USB port, 3.5-mm headphone jack, volume adjustment keys, and a button for either snapping photos or opening applications. This feels much more natural.
With the Bold 9700, BlackBerry seems to be sticking to what it knows best. For many within the enterprise, that will be enough. But with smartphones such as the iPhone continuing to gain ground, and other devices such as the Motorola Droid in the pipeline, RIM may be tempted in its next iteration to move from its safety zone and try something more radical.