Research In Motion finds itself in something of an unenviable quandary these days. The company that helped pioneer the whole concept of a smartphone, and which retains an audience of loyal users within businesses worldwide, is under marketplace assault from a legion of determined competitors: not only Apple's iPhone, which is rapidly working its way into corporate life, but also a rising tide of increasingly sophisticated Google Android devices.
The wild card in this particular poker game is Windows Phone, which can draw from the combined resources of both Microsoft and Nokia, and has the potential to make a substantive enterprise play of its own.
Faced with those issues, RIM has chosen to embrace a strategy of leapfrog. Over the past few months, company executives have started to talk up a series of QNX-based "superphones" that will supposedly barrel their way onto the market a few quarters down the road, complete with hardware and software capable of taking the most powerful rivals head-on. This great leap forward, they say, will realign RIM as the smartphone manufacturer to beat.
In the interim, as a sort of stopgap measure, RIM is pushing a new line of BlackBerry devices running its new BlackBerry 7 OS. These include the BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930, the BlackBerry Torch 9810 with a sliding keyboard, and the touch-screen-only BlackBerry Torch 9850/9860. Sprint recently gave eWEEK a BlackBerry Bold 9930 unit.
If you're a RIM fan who's in the market for a BlackBerry with a physical QWERTY keyboard, and don't really care if the smartphone's operating system is a radical departure from your old BlackBerry, then the Bold 9900/9930 could be your huckleberry.
RIM claims the new Bold is its thinnest smartphone ever, and at 0.41 inches deep it certainly does present a slim profile. It feels comfortable in the hand, substantial yet not heavy (it weighs 4.59 ounces). Moreover, the body is well-built: there's nary a wiggling keyboard or back panel threatening to pop loose, unlike some of the supposedly high-priced Android smartphones on the market. You can argue whether the exposed metal rim along the outside of the Bold is a design cue borrowed from the iPhone 4, but you can't deny that RIM put a lot of thought and care into the look of this thing.
Between the trackpad and the keyboard, the 2.8-inch screen's touch capacity feels almost superfluous. That being said, RIM has taken drastic steps to improve its touch experience, making it responsive and accurate. The screen's VGA 640 x 480 resolution is adequate for playing video and Web-cruising, although its relatively small size means that, if you're purchasing a smartphone solely as a multimedia device, you might want to cast your eye elsewhere.
That's not to say the new Bold is without its perks in the audio-visual department. The five-megapixel camera is well-suited for the casual shutterbug, and the camcorder function captures HD video at 720p. Available scene modes for the still camera include Portrait, Sports and Landscape; those who take photos of documents for work and/or corporate espionage will be delighted in the option to better capture lettering on white backgrounds.
The keyboard has always been a RIM strong point, and the latest Bold carries on that tradition. The keys are raised in such a way that, despite their small size, error-free typing is a easy feat. The keyboard's backlighting is useful in those dim situations, like when a hurricane comes ripping through New York and deprives your apartment of precious electricity.
As previously mentioned, RIM's BlackBerry 7 OS isn't a radical departure from the company's previous operating-system versions. It comes with preinstalled applications such as the enhanced BlackBerry Messenger 6, and offers access to the BlackBerry App World-which, while not nearly as large as Apple's App Store or Google's Android Marketplace, still has 5,240 apps and 331 games on offer.
According to RIM, BlackBerry 7 OS includes a faster browser and speedier navigation, and for the most part this seemed true. The application folders are a nice touch, and the interface offers the usual staples: YouTube, maps, and the like. On a more foundational level, though, the screen feels a bit small to accommodate this burgeoning collection of apps and functions; the interface sidesteps this issue a bit with its sliding app tray along the bottom.
Calling was flawless, with crystal-clear reception. Although BlackBerry devices don't have the iPhone or Android's reputation as a multimedia device, the Bold's music player is loud and clear.
The integrated voice search accurately guessed my queries, which included "Pizza," "Chinese food," "Time Warner Center," "grocery store," and "Seventh Avenue Subway Stop." However, you have to physically tap the little microphone icon to activate voice search, then tap an app (Bing, YouTube, Facebook, Google Local Search), which sort of prevent this function from being truly hands-free.
As with previous BlackBerry generations, the Bold offers battery life superior to many other smartphones on the market. On paper, the 9930 boast up to 6.3 hours GSM talk time (as does the GSM-only 9900) and 6.6 hours CDMA talk time. In practice, I found the Bold went for nearly two days of moderate use before it needed recharging.
Overall, the new Bold offers the quintessential "BlackBerry" experience. Those who like RIM's smartphones will probably be happy with this one, particularly the hardware. But if this doesn't draw in those users who've already embraced the iPhone or Android, RIM will have to hope its QNX "superphones" actually change the game.