When I first got my hands on an early demo unit of Research In Motion’s BlackBerry 9000 smartphone-also known as the Bold-for a few minutes back in May, my immediate reaction was that I had an award winner in my hands. With its impressively vibrant screen, excellent sound quality for music and videos, new 3G data connectivity, and BlackBerry’s ongoing mastery of mobile e-mail capabilities, it seemed a foregone conclusion that RIM and the Bold would find great success-whenever they got around to releasing it.
However, in the intervening five months between that time and the Bold’s November release, while the Bold underwent extensive and seemingly interminable testing on AT&T’s 3G network, the smartphone market saw a series of dramatic shifts that undercut much of the Bold’s appeal.
The second-generation iPhone from Apple brought with it a new application marketplace that redefined expectations of what people could do with a cell phone, and T-Mobile and Google reaffirmed this movement with the Android-based T1 with Google device and the accompanying Android Market. In addition, rival Nokia released several phones with loads of features for business users and consumers alike, and even Microsoft’s Windows Mobile delivered a few attractive and interesting devices, such as Sony’s Xperia and the HTC Touch Pro.
None of this is to say that the Bold is a bad device. While the Bold definitely has a handful of problems that can be pretty irritating, when I used the device during my month of testing, I mostly felt underwhelmed-the device doesn’t deliver up to its full promise. Unfortunately, this feeling probably won’t change until RIM’s forthcoming BlackBerry application market goes online sometime next year.
The Bold seems underwhelming because the device should be capable of so much more. The Bold is powerful for a smartphone, featuring a 624MHz processor, 1GB of on-board storage and 128MB of flash ROM. Via the MicroSD slot, the device can be further expanded with up to 32GB of removable storage.
All that storage will be handy to take advantage of the device’s rich multimedia capabilities. First of all, the screen is stunning, albeit a tad small by today’s standards. With its 480-by-320-pixel resolution, the 2.75-inch, backlit TFT screen crisply delivers smooth, good-looking video from H.264, and some DIVX and XVID encoded media files.
The Bold’s sound capabilities match the video, as the device produces excellent audio using either the twin, built-in speakers or a headset. Thankfully, the Bold-with a headset jack that is a separate 3.5mm connector-bucks the trend of integrating the headset jack with the Mini USB connector that I’ve seen a lot lately (like with the Palm Treo Pro or the G1 with Google). The Bold also supports Bluetooth 2.0 with A2DP for stereo sound.
Breaking New Ground with Wi-Fi Radio
In addition, the Bold breaks some new ground with its Wi-Fi radio, adding support for the commonly neglected 5GHz band and 802.11a to the 802.11b/g and enterprise-grade Wi-Fi security RIM first introduced last year with the BlackBerry 8820. RIM typically does an excellent job on its WLAN radio implementations-making sure the radio is designed to maximize the security, battery life and roaming performance demands of enterprise-grade customers-and the Bold lives up to heritage.
But it’s this excellence with Wi-Fi that makes RIM’s ongoing lack of commitment to the technology all the more bedeviling. The lion’s share of the company’s device portfolio still does not include Wi-Fi, including its brand-new flagship device, the touch-screen BlackBerry Storm.
The Bold is also RIM’s first 3G device for GSM networks, as the smartphone supports the 850/1,900/2,100MHz bands for UMTS/HSDPA in the United States and abroad.
The Bold comes with a 1,500-MAhr battery that is rated for 4.5 hours of talk time or 13.5 days on standby. My battery tests showed the Bold slightly bettered these claims, delivering 5 hours and 8 minutes of talk time.
The Bold is not excessively large, nor is it particularly petite. Measuring in at 4.48 by 2.6 by 0.59 inches and 4.8 ounces, the Bold is slightly wider and thicker than the iPhone (which is 2.4 inches wide and 0.48 inches thick) and significantly thicker than the Nokia E71 (0.39 inches thick).
With a base price of $550, the Bold can be purchased for $300 after rebates and with a two-year service agreement; it is available for the AT&T network.
The Bold comes with a new version of the BlackBerry operating system, Version 4.6. The new software brings with it an updated new look to the user interface-a look that I never got comfortable with in the few weeks I used the device. From the program menu, all available applications are displayed only as icons, with descriptive text only displayed for the application the user has highlighted using the trackball.
This wouldn’t be much of a problem if the icons were quite distinct from one another, but several are similar (Media Player and AT&T Music, for instance), and others somewhat indistinct. Undoubtedly, users will grow accustomed to this quirk after awhile.
My biggest complaint with the Bold is with the Web browser. The Bold was the first BlackBerry to employ a fully capable Web browser (the BlackBerry Storm quickly became the second) that was designed to deliver a rich, immersive Web experience to mobile users. Users can actually select which mobile view they want to use: Page view delivers the full Web experience (minus Flash and Java support, of course) while Column view utilizes a column-based display more typical for mobile browsing. Unfortunately, I found both modes aggravating, although for different reasons.
Because the Bold (when in Page mode) is capable of rendering full, content-laden sites designed with much larger screen resolutions in mind, a helpful zoom feature is a must for proper navigation. Simply put, the Bold’s zoom controls stink when compared with the iPhone’s touch-screen-based pinch and spread motions or the G1 with Google’s on-screen action buttons.
In Page view, when first visiting a page, the cursor becomes the zoom control. When I clicked on the screen, the view zoomed down in the general area of where I clicked, and a second click returned the view to the original perspective. Unfortunately, the zoom does not always occur precisely on the spot clicked, meaning the browser often magnified something other than what was wanted. In addition, because the cursor is the zoom key, this means that in the original view I could not click directly onto links without having to zoom first.
On the other hand, in Column view the cursor does not control zoom. Users instead need to toggle the access menu and scroll to the commands. Thankfully, in this view, zoom is not as necessary as the pages are already formatted to better accommodate a small screen.
Now the problem becomes the vertical length of the page. To scroll through the very long pages that result from Column reformatting, users need to learn the browser hot keys for Page-Up (spacebar) and Page-Down (shift-spacebar) or risk repetitive strain injury from the incessant trackball manipulation that is required.
eWEEK Labs Senior Technical Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at [email protected]