It's fair to say the BlackBerry Bold took the QWERTY market by storm. It was a badge that said you'd made it in business, as commuter trains packed full of suits flashing RIM's flagship device. The last Bold hit as the world economy slumped, so it's perhaps fitting that the new Bold trims off the fat, tightens up and is a meaner machine.
The design is the biggest change you'll notice, as it steps closer to the form factor of the Curve 8900, a handset that's been incredibly popular both in business and among consumers. Touches of the old Bold are still here, not only on the tech spec side of things, but also around the back, with the leather insert meaning your fingertips get to enjoy that textured premium feel.
From the front the BlackBerry Bold 9700 looks like a slightly more mature Curve 8900, with a flash of angle applied to the edge of the screen to make it more Audi than VW. Around the sides you now have the tactile rubberised finish so the 9700 is secure in your hand, with the side buttons getting the rubber finish we saw on the 8520.
The top is slightly more pronounced than previous BlackBerrys, with the key lock and mute "buttons" having a positive and substantial feel to them, where the 8900 is rather unsubstantial. The left-hand side of the 9700 gives you the 3.5mm headphone jack and Micro-USB with a user-defined shortcut button, which we like to assign to launch Twitter. The right-hand side sees the camera shortcut and volume.
The optical trackpad has now moved into the 9700, ousting the "Pearl" trackball that now seems destined to the recycle bin. This is one of the primary interfaces you'll use for menu navigation and browsing on the device, but fortunately the switch is a seamless one and you'll barely notice the difference. We took the sensitivity down a touch to reflect the trackball response we used previously, but it's easy to set it to your preference.
The trackpad sits on a middle belt giving you your calling, back and BlackBerry menu buttons. Above is the 2.44-inch, 480 x 360 pixel resolution display which is beautifully crisp and bright. It might not be the largest screen or pack in touch technology, but it does have the brightness to be visible in bright sunlight, something that we really like.
But the BlackBerry Bold is all about the keyboard and here in the new 9700 it keeps the ridges of the previous Bold and an action that is possibly the best QWERTY keyboard of any mobile phone. With the keys flush together, they are larger than those of the 8900. There is a silky feel to the keyboard. Not only is the choice of materials perfect, but the action is tight and responsive too.
The backlighting shines through so you can happily bash out those midnight emails and there is enough space for some serious two-thumbed action, whilst still letting you reach all the keys with a single thumb for those moments when you have your hands full. Converts from the 8900 will find that that keyboard has less of a click, but it has a softness that is reassuringly premium.
Packed into the BlackBerry Bold 9700 you get all the connectivity you expect. You get HSDPA, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. You get the assisted GPS and the 3.2-megapixel camera with an LED flash. RIM has a habit of differentiating between their devices by omitting some critical piece of hardware and fortunately the Bold 9700 gets the full bunch.
If there is a criticism of the BlackBerry family of devices, it is that the user interface is tired and doesn't bring with it the wow factor that many of the new touch devices have. Sure, a bigger screen and touch interaction gives you greater visual scope, but you get the feeling that some of the core interaction with social networks or existing online services needs to be deeper ingrained in the BlackBerry ethos in the future.
Yes, BlackBerry App World is bringing together many applications for you to download for free or at a price, but it doesn't compete with Apple's App Store or to a certain extent the Android Marketplace.
But one area that BlackBerry still reigns supreme is email. The optimised push email service is RIMs knockout punch. Setup is incredibly easy and the way it handles attachments just makes your life so easy if you are a heavy email user. It might lack some of the visuals of its rivals, but it is dependable, and this is a key point for those who rely on email.
The 3.2-megapixel autofocus camera doesn't bring any surprises with it and performance is very similar to the 8900. It might not reach the vaulted 5- or 8-megapixel levels, but we feel that 3.2 is enough. It gives you an image that is great for sharing and using online and is better than many other phones in the 3MP range. Video, captured as 3GP is restricted to 480 x 352 pixels, so it can't compete with other devices, except in offering solid 30fps capture, so performance isn't too bad.
The BlackBerry Media Player is reasonable, giving you support for the usual video and music formats. There is only 256MB of memory however, which you'll need to keep aside for your applications that you download. Under the back cover you'll find a microSD card slot to handle expansion, and our review model came with 1GB in the box, although this may vary by carrier.
The BlackBerry browser is pretty good. It does at least let you open most pages in full and the optical trackpad makes navigation easier than previously. If browsing the Internet is the most important thing for you, then this probably isn't the right device. At least you know that when you need to look something up, you'll be able to dive in and quickly jump in to page columns to read the details and so on, with minimal fuss.
The battery in the 9700 is the same as the original Bold. It stands up well against touchscreen smartphone rivals, but the constant data consumption does leave its mark on the phone. In normal use it will get you through a couple of days, but on intensive days you'll find it needs charging every night. But it will also happily sit around for several weeks, picking up emails and still keep charge.
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 feels like the last step in an evolution of devices, bringing together the form factor from the Curve 8900 with the tech specs of the original Bold. It brings with it the two key elements that BlackBerry users love: an excellent keyboard with which to abuse BlackBerry's excellent email service.
This is a device with communication at its core. It is a comfortable handset to use for voice calls, with good quality audio for both the caller and the receiver. It provides an excellent messaging platform for those who use email day-in-day-out with SMS and MMS not ignored. Instant messaging via BlackBerry's own service, or via a more popular download like Windows Live Messenger will keep you in touch with your most important people. Diving in and out of calendar, browser, instant messaging, copy and pasting information is what the BlackBerry is really good at.
But step outside this communication-heavy business-friendly core and the BlackBerry seems to give a nonchalant shrug. Social networking? Well, sort of. By this stage of the game, Apple and Android have a big lead. For business users this might not be a concern, but as the divide between business and social lives narrows, it's becoming much more important.
RIM will certainly evolve their BlackBerry offering and as it stands the BlackBerry Bold 9700 is the best BlackBerry yet: a very comfortable device to use, delivering its core functions with aplomb.
Thank you to T-Mobile for the loan of this handset.