BlackBerry Bold 9780 review

The BlackBerry Bold 9780 takes RIM’s flagship QWERTY device - the Bold 9700 - gives it a fresh new operating system with BlackBerry 6 and spits out a practically identical handset. It isn’t a new move from BlackBerry, we’ve seen them release multiple devices with minor hardware differences in the past - remember the BB Curve 83xx series?

Here too the BlackBerry Bold 9780 looks every bit the same as the 9700. The colours have perhaps been changed, our current Bold 9700 has chrome trim running across the bottom of the keypad, up the sides and across the top, whereas our 9780 is all black, so it looks like a stealth Bold. Of course, we can’t claim to have seen all the colourways of the 9700, so even this might not be new.

Whilst we are picking up on minuscule details, the finish of the keyboard on our 9780 is slightly different to the 9700. The keys are slightly less glossy, but we suspect this has nothing to do with design and may just be down to a different finishing process, or simple wear on our existing device. Step on to the street, and basically, no one will know which device you have.

To recap, you get a QWERTY handset that measures 114 x 66 x 15mm. It is a little fat by smartphone standards, but at 136g is average weight. It sits beautifully in the hand thanks to a curved back with rubberised material on the edges supplying grip in all the right places. It has a softly curved top edge too, so is wonderfully comfortable for making calls with. This is a BlackBerry after all and it is all about communication, rather than out-and-out multimedia prowess.

The QWERTY keyboard, the best QWERTY keyboard you’ll find on a mobile phone, occupies the bottom half of the front, the 2.44-inch display above offers up a resolution of 480 x 320 pixels. Small numbers, but 236 pixels per inch means it is incredibly sharp. Yes, it will never compete with a 4-inch screen for watching video, but it is sharp, it is vibrant and you can read it in direct sunlight.

Around the body of the Bold 9780 you have the same connections and controls as previously. There are two user-definable shortcut keys which offer up the camera and voice control by default and are easily switched to those apps you want, be it Twitter, Facebook or a particular email account. There is the 3.5mm headphone jack, Micro-USB connection, volume on the sides, the mute and standby buttons on the top. 

Around the back you have the faux leather insert in the centre of the plastic backplate and the new 5-megapixel camera and LED flash. The build quality overall is good, there are more panels and sections than you’ll find on the slick body of something like the HTC Desire Z, but we found it to be free from creaks or warping under pressure. It might not give you a minimalist high-grade finish, but it has a sort of Master Chief busyness to its look that we like. It looks like a smart business tool, which is essentially what it is.

Aside from the 5-megapixel camera, the BlackBerry Bold 9780 has seen a boost internally to 512MB of memory (over the 256MB previously) as well as a step up to 515MB of RAM. The processor is the same 624MHz as we’ve seen previously. Whilst we don’t advocate playing the numbers game for the sake of it, there was noticeable lag dealing with some applications on the Bold 9700. The RAM upgrade and the refinement of the new operating system mean these are certainly reduced.

We liked the Bold 9700, but it was showing the hallmarks of a phone reaching the end of its operating system. In the highly competitive world of mobile phones, where every couple of months we see a new feature arriving on one of the major platforms, BlackBerry OS faces the challenge of evolving fast enough to keep pace. We saw BlackBerry 6 on the Torch, but it was immediately obvious that it wasn’t the greatest multimedia handset out there.

BlackBerry 6 on the 9780 is essentially the same and has the feel of an operating system designed for a touchscreen device to a certain extent. That may, admittedly, be a result of us using the Torch before getting hands-on with the 9780, but there are certain aspects of BB 6 that don’t seem to fit quite as well as they did on the touch-enabled Torch.

The main one is the use of those pull-up tray menus. On the Torch, you can swipe from side-to-side and pull the menus up and down as much as you like. Without touch, you are left to open the menu to its entire three lines of icons either using the menu button and selecting “Open Tray”, or by hitting the top category line (All, Favourites, Media, Downloads, Frequent). It looks as though it doesn’t quite fit, but it is easy to navigate once you get savvy with the optical navigation key in the centre of the device.

For existing Bold users, the first impression might be that an extra step is involved with getting into the menu - previously a press of the menu button would open your menu so you could scroll to the application you wanted, now it opens a menu, offering to open another menu. However, there is a chance that you’ll need to use the menus less than before because of the introduction of universal search.

Start typing and the Bold 9780 starts returning results. You can customise what you want it to search, and what you want it to offer by way of results, and it is a really powerful tool. It pretty much is only possible with a permanent keyboard too, as touchscreen-only devices will need you to open something or select something first. So, if you want to open an application, just type the name - a lot like Spotlight on Mac OS X. 

Type a person’s name and it will return their contact card, emails they’ve sent you, calendar details and so on. It makes it really easy to pick up a conversation or message stream, without entering messaging and scrolling through the list, or performing a search in that application. Universal search will also offer to search YouTube, BlackBerry App World, Facebook, Google Local or Google web too, so if you don’t have it in your phone, you can seek it out elsewhere in a flash.

The homescreen of BB 6 is much more usable than the rather static BB 5 screen. It has always conveyed a great deal of information (sound profile, battery, time, date, networks, connection status, message indicators from various core apps) but now this information is better managed and more useful. It is divided into five selectable areas. The sound profile is very much as it was before, but now the message display can be opened to give you a quick overview of messages and calendar entries, so you can click through to what you want.

The search area opens the search window, but you don’t need to use it, because as mentioned, as soon as you start typing, universal search swings into action delivering results. The final area lets you manage your connections (cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth), set alarms, as well as providing direct access to settings for connections. Lurking at the bottom of the list is “options” which takes you into your settings menu, which is a nice shortcut to have.

Of course the tray menus aren’t just static, they adapt as you use applications and download them from BlackBerry App World. There is the potential for a lot of duplication of applications - not only can you get to an app by searching for it, but it will be in All, Downloads, Frequent and possibly in Favourites too. There is an argument that those frequent apps you use don’t ever need to be marked as a favourite, but this sort of management is down to the user. We found it took a week or so before we were totally happy with access and to begin with you’ll spend a lot of time getting to things via different routes - it can be confusing, but there is plenty of choice and we like being able to turn a shortcut into a Favourite and have direct access from that section, a little like dropping a shortcut on the home screen of an Android device.

The inclusion of a Media tray means you can swipe across to get to video, music, your pictures, podcasts, ringtones and video camera. We’ve already said that the Bold 9780 isn’t a great media device compared to rivals like the HTC Desire HD or the iPhone 4, but it still offers those features you’d expect. The resolution of the screen means there is detail in the video you do opt for and the external speaker is very good, having more body than many other rivals. This makes it a great device to use on speakerphone, as well as watching a little video in your hotel room.

We’ve mentioned apps, and of course the apps experience is very much the buzzword around smartphones at the moment. BlackBerry App World is a little lacklustre without the strength or depth of the major rivals. There is a lot of obscure paid-for content, and the addition of new and exciting applications is a little slow. The core is just about represented, but not all content has been updated for BB6 compatibility, including some of RIM’s own apps, like the eBay app. So, for the immediate term you have the basics covered, but the full experience is yet to arrive. (UPDATE: eBay has arrived on BB 6 as of 17 Nov, so updates are coming.)

Drilling deeper into BB 6, you’ll find that much is the same as previously, but with some reorganising and a visual lick of paint. Settings are better organised and laid-out and the fiddly Wi-Fi/3G options have been simplified so you don’t find yourself having to select between Wi-Fi preferred and 3G preferred when you want both to be handled by the device without your involvement.

The browser is one of the biggest changes however, and one of the most dramatic improvements. Previously the browser was slow to load pages and often stopped mid load. The new WebKit browser is much better placed to deliver pages, offering up tabs and a much faster experience. You don’t get the niceties of pinch zooming like you do on a touch device, but you do get to zoom with text reflowing to fit the screen. It will never compete with larger screened devices, but it’s certainly a marked improvement over previous versions. One downside, however, is that UK residents will find BBC iPlayer, supported on the old browser, it isn’t supported here at present. 

The BlackBerry family is really about communication and central to this is the email experience. BlackBerry has always been a smart choice if you are a big emailer because of the ease of setting up your emails, the instantaneous delivery and general no nonsense experience. In recent years the BlackBerry has become equally adept at dealing with your personal email as it has at handling the corporate email that brought it into favour.

You also get the option to sync contacts and calendars natively from Google (as well as the Google Sync app option that supports BB 6). We’ve found the contacts works reliably with Google, but the calendar is sometimes a bit hit and miss - some appointments populating the calendar and some not. But as we said, the Google Sync app can always be downloaded to fill in instead if that is a concern. 

BlackBerry still offers a universal inbox, bringing together not only all your message streams (email accounts, MMS, SMS) but also those core app services that have messaging, so your Twitter direct messages will appear here, as will your updates to Facebook. You also compose not only emails, but Twitter and Facebook postings here too, and when other core apps appear, we’d expect to see direct interaction supported here too.

We’re still big fans of the BlackBerry approach to email and give it top marks. There are a few quirks, like the universal inbox not offering threaded conversations (that’s a feature of the individual mailboxes), but on the whole, it is an excellent device for staying connected, especially as it isn’t overly dependent on 3G networks as the service over older GPRS networks is still speedy. We like the new ability to flick through your messages by swiping across the optical key - it takes some practice, but once you've mastered it, you'll be well placed to sit and browse through all your messages with never having to exit back to the mail folder.

Of course BlackBerry Messenger has found favour with teenagers, as has competitive pricing on BlackBerry devices. You also get apps to handle other messenger protocols - Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, AIM - all pre-installed on the device. The only glaring omission for us is Skype support, with the Nimbuzz app not yet available on BB 6.

With a nod to the rising influence of social networks, BlackBerry has introduced a new Social Feeds app. This neatly runs together a collection of feeds from the networks you are signed in to (Facebook, Twitter, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger) as well as offering up RSS feeds. You can opt to post updates to those services from one location too. It’s convenient, but with the simplicity of Facebook (recently getting an update to include Places) and Twitter apps, we can’t say we ever found ourselves using Social Feeds to any great extent. 

Moving with the times, the BlackBerry Bold 9780 has updated the camera offering to 5 megapixels, as well as redesigning the interface to give you easy access to a selection of scene modes, the camera and geotagging. The performance overall is better than before, with better overall definition and better low light performance. It isn’t exceptional, but it copes well enough for passing snaps to share online. There is a single LED flash supporting the camera.

Video hasn’t seen the same love however, with a maximum resolution offering of 640 x 480. This puts the Bold 9780 behind the times, with most rival handsets offering 1280 x 720 HD video capture. We suspect that the processor wouldn’t handle a higher definition of video capture which would then be an argument for a upgrade in that department.

BlackBerry Maps is still disappointing, especially alongside the superior offering from Google Maps and it is a shame that you can’t nominate Google Maps as your mapping service. Whilst on that topic, a more comprehensive maps and contacts integration would be welcomed - there is a notional recognition of addresses, but we’ve never actually managed to get it to return an address on the map.

One of the real strong points of the BlackBerry Bold 9780 is battery life and this is where it runs rings around those large screen touch devices. Under average use you’ll probably get at least 2 days from it. It’s the sort of handset you can take away for a weekend and not need to charge. Yes, hitting it hard and making lots of calls will drain the battery faster, but under normal use you’ll still be connected when others are scurrying for a charger.

Verdict

The BlackBerry Bold 9780 is an improvement over the 9700, which was an excellent device in itself. The inclusion of more RAM and a new operating system brings a device that runs faster and smoother than previously, but feels as though it is already slightly out of date, especially when you start examining the multimedia offering.

But if you are interested in the core communication, especially email, then the Bold 9780 comes highly recommended. Aspects of the operating system do feel more at home on the BlackBerry Torch, like the tray menus, but the Bold 9780 still offers the best keyboard and the best email experience around. To judge it solely on its weakness as a multimedia device would be naïve: there are plenty who want a connected device for communication, and BlackBerry Bold 9780 excels in this area.

We’re a little impatient when it comes to waiting for app updates and we’d say that BlackBerry should have all the apps in place that it has on other devices, as well as closing those loops like the lack of compatibility with BBC iPlayer - it isn’t a great reflection of your new device when it lacks a service handled easily by the old one. If anything, a more powerful device would have been appreciated as we suspect it limits how far the Bold can go in the future, bearing in mind that some will have the 9780 for the next 2 years, and this ultimately governs the overall score.

We’re happy to accept the same design because it works beautifully and as for the quirks that BB OS 6 throws up - we’re sure that there will be tweaks and improvements made as the OS matures. Universal search is an absolute gem and the battery life is the icing on the cake for those who want to stay connected, and is certainly our highlight.

With the expected arrival of BB 6 on the existing 9700, upgrading from an existing device might be a tough call, although we'll have to see how BB 6 runs on the 9700 first. Yes, if you need a new handset, by all means take the superior 9780 - for many it will be the best QWERTY device available at the moment.