First Look: BlackBerry Bold 9900 review

0 out of 5
Dependent on contract

For

Design, faster, increased storage, touchscreen, NFC

Against

OS lets it down compared to Android and iOS

Research in Motion has announced a new touchscreen-enabled BlackBerry Bold, the 9900, at it’s annual BlackBerry World conference in the US and Pocket-lint was on hand to get a fondle with the new smartphone.

Should you be excited? Read on to find out.

The Design

Touted as the thinnest BlackBerry yet, the new phone has undergone a massive design change to previous versions of the company’s flagship handset, while at the same time still keeping it’s heritage. Out is the faux-leather back, in is a metal and woven glass fibre impregnated with plastic design that is very “iPhone 4”.

That iPhone 4 comparison is mainly thanks to a metal exoskeleton that not only contains the phone’s aerial and various buttons, but also keeps the phone together by housing the touchscreen display and keyboard on the front and that glass fibre battery opening on the back.

The metal sides feature the usual buttons - volume, mute, power, and a programmable button, which is set to the camera as standard. Gone is any logo telling you what the buttons actually are, you either know or you don't. That’s fair play as it’s all very simple, and you can change some of them to suit your needs. The sides also house the Micro-USB charger/connector, and soft docking points presumably for accessories in the future.

It’s not just the sides and back that have undergone a design overhaul but the front gets a major change in design as well. There is a larger screen for starters - up from 2.44- to 2.8-inches getting a resolution bump at the same time as well as adding touchscreen capabilities. Underneath the screen is a new navigation bar that is now touch-sensitive rather than offering hard buttons, although the retained optical navigation trackpad is still a hard button.

Beneath that is a new keyboard that sports ever so slightly larger keys thanks to the couple of millimetres extra width that the phone as gained. Those keys are slightly curved in their layout with silver beams running through them which, as  Todd Wood, man behind the design, told us, not only spaces them out, but represent fret’s on a guitar. Does it make a difference? Certainly. The keys are comfortable and easy to use. The extra size is noticeable (if you’re looking for it) and we had no problem bashing out a couple of quick emails in our play. Annoyingly the @ symbol still doesn’t get a dedicated key though.

Finally beneath the keyboard RIM has increased the size of the thumb rest (as we are calling it) giving you space to hold the device without covering the keys in any way. It’s a design trait that we’ve noticed on the PlayBook too and talking to the phone’s designer have discovered that it’s to do with margins and gutters in a book. All very “designy” we know, but the end result is that you can hold the Bold 9900 without cluttering your view of the device.

An interesting aside, turning the device on and off lights up the keys, the trackpad and the screen in sequence as if you are powering the device up. It’s subtle, but a nice attention to detail.

The bottom line? The design has been massively improved, it’s now a considerably better looking device with the faux-leather and the chrome banished for good.

What lies beneath

Crack open that battery case around the back and you reveal a massive battery that’s replaceable. RIM tells us it’s replaceable so power users can buy another battery and keep going through the night. The payoff however is that it could have been thinner - still at 10.9mm it’s unlikely you’ll be complaining too much. Underneath the battery is a microSD slot and of course the SIM card slot.

Get to the real innards of the phone and RIM has pushed the boat out completely - well certainly for them at least. That means a 1.2GHz processor and 768MB of memory. That’s almost double the previous model as well as a vast improvement on the BlackBerry Torch. That speed boost certainly shows with RIM taking advantage of the new power available to improve the performance of the operating system, more of which in a bit.

Also new to the mix is NFC. While there isn’t any infrastructure out in the real world (at time of writing), it will mean that you’ll eventually be able to pay for things with your phone rather than your wallet. It’s a bold move by RIM and one that sees them leapfrog phone makers like LG, HTC, Sony Ericsson, and Apple who’ve yet to reveal their NFC plans.

Elsewhere you will get GPS, Wi-Fi, a digital compass, 8GB of on-board memory for apps, song, and other media. There’s also a 5-megapixel camera capable of 720p HD video recording. We weren’t able to give the camera a decent test sadly.

BlackBerry 7

The hardware isn't the only element of the new BlackBerry Bold 9900 that’s been updated. RIM has created a new version of its operating system as well. On the surface those changes seem rather superficial. App icons have been coloured for example, but as soon as you touch it you soon realise that there have been plenty of performance enhancements to justify the move from BB 6 to BB 7.

For starters the browser has been upgraded getting a speed boost that means you can actually surf the web rather than just thinking about it. The new browser, claims RIM, is the company’s fastest yet with page load speeds 1.6x faster than the browser on BB 6.

Those enhancements make the browser faster than the iPhone 4, the Nexus One and the Nexus S. We weren’t able to benchmark the browser, but in our play on a standard wireless network on the show floor it was fast to load up Pocket-lint or any other sites we went to.

That’s all achievable because the browser now uses a lot of the same core code as found on RIM’s QNX-based PlayBook browser, which is also very fast. But it’s not just about how fast the page loads, but how responsive the touchscreen and browser is to you moving around. We’re happy to report it’s all-good here too.

The name RIM has given to this new fluid ability to move around the browser and the menus is Liquid Graphics. It certainly makes you want to use the touchscreen more and when it comes to browsing means that finally RIM is starting to listen to its users and giving them a better web experience than they’ve had in the past.

Other new elements of BB 7 we got to play with were universal search, voice search, and the music app powered by Amazon MP3. Universal search is very webOS in it’s approach allowing you to type or say your search term before it goes off to find references to that in apps, documents, or the web - all powered by Bing by default although changeable to Google if that’s your preference. Music is as you would expect and you can buy tracks on the go to be downloaded to the Bold 9900’s 8GB of storage.

We also tried the new social feed app that has added Podcasts and RSS, as well as a favourite option to let you create a favourite social list that combines Twitter, Facebook, Podcasts and RSS. We can really see this being handy for your favourite sources or when you need to track just a few people when you’re on holiday rather than be swamped with everything.

Other apps installed as standard include Docs to Go Pro, previously only available to those who wanted to upgrade, and that means you can edit spreadsheets, documents and presentations on the go. If you want to check it out you can download the app currently for BB 6 and give it a spin now (you will have to pay of course). There is also a dedicated PDF reader built in. 

Balancing act

Then there is Balance, a new feature that will let companies control corporate data and email on the device while at the same time letting you keep personal data on the phone as well. We weren’t able to test it, or see it in action in our play, but the concept will be appealing to suited types looking to abandon the need to carry around two phones, one for personal email and one for business.

Verdict

There is no doubt that the BlackBerry Bold 9900 is the best BlackBerry yet. It’s stylish in its design, it’s fast to use and the new operating system enhancements are more than welcomed - you’ll actually be able to surf the web now.

Current BlackBerry Bold and BlackBerry Curve fans will be desperate to get this new handset when it comes out in the summer, while BlackBerry Torch owners will wish that they had waited. That might sound over excited, but it really is that good if you are a BlackBerry user. We’ve been down on some of the recent BlackBerry launches and this looks to enhance the experience in many ways.

But, and here is RIM’s biggest problem, based on what we’ve seen so far the handset is still unlikely to appeal to those that have already left their love for BlackBerry and gone Android or iPhone. While the hardware is now up to par, BB 7 still comes across as dated certainly in looks compared to a device like the Samsung Galaxy S II. A lack of apps from key companies doesn’t help either and then there is the final worry that yet another operating system is only just around the corner.

RIM has told us that the Torch won’t be going to BB 7, and the same could, although probably unlikely, happen here to following RIM’s announcement with Microsoft and Steve Ballmer’s hints of a new OS later this year - and that’s without RIM saying that it hopes to go QNX for it’s smartphones in the near future.

It’s looking positive, but we haven’t got to the pearly gates just yet. Of course, we’ll be looking to bring you the full experience once we get the handset in for a thorough review.