There are enough high-profile fans of the BlackBerry to make something like this Porsche Design special edition make sense. From celebrities to CEOs, the BlackBerry still has quite a hold on people as a great communicator, whether for business or pleasure.
And this Porsche Design P'9981 BlackBerry is something special. But does it go far enough? Will this give you a BlackBerry experience that surpasses what you'll find elsewhere? Is this the BlackBerry handset you should be aspiring to own?
RIM isn't known for design variation. Tracking the family of the BlackBerry handsets, not a huge amount has changed over the past few years. The same could be said of Porsche automobiles, but both the Porsche and the BlackBerry are rather iconic in their design.
The Porsche Design BlackBerry P'9981, however, really brings some class to the tried and tested Bold formula. Where the standard Bold blends in with the rest of the BB crowd, the P'9981 is distinct and individual and really stands out in a sea of similarity.
Whether you like it, or not, will be a case of personal taste and we've come from a position of thinking it was brash and offensive, to one where we love the look and feel. You know it's special and so does everyone you show it to.
Hewn from stainless steel, it's still instantly recognisable as a BlackBerry thanks to the split face offering a full QWERTY keyboard below the display. The finish is very good in most places. The keyboard feels right, the phone looks right from every angle. Where the metal gives way for the display you have wonderful distinct clean design lines.
But as much as we love the design, it's design where this phone also suffers. The back is plastic and finished in leather, although it feels substantial enough when in place it doesn't attach especially well to the back of the phone.
Like many devices, it uses regularly placed plastic tabs to hold it on, but on our sample it was all too easy to pop the back off by accident. Grip the phone wrong and you feel the back detach. Porsche cars have a reputation for letting the back-end go so we're wondering if it is some sort of in-joke.
The second point is the positioning of the convenience key. This is a useful button, which you can program to open an application of your choice - the default is to launch the camera. It is positioned in the right edge, exactly where your hand would be if you use a two-thumbed keyboard technique. On more than one occasion we were furiously typing emails, only to find we’d launched the camera.
Aside from the overly large box that the phone arrives in, you also get a matching dock. This too is finished in steel and leather and features a soft light to guide your Porsche phone in at night for refuelling. It's a convenient bedside stand and we like it a lot.
This being a dressed-up BlackBerry Bold, the keyboard is one of the most important elements. At first we weren't sold on it, as the alternative characters are much more difficult to see than on the regular Bold. This isn't helped by the decision to move away from the tried and tested black background, but the backlighting certainly helps make things clearer once you start typing.
Although the design is sharper, and the cut across the individual keys is sharper and more defined than on the Bold, that action isn't too different. Given a couple of days with the phone, we found that using it became second nature. Despite the changes, it's only really the occasional moment when you're left looking for a colon that it causes a problem.
Internally, there is less to talk about, especially if you've read our BlackBerry Bold 9900 review. You get a 1.2GHz processor, 768MB RAM and 8GB of internal memory. BlackBerry has been kind enough to include a 16GB microSD card too, so you should be well provisioned for storage.
The screen too, is the same as the original Bold. It is a capacitive touchscreen, with a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels. That sounds low in modern terms, but at only 2.8-inches, it gives you an impressive 287ppi. It will render fine detail crisply and there is punch and vibrancy to the colours, but it's let down with a flaky touch response.
We're convinced this is nothing to do with the hardware and everything to do with the software, more on which later.
Around the back of the phone you have a 5-megapixel camera, supported by an LED flash. This is lacking in modern terms, not because of the pixel count, but because it is fixed focus. This sets it behind other smartphone cameras in terms of results, which aren't as sharp as we'd like. Given good conditions you'll get snaps acceptable for sharing, but the inability to focus on close detail is irritating.
The camera also offers you HD video of the 720p variety. Again, focus is fixed so it's not as adept as some rivals, although this is less of an issue in mobile video capture. The results are average, a little noisier than you might expect, but perfectly acceptable for casual use.
The external speaker is surprisingly good and loud. It lacks bass, obviously, so isn't great for music, but plug in a pair of quality headphones and the results are good too. The external speaker is in the bottom of the device and surprisingly it isn't devastatingly muffled when you park it on the dock.
There is a set of Porsche Design headphones in the box, which offer an in-line mic, but we weren't taken by the quality of the audio they offered and were easily surpassed by the Klipsch headphones we tried instead.
The ear speaker is loud enough and we had no problems hearing callers, although that neatly designed angular top edge can be a little uncomfortable against your ear in long calls. We also found we could hear our end of the conversation being repeated through the ear speaker during a call, although this might be a problem limited to this device.
Software, apps, performance
So far the Porsche Design BlackBerry P'9981 has hit most of the right markers. The hardware looks powerful on paper, the cameras are okay, but not fantastic, and the design and keyboard are mostly without issue. But a phone hangs on the software performance, which governs the user experience.
The theme applied to the Porsche Design handset can be switched off if you don't like it, although it is nice to have something a little different. But what it loses is in the app icons. All the native app icons have been stylised and in the process it all become rather generic, so it's more difficult to spot the app you want in a flash.
But this customisation only applies to the native and preinstalled apps, not those you then download, so it does end up being something of a mishmash.
Starting with the positives, the BlackBerry 7 OS that the P'9981 sits on provides a great communication experience. BlackBerry's integrated messaging system and universal search make it easy to find what you're looking for and managing a busy email life is certainly easy. It's mostly conversant with things like Google accounts, although it will stumble with multiple calendars - Google Sync will resolve that for you though.
The combination of touch and type works to a point. You can quickly select an icon or tap a link, which is better than scrolling across the optical trackpad to make things happen. But on many occasions, like trying to press a button at the bottom of the display, the screen doesn't respond. When people are becoming familiar with a silky smooth and refined touch experiences elsewhere, BB 7 feels a little rudimentary.
We won't go into more detail of what RIM needs to do to move the OS forward, but we will stop to talk about the topic du jour: apps. They have redefined the mobile experience and the BlackBerry, while offering many and varied applications, finds itself without some of the biggest names.
There is no Skype, for example, no Netflix, no BBC iPlayer and some of the core apps, such as YouTube, merely redirect to the mobile website. The App World app itself isn't great and whenever you come to download and install new apps, everything else grinds to a halt and often begs for a restart.
The browser, although vastly better than previous BB versions, is no match for Android or iOS. Pinch zooming doesn't work well at all, scrolling can be slow and jerky, even if pages load quickly enough.
The result is that no matter how well you dress your BlackBerry, the experience is very much the same. If you spend your time working through emails sitting in the back seat of a Phaeton, then you probably won't care. The core BlackBerry services are well integrated and run without a hitch - except Maps, which is as good as useless. If you're the sort of person who whiles away time on the train with a little casual gaming, or catching up on last night's TV, this isn't the phone for you.
The last word goes to battery life. With a 1230mAh battery, the P'9981 struggles to make it through a busy day. Like the Bold 9900, we found that the P'9981 needed to be charged every night. This is slightly out of character for a BlackBerry handset, as most of the rest of the range will easily make it through a day. At least you have that dock to park it on, so you don't need to fiddle around with cables.
It might sound like we've been rather harsh here, but there's no escaping the fact that the P'9981, Porsche Design or not, it still a BlackBerry at its core. Where it excels with communication features, it lacks with entertainment refinement. Whilst the app offering is there, it isn't anything like as exciting as you'll get on Apple or Android.
You couldn't say the Porsche Design BlackBerry P'9981 was good value for money, but then you couldn't say that about a Porsche either. A VW Beetle will get you from A to B comfortably and effectively, but people still go out and buy the Porsche Cayman. But this is a little like buying your Cayman with a 1.2-litre Beetle engine: it has the looks and it will get you there, but not like a Porsche should.
We can't say the P'9981 is any worse than the Bold 9900 in terms of performance. It has the same positives and the same negatives. Together they offer the best performance in the current BlackBerry portfolio, if that's the phone you're after. With a price of €1475 (£1234) it will never be deemed good value for money, but then what Porsche is?