Android and Apple may be the big boys in the smart phone business, but RIM is still holding on to a place at the top table with its BlackBerry handsets and operating system, even if they’re now just as synonymous with rioting hoodies as with boardroom execs.
The first of three new models to hit the shelves this autumn is the Bold 9900, which includes both a touch screen and a hard QWERTY keyboard.
Design and build
Of all RIM’s latest designs, which include a couple of full-length touch screen models, this is the one that clings closest to the traditional BlackBerry template. It measures 115x66x10.5mm, weighs 130g and cuts a sleek figure in glossy black plastic with brushed aluminium piping and a tough carbon fibre back cover.
Beneath the screen are the usual BlackBerry buttons for call start and stop, menu and back, surrounding an optical trackpad and beneath those sits the 35-key QWERTY keyboard.
RIM has this element sussed, and the keyboard is a delight to use. The uniquely angled, backlit keys are easy to find under the thumbs and allow you to pick up an impressive turn of typing speed.
Usefully, the numbers are arranged in standard keypad formation, rather than in a line across the top, which makes it easier to hit them with one thumb.
The Bold 9900 claims to be the thinnest BlackBerry ever, and it manages to look even thinner than it actually is, thanks to its tapering back. On the sides are a ‘convenience key’ which defaults to camera shutter button, but which you can set as a shortcut to virtually anything, as well as volume buttons surrounding a mute key.
There’s also a microUSB power/sync port and 3.5mm headphone jack, with a sleep/screen lock button on top.
The 2.8in capacitive touch screen offers 640x480 pixels – enough of a leap from the previous Bold 9700’s 480x360 to look strikingly sharp in comparison. It’s sensitive to the touch too, easily distinguishing between presses and swipes but the small size limits its usefulness for touch screen use – even with pinch-to-zoom capability, you’ll still probably find yourself using the trackpad to navigate web pages as often as not.
Interface and OS
This is the first phone to feature the all-new BlackBerry 7 OS, which, erm, isn’t really a whole lot different from BlackBerry 6 actually. The menu icons have had a bit of a refresh, though the layout still isn’t particularly intuitive.
You can now organise them into sections though, and it has NFC (Near Field Communications) in readiness for phone-based payment systems, but there are still no active, Android-style widgets.
BlackBerry Maps is now more closely integrated into the OS, so you can automatically map your position while using the camera (no shock to Android users of course) and you can also access the latest BlackBerry Messenger 6 from within some apps, so you can chat with your mates while playing various games.
The 1.2GHz single-core processor backed by 768MB or RAM is very fast, and whipping between various apps is likely to give you whiplash.
The 5 megapixel camera includes a 4x digital zoom, autofocus, image stabilisation, face detection, geo-tagging and an LED flash. Picture quality is really very good, with realistic colours, sharp edges and a maximum resolution of 2560x1920 pixels.
It’s also the first BlackBerry to feature 720p HD video recording and it doesn’t disappoint, with smooth, sharp images that still look good when you transfer them to an HD TV screen (there’s no HDMI port to do this directly though).
Apps and browser
BlackBerry App World is beginning to look seriously under populated compared to its Android Market and Apple App Store rivals – the basics for productivity and fun are all covered, but if you’re an app lover who’s always on the lookout for the latest, BlackBerry may not be the way to go at the moment.
Of the apps on board, highlights include Documents To Go, which allows you to edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents and Social Feeds pulls together your latest social networking updates into a single stream.
The squarish shape of the screen doesn’t lend itself particularly well to browsing and web pages don’t always display very well, too often failing to run text around the borders of the screen, which means you end up doing a lot of scrolling. There’s no support for Flash either.
Media and connectivity
The smallish 2.8in screen isn’t ideal for watching movies – the proportions are all wrong, and you end up squishing them into too small a space to enjoy them (unless you have the eyesight of a hawk).
The music player fares better, with a 12-setting equalizer to deliver the sound you want. Our advice is to crank up the bass to make up for the supplied headphones which err a bit on the sharp and tinny side.
Performance and battery life
It comes with 8GB of memory on board as well as a 2GB microSD card which you can bump up to a maximum of 32GB if you feel the need.
The 1230mAh battery won’t break any records but it put in a decent performance, delivering a little over a day of fairly heavy use.
- State of the art QWERTY keyboard
- Very fast processor
- Good quality 5MP camera
- Small screen
- BlackBerry OS 7 not a big step forward
- Limited quantity of apps on BlackBerry App World
- Browser's not the best
Verdict: RIM is struggling to keep up with advances from Apple and Google and with the Bold 9900 they’re just about keeping pace, but certainly not drawing ahead. For BlackBerry fans there’s plenty here to enjoy, especially the very fast pace of the processor, the quality keyboard and the solidly reliable camera, but it’s not likely to entice too many away from their iOS or Android handset.
More info: BlackBerry Bold Touch 9900 spec