The Bold 9900 is a ground-breaking entry in the BlackBerry range, packing a fast 1.2GHz processor, an ultr-high resolution touchscreen and the new BlackBerry OS7. Its most impressive feature, though, is its most traditional - a perfectly tuned BlackBerry keypad that's among the company's finest achievements.
Since its initial introduction in 2008, the Bold series of BlackBerry phones has represented the most desirable most highly powered line of smartphones produced by Canadian company Research In Motion (RIM). This latest incarnation, the BlackBerry Bold 9900, comes at a time when RIM's fortunes are at a low ebb as they struggle to maintain relevance in the face of the surging popularity of iPhones and Android smartphones.
As the flagship phone of the BlackBerry brand, the Bold 9900 has two tasks to achieve: first, it must retain BlackBerry customers by offering the BB essentials, as well as offering enough new tricks to keep them interested; and second, it must win new customers to the BlackBerry brand.
To achieve its mission, RIM have equipped the Bold 9900 with the very best hardware they can muster, packed into a premium, modern frame – the thinnest they've ever produced at just 10.5mm. They're also shipping the 9900 with their updated and improved BlackBerry OS7, boasting among other features smooth 'Liquid Graphics' and better touchscreen integration.
So is it enough? Does this latest BlackBerry have what it takes to draw customers away from the magnetic Android and iPhone brands? We go hands on to find out...
In the looks department, the BlackBerry Bold 9900 doesn't really break any new ground. Its shape and layout are similar to a countless number of older BlackBerry models that it could easily be mistaken for at a distance. Is this a criticism? No, not at all.
RIM has been perfecting the landscape screen and QWERTY keypad combination for years and the Bold 9900 represents the current peak of its abilities. There aren't too many new tricks in the design, but there is a whole collection of old favourites, masterfully performed.
The front face is naturally dominated by the screen and keypad, divided by the traditional row of five BlackBerry control keys, including an optical trackpad. The control keys and keypad light up when the screen is on, ensuring that the handset is easy to use in the dark.
This also makes way for one of the classy little touches that make this phone so desirable. When left idling on, the lit-up front features slowly fade out one by one – first the keypad, then the screen, then the command keys and finally the solitary light encircling the optical trackpad at the centre. It's a simple effect, but very pleasing and certainly adds to the impression of real quality that this phone radiates.
The build materials also add considerably to that impression. A thick band of aluminium runs around the edge of the handset, which provides that cool, premium feel beneath the fingertips. This band curves into a back that's edged in soft rubber – a practical choice that provides comfort and grip.
The backplate itself is plastic, adorned with silvered features, the camera lens and the LED flash. The lower part of the back can be prised open to access the battery and the micro SD and SIM card slots. The removable section is a solid, reassuring thickness that stands in flattering contrast to the worryingly wafer-thin covers sported by certain popular Samsung phones. It's also testament to RIM's solid design sense that it hasn't been tempted to follow suit with the recent trend for non-expandable storage and non-removable batteries – a trend that I personally find inexplicable.
The left side of the handset houses a 3.5mm headphone socket and a microUSB charging/data transfer port, while the screen lock key is located centrally on the top edge. On the right are volume controls (up, down, mute) and the handy and programmable BlackBerry convenience key, which is set to operate the camera by default.
As the latest top-of-the-range model from RIM, the BlackBerry Bold 9900 is packed with features, but perhaps its finest is also its most prominent one – the keyboard. BlackBerrys are of course famed for their keyboards and any fan will tell you with justified enthusiasm that there really is no replacement when composing messages and emails on the move. Even so, the keyboard on the 9900 excels itself.
The difference between the 9900's keypad and a standard phone keypad is the difference between a professionally made cocktail and the swill of booze and juice I've been known to artlessly slosh together at parties: the ingredients are the same, but the end result is quite different.
I can honestly say that this is the best BlackBerry keyboard I've ever used, though it's difficult to pin down precisely what RIM has done differently in the design. All the usual elements are here, but done just right so that the keyboard is nothing short of a delight to use. The keys are perfectly spaced in their curved lines and contoured for comfort and utility. Best of all, the famous BlackBerry click when you're tapping out text on them is just precisely clicky enough. (Yes, 'clicky' is the technical term for this.)
Of course, this is perfect for that other inimitable BlackBerry feature – BlackBerry Messenger. The exclusive BlackBerry Messenger app, which provides free messaging to other BlackBerry devices, remains largely unchanged on the Bold 9900 but will be as indispensable as ever to its devotees.
Another key feature of the 9900 is its screen. Upgraded considerably from earlier models, the display of the 9900 is a capacitive LCD touchscreen with a 640 x 480 resolution. This may not sound exceptionally high, but compressed into the compact 2.8” display of the 9900 it translates into an excellent pixel density of 287 ppi. As a result, images are very sharp and text is clearly displayed and easy to read. Combined with excellent colour reproduction and brightness, this makes for a very impressive piece of kit.
The display is not, however, perfect and I found that viewing angles were somewhat poorer than I would expect from a high-end device. While text remains perfectly legible, colours become distorted when the phone is viewed from acute angles.
It's possible that this is indicative of the priorities RIM observe when designing their devices. After all, a BlackBerry is traditionally a practical and functional device for one person to use, not a big-screened YouTube portal to gather your mates around.
The 9900 has a 5 megapixel rear-facing camera, which is a fairly standard unit. The resolution and optics are good enough to take decent shots, but not up to the stellar standards set by some high-end competitors like the iPhone 4S. I tested this camera in bright conditions and found the images to be a little oversaturated, though colours were nicely reproduced.
Finally, the Bold 9900 comes equipped with NFC, or Near Field Communications, technology. This developing technology allows devices to transfer information at short ranges and has a variety of uses, the most prominent being the processing of payments with a smartphone. It's a technology still in its infancy, really, but adoption is steady and it's certainly a nice feature to have on board. If nothing else, it adds an extra layer of future-proofing to the Bold.
The Bold 9900 is the first BlackBerry handset to surpass the 1GHz processor mark with its 1.2GHz Snapdragon chip. It's also received an extra helping of RAM, up to 768MB from the old standard of 512MB. RIM's hard-working PR department are also keen to inform us all that the new and improved OS 7 has been tweaked and optimised to provide much improved performance.
Bring this all together and you might begin to suspect that the Bold 9900 sets a new standard for BlackBerry performance. In an increasingly crowded smartphone market, RIM's eminent brand has started to develop an unwelcome reputation for a certain sluggishness in its advanced years. In a way, then, the Bold 9900 really needs to set a new standard for BlackBerry performance. So does it?
For the most part, yes. The general user experience has been very much smoothed and polished. There's a certain fluidity to navigating the phone, evident in smooth and snappy transitions, that was simply lacking in earlier incarnations of BlackBerry OS. The touchscreen is also very responsive and far better integrated into the user experience.
Another key selling point amid the BlackBerry OS 7 promotional patter was improved browser performance. In practice, it's fair to say that the BlackBerry browser has indeed been improved considerably, with page load times, panning and zooming noticeably faster and smoother.
Sadly, though, I'm not convinced it has improved enough. There is still lag in zooming and complex pages take just that bit too long to load. It's by no means unusably frustrating, but set against the flawlessly smooth browsing experience on comparably priced devices like Samsung's Galaxy S2 or the iPhone 4S, RIM's high-end effort still looks just a touch dated.
Thankfully, the 9900's battery performance was well above average. Smartphones are notorious for insatiable power guzzling but this one was happily quite restrained, perhaps thanks in part to a screen half the size of some competitors. Regardless of the source of its longevity, the Bold 9900's 1230 mAh could soldier on through over two days of reasonably frequent use before requesting a resupply. By modern standards, not bad at all.
There's no escaping the fact that BlackBerry smartphones can be quite complex to use. There have been some nods towards simpler usability, but BlackBerry OS 7, which launches on the Bold 9900, doesn't represent a major reworking of the core interface and so, for better or worse, has many of the same characteristics as its predecessors.
OS7 is undeniably a versatile operating system with an almost unparalleled range of customisation options, but text-heavy menus and an unintuitive layout can often make finding a specific setting an arduous task. Thankfully, the Bold 9900 is loaded with extensive help documentation that covers the performance of a majority of common tasks.
The ever-useful 'universal search' feature can find information within help files as well as relevant apps and other information, all from one link on the home page. This feature has been upgraded in OS7 to include voice recognition, which I found to be reasonably accurate at translating speech to text.
As mentioned earlier, the touchscreen of the Bold 9900 is very responsive, registering the lightest of touches and reacting accordingly. However, as in earlier incarnations of BlackBerry OS, this feature still feels to me like something of an afterthought. In systems such as iOS, Android or Windows Phone 7, the interface is built around the touchscreen to create an intuitive, visual environment. Not so, for the BlackBerry OS.
The truth is that interacting with BlackBerry OS using the optical trackpad still feels far more natural than using the touchscreen. There are times when the touchscreen avails the user, while browsing or reading maps, for instance, but the core interface doesn't really need it and doesn't encourage its use. This isn't a criticism so much as an observation, of course, but I do feel that if RIM intend to make touchscreen phones, they might do well to make touchscreen interaction more integral to the user experience.
In true BlackBerry style, the phone comes with a selection of suitably productivity focused pre-installed apps, such as a memo pad, password keeper and calculator. Also included is the full version of the Documents To Go application, which allows editing of various Microsoft Office documents on the phone. In previous BlackBerrys, this app was included only as a trial version with a paid upgrade required to unlock full features, so this is a welcome addition.
Further applications are of course available for download from the BlackBerry App World, which has more of a focus on productive apps than the compelling time-wasters that saturate the Google Play and Apple App Store markets. Long-time BlackBerry fans will be pleased to know that the Brick Breaker and Word Mole games are still loaded onto this Bold, as they have been on BlackBerry phones since time immemorial. Well, a good few years, anyway.
One area in which the Bold really excels is in social networking integration. The phone ships loaded with dedicated clients for both Twitter and Facebook which offer deep integration into the phones OS to provide quick notifications of updates. I found the Facebook client to be particularly nice. While arguably not boasting the most elegant layout, it nonetheless offers a better range of functionality than most of the clients I've encountered on other smartphones and platforms.
Experienced BlackBerry fans looking for the next best instalment in the ever-popular range need look no further than the BlackBerry Bold 9900. Harnessing all the latest technologies available and the full extent of RIM's design experience, this phone is currently the best BlackBerry on the market.
The physical design is everything I'd expect of a high-end BlackBerry. Sleek, stylish and sturdy, it has an unmistakable charm about it that's impressive without being ostentatious. Furthermore, the keypad is a finely tuned instrument that's impossibly pleasant to use, and the bright, oh-so-sharp display is far and away the best RIM has ever equipped a smartphone with.
On the software side, the Bold 9900 has all the essential features that seasoned BlackBerry users rely on: exceptional security, top-class email support, the unsubstitutable BB Messenger service and so on. New tricks like the improved browser and Liquid Graphics further sweeten the deal and provide a considerable incentive to upgrade.
On the other hand, the camera is only OK, and the interface remains somewhat overwhelming for new users. And that's where the BlackBerry Bold 9900 might struggle – attracting new users. It's not that the phone has nothing to offer the uninitiated, it's that fully utilising its capabilities takes that bit more time to master than, say, an iPhone or a Windows Phone 7 handset. Those that make the effort, though, will find themselves rewarded with a very powerful and versatile smartphone.
And for the BlackBerry faithful? Well, I've said it already – look no further!
BlackBerry Torch 9810 - If you like BlackBerry keypads and OS7, but want a little more screen real estate to play with, the Torch 9810 could be a perfect solution with its slide out keypad beneath a 3.2" touchscreen.
Apple iPhone 4S - Anyone who's in the market for a high-end smartphone should give Apple's latest a glance. The iPhone 4S is extremely usable, though lacks some of the customisation opportunities of BlackBerry devices.
RIM are the company that produce BlackBerry phones and aside from a few deviations here and there they have typically stuck to a rather formulaic phone design, with a smaller screen above a condensed QWERTY keypad. This is a design that has often been imitated by other manufacturers but one that the majority of people will instinctively associated with the Canadian company. RIM have ventured into full touchscreen territory with phones like the BlackBerry Storm although the SurePress screen technology that was employed in that phone met with mixed responses.
The Bold 9900 adopts a more conventional capacitive touchscreen system and at the same time sticks to the popular BlackBerry design, complete with QWERTY keyboard and optical trackpad. There are some critics of this choice of design who will say that touch sensitive phones need to have larger screens (3.5" – 4.5") to fully make use of the touchscreen features on board and that touch sensitivity is not really suited to a smaller screen like the 2.8" display found on the Bold 9900.
While there may be some truth to this argument in respect to features like touchscreen games, the touch sensitivity on the Bold 9900 does provide a very welcomed means of navigating your way through the interface. The Bold 9900 is the first RIM phone to come with the new BlackBerry OS 7, which was supposed to be BlackBerry OS 6.1 but was felt to feature significant enough changes to warrant a whole integral increase in its number convention.
BlackBerry OS 7
The new OS offers a more enjoyable experience to earlier versions of the RIM operating system, and features new Liquid Graphics. Liquid Graphics helps to render graphics much faster and helps to provide a smoother and more seamless experience when using features like panning and zooming through the interface.
The interface does seem a great deal nippier than earlier BlackBerry phones and the OS tweaks are no doubt enhanced by the faster 1.2GHz processor in use. BlackBerry OS 7 also comes with some other new additions including BlackBerry Balance. As a large number of people who use BlackBerry phones are professionals this is an excellent feature to have included, as it allows you to separate your work and your personal content on the phone.
The new OS also features voice activated searches which can be used to search for content on the phone or search online. Online features have also had a bump up from the improved web browser on the Bold 9900. This includes support for Just in Time (JIT) Java as well as HTML5 video content.
The Bold 9900 comes with decent 3G (HSPA) and Wi-Fi connections in place and also comes with some other excellent online features like BlackBerry Maps. The phone also comes with excellent email support and instant messaging including BlackBerry Messenger. The Bold 9900 also comes with support for BB features like Enterprise Server and also supports social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.
The Bold 9900 features a 5 megapixel rear facing camera that comes with some great features including. The camera comes with an LED flash so that you can take photos in darker environments and also comes with geo-tagging and face detection.
This camera also supports 720p video recording, and the Bold supports playback for 720p videos so you can watch your HD creations straight after recording them. As well as this the Bold 9900 comes with an excellent media player allowing you to enjoy a wide range of music and video formats. There is 8GB internal storage space and an additional 32GB on offer through microSD.
The Bold 9900 comes with the same great range of professional features that you would expect to find on any BlackBerry phone with some excellent new additions thanks to the new operating system.
As well as coming with support for BlackBerry Enterprise Server the Bold 9900 now features BlackBerry Balance. This allows you to separate work and personal content on the phone, so that your personal emails and social networks can be kept apart from information.
The Bold 9900 also comes with Docs to Go document editors allowing you to edit MS Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents and there is also a pdf viewer. Of course these are some of the features where having a QWERTY keypad is of great benefit, and this is certainly the case with the Bold 9900.
This is the first BlackBerry Bold phone with a touch sensitive screen and it will be a welcomed addition by many fans of the phone series. The Bold 9900 still retains the QWERTY keyboard and optical trackpad of the original Bold phones and at the same time provides greater ease of use with its touch sensitive interface.
The phone is a lot speedier than earlier Bold handsets thanks to a faster 1.2GHz processor, but much of this speed increase is down to the new BlackBerry OS 7. There really is a noticeable difference when using the phone and the new Liquid Graphics system makes for much smoother visuals when performing actions such as the zoom.
Although there are some people arguing that the Bold 9900 could have done with a larger screen to make best use of the new touch sensitivity this would ultimately be betraying the idea that BlackBerry phones represent. The touch sensitivity shouldn´t trick you into thinking that this is a phone with a similar nature to the likes of the iPhone 4 or the Galaxy S2 as it is essentially a BlackBerry phone through and through. This is its greatest strength and the touch sensitivity just adds a nice new feature to an already great phone design. What´s more, the Bold 9900 is the thinnest BlackBerry Bold yet released at just 10.5mm.