RIM's Bold 9700 is the ultimate BlackBerry, even if it's not the ultimate smart phone. If you're already a CrackBerry addict, the 9700 will feed your need to keep connected, but, if you're not, the whole package may feel too much like business and not enough like the business.
The 9700 is available for free on a £30-pound-per-month, 2-year contract, or around £380 SIM-free.
There's no question that the 9700 is the capo di tutti BlackBerries. It's as small and sleek as a BlackBerry Curve 8900, but offers more features.
The Qwerty keyboard is better than ever. The bigger keys make up for a lack of space between them with a sculpted finish that makes each one stand out. Disappointingly, the 9700's keys aren't as clicky as the 8900's, but we had no trouble typing on them at full speed.
What sets the BlackBerry apart from similar Qwerty phones, like the Nokia E71, is the BlackBerry server service. The consumer version is called the BlackBerry Internet Service, and is run by the network provider (businesses run BlackBerry Enterprise Server). This is the funnel through which all your email passes, and it allows email to be pushed to the BlackBerry in real-time, so you don't have to wait for the phone to check if something new has arrived. It also makes the BlackBerry more secure, since everything is encrypted as it goes back and forth.
The BlackBerry email service is as reliable as ever, but you must have a subscription to a BlackBerry-specific contract to make it work. We found the process of setting up email on the 9700 to be problem-free, although not as user-friendly as on the iPhone or HTC Hero. We like having the option of setting up accounts on a Web page instead.
You can choose between looking at your emails in separate inboxes or in a combined super-inbox. If you have the Facebook app installed, you can see your Facebook messages in there too.
The address book is similarly well-integrated with Facebook, and you can grab your contacts from your Gmail account too. But, even on the top-of-the-line 9700, you have to go out and find the Facebook and Google Sync apps and install them yourself. We wish these features came pre-installed.
Fortunately, BlackBerry apps are much easier to find these days, thanks to the BlackBerry App World. The shelves aren't as well-stocked as those of Apple's App Store, and paid-for apps tend to be much more expensive, but it's easy to navigate and there's a good selection of free apps to choose from.
While the features that have traditionally made the BlackBerry the king of emails are all present and correct on the 9700, the platform is starting to show its age. It's the BlackBerry's tenth birthday this year, and, although the format has improved hugely in that time and developed a massive following, other smart phones have come along and put the BlackBerry somewhat in the shade.
The iPhone OS 3.0 software update means the iPhone now supports Microsoft Exchange, so you can read your Outlook emails on the device. It also added a remote wipe function that should appease nervous IT departments. Furthermore, the Hero, Palm Pre, Motorola Dext and other devices have shown how the integration of social networks, such as Facebook, can be taken much further. The social-networking functionality of these touchscreen contenders is more playful and user-friendly than the 9700's, including features such as live Twitter updates on the home screen and set-up wizards that don't fry your brain with complexity. In comparison, the BlackBerry's user interface is beginning to feel rather dowdy.
The 9700 does, however, spice things up with a new optical trackpad, which replaces the tiny trackball seen on previous RIM devices. The trackpad's fun to use, and makes it a doddle to whizz around the screen. It also collects less dirt than the trackball. In addition, the 9700's screen is a pleasure to look at, thanks to its superb resolution. Photos and videos look fantastic on it.
Stuck in a Web
In our tests, the 9700's Web browser proved a huge improvement on those of its predecessors, offering better standards compliance. It scored 97/100 in the Acid3 test, compared to the 8900's paltry 13/100. It's still slower than many of its smart-phone competitors, though, and it struggled to properly render the best site in the world, CNET UK.
It's worth noting that our test 9700 had been massaged by T-Mobile -- the browser was branded as a T-Mobile web'n'walk application -- and we can't be sure that its performance wasn't affected. For example, when we searched using the default T-Mobile search engine, Yahoo, spaces were converted to '%20', which made our searches fail miserably. The Google search engine didn't have the same problem, and there may not be an issue on other networks.
Like its Web browser, the 9700's 3.2-megapixel camera and two LED lights are much better than those of other BlackBerry devices, but you shouldn't chuck out your digital camera just yet. In our tests, the camera proved sufficiently good for capturing spontaneous moments, but its photos aren't sharp or accurate enough to be blown up on a big screen.
The camera also suffers from slight shutter lag, so a few moments pass between pressing the button and taking a picture. Happily, this is one of the only areas in which the 9700 feels slow. Otherwise, the user interface feels punchy and responsive.
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 offers refinement of a well-loved format, but it doesn't break much new ground. We can't fault its zippy performance, vivid screen or reliable email service, and its optical trackpad and 3.2-megapixel camera are useful improvements. For BlackBerry fans, and people who want to do some serious emailing, the 9700 is the pick of the bunch. But the 9700 just doesn't offer the thrills that some of its rivals do.
Edited by Charles Kloet