After leaving a rather sour taste in our mouths with the Torch 9800, RIM is bringing its BlackBerry 6 operating system to the Bold line. Typing on the BlackBerry Bold 9780 is a joy, but, like a square peg hammered into a round hole, the OS can't really shine on a device with no touchscreen. The Bold 9780 is available on contract for around £25. SIM-only prices start at around £400.
Back to the old school
Keyboard-loving BlackBerry fans who dutifully purchased the excellent Bold 9700 back in 2009 will probably be eyeing the 9780 with intense interest. Although the BlackBerry Torch 9800 was the first device from RIM to boast version 6 of its operating system, we're willing to bet that many hardcore devotees passed on purchasing it because of its sliding form factor and reliance on touchscreen commands -- two elements that don't exactly fit in with the company's ethos. The 9780 is therefore the first 'traditional' RIM phone to get the BlackBerry 6 OS, but by sticking to convention, the company has missed out on the opportunity to keep up with its rivals.
From a physical standpoint, the 9780 is almost identical to its predecessor. There are subtle differences -- including a slightly different faux-leather pattern on the back -- but for all intents and purposes, this is last year's fashion masquerading as today's trend. Not that there's anything especially wrong with that, of course. The 9700 was quite a looker, and this updated version retains the sleek lines, robust build quality and that gorgeous Qwerty keyboard.
Any review of a BlackBerry device simply wouldn't be complete with some mention of its keyboard. Thankfully, the example sported by the 9780 doesn't disappoint. It's exactly the same as the one on the 9700, and as anyone who has used that particular device will tell you, that is most certainly an encouraging thing. Although the sheer volume of buttons crammed into such a small space is initially intimidating, it doesn't take long for you to fall in love once your fingertips touch the keys. It's easy to see why BlackBerry's line of products is so heavily favoured by mobile email users, because tapping out an essay-like message on the 9780 is almost as natural as using a full-blown computer keyboard.
Despite being the spitting image of the 9700, the 9780 does feature some internal enhancements. The most notable is the 5-megapixel camera, which offers up far superior shots than its forebear. We were genuinely impressed by the quality and honestly weren't expecting so significant an improvement. Sadly, the same can't be said of the phone's video-recording prowess, which is sketchy at best. Those of you expecting RIM to jump on board the increasingly popular 720p-capture bandwagon are going to be severely put out by the 9780's blocky and jerky footage.
One element of the phone's specification which hasn’t changed since the 9700 is the CPU, which remains locked down at 624MHz -- this is comparable to most low-level Android devices these days. Thankfully, the amount of on-board RAM has been doubled to 512MB, and this seems to have a dramatic effect on overall performance. Using the phone is a smooth and trouble-free affair.
BlackBerry 6 and the 9780: The odd couple
As we've already mentioned, the 9780 eschews the touchscreen revolution entirely -- navigation is handled by a capacitive touchpad, just as was the case on the 9700. It's incredibly sensitive and takes some getting used to, but on the whole it performs admirably. In saying that, the combination of this interface with the BlackBerry 6 OS -- which, lest we forget, was designed to function with the Torch's touchscreen -- throws up some quirks. Selecting the app or icon you want is a counter-intuitive process, and it's clear that many operations would be better executed if you could just stab them with one of your digits.
Thank goodness, then, for the ability to explore your entire phone using BlackBerry 6's powerful Universal Search tool. Always within reach on the home screen, this feature grants near-instantaneous access to almost every facet of the 9780's functionality, and makes up for the shortcomings of the menu system.
Other elements of BlackBerry 6 work just as impressively as they did on the Torch. Control of emails remains a strong point, and despite the massive strides made by the iPhone and Android platforms in this area, they simply can't hold a candle to RIM. This is a company that has practically built its entire reputation on comprehensive mobile email access, and if you're a business type with several accounts active simultaneously, there really is no substitute.
Browsing the Web is more pleasant than it was on BlackBerry OS 5, too, and the bundled social-networking applications -- which predictably cover Twitter and Facebook -- are very welcome, even going as far as to offer background notifications, just like their Android counterparts. Furthermore, you can aggregate this information, along with any RSS feeds you may have, in the 9780's Social Feeds app.
A tangled Web
When it comes to browsing the Web on the 9780, the lack of a touchscreen is especially irksome. Perhaps it's just us, but after several months of gleefully navigating, zooming and tapping our way around countless websites using capacitive touchscreen devices, dropping back to a phone that requires you to use a physical interface feels like going from a silken pair of boxer shorts to itchy Y-fronts. Losing such creature comforts as gesture commands and double-tap zoom is jarring, although it should be noted that the actual performance of the 9780's browser is praiseworthy, on the whole. The ability to have several pages open in tandem using a tabbed browsing option is particularly welcome.
The 9780 packs in 3G and Wi-Fi, so connectivity isn't an issue. Thankfully, the inclusion of these technologies -- in addition to the 'always on' connection for email access -- doesn't seem to have had too much of a negative impact on the phone's battery stamina. Okay, this is a smart phone, and as such you won't be getting a week's worth of usage out of a single charge, but the 9780 comfortably outlasts its rivals, especially the power-guzzling Samsung Galaxy S. It's possible that the modest 2.4-inch, 480x360-pixel screen also contributes to the longer-lasting battery.
While there was nothing particularly wrong with the Bold 9700's design, to make its direct successor almost identical does strike us as a little lazy. The internal improvements made by RIM make the BlackBerry Bold 9780 a pretty enticing proposition, and the inclusion of the BlackBerry 6 operating system at least ensures the phone is up to date. That said, it's clear the software has been coded expressly with touchscreen devices in mind, and this can make using the 9780 a little awkward.
It's doubtful that the 9780 will tempt iPhone and Android users away from their current handsets, but that's probably not the intention anyway. RIM is catering for its existing fan base with this device, and we imagine business users will continue to flock to the company's banner thanks to its finger-friendly Qwerty keyboard and robust email capabilities. The trouble is, the BlackBerry brand is under very real threat from its smart phone rivals, and relying too much on tradition may turn out to be a foolhardy exercise -- especially as recent sales figures indicate the company's support is slowly but surely dwindling in the face of devices like the iPhone 4, HTC Desire HD and Samsung Omnia 7.
Edited by Emma Bayly