The BlackBerry Bold 9790 looks like almost all the smart phones RIM has released in recent years. It has that familiar corporate styling and the classic BlackBerry full Qwerty keyboard wrapped around the bottom of the phone's face like an alphabetic beard.
But the 9790 is relatively unusual for a BlackBerry because it's a hybrid, thanks to a small capacitive touchscreen up top. It's not the first touch-cum-Qwerty BlackBerry -- last year's Bold 9900 also packed both in -- but RIM has crammed everything into a smaller package this time around.
Should I buy the BlackBerry Bold 9790?
Mobile is all about software these days and with BlackBerry OS 7 inside -- RIM's latest but dated operating system -- there's nothing to convert new users to the BlackBerry platform. Unless you're bonkers about BlackBerry, we can't really recommend getting involved with the 9790.
Another reason not to buy is the fact that RIM is planning to launch its next generation OS -- BlackBerry 10 -- in the second half of this year. There's no indication from RIM that BlackBerry 7 devices will be upgradeable to BB 10, so it's probably worth waiting for the big platform refresh, rather than buying into the dwindling days of the old ways.
All the usual BlackBerry messaging features are on board the 9790 but RIM's platform remains fiddly to use compared to Android and Apple's iOS. And it's a country mile behind when it comes to apps.
The 9790's tiny touchscreen is fiddly -- it's not big enough to make web browsing a pleasure and if you mainly use a BlackBerry for messaging, your fingers are going to be tapping away on the physical Qwerty keyboard most of the time anyway.
On contract, the 9790's is in the same price bracket as lots of great high-end Android phones, including the ever popular Samsung Galaxy S2 and the HTC Sensation XE. Apple's latest iPhone, the 4S, is not that much more expensive either -- it's free on contract from around £30 -- making the 9790 a very tough sell to anyone other than a confirmed CrackBerry addict.
BlackBerry 7 OS
BlackBerry 7 is more user-friendly than previous versions of the BlackBerry OS as RIM has tweaked and tinkered to try and make up some of the ground it lost to Android and iOS.
One welcome addition is a faster browser -- RIM claims it's 40 per cent quicker than BlackBerry 6 OS. There are also zippier graphical transitions on the home screen. On the surface, it doesn't feel entirely like a phone from yesteryear, even if the look of the handset has barely changed.
RIM has grafted on a touch-friendly menu (pictured above) in an attempt to bypass the oft-thumbed BlackBerry key. Hold a finger on the touchscreen and it brings up a grid of options relating to the app you're using or the aspect of the OS you're viewing, or even specific content you've highlighted.
If you're highlighting text or a link, options can include 'copy' or 'open link'. When using the menu in the Twitter app, you're offered the chance to compose tweets, retweet content, reply to a tweet and more. If you're viewing a photo, this menu will let you add the image to your homescreen and send it to a contact. The touch menu can also be used to flick between open apps by hitting the 'switch apps' option. This will then bring up a grid of recently used apps in icon form -- then you simply tap on the app you want to switch to it.
Even with such usability boosts, the BlackBerry OS remains a never-ending procession of menus. The OS was built in an era of keyboards and cursors and despite RIM's attempts to make it more touch-friendly, there's no escaping its legacy. Dip beneath the colourful icons on the homepage and you'll soon find yourself falling down the rabbit hole of yet another menu -- with absolutely no prospect of a usability wonderland at the bottom.
Screen and keyboard
The Bold 9790 has a diminutive 2.45-inch capacitive touchscreen with a resolution of 480x360 pixels at 246 pixels per inch -- a throwback to 2010's
Last year's model -- the Bold 9900 -- packed in a fair few more pixels on its slightly larger 2.8-inch touchscreen (it had a resolution of 640x480 pixels at 287ppi). So if it's screen glory you're after, there are better Bolds out there.
The smaller size of the 9790 explains its diddy screen but we're disappointed by the lowly resolution -- text on full web pages such as the CNET UK desktop site is illegible until you zoom in, at which point having such a small screen means it can feel like you're trying to read a poster through a keyhole.
Indeed, the touchscreen on the 9790 is about the size of a mini Post-it note, as shown below.
Touching such a tiny screen doesn't offer a massive enhancement over thumbing the traditional trackpad but you can at least use pinch-to-zoom on web pages and finger flick to scroll through your email. Still, it's an incremental improvement at best.
RIM has also kept the Bold's optical trackpad -- meaning there are multiple (and therefore redundant) ways to navigate the interface or pan around web pages.
Love or hate the Bold's signature Qwerty keyboard -- and you're reading a BlackBerry review so chances are you love it -- rest assured, it's not gone anywhere. RIM has recycled essentially the same keyboard it used on the Bold 9900 for the Bold 9790, with its angled keys and email-friendly Qwerty layout.
As with previous Bolds and Curves, the keyboard takes pride of place. Along with the five BlackBerry navigation keys, it occupies the entire bottom half of the handset's face.
If you're a BlackBerry lover you'll probably be able to type the complete works of Shakespeare on the Bold 9790's keyboard in an afternoon, thanks to its angled keys. But as with most Qwerty-packing BlackBerrys, the keyboard's presence weighs heavily on usability by halving available screen real estate. So if you're after a smart phone for watching videos or doing lots of web browsing you'll want a smart phone with a full-sized touchscreen.
Email and messaging
Email and messaging have been BlackBerry's lifeblood for years and, as you'd expect, the Bold 9790 has all the usual messaging suspects on tap. BlackBerry email will hook up to your Gmail, Yahoo mail and Hotmail. There's also BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) and texting, Twitter and Facebook apps that plug you into your social networks and push notifications to your phone.
The BBM app pulls in all types of messaging -- email, social networks, instant messaging, SMS text, Facebook and so on into a single feed. This makes it easy to see who's been talking to you. From here there are also options to reply in various ways so you don't need to dive off into the full-fat Facebook app just to reply to a message.
On the 9790 you can also connect Facebook with your BlackBerry Calendar and Contacts. Once you've signed in, Facebook events are automatically added to your BlackBerry Calendar and the contacts on your phone can be linked with your Facebook account. So the latest profile pictures of your mates will be added to your phone contacts list. But be warned -- this option also shares your phone contacts with Facebook and can eat up extra data. If you're on a pay-as-you-go tariff you may not want to check this box.
The Facebook app itself is packed with features -- including the ability to view your profile, upload photos and post status updates, check in to Facebook Places, view the news feed, see messages, notifications, friend requests, use Facebook chat, search for friends... you know the drill.
Performance and battery life
The 9790 has a 1GHz chip inside so it's a smidgen less beefy than last year's Bold 9900, which had 1.2GHz under the hood. We found the OS fast and responsive, with menus opening zippily and apps loading promptly.
Full websites are a little slow to render in the native web browser so expect to see a fair amount of grey and white checkerboard as you pan around the site. We found scrolling and zooming fast and fluid though -- all the more so because you're able to pinch or flick the touchscreen (assuming you can fit your fingers on it).
Be warned -- there's no Adobe Flash support so lots of online videos won't play. There is a YouTube app though to provide your daily cute cat video fix.
BlackBerrys have long been lauded for their ability to eke out their battery like a squirrel husbanding its store of winter nuts. The 9790's spec sheet claims it will last 18 days on standby, or bank enough juice for 6.3 hours of video playback or 33 hours of music. Talktime is also apparently good for 5.2 hours of continuous yakking.
We found battery performance to be okay -- you'll easily get a day's normal use out of the Bold and, if you're only tapping infrequently, you might even manage several days without having to charge it. That said, heavy use -- playing with the phone a lot, leaving its screen on for long periods and having Wi-Fi switched on -- drank a surprisingly hefty slurp of juice in a short period. That's surprising considering the 9790's dinky screen.
Watching videos certainly eats up the battery but with such a small screen you're unlikely to want to clock up hours of viewing.
Call quality on the 9790 was clear and crisp -- and we didn't experience any dropped calls or other connectivity problems.
Design and build quality
If you're a confirmed Crackberry nut you'll love the unfussy, minimal looks of the Bold 9790 -- it's got the best in classic BlackBerry styling wrapped around a svelte 10.5mm body that feels tough enough to stand on.
Cheap and plasticky this is not -- but equally don't be surprised if your mates assume this is your work phone as it has more than a hint of 'standard issue corporate handset' to it.
It's considerably smaller than a standard Post-it note so you won't have any trouble pocketing the 9790. Pleasingly weighty, the handset is edged in chrome trim and finished with a rubberised, gun metal grey backplate that sits happily on the palm.
On the top edge of the device is a lock/unlock button mounted underneath the sloping plastic. At first glance, this appears to be a touch-key but is in fact a physical button that has to be squeezed awkwardly to trigger -- get it right and you'll hear a clicking noise. We found this key a slippery customer and disliked how the chrome trim at the back digs into your finger as you press down.
The physical keys on the right-hand side of the 9790 -- volume up/down and a dedicated camera button -- also set our teeth on edge. We found them too skinny and convex to sit comfortably under a finger.
Camera and video
The 9790's camera has a mere 5 megapixels, which sounds disappointing for this price. Both the Samsung Galaxy S2 and the Apple iPhone 4S offer 8 megapixels. But specs aside, we found the 9790 to be a reasonably decent little snapper, producing photos with good levels of detail, especially outdoors in strong daylight.
The lens was even able to produce dramatic shots with a shallow depth of field (for a cameraphone) -- as the snap below of a pedestrian crossing illustrates.
Colour accuracy was not amazing though -- the camera has a tendency to over-saturate certain shades, or turn a middling yellow into a luminous green, as the photo of this apple below shows. This colour skewing can lend snaps a surreal quality.
The time between pushing the camera button -- or tapping the on-screen camera icon -- and the 9790 taking the photo was very quick, with under a second's delay.
As with most smart phone cameras, photos snapped in low light conditions contain lots of noise so expect them to look fuzzy. There is an automatic 'low light' sensor that kicks in and ups the exposure on your shots but this doesn't produce good quality results.
We found the video camera function on the 9790 to be especially sensitive to low light, producing very noisy footage even in slightly dingy conditions. Footage shot in strong daylight yielded strong levels of detail. But as with most smart phone video cameras, the detail drops off significantly the more motion there is in the frame. The 9790 shoots footage at a resolution of 640x480.
Music, video and storage
If you're a mobile media lover, we can't see why you'd want to buy into BlackBerry's ecosystem because it's far less joined up than Apple's iOS plus iTunes.
For example, the 9790 doesn't have a native TV/film service on board. The video app merely points you to an option to 'Explore video apps' on BlackBerry App World, which yields an uninspiring collection of YouTube 'mobile reader' apps. If you're after a simple smart phone to download and watch TV shows and films, this is not it.
This also holds true for podcasts. The 9790 asks for a web address or search term, and then just performs a Google search. If you want to add the podcast to the handset you have to manually copy the link to the Add Podcast Channel screen.
There is a Music Store app on the 9790, which takes you to Amazon's MP3 store where you can choose from 18 million songs (vs iTunes' 20 million+). Prices start from free up to around £10 but most songs are £0.89 and the majority of albums cost £7.99.
Storage wise, the 9790 has 8GB of internal memory. This can be expanded to up to 32GB via a microSD card slot, sited next to the removeable battery.
Apps and BlackBerry App World
There are now more than 50,000 apps in BlackBerry's store, which pales beside the might of iOS (circa 600,000 apps) and Android (400,000+). RIM is the official app laggard of smart phones -- it's even been overtaken by the new kid on the block, Windows Phone (60,000 apps).
Certainly don't expect your favourite apps to be here -- and even if they are in the store they may not play well with this particular Bold.
For example, while the BBC has launched a BlackBerry iPlayer app, it's not compatible with the 9790 so it won't appear in your App World searches. Even Angry Birds doesn't materialise. What you get instead are lots of copycat apps -- we clocked InstaPhoto, rather than Instagram, and Angry Farm, not Angry Birds...
As well as sparse shelves, BlackBerry App World has a very corporate feel to it. We found it irritating to navigate on such a tiny screen, with summaries truncated and navigation fiddly.
Downloading apps was generally quick and mostly fuss-free but there can be a procession of dialogue boxes with check boxes to approve/deny functions. On deleting one app we were also required to reboot the phone for the deletion to take effect. Retro.
From the main home screen, swiping left twice brings you to a 'downloads' view -- this at least makes it easy to find the app you've just installed, which is not something that's always been the case on BlackBerry smart phones.
NFC and voice-activated universal search
BlackBerry 7 OS adds support for near field communication --- aka NFC, a contactless tap-to-share technology. NFC is a very niche techology at the moment -- it's not much use unless you have lots of other NFC-phone-owning buddies who want to swap data with you. Since there are few NFC phones in the UK, that's pretty unlikely.
The 9790 also has a 'voice activated search' feature, which may sound like Apple's Siri voice assistant but don't be fooled -- it's far less sophisticated.
To use voice search you tap the search icon, followed by the microphone icon and speak the term you'd like to search for -- hitting 'done' when you've finished speaking.
If you're lucky your words will be correctly transcribed and appear in the text box on the screen, along with options to search within Google, YouTube, Maps or even Facebook.
Much more likely, however, is that the BlackBerry will mangle your spoken request for "I wandered lonely as a cloud" into a nonsensical "I won delay music loud". Hmm.
With its weighty price tag and corporate looks, the Bold 9790 is unlikely to be the BlackBerry you buy yourself -- it'll be the smart phone your company furnishes you with so they can keep firing emails at you 24/7. Even BlackBerry's faithful teenage army will either be priced out or put off by its steely feel.
For all other smart phone users, BlackBerry 7 OS on the Bold 9790 doesn't offer anything show-stopping enough to make this handset worth considering over the vastly surperior Android and Apple operating systems -- thanks to its paucity of apps and the dated, text-heavy interface lurking beneath its shiny surface.