There was a time when ordinary folk lusted after BlackBerry phones. Supreme emailing machines used by high-flying business types, they had a certain cachet to them. But since the iPhone and various Android devices appeared on the scene, BlackBerry handsets have started to look tired and dated.
The BlackBerry Bold 9900 is RIM's latest attempt to claim back some of the cool factor that it's lost over the years. It may look like a traditional BlackBerry from the outside, but, under the hood, its hardware has had a serious upgrade and the new BlackBerry 7 OS is faster, more user-friendly and better able to take advantage of this phone's high-resolution touchscreen.
The 9900 is available for free on a £31-per-month contract, or for around £500 SIM-free.
Should I buy the BlackBerry Bold 9900?
The 9900 is undoubtedly one of the best handsets that RIM has produced in quite some time. It feels very well built, yet it's reasonably light and comfortable to hold. The screen is far better than those we've seen on previous Bold models and the keyboard is also excellent. Thanks to the new, faster processor and the speed tweaks that RIM has made to the OS, it's also supremely responsive. We think existing BlackBerry fans will find much to like, even if this device is slightly over-priced.
Unfortunately, we can't see the 9900 tempting new users over to the BlackBerry platform. Despite its messaging prowess, the phone just isn't as exciting to use as something like the Samsung Galaxy S2 or even the iPhone 4, both of which command similar price tags. The BlackBerry platform doesn't offer the same range of apps as Android or iOS either.
Furthermore, the 9900's small screen reduces the impact of videos and Web pages, and the text-heavy menus of the Blackberry OS will be a turn-off for those not used to the platform's idiosyncrasies.
BlackBerry 7 OS
The 9900 comes with RIM's new operating system, BlackBerry 7 OS. This isn't the complete rewrite of the OS that many have been waiting for -- that will come with BlackBerry 8 OS, which will be based on the new code that's used in the company's PlayBook tablet. The 7 OS update is more of standard release. Older BlackBerry devices won't be updated to support 7 OS, so the only way to get the new software is to buy the Bold 9900 or another new handset.
The key thing the company has focused on in 7 OS is improving the software's speed. In truth, it's difficult to tell whether its snappier performance is down to the performance tweaks made to the OS or the faster processor used in the 9900. Once thing's for sure, though -- the phone feels very responsive, with menus transitions zipping by and applications launching in the blink of an eye.
The Web browser is also noticeably much faster than before. Pages are far quicker to render than on previous BlackBerry devices and scrolling and zooming are smoother and more fluid than ever.
Email and messaging
One of the platform's strengths has always been its email support and this has been enhanced in 7 OS. If you use Gmail, you can now better manage your emails from within the main BlackBerry client. For example, you can star messages or add labels, report spam and put emails in the archive.
There are plenty of other enhancements for general email handling too. For example, you can turn on and off the feature that lets you group emails by subject, via the main email menu. The OS now also makes it much easier to add extra information to an existing contact. For example, you can just highlight an email address, select 'add to contacts' and you're given the option to create a new contact or add the email address to an existing one.
BlackBerry Messenger may have been garnering the wrong kind of headlines lately, but it's hugely popular among the younger generation, especially pay as you go users. It's been updated in 7 OS, but the tweaks are relatively minor.
The 9900 does, however, offer pretty good integration between all the various social-messaging services, so BBM, Facebook messages, emails and tweets can all be gathered together into your inbox. Sensibly, though, you can also keep them separate if you prefer.
The global search feature now supports search by voice and the Social Feed app has been tweaked slightly. The OS now also includes the full version of the Documents To Go app, letting you view and edit Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. Previously, the software was pre-installed, but you had to purchase the editing functionality, so its inclusion saves you a few pennies.
For all these changes though, 7 OS doesn't really look all that different to 6 OS. There are still many menus that are just too text-heavy for an OS that's now designed primarily around touch input. As a result, it could be daunting for BlackBerry newbies. It's certainly less intuitive than iOS or Windows Phone 7 in this regard. It also lacks Android's support for home-screen widgets and live wallpapers.
Unlike previous Bold models, the 9900's chip breaks through the 1GHz barrier. It runs on a 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon chip. That's a single-core processor, rather than the dual-core chip you'll find in similarly priced Android handsets, such as the Samsung Galaxy S2. Nevertheless, the 9900 is very responsive. The processor also has 768MB of RAM, which is up from the 512MB in previous Bold models.
There's 8GB of memory built-in, but the handset has a microSD card slot and can accept cards of up to 32GB in size. At most, you'll have 40GB of storage space to play with, which should be more than enough for most people.
As well as the usual communications technologies, such as HSDPA, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the 9900 is the first BlackBerry to come with an NFC chip. In the future, this may allow you to use the phone for contactless payments, in much the same way as you use Oyster cards on the London Underground. For now, though, there's little use for NFC technology in the UK, so this feature isn't really a selling point at present.
Unfortunately, the faster processor seems to have taken a toll on battery life. We found we had to charge the 9900 pretty much every night. This is par for the course on most smart phones, but older BlackBerry devices were notable for managing to eke out longer life from their batteries, often managing to endure a couple of days of heavy usage.
Nevertheless, call quality is still a strong point. The 9900 performed flawlessly in this regard throughout our test period. The earpiece produces loud and clean audio and the phone seems to be good at retaining decent reception even under less-than-ideal conditions.
Design and build quality
Design-wise, the 9900 doesn't stray far from the usual BlackBerry template. The phone looks very professional and less plasticky than previous Bold models thanks to the brushed-metal band that runs around the outer edge and the piano black finish used on the top of the handset. It feels weighty and solid, but it's thinner than previous models too, measuring a mere 10.5mm thick.
The screen is separated from the keyboard by a row of buttons with an optical joystick nestled in the middle. Seeing as the handset's screen is touch-sensitive, the optical joystick is rather redundant, and probably more there for the convenience of those who've got used to it on other BlackBerry devices.
Thankfully, the 9900 retains a dedicated camera button on the right-hand side. But it's annoying that the 3.5mm headphone jack is on the left-hand edge -- it makes the phone awkward to fish out of your pocket when you've got the supplied headset attached.
Screen and keyboard
The 9900's screen is a big improvement over that of the older Bold 9780. Whereas the older phone's display had a resolution of 480x360 pixels, this one ups it to 640x480 pixels. The touchscreen uses capacitive technology, so it's very responsive to touch input and supports multi-touch gestures like pinch to zoom in the Web browser. The display is still quite small, at 2.8 inches, but this means the pixels are tightly packed together, giving a pixel density of 287dpi. As a result, text and icons look so sharp that you'll fear they'll slice your eyeballs open.
It's not just the impressive resolution that helps this screen stand out. Its high contrast and vibrant colours mean videos and images look superb. It really is one of the best screens we've ever come across on a landscape device. That said, the smaller size of the screen means we wouldn't really want to watch a movie on it during, say, a long-haul flight.
One of the main strengths of BlackBerry phones over the years has been their keyboards. The 9900 uses a similar keyboard to the older 9780. Its keys are slightly angular, with the edge of the key nearest to the centre of the keyboard rising up slightly on one side. This helps make the keys comfortable to type on, whether you're holding the phone with one or two hands.
The layout is very good too, although it is perhaps time that BlackBerry started adding dedicated keys for punctuation marks, like full stops and the '@' symbol. On the 9900, you have to hit the alt key first to get at them. Something we really like, however, is the way that a long press on a letter switches it to a capital letter. This encourages good punctuation in emails and text messages, which we always like to see.
Music and video
In the past, support for music and video on RIM's handsets felt like an afterthought, with the media player being about as cool as your dad's dance moves. BlackBerry has addressed the issue with the 9900.
In the media folder, you'll find icons for not just the music player, but also a dedicated podcasting app and a link to the Amazon music store so you can make music purchases. We couldn't try the latter, however, as it wasn't enabled on our test handset.
The main music player isn't as charming as the iPod app on the iPhone, in part because it doesn't offer graphical tricks like Cover Flow, which lets you flick through album art via a 3D interface. Still, it does segment music into the usual song, artist and album categories, and album art was seamlessly transferred across from our computer when we loaded a few different albums using the Blackberry Desktop software. The music app also sports a few neat touches, including its ability to automatically create playlists based on various different criteria, such as genre or artist name.
The audio output from the 3.5m jack is excellent. It's up there with the very best that you'll get from a smart phone. Stereo placement is very accurate and there's good frequency response at the bottom end to help add weight to the overall sound, and at the high end for cymbals and hi-hats.
There are a number of different EQ presets that you can choose from. These range from dance and hip-hop to bass and vocal boosters. Unfortunately, though, there's no option to create your own custom EQ settings. There's also no FM radio, although, to be fair, FM tuners aren't found on all that many smart phones any more.
You'll also find the phone's video player tucked away in the media menu. This supports a fairly decent range of formats, so you can transfer across Xvid and DivX videos without having to convert them first. Videos look quite impressive on the screen thanks to its clarity, deep black levels, and bright and punchy colours.
In the main menu, you'll also find an entry for YouTube, but, rather than a dedicated app, this simply opens the YouTube website. Nevertheless, videos play back fine in full-screen mode. Sadly, though, the handset doesn't support Adobe Flash, so there's no way of viewing shows on the BBC's iPlayer service. That's a bummer, because it's supported on the latest Android devices and the iPhone.
The 9900 has a 5-megapixel snapper. There's a dedicated button on the right-hand side of the phone to launch the camera app. Unlike on Windows Phone handsets, holding down the button doesn't launch the camera from standby. Instead, to take a quick photo, you first have to tap the unlock button on the top of the phone and then tap the camera button. Still, the camera app is quick to launch. Within about 2 seconds, it's ready to take a picture.
The camera app offers a number of different preset modes that tweak the settings for specific types of scenes. For example, there's a landscape mode for capturing outdoor vistas, a party mode that's suitable for shooting in dimly lit conditions, and a close-up mode for macro shots. There's also an interesting text mode that's designed to help you capture dark text on a white background, perhaps for taking pictures of notes on a whiteboard.
The 9900's camera software lacks some of the more advanced options that are now starting to appear in other smart-phone camera apps, such as the touch-to-focus feature you get on the iPhone and the automatic panorama stitching that Samsung offers on its Android handsets.
The 9900's camera may have a 5-megapixel resolution, but it's not just resolution that helps a camera to take good photos -- it's the quality of the image sensor and the lens. We've seen many 3-megapixel cameras that actually take better shots than higher-resolution snappers, just because their sensor and optics are better.
That said, the 9900's camera performs quite well in good light. Colour accuracy can be slightly off, but detail looks pretty crisp by camera-phone standards. Outdoor shots taken during the day look perfectly acceptable and hold their own against many of the 5-megapixel shooters we've used on other smart phones. The different scene modes didn't seem to make a huge different though, apart from the macro mode. Even the macro mode doesn't allow you to get as close up to an object as the likes of the camera on the HTC 7 Mozart. Try sneaking in really close and you just end up with a blurry mess.
Also, the camera isn't that strong when working in low light. Without the flash, photos look very noisy, with plenty of speckling on the image. You can call the single LED flash into play, but the light it casts is quite cold and harsh. It's pretty unflattering if you're trying to take a picture of people's faces.
The 9900 has joined the high-definition revolution, allowing you to shoot 720p video. This is something that previous Bold models weren't capable of.
In good lighting, the 9900 is a decent performer. Even at the highest 720p resolution, it manages to retain a steady frame rate when there's plenty of movement, such as when you're walking down a street. Interestingly, it's also good at handling sudden shifts in brightens, such as when you turn the lights on. Most smart phones tend to burn out the image before slowly adjusting to the brighter setting, but the Bold manages a slightly smoother tradition.
Unfortunately, when the lighting is less favourable, a fair amount of noise creeps into the recorded video. As a result, you really need to use the flash in dim light. The flash doesn't flatter when you're filming faces, though.
We also noticed a few annoyances with the camera software when you're using it to make videos. For example, by default, the app always starts up in stills mode, even if you were in video mode last time you closed it down.
Worse is the fact that there's no on-screen button to quickly flick between the video and photo modes. Instead, you have to dive into a menu to switch to video recording. Similarly, there's no on-screen button to turn the flash on when recording a video. You have to go into the options menu, enable it and then clear a warning box that tells you it uses more battery power. These are quite minor issues, but they're annoying and most other smart phones have better thought-out camera interfaces.
Take a trip into the BlackBerry App World store and the first thing you'll notice is the sheer number of golf-related apps. Seriously, how many golf apps does one platform really need?
In other departments, the shelves are distressingly bare, and the apps that are present often aren't up to the standard of the ones you'll find on the Android and iPhone platforms. Some are also ridiculously expensive, making the apps in the Windows Marketplace for Mobile store look cheap by comparison, which takes some doing.
The app store really is an area in which RIM is falling behind. Developers just don't seem to have the same level of interest in developing for BlackBerry phones as they do for other platforms.
The Bold 9900 is likely to have plenty of appeal among existing BlackBerry fans. It's undoubtedly one of the best phones RIM has made, thanks to its robust design, speedy processor and fast OS. Essentially, it's a quicker and more refined version of what has gone before and, for many BlackBerry fans, that will be enough.
But the 9900 just isn't that exciting compared to similarly priced Android handsets or the iPhone 4. Its text-heavy menus are likely to be a turn-off for those not used to the BlackBerry OS, and its so-so camera and small screen mean it's no multimedia star. The lack of compelling content in the app store is also a downer. Overall, you get the sense that RIM is preaching to the converted with the Bold 9900.
Edited by Charles Kloet