Blackberry 9700 Review
Blackberry 9700 Review

Because the Blackberry Bold 9700 has been called the “best Blackberry ever” by some, the excitement and expectations around this phone is high. It is true that the bold 9700 represents the apogee of successive refinements that Research In Motion (RIM) has done on its phones since the release of the original Bold. The Blackberry 9700 inherits from improvements made to the Blackberry Curve 8900 and the Blackberry Tour, among others. There are small changes in design, and important changes (for the better) in terms of performance, but overall, the Blackberry Bold 9700 feels similar to the Tour or the 8900. So, where does this phone stand? Let’s find out.

Context

Before you read this Blackberry 9700 review, let me provide some context: I used the Bold 9700 as my main phone for a couple of months. During that time, I had an hosted Exchange account and connected via a T-Mobile Blackberry Enterprise plan. My work email, calendar and contacts were synchronized over the air. I stay connected with my friends via the Facebook apps, and I read emails continuously on the go. I browse the web several times a day to check on news and the stock market. I don’t call much: only 10mn or so per day. Usage pattern is the single most important thing that affects battery life. It also shapes how we perceive, like or dislike features on a phone, so now you know.

Blackberry 9700 Review
Here’s some information about this particular phone

Physical design (very good)


Video that shows what the Blackberry 9700 looks like

Blackberry 9700 Review

I still prefer the metal-ish cover from the 8900My initial reaction when I opened the box was: “hum, it looks cheaper than the Curve 8900″. I think that it is mainly due to the plastic battery cover, and seems to be a slight change in the plastic used to build the phone. However, it does not look “cheap” like the MyTouch 3G for exemple. The Bold 9700 is a nice phone that is relatively light, and feels good in the hand (and the pocket). The design is in my opinion much better than the original Bold.

Blackberry 9700 Review

The Blackberry Bold 9700 keyboard from up-close

Blackberry 9700 Review

I like the Blackberry 8900 keys better (on the right), it’s very personal of course

Keyboard (very good) : for me, good keyboards are largely what makes Blackberry devices so great to use for work. The Bold 9700 keyboard is nice. It has the same design than the original Bold and feels like the Blackberry Tour’s. However, my personal preference goes to the 8900 Curve’s keyboard, which has what I think is the best keyboard of all phones. Obviously, this is a very personal view, and I can only recommend that you try typing (a long text) with one of these in a store before forming an opinion. Outside of Blackberry, I really like the design of the Palm Pixi’s keyboard.

Blackberry 9700 Review

Display (very good) : The Bold 9700 inherits from the Curve 8900 screen resolution (480×360), which is slightly higher than the original Bold (480×320). some have reported that the screen quality is better, but looking at the 9700 and 8900 side by side, I’m hard-pressed to see a difference. They are both very good and sharp. Note that because the Bold 9700 packs a bit more pixels than the iPhone in virtually half the screen surface, the image is in fact much sharper. I usually keep the screen brightness at 40 (100 is the maximum). That’s good enough in most situations and that saves power.

Blackberry 9700 Review

The trackpad is a little weird at first, but I like it now

Trackpad (good) : the absence of a trackball is noticeable. So, how does the trackpad compare to the trackball? At first I thought that the trackball was better, but not by much. It just seemed more accurate. However, after a few days, I had adapted to the trackpad. Now, it doesn’t really matter to me, and when I switched back to my Curve 8900, I wasn’t particularly glad to use the trackball again. The trackpad has the benefit of being much more resistant to dust and it might even be cheaper for Blackberry to make, so it’s a win-win.

Blackberry 9700 Review
The buttons seem more sturdy and shock-resistant (8900 top, 9700 bottom)

Misc: the side buttons (volume…) are much more integrated to the body. The overall design seems more sturdy, and less prone to get dirty from dust in the pockets. The buttons are a little harder to find in the dark because they are more recessed, but overall, I consider this new design to be an improvement.

Blackberry 9700 Review

Basic phone functions

Finding and calling a contact is very easy as you just need to type the first few letters of a name. Dialing is also as easy, even if the numeric keys are grouped tightly, which makes it harder to use when not looking at the keyboard (driving). There’s no favorite or “most called” list, but you can access the call log. There is a voice dialing function that doesn’t work as well as Android’s, but it’s there and it might be friendlier with your voice than mine.

Blackberry 9700 ReviewThe audio quality is very good and the volume level is relatively loud, for a smartphone. The speaker is quite loud as well, and is one of the best that I have tested recently.

Blackberry 9700 ReviewFinally, the 9700 has visual voicemail with T-Mobile. The application is quite basic and not sexy at all, but it is certainly good enough for its purpose and much better that the dumb sequential voicemail.

Call via WiFi with UMA

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T-Mobile had to do this to compensate for its inferior networkUMA is the best feature from T-Mobile in my opinon

The T-Mobile Blackberry Bold 9700 supports T-Mobile’s UMA access. If you are not familiar with the idea, this means that the phone can use an internet WiFi connection to communicate with T-Mobiles network. Think of your WiFi router as your personal cell tower. When calling via UMA, the voice data is transported via internet to the T-Mobile network, that then uses its normal cellular network to transport it to the final destination (the person that you are calling). Not only UMA gets you a very good connection, it can also let you call for free: for an additional $9.99/mo T-Mobile lets you call as much as you want via UMA (that’s T-Mobile Hotspot@home). If you don’t pay $9.99 UMA still works, but the minutes are taken from your monthly pool. The best of all is that UMA works from outside the USA as well. As long as you can connect via UMA anywhere in the world, T-Mobile bills you as if you were in the U.S , and that means no roaming charges or international pricing (that’s was true for me at the time of writing, but remember that T-Mobile USA can change this policy in the future).

UMA is truly awesome. Other carriers sometime have their own version of WiFi calling, but it’s clumsy and requires a special router, which means that you can’t do it from someone else’s house, or a public hotspot. It’s funny, because T-Mobile has adopted UMA to compensate for their inferior network coverage. Now, it turns out to be their most formidable feature (in my view), but yet, one that very few consumers know about. T-Mobile did an increadibly poor job of communicating it.

I also bumped into an issue with UMA where it disconnected all the time, but I found the fix.

Photo/video capture (very good / average)

Blackberry 9700 Review
A photo shot at noon with the Bold 9700. More samples The photo quality of the Bold 9700 is quite good, and I have no problem recommending this phone for its camera. The details are crisp and it does well most of the time. I spotted some blurriness in the upper-left corner, but I don’t know if it’s just my device or if they are all that way. I’ll let you check our full-size images on Flickr to judge if that’s good enough for you. When using the flash, I found it to be too hard at close proximity, but at 3 or 4 feet, it’s actually not bad at all. Look at our full-size photo samples on Flickr.


Video sample: note that YouTube’s compression makes it a bit worse

The Video capture is so-so, and inferior to the 3GS. The compression is obvious and there’s a lot of aliasing (“jaggies”), which is annoying. On the technical side, the file is a 3GP 480×352, 1.6Mbps, 27.67fps, AAC mono at 16KHz.

Software


Video: browsing the app store (over WIFI)

RIM has updated the software in many places, but nothing is truly ground breaking. Instead, the company has refined and corrected key elements, and left the rest alone.

Blackberry 9700 ReviewSMS (good) : text messages now look more like an IM conversation than a stream of emails. It makes it easier to read in my opinion.

Blackberry 9700 Review

IM (good) : Here are the Instant Messaging clients embedded by default: Blackberry Messenger, AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Yahoo IM and MSN Messenger. I don’t have any particular complaint or praise. All the clients do what one would expect from them. I don’t think that there’s any fancy file or photosharing. No VOIP either.

Blackberry 9700 Review

Facebook (slow) : Now, Facebook messages also show up in the Inbox. You can’t reply from the Inbox, though, so it helps, but not that much and did not radically change the Facebook usage for me. The Facebook app, has almost all the features, but it feels sluggish and it’s sometimes frustrating compared to the iPhone 3GS or Android phones, even over WIFI.

Video: Facebook in action over WIFI

Blackberry 9700 Review

Google Maps looks great, but it is slow (here, over WIFI)

Video: Google Maps over WIFI

Maps (asthmatic turtle) : I’m using Google Maps, because I sometimes let my friends track me with Google Latitude (Glympse is so much better). The maps look good but unfortunately it’s slow compared to every single Android phone, the Pre and the iPhone 3GS. Ouch. I’ve been using maps on many phones and my conclusion is that if it’s too slow, you will be using it only when everything else fails. Just this morning I used it in San Francisco and it took a while for the map to load, then each time I zoomed in, there was more loading. I could try to blame the network (T-Mobile), but I had 5 bars and the MyTouch 3G was doing so much better in the same area. It’s the phone.

Blackberry 9700 Review

Stick to mobile sites and you’ll be OK


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CNN mobile works. Yahoo Finance for desktop does not

Web Browser (bad, bad, bad) : Web browsing is sub-par. Again, any of the phones mentioned in the above paragraph will put the Blackberry Bold 9700 to shame when it comes to Web Browsing. Popular pages like Yahoo finance just don’t work (Error 413), it is just unacceptable these days. I tend to stay on mobile sites like CNN and I keep track of what the rest of the team is doing via ubergizmo.mobi. RIM knows that the browsing needs fixing and is hiring developers. I’m not sure when that will translate to a better browsing for us, though.

Video: web browsing on the BB 9700 (over WIFI)

Email (excellent) : The email experience on Blackberry is great, and that i why they still command such a large market share in the smartphone space. Besides the keyboard, there are things like the shortcuts or the custom dictionary that makes it very productive. I’m working with this phone and believe me, if it did not make my productivity higher, I would ditch it. It’s just business.

Blackberry 9700 Review

Viewing and editing Office documents can save you from your angry boss

Office Docs: With Office To Go, it is possible to open and edit word, excel and PowerPoint (I have not tested PPT files). Word and Excel worked well, although my test files were quite simple. This is not the comfiest way to edit documents, but in an emergency, you can at least do something, and that’s worth gold for some users.

Multitasking: It’s a “duh”, but the 9700 can multi-task well, and there’s no problem leaving IM apps running in the background. If you didn’t know, Apple does not allow 3rd party app to run in the background. Btw, the iPhone can multi-thread, it’s just “running in the background” that’s the problem.

Multimedia: 1/Photos gallery: looking at photos is much faster than it was on my 8900, but it is not as nice as doing it on a 3GS, or even better a Zune HD. There’s a search function for photos, but you need to rename the photos as you shoot them to make it useful. 2/ Music playback is very decent and it all a keyword-based search, so it’s good enough in my book. 3/ If you can find mpeg4 videos that are properly formatted, they will play nicely on the Bold 9700. Note that for the music and videos, the speaker does a pretty good job in a quiet environment 4/No YouTube: unlike 100% of the recently tested smartphones, there’s no YouTube application. I can certainly live without it, but it’s good to know.


Video: photo gallery app

Stability: I had a reboot when I was launching the camera with the right side button. I could not reproduce it, but I thought that I would mention it. I got another reboot when I turned WIFI off, then on as well. Overall, I think that Blackberry phones are very stable. It’s certainly not something that I would hold against RIM.

Boot time: Usually, I don’t pay much attention to a phone’s boot time, but in this case, 5mn and 12 seconds is *crazy*. I’m not sure what the thing is doing, it might be becoming self-aware and could be the next Skynet, but in the meantime, I dont have access to phone functions or email.

Battery Life (excellent)

Blackberry 9700 Review

The battery life is simply twice as good as every other smartphone that we reviewed in the past 6 monthsThe battery life is one of the highlights of the Blackberry Bold 9700. With Push-email, WIFI (+UMA) and 3G turned on at all time, the device lasts about 48hours, which is about twice as much as all the smartphones that I’ve tested this quarter. This is just great. In comparison, my Blackberry 8900 has to be charged daily… There is still room for improvement. For example, if you use the GPS, it will stay on even after you close the Maps application. Also, the sleep mode could be improved: not only the screen doesn’t turn off right away when your lock the phone, but it wakes up if you press ANY key. What does RIM think happens in my pocket or in someone’s purse? I’ve heard many stories of Blackberry waking up in the plane, leaving the user with a dead phone upon arrival.

Performance (fastest Blackberry, but…)

The performance of the Blackberry 9700 is much better than my Curve 8900 and than any other BB that I’ve played with, so if that’s where you come from, it will be a nice upgrade. I bet that it is noticeably faster than the original Bold too. When you first turn it on, the 9700 seems just a little faster at first. But as I migrated data and added stuff, I realized that it *doesn’t slow down* like previous Blackberry phone I had – that’s great. I noticed that having a ton of photos on the phone seem to slow it down (especially during the lock/unlock), so keep an eye on that (that’s valid for the 8900 as well).

In the grand scheme of things, apps are still slower than other smartphones like the Droid, or the 3GS. As I said above, maps, Facebook and other apps that I use frequently are slow enough that I wished that I had a 3GS or a Droid at that moment.

I can’t be certain as of “why” it is so slow, but I suspect that Blackberry’s Java virtual machine is slow. Code might even be interpreted instead of compiled, which makes thing even worse. Also, Blackberry would probably suggest that security features make things slow. Regardless of why, they have to work on it and make this faster.

Conclusion

Blackberry 9700 Review

The Bold 9700 is a great workhorse, but it’s behind on the “fun” sideThe Blackberry 9700 is the best Blackberry out there. I have a preference for the T-Mobile version because it has UMA support (Hotspot@Home) and that’s simply awesome, especially for the international traveler (big roaming charges savings!). I use the 9700 as my main phone for a simple reason: I need it to work efficiently. Not only the physical keyboard works very well, but the email app is also excellent, especially when you know the shortcuts. The 9700 also takes good pictures, and that can be important as we all tend to upload and share photos in quasi real-time.

That said, virtually any other recently launched smartphone has better web browsing, better mapping and a better “app” experience in general. The relatively slow application performance on the 9700 can be found pretty much across the board.

At the moment, the 9700 and Blackberry device in general retain enough added-value to do well, their recent quarter just proved it. However, my guess is that the two-phone weilding crowd (usually iPhone+B
B) won’t tolerate paying a second subscription forever.

More questions? Have an opinion? Scroll down and drop a comment. I’ll try to reply asap.

Links

Don’t miss these: iPhone 4 Review, Apple iPad Review, Nexus One Review, Palm Pixi Review, Motorola Droid Review, Nokia N900 Review, iPhone 3GS Review, HTC Hero Review, MyTouch 3G Review/HTC Magic, Nokia N97 Review

Official pages: Blackberry Bold 9700 home page, AT&T Bold 9700, T-Mobile Bold 9700

This article was filed in Homepage > Cellphones > Featured > Reviews > Top Stories and was tagged with BlackBerry, blackberry 9700, blackberry bold, Hands-On, review, RIM and smartphones.
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