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Blackberry Bold 9900 Review

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As the Bold 9900 is the latest smartphone from RIM, it is obviously also the greatest in a long line of QWERTY smartphones. Blackberry users will want to know how it performs as a Blackberry device, and others will want to know how it compares with other smartphones available on the market. We’ll go over all that, but let’s look at how RIM presents the Bold 9900: The “thinnest Blackberry yet”, with “liquid graphics” (whatever that means), “superior performance”, “captures life in HD”, “breakthrough technologies”. Those are… bold claims, but does the Blackberry Bold 9900 Series live up to the marketing pitch? Let’s take a look.Context

Before getting into the review, let me tell you how I use the phone so that you can see where I’m coming from, and why I see things the way I do. We all have different usage patterns, so dogmatic reviews are not that useful to many readers. Instead, I’ll try to give you a good sense of how (and why) things worked for me, and you should be able to figure out if that will work for yourself. If you have more questions by the end of this article, please drop a comment or some feedback. I’ll do my best to address them.

Technical Highlights

2.8” 640×480 multi-touch display (16M colors)
Blackberry 7 OS
1.2GHz processor
8GB of internal storage + MicroSD slot (32GB max)
5 Megapixel rear camera, 720p video recording
GSM+UMTS (9900 model) or CDMA+UMTS (9930 model)
aGPS, WiFi B/G/N
115 x 66 x 10.5mm

External design

The new Blackberry Bold 9900 Series keeps the overall look that has made the previous ones successful. I find the design to be neat, mostly practical and very readable. At first glance, it is easy to distinguish the few areas of the phone: display, physical UI buttons and keyboard. The phone is a little wider than its predecessor, but this size makes it nice to hold in the hand (I use my left hand). My thumb lands naturally on the trackpad, which is frequently used to choose which app I’m going to run.
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Blackberry is using a metallic aluminum frame all around the phone. This is a technique also used by Samsung, LG and Motorola in their resent designs. It works well, and the phone feels very solid and rigid.

On the left side you will find the micro-USB and the audio jack ports. Both are at a relatively elevated position and should not interfere too much with your hand when the phone is connected via USB. Putting the USB port lower was a mistake that has been done in countless phone designs.

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On the right side, the volume and camera buttons are occupying the upper and lower spots. In my opinion, the camera button is a bit superfluous as you can really use it only in portrait mode, which is not the primary option for most users. Also, I happened to press it unintentionally a number of times, but in the end, the user has the option to make it “do nothing” in the settings, so it’s not a big deal.

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While there is no front-facing camera (bye bye video chat), the backside hosts a discrete 5 Megapixel camera with a single LED flash. The battery cover is completely flat (with a carbon fiber texture), which is great if you want to use the phone when it is resting on a table. From a design standpoint, a curved back may have been better, but with a flat back, the user can push keys or tap the screen without inducing a tilt when the phone rests on a table. At the same time, the slight curve visually hides its true thickness of 0.41” (10.5mm), making look even thinner.

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Keyboard (excellent): The keyboard is simply excellent. It is just a tiny bit wider than the previous Bold 9700, but in my opinion the keys feel even better. In short, Blackberry has made the best QWERTY keyboard… even better.

For me, the difference in typing speed is huge, when compared to a touch display. However, Keep in mind that not all QWERTY keyboards are equal. Blackberry’s own “Torch” smartphone keyboard is not as good as the Bold, and other slider phones are even further away. RIM has built an empire on this keyboard, and this is partly why Blackberry phones are still so popular.

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The display quality is very good. It’s crisp and the colors are accurate

Display (very good): The Bold 9900 display is very crisp: it has a pixel density of 287pixels per inch (ppi), which is not as crisp as the iPhone 4’s 326 ppi, but this is still very readable and sharp. Unlike touch smartphones, the screen is used in landscape mode by default (instead of portrait), and the main downside of this is the reduced vertical screen real estate. Lists, documents and web pages are much shorter (see image below).

The Blackberry Bold 9900 has a touch display, which is new for a QWERTY Blackberry Bold. I really like this addition as it makes a number of things easier/faster, while preserving the overall feel and (work) efficiency of the Bold 9700. Being able to tap an element on the screen is often much faster than using the trackpad.

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Having a physical keyboard comes at a steep price: less screen surface

That said, you will have to prepare yourself for the loss of pretty much half the screen real estate when compared to a keyboard-less smartphone (see above image). Readability of apps and web pages will be greatly affected. It’s a very tough choice, but one that may be worth it if you can make it up in keyboard productivity.

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The trackpad and buttons are good, but that surface would be better used for the display

Trackpad: Although the touchscreen makes things like selecting an app much faster, I still like using the trackpad to scroll up and down lists on this Blackberry. I also use it to confirm choices (press OK/ENTER). The optical trackpad quality is high and its accuracy is good. No complaints there.

Basic Functions

Dialing, Contacts (excellent): the Blackberry Bold 9900 is very efficient at dialing numbers or contacts, especially if you have a large number of contacts. There’s no need to launch a “phone app” to dial: just type the number (there’s no need to press the ALT key) and the “call” button, or directly type a contact name (without launching the “Contacts” app). There’s only one way to call someone faster: Android’s desktop “Direct Dial” shortcut.

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Call Audio Quality (OK): During calls, the sound quality in the earpiece was decent, although not particularly good or bad. The sound was loud enough to be used in a somewhat noisy environment like a busy restaurant, which is good. On speaker mode, the speaker was fairly loud and should work in mildly noisy places like busy offices and in the street.

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“Favorites” are a convenient way to sort apps

Favorites: I like the fact that apps can be categorized as “favorties”. I use this feature to categorize the apps that I use the most, so that they end up in a clean Favorites screen for a quick selection. If there are too many apps, I just type a few letters of the name, and the universal search finds the app for me. I would typically not do that as a first option on a pure touch phone, but the QWERTY keyboard makes keyword search very efficient.

World phone: This particular variant of the Blackberry Bold  9900 Series is the 9930, the Verizon/CDMA version. It has a slot for a SIM card and is considered to be a “world phone” because it can work on both UMTS and CDMA networks over the world. When you are outside the USA, you have two options: 1/keep your SIM and use your Verizon number. 2/Buy a local SIM card and use local rates – but your Verizon number is not accessible anymore. It’s great for anyone who travels a lot.

Blackberry OS 7

Blackberry has done a lot of work under the good, and has provided many new application programming interfaces (APIs) to developers, but for the end-user, Blackberry OS7 mostly feels like OS6. That said, there are a few notable differences:

New Web Browser: The new Blackberry browser now has a much higher Javascript performance, can run Adobe Flash and supports HTML5 – at least, in theory. In practice, Adobe Flash is not installed and there is currently no way to download it from the App World (store). It may be available only after the phone starts shipping. We’ll see.

The browser’s web page rendering is very good, and the page loading speed is comparable to competitors on iOS and Android. The only sacrifice that Bold 9900 users have to concede is the display real estate. With a much smaller display surface, even mobile websites are challenging to read. You either miss half of the page, or it is compressed and characters are very tiny.

OpenGL ES 2.0: RIM has finally added support for OpenGL ES 2.0, a programming interface that lets game developer use 3D graphics hardware. That said, there is not much to see at the moment. Only time will tell if the platform will get cool games.

NFC: Near Field Communication is also a new feature. It has appeared on the Nexus S a while back, and as of today, it’s not yet very useful, but in the future, it could be used for payment or information download at kiosks and places like that.

In the end, Blackberry OS7 brings a good share of important improvements, but I would not call them “breakthrough”.

Critical Apps

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Email (Excellent): It’s not surprising, but the email experience on the Blackberry Bold 9900 is nothing short of excellent.

The nice display and the readable font makes it easy on the eye (it does well outdoors too), and the keyboard shortcuts (‘r’ to reply, ‘f’ to forward, shift+’t’ to get to the top of the list…) makes a world of difference to those who handle a lot of emails. Obviously, once the typing has started, the Bold 9900 leaves touch phones in the dust in terms of productivity.

There are things that RIM should improve upon. For example, it is possible to select multiple message for curation. However, the selection only works with contiguous blocks of emails, which is not always efficient. The fix could be as simple as adding a checkbox for each email item so that the user can choose emails randomly before performing a group operation on them.

Blackberry also has a “word substitution” feature that can greatly accelerate your email productivity. For example, I can configure the email app to always replace “ug” by “Ubergizmo” as soon as I type “ug” and press the Space key. Depending on how you build your own acronym system, you may be able to write using “SMS language”, but still end up with proper spelling and grammar. You can replace any text, like “myaddy” for your full address etc…

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Maps (average): The Map application is much faster than the one I tried on the Blackberry Bold 9700, and it mostly gets the job done. That said, we’re very far from Google Maps on Android. Relative to the latest version of Google Maps, the Blackberry Maps app looks a bit antiquated. If you have never used a Blackberry before, the closest comparison would be using Mapquest.com versus Google Maps. Google Maps on recent Android devices is faster, has more features, and phones with bigger screen do provide a larger, more readable map. I have noticed that Google is increasingly taking advantage of Google Maps to differentiate its own platform, which is fair game of course.

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Facebook (average): The Facebook experience is minimal, and although most of the important features (Like, Comment, Share…) are there, the layout and design of the Facebook App are not great. Also, the Facebook photo albums don’t seem to be available from the app. In the end, the app is sufficiently evolved to update your status and check or interact with the news feed, but the user experience isn’t great.

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Google Talk (text only): There is no official (and free) Skype application on Blackberry, but there are a number of paid alternatives that you may look into. In any case, you can forget about video-chats as there is no webcam on the front. I haven’t found a good and free VOIP solution, which is too bad because competing platforms do provide those. Skype or Google Talk can be very handy when traveling overseas, or for saving a buck when calling from a WiFi location.

Blackberry Chat (very good): Blackberry’s own chat software is one of the best apps that RIM ever come with. The main reason is that it comes pre-installed on every Blackberry phone, and it is almost as reliable as SMS among Blackberry users. That said, as RIM’s market share goes down, users should rely on other solutions, such as Google Chat or other IM systems – or maybe SMS. If your contacts are using Blackberry, this is as good as it gets in terms of text messaging, and there’s no cost associated to it.

Photo & Video (Good)

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Photo taken in good lighting conditions with the Bold 9900

In photo/video mode, the Blackberry Bold 9900 is agreeable to use. The shutter reacts quickly and the video mode starts and stops in a timely fashion, which is always nice. The image quality is good on a sunny day, or when there is sufficient lighting. When lighting is dimmer, things get tough pretty quickly, but RIM has tweaked the camera to be usable in low-light: the trade off is that the image will get very grainy (as seen below), but it’s mostly OK if you are going to share it on the web in low-resolution (640×480 or so) as the downscaling of the photo takes out a lot (but not all) of the noise.

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In dim lighting, photos becomes much more noisy – even after a size reduction

The same is pretty much true for video capture. Even in dim lighting, the Bold 9700 pretty much captures what you see, and most of the grain will probably be blurred by the video-compression. Overall, I would say that this is a progress when compared to the previous Bold, and it’s comparable to many recent smartphones out there. But in the grand scheme of things, there’s better -and much worse- out there. But imaging won’t give the 9900 an edge over the competition.

Entertainment

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The Bold 9900 had no problems playing this DVD-quality movie

Video Playback: The Bold 9900 can play DVD-quality MPEG4 files without any problems. I also assume that it can play 720p files (unknown maximum bitrate) as it captures 720p files from its camera. In any case, without video output, playing back HD files is not all that useful, except if you want to avoid video conversion to start with.

Right now, RIM does not have a video store, so finding “legitimate” content may prove more difficult, or at least not as convenient, than platforms which have a built-in media store.

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The game selection is very (very!) small

Games: when it comes to video games, there isn’t much to play with. The game selection in the app store is meager, and right now, I’m not seeing developers running to port/build games to RIM’s platform. The additional handicap of the Bold 9900 is obviously its smaller-sized display. Conventional touch controls may not work as intended, especially two handed controls, as they may require too much space or precise finger motion. If you want a gaming machine – just get something else.

Speaker Quality (very good): in an office environment, the speaker sound is very good. It’s not the loudest that we’ve heard, but the sound stays relatively crisp, even at maximum volume – that’s great for listening to music, although I rarely use the loudspeaker for that purpose. The speaker is placed in  the back, just at the base of the battery cover.

System Performance

The system performance of the Blackberry Bold 9900 is very interesting to look at. Unfortunately, we don’t have many benchmarks to measure it against, but a couple of web Javascript performance benchmarks are always a decent indicator.

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Browsermark, Sunspider: the Javascript the Blackberry Bold 9900 is very high. With a Sunspider score of 2703ms, it is the fastest Javascript execution that I have seen to date.

The BrowserMark* score is also remarkable, as it equals phones equipped with the dual-core Tegra 2 processor, which have been dominating that particular benchmark as of late. *Due to the lower screen resolution, I’m not 100% sure that this benchmark is working on the same number of pixels, so take this with a grain of salt.

Keep in mind that Javascript performance is a factor of hardware AND software optimizations. Great strides have been made in recent years in regards to Javascript engines, and without more synthetic benchmarks to run, it is difficult to tell how much the hardware and the software are contributing, respectively.

Perceived performance

Overall, my perception of the performance is that the Bold 9900 responds quickly to commands, and I have not experienced have any particular issue in regards to responsiveness, even after using it for some time. The web browsing speed is comparable to modern Android and iOS devices. I find the user interface to scroll faster than Android devices, which is great. We are in iPhone 4 or Windows Phone 7 territory here.

Battery Life (excellent)

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With my particular usage pattern (see the “Context” paragraph), I found the battery life to be excellent as the phone can stay alive for a couple of days. Other people have reported in blogs and/or forums that they got a lot less, but it’s hard to comment on that without knowing how they use the phone, and what apps are running in the background. Overall, the Bold 9900 feels very similar to the 9700 in terms of battery life – and both are excellent.

I have run a couple of apps for 30mn to see how much battery life they would consume, and the results are below. Note that usually I also try a game, but there was not much to chose from, so I skipped that part. The YouTube battery life is a bit better than what most smartphones would get, but keep in mind that the display has less pixels (640×480) than most modern smartphones.

30mn of Youtube video (WiFi, no sound): 8% battery life spent
30 mn of web browsing (WiFi): 10% battery life spent

Conclusion (great for communication, lacks entertainment skills)

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Great! The Blackberry Bold 9900 represents the pinnacle of Blackberry QWERTY design, there’s no question about that. The Bold 9900 improves upon the Bold 9700 with an even better keyboard, much better web page rendering and high-speed javascript execution. All of that is in a chassis that is better and smaller.

But… However, the Bold 9900 also has the same weaknesses than the 9700 had. It’s display is small, and when compared to the best smartphone competitors, it still does not prevail when it comes to Mapping, Facebook, Skype or gaming. In fact, the Blackberry application eco-system is currently too small, so it may not find support from some the most popular services like Netflix, Hulu… I think that RIM still has some room to make the display surface 30% to 50% larger (640×640 should be a minimum)

For who? Without a doubt, the Blackberry Bold 9900 is the king of text communications, but this won’t make it the king of smartphones as computing has moved well beyond the “productivity” aspect of people’s lives. The Bold 9900 is a great phone IF your live gravitates around communication, but there’s better choices out there for gaming and entertainment.

Hopefully, this review will have provided you with enough information to make an educated decision. If there is something that I have not covered yet, please drop a comment and I’ll do my best to reply while I still have the phone with me. This also helps us write better reviews. Thanks for stopping by!

Links

You can find more information at the official Blackberry Bold 9900 homepage, and the Blackberry OS 7 page.

You may also be interested by the following reviews: Samsung Galaxy S2 Review,  Motorola Photon 4G Review (very good email experience), HTC Sensation Review (great overall phone), iPhone 4 Review. Head to our review category page for more reviews.

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