Reviews

BlackBerry Bold 9900 review: First Look

Hardware-accelerated graphics and browsing come to the thinnest ever BlackBerry in the new touchscreen Bold, in addition to greater control over the security of business data. We find out whether the Bold 9900 lives up to its claims in this first look review...

RIM's latest smartphone might be headed for an identity crisis. Its parent wants the Bold 9900 to look and feel like the classic BlackBerry Bold, only better. It also wants the device to have the same luxury feel as, say, the iPhone, with sculpted keys and glass and brushed aluminium in the thinner, lighter case.

To the untrained eye, it still looks and feels like a Bold of old, with important characteristics such as a removable battery. Today's model now certainly feels like a sleek and premium device.

BB Bold 9900 front

Familiar but sleeker, the BlackBerry Bold 9900 is less of the same (thinner and lighter) as well as more (faster and with better browsing).

Despite running the beta version of the new BlackBerry 7 OS the user experience is fast, fluid and, for the most part, responsive, whether you're touching the 2.8in VGA capacitive screen or giving the keyboard a workout.

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BlackBerry 7 OS looks much like the previous version, but with more colourful icons. You also get the option of turning off any of the panes on the home screen that automatically organise icons. That way, if you don't use the favourites pane you can switch it off.

Despite running the beta version of the new BlackBerry 7 OS the user experience is fast, fluid and, for the most part, responsive.

However, you can't create extra panes yourself, so the main way to organise apps is still by creating folders and moving icons around by hand. As your app collection grows things become less manageable.

Manage front screen

You can turn off any of the sliding panes on the homescreen in BlackBerry 7 OS.

Existing BlackBerry apps will all work, but if they're specifically designed for different screen resolutions they will look odd until they're updated. The universal search is in the same place in the user interface but now works with voice as well as searches you type in. Unfortunately, the room we tested the Bold 9900 in was noisy so it didn't work perfectly every time. If you're somewhere quieter you should be able to search without typing fairly successfully though.

It's a shame that BlackBerry 7 OS won't be available as an upgrade for older handsets because it relies so much on GPU hardware acceleration and the 1.2GHz processor in the Bold 9900. But that's the price you sometimes pay for progress.

The new Bold has a proximity sensor, magnetometer compass and a gyroscope. There's also GPS, which will enable augmented reality apps to come to life. Indeed, the Bold 9900 will come with a version of Wikitude that will identify both places and people from your address book on screen).

The device's NFC capability may prove the real draw for many users. So far we've only seen demos of tapping the BlackBerry onto a tag to see content on screen but this will also be integrated with the BlackBerry payments platform. And that's going to work with the single sign-on based on BlackBerry ID too. In addition to opening up access to BlackBerry App World, BlackBerry ID lets you sign in once to BlackBerry Messenger, Facebook and Twitter and should make switching from one BlackBerry to another easier. Initially though, it's just for consumer apps.

The five megapixel camera promises image stabilisation, which should come in handy for the 720p video recording mode. And the audio recording is as excellent as it is on the Pearl 3G.

The device's NFC capability may prove the real draw for many users.

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Photos and videos look great on the lavish 2.8in screen. At 287dpi, it isn't a retina' display and because of the size of the keyboard it's still a smaller display than purely touch screen devices, but it is bright, clear and vivid.

BB Bold rear

A five megapixel snapper can be found on the rear of the Bold 9900. The hardware acceleration from the new GPU makes HD video playback very smooth, with clear detail, but it makes the rest of the interface more responsive too. It also makes for a faster web browsing experience, both for loading pages, including HTML5 video, and running JavaScript using the new Just In Time compiler (the same approach to speeding up JavaScript performance we're seeing on the latest desktop browsers).

Despite the speed of the processor, the Bold 9900 doesn't get Flash support though. For now, such an honour is still reserved for the PlayBook.

That said, the browser is where the beta software still has problems. We found it would occasionally hang or crash during our brief hands-on session. RIM says it is working on remedying this and the devices at this week's BlackBerry conference will be getting an update imminently.

When it does work, sites load quickly and look good and you can pinch and zoom smoothly to focus in and out of pages. Despite the speed of the processor, the Bold 9900 doesn't get Flash support though. For now, such an honour is still reserved for the PlayBook.

The hardware-accelerated rendering worked more reliably in the full version of Docs To Go, which opens large PDFs, Excel spreadsheets, Word documents and PowerPoint presentations quickly. You can zoom in far faster it's not just that pinch zoom is faster than pulling up the menu, the document displays faster on screen too.

Docs to Go

Docs To Go makes great use of the GPU acceleration to open and zoom in/out of large PDFs and spreadsheets. Developers will be able to use the hardware acceleration, but they'll have to add it if they want quicker apps.

Balancing what users want with data security means RIM often gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

The new Facebook application included with BlackBerry OS 7 adds Facebook chat, which Android and iPhone devices already have. What's nice on the BlackBerry though is how well it integrates into the OS so you don't have to stay in the rather crowded Facebook app to keep chatting.

You can see replies in the unified inbox or as notifications on the home screen, so you can get on with other things while you carry on the conversation. That's the kind of multitasking the BlackBerry still does better than many platforms.

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On the other hand the app is initially confusing. Instead of using the usual menu key - which brings up some commands - you have to tap the Facebook logo to open a pane of the features, including chat.

But the Bold 9900 also comes with the new BlackBerry Balance app pre-installed (this also works on BlackBerry OS 6 devices as long as you have BES or BES Express 5.0.3). You still get the Facebook app and an inbox and calendar that can integrate messages from all your services, but administrators can choose whether users can copy information from email or enterprise documents into Facebook, Twitter, Hotmail, Gmail and other personal apps on the handset. If users try, they get an error message telling them it's blocked rather than wondering why it doesn't work. It can also block forwarding from business email to personal accounts and warn users if they're adding someone outside the company to an address list.

Bold Facebook menu

Facebook chat: replies will show up in your inbox and notifications but you have to find this menu to start a conversation in the first place. When employees leave, administrators can delete the enterprise email account and data without affecting personal content like photos. If the BlackBerry is lost data can also be wiped remotely.

Like other BlackBerry handsets, if you implement the BlackBerry Mobile Voice System in your business the new Bold will let you dial internal extensions and make calls over Wi-Fi. What's new is that MVS 5 can now integrate with Avaya and Nortel PBXs as well as Cisco.

When employees leave, administrators can delete the enterprise email account and data without affecting personal content like photos.

Administrators will also like the ability to manage Android and iOS devices from the same BES web console they use for BlackBerrys later this year. While that doesn't give other devices BlackBerry features like Balance, it does mean you can activate, lock or wipe different kinds of phones from the same interface.

So what are our first impressions?

Verdict

The BlackBerry Bold family has plenty of fans and they'll no doubt be welcoming to this latest arrival. The Bold 9900 is thinner and lighter with a better screen and great keyboard. It's faster and more responsive and the UI looks more colourul and appealing. There are a few dramatic changes users will have to become accustomed to but, in essence, the BlackBerry Bold still means business. Now, users can just have a little more fun with it too.

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