When Apple introduced the iPhone in January 2007, some commentators were quick to write obituaries for the BlackBerry. Three years later, and Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes the BlackBerry, has proved all its sceptics wrong.
The BlackBerry Bold 9700, the follow-up to the already-popular Bold 9000, is Rim’s crowning achievement to date. In the 9700, which went on sale in SA last week, the company has created arguably the world’s best smartphone with a keyboard.
If you’re a Bold 9000 user, the first thing you’ll notice about the 9700 is its size. Rim has managed to squeeze the (improved) electronics into a smaller form factor. As a result, the 122g phone fits snugly in a shirt pocket.
The new device comes with version 5.0 of the BlackBerry operating system. Refinements to the software, plus a new, 624MHz processor powering the 9700, have done wonders for its performance over its predecessor. Flipping between applications — yes, unlike the iPhone, BlackBerrys support multitasking — is virtually instantaneous.
Other improvements over the 9000 include a new optical trackpad, instead of the trackball that many people, including this reviewer, strongly disliked, as well as a brighter screen and improved battery life. Rim claims the 9700 will let you talk for more than six hours before the battery needs rejuicing. In moderate use, we got about two days out of the battery before it went flat — roughly twice as good as the iPhone.
The hardware in the 9700 is pretty standard for a high-end smartphone: 3G HSDPA, integrated GPS (assisted) with maps (though no turn-by-turn navigation), Wi-Fi, 3,2-megapixel camera, 3,5mm audio jack and light-sensing, 480×360-pixel LCD screen. It doesn’t have an accelerometer (motion sensor) to detect the phone’s orientation, though it isn’t really needed.
Then there’s the BlackBerry App World where you can download applications for the device. Content is fairly limited, though, and SA users can only download free apps for now. Paid apps are apparently coming.
The 122g 9700 has a solid build, though the black plastic above the screen scratches fairly easily.
When it comes to the integrated software, the 9700 really shines. Rim has done great work with version 5.0 of the BlackBerry OS. Once you’re subscribed to the BlackBerry Internet Service — R59/month from Vodacom or MTN — setting up services like push e-mail and instant messaging (IM) is a cinch.
In fact, the BlackBerry’s implementation of instant messaging (IM) — you can download applications for Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger and other services — is by far the best we’ve seen on any phone. Even if you leave your IM app open all the time, it has little impact on battery life. This is almost guaranteed to slash the amount of money you spend sending text messages.
Some areas of the 9700 still need improvement. The integrated Web browser has been upgraded from previous versions, but it still needs a lot of work. We installed Opera Mini 5 from Norway’s Opera Software instead.
We’d also like to see more flash memory in the device so it can double as a multimedia player like the iPhone. The 9700 plays music and video very well, but there’s simply insufficient built-in storage — it has 256MB of memory — to keep your music on the device. However, storage can be expanded to 16GB using microSD cards.
Another gripe is the keyboard. It’s generally good, though the “shift” and “alt” keys should have been reversed like they are on a regular computer keyboard. The odd positioning means we kept hitting the “alt” button when trying to capitalise a letter.
Lastly — and this is a serious problem — our review device lost connectivity to the cellular network at least once a day during testing. The only way to restore it was through a hard reboot that involved removing and reinserting the battery. We Googled the issue, and it doesn’t seem to be a common problem with the 9700. Other SA journalists reviewing the phone haven’t experienced this problem so we’re guessing — though we’re not 100% sure — that it was our specific review phone that was faulty.
These problems aside, Rim has made major advances with the BlackBerry in recent years. Its recent Storm 2 device — its direct answer to the iPhone — and the Bold 9700 are both superb smartphones.
A few years ago, BlackBerrys were devices used mainly by corporate nerds. Today, the phones are enjoying broad consumer appeal. Dare we suggest that they’re becoming cool? Given the intense competition from Apple and other smartphone manufacturers, that’s quite an achievement. — Duncan McLeod, TechCentral