Review: Blackberry Bold 9900 – The Best Blackberry Yet?

RIM, and the Blackberry brand, has been having a tough few months recently. They had the worldwide service outage, and the Blackberry brand has been having a tough few years trying to keep up with other handset makers. But after years of playing catch-up, the Bold 9900 looks to change that.
Modern smartphones have all switched to touch screens, which has made things difficult for RIM. Blackberry fans are typically quite picky about one thing ““ the keyboard. While the Torch 9800 did a good job of combining a touch screen with a keyboard, there was always a few fans out there who stubbornly chose the Bold for its keyboard““focussed design. But the Bold 9900 has the best of both worlds. You can just use the keyboard, or run it primarily using touch (except for text entry).
RIM also decided to let go of the staid, boring designs of most Blackberry devices, and blessed the 9900 with some great looks that will put most smartphones to shame.
So, is this the ultimate Blackberry?
Design and Build:
In a word: Stunning.
And no, I am not a crackberry addict. I am fairly picky about the way high end phones should be put together, and the Bold 9900 looks and feels great. If you are someone who likes their phones to ooze class, the Bold 9900 might suit you perfectly. The Bold 9900 has a great looking brushed steel edge which lends an incredibly solid feel to the device. The front‘s top half is dominated by the capacitative glass screen, and the bottom is home to a great feeling thumb-keyboard.

The buttons have a good feel to them, with plenty of feedback. It is wider than the Torch‘s keyboard, so typing is actually a lot more comfortable. The layout is the same as most Blackberry keyboards, and all the same shortcuts work, so the Blackberry fans should be right at home.

On the rear of the device you will find a rubberized raised edges which gives good grip, and a carbon fibre look battery cover (it looks pretty legit, it might be real?). What I like about the battery cover is that it is a very resilient rubberized plastic, so moving the Bold around on a table does not result in scratches.
On the top of the device you will find the sleep/unlock button which is slightly recessed. On the one left side there is a micro-USB and headphone jack. On the right side you will find three buttons grouped together to change volume and pause music or videos. There is also the convenience button which is set to fire up the camera by default. More on that later. The overall design is thin and wide, and is in fact the widest Blackberry yet. The raised edges also makes the device look like it floats when it is put down on a table.
What RIM managed to pull off with Bold 9900 hardware is pretty great ““ it feels very high class (read: expensive), but it is not fragile (like some other steel-rimmed devices…). While the steel rim might dent with a hard fall, the choice of materials will look good for a long time. In terms of design, there is very little to fault on the Bold 9900.

The Blackberry Bold 9900 has a great looking screen ““ it carries a 640 x 480 pixel, 2.8 inch panel. Yes, 2.8 inches is small compared to most new smartphones, but the brilliant resolution really makes for a great display. Just like the iPhone 4, you will have a tough time actually seeing individual pixels. Viewing angles are great, and display can be set to a very high setting, which I never used. It might be handy for direct sunlight viewing though.
The big news is that this is the first Bold to carry a touch screen ““ and it takes some getting used to. In  fact you can merrily use the Bold 9900 by never having to touch the screen. So you have the very same trackpad based controls. But when you do touch that screen, it works well enough. Like I mentioned, the display is smaller than other touch phones, but RIM luckily made the controls on screen large enough to touch with your fingers, despite looking very similar to previous Blackberry interfaces.
Performance, Battery Life:
RIM has always traditionally very slow with equipping their phones with decent specs. Yes, they might control the software stack as well, but the anaemic processors of past Blackberrys was starting to create problems for the brand in the new smartphone spec race.
This time, RIM brought the goods. The Bold 9900 runs on a single core 1.2 GHz processors, and 768 MB of RAM. While not quite Galaxy S2 matching specs (see our review here), it is a massive jump from older Blackberry devices. You also get 8GB of internal memory which can be expanded with microSD cards, so you have plenty of place to store your media. There is even NFC (Near Field Communication) capabilities built in, even though it might not be particularly useful right now. If you lift off the battery cover you will see the NFC antenna coil built into it.
This new 1.2 GHz processor means the phone never feels slow. Even though we never had problems with the Torch 9800 (see our review here), the Bold 9900 really makes it feel very old and slow. (Strange how technology does this sometimes…) The interface just speeds along and web browsing has gotten a welcome upgrade in rendering performance. We did have some occasional slowdowns when installing apps from the appstore, so we hope RIM will fix this software going forward.
Battery life was not as great as past Blackberry phones however. While the Torch 9800 and previous Bolds could easily last a few hard working days, the Bold 9900 had a tough time reaching more than a day when worked hard. It might have something to do with new faster 1.2 GHz processor, but also the fact that the Bold 9900 has a smaller battery than any previous Bold. Expect to charge this phone every night. While the battery life is not worse than most smartphones, it is a definite step down from other Blackberry phones.
In terms of data speeds it is definately fster than previous Blackberry phones. While it might support HSDPA and HSUPA, you might be held up by how busy the Blackberry servers are at any point in time. Fast yes, but it could be faster. You will also find Bluetooth and GPS, so expect networks like Vodacom bundling their Vodafone Navigation software on the device. Right now, the built in Blackberry Maps software is a joke, and should be taken out back and shot.
Oh yeah, sometimes we forget first and foremost these are phones. This is also one area where Blackberry does not compromise. Voice quality and phone performance was first rate. The speakerphone was also very loud, which is always great.

The camera has a 5MP sensor, and a fixed focus lens, which disappointed me somewhat. While normal photos in decent light looked great, I do miss some macro shot ability. The close up function did not work to well.
But this is a phone, and not a camera. One area it shined was the speed of the camera. Clicking the camera button launched the camera interface very quickly, and there was almost no shutter lag. So catching a photo at the right moment will be great with the Bold 9900. Video recording is pretty good. The Bold 9900 can record at 720p, so they look pretty great. But keep an eye on storage, those videos eat up plenty of megabytes.
So the big news is that the Bold 9900 ships with Blackberry OS 7. Great! But do not get too excited ““ if you have been using an OS 6 device, you will not see a lot of changes. Sure, there is some new pretty icons, but overall you will not get the 9900 for the OS. The one change you do notice is that the software runs a lot faster. This can be ascribed to the new faster processor, but you get a feeling that this time round the OS has been optimised for speed.
But we are now living in the age of App stores, so this is where Blackberry really needs to make bigger strides. Blackberry Appworld is currently very poorly stocked. I had trouble finding most of the apps I typically install on smartphones, and the appworld interface is absolutely terrible. Blackberry recently upgraded the appworld store, but to be honest, most of the changes do nothing but put lipstick on a pig. There are some great software in the store though, and many of the RIM-developed apps really work well. For example, Blackberry Protect is a great addition and it is good to see that it is pre-installed on the phone.
But this is a Blackberry ““ so there is one thing it should excel at: E-Mail. The Bold 9900 is a great messaging device. The keyboard means you can crank out emails much faster than most  smartphones, and you can see this is the one place RIM really does not compromise. Registering the device with your corporate servers is still as great as always, and emails get pushed to your device very quickly.
I did have some trouble registering the device with my standard Gmail account however, so I was forced to use the Gmail app, which did the job (but Google is now planning on dropping support for this app). The built in Gmail client could not get access to my gmail account because it says my IMAP was not on, which was not the case. But RIM might want to get together with Google, and figure out an easier way to get Gmail set up on the device.
Final Points:

People are hard on Blackberry, and yes, they have it coming. But it is good to see that RIM has not quite given up yet. The Bold 9900 is a first rate device we will easily recommend to any Blackberry fan, or someone who has no experience with smartphones. The build quality is quite easily the best on the market. But compared to other smartphones it becomes a difficult proposition. While the hardware and performance is great, the lack of a thriving third party app marketplace is really starting to count against Blackberry. While the essentials are there, real power users will need a lot of convincing to switch to the 9900 from other smartphones.
But comparing Blackberry devices to other smartphones typically does ignore one thing – cheap data costs. Blackberry is still the only device to make one really just stop worrying about the cost of data. Yes, it has had its problems, but for a low monthly fee, BIS and BES still makes the Blackberry a great value proposition. My previous review of the Torch said the following, which I called the “Aha-moment”:

Want to constantly check your mail, or twitter feed? Feel free. This is the part that made me fall in love with the Blackberry. Similiar to the way Mweb almost liberated SA internet users with uncapped usage, the Blackberry makes you just use your device without worrying about finding wifi networks or thinking the whole time about how much something will cost in terms of data.
So even though other smartphones might sport mightier specs or sleeker shapes, the lack of worry that a Blackberry gives you really does free the user up to use the phone much more effectively.

And that “aha moment” is still very much there.
All in all the Bold 9900 is the best Blackberry yet, and it will convince a few people to stick to the Blackberry brand name, but also gives one some hope for future Blackberry phones. Keep it up RIM.
Build: 10/10
Display: 7/10
Performance: 8/10
Connectivity: 7/10
Software: 6/10
Overall: 8/10
Pros: Beautiful, solid design. Resilient build. Good overall performance. Great keyboard.
Cons: Screen might be too small for some. Terrible choice of third party apps. Camera is fixed focus only.
Image credit: Thanks Lostinmobile (still have to get a proper macro lens)