Canadian handset manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM) has produced the BlackBerry Bold Touch 9900; the love-child of the excellent Bold range and the newer Torch full-touchscreen range of BlackBerry smartphones.
At first glance, it looks like (and turns out to be) a fairly normal BlackBerry device, with signs of subtle aesthetic and construction improvements that have been creeping through the Bold range over the years.
The immediately noticeable major features of the phone are the 2.8-inch touchscreen, the great QWERTY keyboard, and the latest BlackBerry OS 7.
On the outside
The Bold Touch 9900 is noticeably larger than the previous entrants in the Bold range, accommodating the 2.8-inch, 640×480 resolution TFT capacitive touchscreen. Measuring in at 115x66x10.5mm and weighing 130g, it should fit comfortably in most hands with a reassuring heft, and unobtrusively in most pockets.
The touchscreen fills the top portion of the device. It showed off a crisp and clear UI thanks to the resolution, and performed admirably in direct sunlight. The touch interface was nice and responsive, with no discernible lag from the underlying system.
Interacting with the device via the screen will likely be intuitive to anyone familiar with a BlackBerry, and easy enough for first-timers to pick up. Browsing was improved by the touchscreen, and it makes use of pinch/pull zoom gestures.
Beneath the touchscreen is the standard layout of BlackBerry function keys (answer/confirm, menu, back, hang up/cancel) which are presented as a single panel of buttons with only the trusty optical navigation trackpad breaking up the panel.
Not much can be said about the optical trackpad for those already familiar with it; those who aren’t can rest assured that it is one of the best physical navigation devices available on a phone, and it will likely weather countless hours of use.
The function buttons are white backlit, and the trackpad is backlit around its perimeter.
The lower portion of the device is dominated by the QWERTY keyboard, which has benefited from the wider proportions of the Bold Touch 9900. The keyboard is larger than one will find on any other current BlackBerry (unless you are hanging on to your original Bold) and it is also the most pleasant to use.
The slightly larger keys are just so much more of a pleasure to work with than those on a Bold 9700/9780 for example, and mistypes were less frequent. The keys feature a slightly raised and curved design which seems to cleverly prevent thumbs from straying from their target, and all but the manliest of thumbs should have little trouble working the keyboard.
Typing can be done rather quickly, and I had no trouble rapidly knocking off lengthy e-mails; a feat which may prove challenging for touchscreen-only counterparts. Key press travel is shallow, but enough to let you know you have done something, in concert with a subtle click. Silver chromed plastic divides the key rows.
The Bold Touch 9900 has moved the Bold range into the era of aluminium bezel, with a solid strip of the brushed metal encircling the perimeter of the front half of the phone. This gives it a nice rugged feel, and a modern aesthetic touch.
On the upper right side of the device are protruding volume buttons, conveniently positioned just where your thumb will be when wielding the device right-handed; easy enough to find without having to look. Between them is a mute key for media playback.
The camera shutter button is positioned on the lower right, and it too protrudes from the bezel – a little too much actually. I lost count of the number of times the camera was activated when I pulled the phone from my pocket, or the button was inadvertently pressed when picking it up from a table.
On the upper left side is the 3.5mm headphone jack and the miniUSB 2.0 charging and data transfer port.
The rear portion of the phone tapers with soft-touch plastic towards the flat rear cover,under which one finds the battery, SIM and MicroSD slots. The rear cover appears to be plastic masquerading as carbon fibre.
The cover lifts off with ease, and secures firmly back in place, although the clips do appear frighteningly slim. However, due to the design, they should not be taking any serious impacts during daily use. Annoyingly, and unlike its brothers in the Bold 9700 range, the Micro SD slot is occluded by the battery.
Black with aluminium bezel are your only colour options on this one. Overall, the build quality is up to the usual standard of RIM’s high-end devices and unless mistreated, the Bold Touch 9900 should serve many years.
On the inside
The Bold Touch 9900 is one of the most powerful phones RIM has produced, boasting a 1.2GHz Qualcomm 8655 processor, 768MB RAM and 8GB of on board storage. A MicroSD card (up to 32GB supported) is not included in the package, but 8GB should be enough to get one started.
The processing power is appreciated and BlackBerry OS 7 runs smoothly and responsively, with enough RAM to go around for most multi-tasking applications.
As one would expect with a high-end smartphone, it boasts a full-house of connectivity and hardware features: Near-Field Communication support; HSDPA; dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n; Bluetooth; GPS; proximity sensor; accelerometer; 5 Megapixel with LED flash. An FM radio tuner is still a slightly disappointing missing feature on BlackBerry phones.
The camera takes perfectly reasonable photographs for happy-snap occasions; as with most cellphone cameras, one will not likely be producing LIFE magazine spreads.
It also boasts another first for BlackBerry – 720p video recording. The camera does not use auto-focus, but Extended Depth of Field, meaning that (technically) everything should be in focus at all times. Sadly, it is not great at close-ups. 720p playback on the phone ran smoothly.
Although our review unit did not come with one to test, the Bold 9900 uses the magnetised phone holster that functions as an extension of the phone, shutting off the screen and key back-lighting when holstered, and lighting up, opening messages and silencing rings when removed.
Battery life is a claimed 307 hours in standby, 6.5 hours talk time, and 50 hours music playback. Through regular use including numerous phone calls, text and instant messaging, e-mailing, web browsing and a couple of snapshots, the phone will just about get you through a full work day with juice to spare for you morning alarm.
Depending on usage, two days of use could be squeezed out of it, but more often than not, it needed a charge each evening. The touchscreen is likely a large drain on the device.
As one would expect from a high-end RIM device, call quality is good and the speakers aren’t lacking. The rear loudspeaker used for audio playback is fair enough for one crammed into a cellphone.
BlackBerry OS 7
The Bold Touch 9900 ships with RIMs latest operating system – BlackBerry OS version 7. Despite the full leap in version number, BB OS 7 appears to be more of an overhaul than an entirely new version. Visually, the only real difference over OS 6 is the use of higher resolution icons, and the interface remains largely the same.
The boot time of the device is rather quick, and once loaded, everything is responsive and snappy, and slowdowns weren’t experienced.
In terms of features, not much has changed. The browser has been tweaked a bit, and it functions well. Some corporate security features have been added to keep certain data away from data-hoarding web services such as Facebook.
Voice searching has been added, but I found it irritating. One has to touch or select the search icon, then again a microphone icon, then issue the voice search terms, then touch or select a confirmation. Then you have to hope you get the right search result – perhaps my outrageous South African accent confused the device. More often than not, the wrong results were returned, or so many potential results were dished up to be filtered through, that it all but negated any feasible convenience voice searching may have. I can simply navigate, or type search terms faster.
The same goes for the voice activated dialler – it rarely returned correct results. To avoid speaking to your phone like a raving lunatic, one should just use the traditional methods for bringing up contacts.
A flashlight function is bafflingly excluded, despite the fact that one can use the same LED light for recording video as a substitute in a pinch.
As always, the e-mail and messaging services are fantastic; easy to setup and function seamlessly. Migrating data from another BlackBerry device to the Bold Touch 9900 proved to be quick and painless.
The device UI guides one through the process of setting up e-mail accounts for use with the BIS push e-mail service, making setup relatively straightforward and hassle free. Once again, the simplicity and functionality of the BlackBerry shows why it is such a popular smartphone. It simply works – does its job without a fuss and with dependability.
The device has good media file support, with most audio and video formats supported (no *.mkv though). Most of the common file types passed around in day-to-day business can be opened up directly from e-mails. There is also no Flash support; this is slated for RIMs next generation OS – QNX.
QNX is set to provide RIM with a common platform across its range of devices, including their burgeoning tablet PC offerings. RIM has previously confirmed that BlackBerry 7 devices won’t get an upgrade to the QNX OS. However, RIM said that they will iterate and evolve BlackBerry 7 OS during its lifespan. QNX is tentatively set to make its first appearance sometime in 2012.
The Bold Touch 9900 was recently launched in South Africa, with Vodacom putting forward launch pricing at R7,694 on prepaid, and the (perhaps slightly more reasonable) 24 month BlackBerry Talk 100 contract for R449 per month.
This could be the biggest sticking point for the device which at those prices is up against some seriously stiff (and slightly less expensive) competition in the smartphone space, such as the Samsung Galaxy S2, HTC Sensation and the venerable iPhone 4.
There is no disputing that the Bold Touch 9900 is a high quality device, complete with the attractive messaging features that helped BlackBerry get to where it is today. However, BlackBerry OS 7 is on shaky ground – yes, it’s functional and not entirely ugly, but it just doesn’t seem to be keeping up with the strides made by competitors running functional, attractive and fun operating systems such as the prolific Android and Apple’s iOS.
BlackBerry and RIM still have their hooks into the business market, with IT departments loathe to move away from the secure and stable BlackBerry Enterprise Service systems in place. In South Africa, RIM enjoys good consumer penetration thanks to appealing flat-rated internet and messaging.
Only time and sales figures will tell if the new range of BlackBerry OS 7 devices, led by the Bold Touch 9900 in South Africa, can serve as the stopgap the company needs.