BlackBerry Bold: the DEFINITIVE hands-on review

BlackBerry Bold: the DEFINITIVE hands-on review


Design

The photos should already tell the story – this is the slickest-looking BlackBerry ever. The Bold represents an all-new ID (industrial design) that’s also earmarked for the ‘Javelin’ (the next-gen Curve due later this year).

The Bold draws its DNA from the existing Curve and 8800 series. From the former you get well curves – something to soften the brick-like shape of the 8800 which dictates more the actual dimensions of the chassis as well as the style of keyboard (something we’ll go into later). The cambers of the Bold are however more elegant than those of the Curve something you don’t notice until you put these two smartphones side by side.

The Curve has exaggerated roundings at the top and bottom while the corners are more angled than curved. The Bold has a slightly gentler slope on the top and bottom but far more fluid curves at each corner. And while the Curve’s cross-section is in fact that of a slab (the shape is de-emphasised by the Curve’s soft black side insets) the Bold’s rear panel arcs tapers in.

The net effect of these organic flourishes is that while the Bold is larger than the Curve in almost every dimension (and a fraction heavier at 133 grams against 110 grams) you quickly stop noticing the size differential one the Bold is parked in your paw. It sits in your hand almost like it belongs there.

(The iPhone exhibits almost the exact same traits to achieve that exact same degree of natural ‘holdability’. While I’d prefer to suggest this is a case of convergent evolution one would be a fool to imagine that RIM’s designers didn’t study the iPhone and take away some learnings from it. Any smartphone designer who didn’t would be guilty of equal parts negligence and arrogance).

The rear panel covering the battery is rendered in a soft textured ‘leatherette’ material which enhances the Bold’s hand-friendliness. A silver-coloured plastic strip runs around the circumference of the Bold separating the fascia from the back panel. This is a common designer’s trick to make a device with a dark or black face look smaller and it’s also something you can see on the iPhone.

Keyboard

RIM has two styles of keyboard for its full QWERTY BlackBerrys (discounting the hybrid ‘SureType’ pattern of the Pearl). The Curve sports individual keys while the 8800 series removes the gap between each key so they’re all nestled tight next to one another.

Most BlackBerry users cite this as a key advantage of the Curve. Yet while the Bold adopts the 8800-style keyboard RIM has somehow finessed the design to make it far more usable. Each keypress is soft without being squishy and a little quieter than when you’re tapping away on the Curve.

The Curve still has the edge in speed and accuracy but the Bold closes the gap to the point where it’s almost a non-issue. Users of the 8800 series will take to the Bold like ducks to water while Curve loyalists should need only a little time to become converts (or at least comfortable with the new layout).

The four main control buttons – Send End Back and to activate the BlackBerry menu – are oversized and incorporated into the fascia between the panel and keyboard rather than being discrete buttons. This we liked. However we found the now mandatory ‘pearl’ trackball a little less easy to use than on the Curve. The Bold’s pointing pea actually sits higher than that of the Curve but the Curve’s is more recessed and surrounded by a concave well which seemed to give us a little more traction on the Curve’s navball compared to that of the Bold.

Screen

Welcome to the Bold’s Killer Feature #1. Let’s try to get all the adjectives out of the way: big sharp rich vivid vibrant. The screen is all of those and the next few lines of the Thesuarus as well. Even at relatively low brightness levels there’s still plenty of punch behind the pixels (the red LED which alerts you to new messages has also been wound up – if it was any brighter you could use it for laser eye surgery).

The 2.6 inch panel is only a smidge larger than the Curve’s 2.4in panel when measured diagonally but the width is upsized to 2.25in against the Curve’s 1.5in with resolution kicked up to half VGA (480 x 320) over the 320 x 240 of the Curve and 8800. Put your current BlackBerry next to the Bold and you’ll have to fight the impulse to reach for your wallet.

The Bold makes smart use of the extra screen real estate and increased resolution by revamping the UI with larger icons and a more elegant and rounded system font (you also now get a live preview of the selected font before committing to your choice).

In fact we’d rate the Bold’s screen as superior to that of the iPhone – because while they have the same resolution the Bold’s smaller panel makes for higher pixel density (240ppi over 165ppi if you must know). Of course we’d rather actually use the iPhone’s larger and more panoramic display.

User interface

The screen is complemented by the new look of the BlackBerry OS 4.6. This is two revision points ahead of the current 4.4.x generation and has been fine-tuned for the Bold’s higher resolution (OS 4.5 brings many of the core features to existing BlackBerry devices but you’ll have to wait for your carrier to offer the OS and we’d suggest you don’t hold your breath).

The slick UI of the Bold comes courtesy of BlackBerry OS 4.6 and its new ‘Precision’ visual style

4.6 introduces a new visual style named ‘Precision’ which is to the BlackBerry OS what Luna and Aero are to Windows XP and Vista and Aqua to the Mac OS X. The default Precision Zen theme is similar to the familiar Dimension Zen theme but arrays six icons along the bottom of the screen dock-style rather than running them along the left side of the display. The only other choice Precision Silver removes the colour from all icons bar the currently selected one.

But while you can set a wallpaper for the Bold’s home screen once you dive into the full set of application icons (by clicking the BlackBerry menu button) that image is replaced by a shaded blue gradient. There’s no way to change the colour or the image itself – at least not in the Bold’s unsullied pre-release state. We have confidence that a little work by the ‘hackberry’ community will soon remedy this…

Despite being larger and lusher the Bold’s icons take some getting used to. They’re more stylised than the normal BlackBerry glyphs. The Bold’s icons are squares containing flat two-dimensional outlines tickled by a single daub of colour instead of the more familiar three-dimensional full-colour icons.

All the familiar BlackBerry applications get facelifted icons  and a few new folders are tossed into the mix

Take for example the BlackBerry icons for a GPS and alarm clock. On the Bold these are both round outlines containing a red pointer – you have to look twice or at least expend  an ounce of grey matter to discern the individual icon’s meaning. On the Curve Pearl or 8800 you see two very pictographs for a compass and an alarm clock and there’s not even a microsecond of thinking into which you click. It’s small stuff but the devil of any intuitive design is always in the tiny details.

The larger icons mean the main menu layout is reduced to a spread of three rows of icons than four (still with six columns down) so be prepared for a little more scrolling around that screen unless you park the most used icons in the first few rows and stash the rest into folders or hide them from view.

The Applications folder is where you’ll find the new Documents to Go suite to view and edit Office files

The Bold actually makes good use of folders right out of the box with folders for Music Applications (an odd assortment of preloaded programs that didn’t make in onto centre stage) Games Downloads (where your third-party apps reside until you move them elsewhere) and Setup (which contains the setup routines for Wi-Fi email and Bluetooth).

The Downloads folder is the default location for all newly-installed apps (they can of course be moved elsewhere)

The Games folder is particularly worth diving into. In addition to the annoyingly addictive BrickBreaker there’s now Soduko and Solitaire plus two games with online multiplayer modes so you to take the fight to another Bold user. These are Word Mole (a cross between Scrabble and a wordfinder puzzle) and Texas Hold ‘Em Poker.

Look closely and you can see the transparency effect of dialog boxes and menus

Transparencies that other indulgence of the modern operating system also gets a workout in BlackBerry OS 4.6. In addition to the more noticeably see-through status ribbon and icon dock on the Bold’s home screen menus and even dialog boxes are translucent to show some of the underlying UI. All of the BlackBerry’s standard preloaded apps get a makeover with the calendar in particular looking much cleaner and easier to read at a glance.

Email

Here’s where the rubber really starts to hit the road. With the Bold and OS 4.6 BlackBerry takes the biggest leap ahead in the email stakes since – well since ever. Plain old text and code-crammed email newsletters begone: the Bold introduces HTML support in its email client (this will also appear in OS 4.5 products).

The larger screen and slimmer fonts make the Bold’s inbox easy to read at a glance

It’s not 100% native HTML mind you. What you see is more like a subset which RIM’s gateway renders into BlackBerry equivalents for the body and heading fonts along with basic attributes (bold italic and underlined) before the email is as always compressed into a tiny packet. But what you see is the adorned essence of the email including in-line images and that’s especially useful if you get a lot of HTML newsletters that would be unreadable on any other BlackBerry.

The text in this HTML newsletter is rendered for the Bold and fully readable but images have not yet loaded

However during our tests the Bold refused to download the images contained in any email messages so we suspect this is because our Bold was still running late pre-release software. There’s also an option to disable image downloading altogether. The email client itself also benefits from the larger screen higher resolution and sharper fonts of course.

Documents to Go supports viewing of Word Excel PowerPoint RTF and PDF email attachments

A second part of the Bold’s winning email formula is Documents to Go a familiar face in the world of Palm but new to the BlackBerry. Produced by DataViz and licensed by RIM for the Bold Docs to Go enables users to read Word Excel and PowerPoint in Microsoft Office formats.

This includes the most popular Office document types (DOC XLS and PPT) plus RTF documents and the new Word and PowerPoint (but not Excel) XML-based formats of Office 2007 for Windows and 2008 for Mac. Docs to Go also includes a PDF reader and the viewers all render documents with an exceptional degree of fidelity although not every element on the page survives the trip: formatted Word tables came though during our testing but not charts created from the table data.

You can also use Docs to Go to view locally-stored Office documents but not RTF or PDF files

Also while you can download any email attachment to the Bold’s 1GB memory or microSD card Docs to Go doesn’t have stand-alone viewing apps for PDF or RTF files – so these can’t be viewed unless they’re an email attachment. Office documents on the other hand can be loaded via a memory card or beamed via Bluetooth. And you can also edit these files which is pretty darned impressive!

And as you’d expect the Bold’s faster processor and 3G speeds run rings around any previous BlackBerry when it comes to downloading and displaying email attachments while the screen ensures they’re sharper and easier to read.

If you want to create new Office documents requires you can upgrade to the ‘professional edition’ of Docs to Go (US$70 from dataviz.com) although you can always work around this by loading a blank document onto your memory card and doing a Save As when you want to ‘create’ a new one. But the Professional edition of Docs to Go also includes desktop-grade features such as spell checking advanced character and paragraph formatting tables auto-bullet and auto-number lists spreadsheet cell formatting and several other tasks you never imagined doing on any smartphone let alone a BlackBerry.

Web Browser

The Bold’s Web browser also gets a makeover with richer rendering of Web pages in Page View (the default) or Column view. The first screen in Page View shows a fair slab of the Web page on the HVGA screen with the cursor as a zoom-in pointer and it takes another click to hone in on the desired part of the page so you can actually select a link. Column view renders key parts of the site to fit the width of the Bold’s screen so there’s a long journey with a lot of scrolling from top to bottom.

Web browsing on the Bold doesn’t support Flash animations

We found the zooming-and-clicking process a bit uneven because sometimes the Web page would happily resize itself to fit the screen while other sites would resemble a jigsaw puzzle that’s not quite finished. And as with email the downloading and presentation of images was often hit-or-miss which at this stage we’re attributing to the beta stage of the software.

The Go To menu selection from which you enter a site’s address or choose from a set of the most recently visited pages now gains a list of your bookmarks plus a Search field for quickly scouring Google Wikipedia or Dictionary.com. These are selected from a drop-down menu although there appears to be no option to edit the list and add other search engines.

Multimedia

Of the many surprises which RIM has packed into the BlackBerry Bold its multimedia capabilities will make you do a double-take.

The large sharp screen makes perfect sense for video playback where the Bold supports AVI and MPEG-4 formats plus the DivX and XviD codecs along with WMV and 3GP clips.

Downloaded XviD and video podcasts play with aplomb but DivX is hit-and-miss

However while XviD clips ran without a hitch we found performance was inconsistent on DivX videos – some played without problem while others froze but kept the audio running. This appears to hark back to the various versions of the DivX codec: DivX 4 plays fine but RIM says that DivX versions 5 and 6 are only “partially supportedâ€. Indeed attempts to play a clip encoded with DivX 6 on the Bold threw up the error message that it was an ‘unsupported format’. Happily the Bold handled more mainstream offerings such as video-podcasts downloaded from the ABC TV site.

The Bold’s gutsy little speaker is more than sufficient for playback sans headphones. But if you want privacy the Bold sports a standard 3.5mm audio jack so you can plug in your favourite earphones without an adaptor getting in the way.. or you can use the bundled ‘Premium’ stereo headset which includes a hands-free microphone.

The Bold’s cleaner music player now syncs with iTunes for Windows

You can record videoclips with the Bold’s camera at a standard 480 x 320 resolution or ‘MMS Mode’ of 176 x 144. And while the Pearl and Curve both made strides in music playback the Bold’s player now lets you create your own playlists on the fly (including automatic playlists generated by the content of each track’s ID3 tag) and finally adds ‘skip’ and ‘previous’ buttons for moving back and forth between tracks. The currently playing track also appears next to your status on the BlackBerry Messenger app.

Playlists can be whipped up on the go including automated lists based on ID3 tag data

The Bold also includes RIM’s new BlackBerry Media Sync for Windows software so you can sync the Bold to your iTunes library (this also now available as a free download for other BlackBerry devices with sufficient onboard RAM or  a slot for a microSD memory card).

Nominate a platlist from your iTunes library and the Bold will remain in sync

DRM-protected tracks bought from the iTunes Store aren’t supported but everything else can be shuttled across as albums or based on your iTunes playlists (although these are different from the Bold’s own user-created playlists). Changes to iTunes playlists are mirrored over to the Bold during your next sync session.

Camera

According to the spec sheets the Bold and Curve have identical 2.0 megapixel cameras. But the actual pictures taken with each device tell a different story: identical snaps in a variety of lighting conditions at the same maximum resolution settings (1600 x 1200) consistently saw the Bold produce shots that were noticeably sharper clearer and more colour-true over the Curve’s more muted captures.

The Bold and Curve both sport a 2 megapixel camera but we found snaps taken with the Bold (such as the indoor shot above) to be noticeably better than those done on the Curve (below)

The Bold is also much faster when it comes to writing images to memory while the inbuilt GPS radio adds the option to geotag your photos. That said we noticed that while the Bold’s spec sheet lists the camera as having the same 5x digital zoom capabilities as the Curve the device itself woudn’t move beyond the 3x setting although it steps to a useful 2x whereas the Curve jumps straight from 1x to 3x to 5x.

Performance

The engine room is another department in which the Bold gets muscled up. There’s no way the 312MHz processor of the Curve or 8800 could adequately meet the Bold’s demands when it comes to the screen 3G HSDPA speeds and multimedia. So RIM swapped this out for a 624MHz XScale processor (it’s not officially an Intel XSale chip as you may read elsewhere as Intel sold off its ARM-based Xscale business to Marvell in 2006 in order to pursue its x86-based Atom architecture).

And it’s a good job they did because this processor lets the Bold take flight. There’s no lag worthy of mention when moving through screens or in and out of applications. Video plays smooth and skip-free and the task of opening media files from a microSD memory card is quite snappy. There’s also much less ‘wait time’ after using the Bold’s digital camera while the shot is written to memory – using identical camera settings we timed barely one second on the Bold against a yawnful seven seconds on the Curve.

Having that extra grunt up your sleeve is also handy when a shedload of new messages is pushed over the air – where the Curve stutters the Bold doesn’t even strain. We also found the Bold was faster than the Curve for downloading and drawing Web pages over a Wi-Fi connection again a positive sign that the processor is up to the task.

You’ll still see the hourglass spinning away from time to time – except that on the Bold it’s a small square clock face – but it pops up less often and buggers off sooner.

We were unable to speed-test the Bold’s 3G radio but would expect similar performance to the iPhone which shares the same HSDPA rating and clocks up to 1.4Mbit/s. This is close to our experience with USB and ExpressCard modems on regular laptops which deliver real-world speeds of between 500KB/s and 1.5MB/s with peaks of 2MB/s dependent on signal strength at your location and the number of other users hammering the HSDPA base station.

While on the subject of performance RIM has clearly put some overdue work into the Bold’s telephony system. This isn’t the hollow thin weak or just plain crappy mobile phone that you’ve had to tolerate in days gone by. Voice quality on the Bold is crisp full-bodied and ‘true’ and the gutsy speaker makes a meal of speakerphone mode as well as providing a little background music while you work.

Battery

Lurking under the back cover (which we found refreshingly easy to remove and snap back on and which RIM will introduce in several colours) is a feisty 1500mAh battery. This is a little larger than the 1400mAh battery of the 8800 line and much beefier than the Curve’s 1100mAH cell – a necessity driven by the Bold’s bigger screen 3G radio peppier processor and side servings of Wi-Fi and GPS.

RIM has always put parsimonious battery life atop the must-have list for any BlackBerry and we doubt the Bold will disappoint. It’s still in the category of devices you need charge only every few days no matter how hard you drive it unless you activate the Wi-Fi. This is the biggest voltage vampire and if you leave this switched on all day then be ready to top up the tank that night.

(Which isn’t a bad habit in our experience. Many times we’ve overlooked the BlackBerry’s battery needle hovering around the Empty mark until the device starts beeping a cry of help during phone calls or the LED pulses a staccato ‘SOS’. And by then it’s either too late you’re nowhere near an AC socket and the battery charger is sitting at in your office or at home).

The Bold and the beautiful

Yep we’re pretty impressed with the Bold and we hope the final software updates which will be released prior to launch will iron out a few of the wrinkles noted during our testing.

The BlackBerry Bold will be available on all four Australian mobile carriers. Optus is first out of the gate on Wednesday August 20 with the Bold up for $89 per month (this comprises Optus’  standard $79/month plan which gives you unlimited BlackBerry data and $300 of calls and text plus a $10 handset fee for the Bold) over 24 months.

Telstra says it will offer the Bold on its Next G network from ‘late September’ but has not advised pricing. Vodafone and Three have yet to advise pricing or the timeframe for availability. (We hope Telstra offers Next G pricing that is at least comparable to what it used to charge for EV-DO Blackberries. Back when Telstra had its EV-DO network it used to offer a Blackberry plan that provided unlimited Blackberry usage as well as a number of hours of EV-DO broadband for your laptop using the tethered-modem capability. The plans offered unlimited Blackberry usage with five hours of EV-DO laptop broadband for $99 twenty hours for $129 or forty hours for $149 per month all inclusive including the handset repayments. Given Telstra’s sky-high rates for its Next G network it seems unlikely it will offer such favourable pricing with the Bold but we’re ever-hopeful Telstra will do the right thing by consumers.)

Don’t miss our Blackberry Storm review…

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