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Tuesday, 9 August 2011

How Bold is the BlackBerry Bold 9900?

RIM, the company behind the BlackBerry brand has been at the firing end of late when it comes to press coverage with a lot of stories circulating about whether the company has a future.

Therefore, it's with no surprise RIM fired back this week and decided to let their products do the talking.  The first of this is the new BlackBerry Bold 9900 which is due for launch in UAE towards the end of August.

The BlackBerry Bold has had its fourth iteration since the series began and I've fortunately been the owner of all four devices.  I had actually seen the Bold 9900 for the first time in May this year when I was at BlackBerry World in Orlando which is when RIM had made the announcement of what was eagerly awaited as the next in the ever popular series of BlackBerry Bold handsets.  I had had the opportunity to actually play with the Bold 9900 at that time but in the last one week, the local office of RIM sent me a handset to use and I must say I've been impressed.

A picture of a pre-release version of the
BlackBerry Bold 9900 I took when at
BlackBerry World in May 2011.

 As with any device, there are going to be some things you like and some things you don't like.  In this case, I've probably got to say, I liked more things overall.

The Keyboard

New vs. Old. The Bold 9900 (Left) and Bold 9870 (Right).
The keyboard has been the talking point as RIM has always been acknowledged for having one of the best keyboards out there and they haven't disappointed us this time.  The keyboard is the largest that RIM has ever had on any of their devices and even if you've got fat thumbs, it's easy enough to use.

Touch & Type Functionality

What I've loved the most has been the Touch & Type functionality.  The screen on the Bold 9900 can be used as a touch screen so if you want to check a message quickly, browse through Facebook or just open a menu, you tap on the screen.  You still have the trackpad to do all of that for you if you want.  However, there is no onscreen keyboard so everything has to be typed through the physical keyboard.  I actually don't mind this.  It is liberating to know you can swipe through pictures on your phone or zoom in without having to rely on a touchpad, especially since that is what most touch-only devices do best.  Touch & Type is not new, RIM has had it on the Torch 9800 but I prefer a candy-bar phone design instead of a slider so this for me is a winner.

New Operating System

To make sure this touch and type functionality came into place, RIM has released a new version of their BlackBerry OS and this runs on OS7.  Honestly, apart from a few graphical changes, OS7 is very similar to OS6 that runs on the previous generation of BlackBerry Bold 9870 and Torch 9800.  The operating system has been smooth so far and its very rare you get a buggy operating system out of RIM.  They've always been robust and the same is the case here.


The new Bold 9900 also comes with 8GB on-board flash memory plus the option of adding a memory card.  8GB is plenty for most people unless you plan on carrying your music or movies around which is where I can see a memory card still being useful.

Screen / Resolution

RIM has been talking about the fact that they've improved their graphics resolution on this device.  This may be the case but what I found more evident is that they've given you the freedom to use the screen as you wish.  With a bigger screen on this device as compared to the Bold 9780, you can use the whole screen if you want without anything else appearing in the way by hiding all menus and notification screens.

The bigger screen's advantage can be seen in the Bold 9900 (right) vs. the Bold 9870 (left)


The Bold 9900 is noticeably quicker.  As an owner of a Samsung Galaxy SII, I've seen how quick phones an be and the Bold 9900 is using a new faster 1.2GHz chipset.  How do you know how quick the Bold 9900 is?  Try re-booting it.  On the previous Bold 9870, re-booting the phone could mean five minutes down time.  On the Bold 9900, it takes about a minute.

Network Speed

Now this is something that miffed me.  This phone is supposedly able to connect to HSPA+ mobile networks which means speeds superior to that of a regular 3G connection that we're so used to.  I use HSPA+ on my Samsung Galaxy SII and it is mind-boggling quick.  On the BlackBerry Bold 9900 though, the fastest I could connect was on 3G.  I would give RIM the benefit of the doubt here though as the problem could be with me and the data plans I have.  My Galaxy SII is running on a data plan through one mobile operator and my BlackBerry package is on a rival mobile operators network.  It could just be that the mobile operator I'm using for my BlackBerry hasn't yet completed their network upgrade and this could be something that becomes live soon enough.

What's stayed the same... 

With all of this said, some things have remained the same in the Bold 9900.  For example, if you had the Bold 9870, you won't notice a major change in the camera functionality of this device.  

Battery life also seems to be similar to that on all other BlackBerry devices.  I'm yet to come across a problem with any device I've used from RIM where the battery has been drained out before the end of the day or where it can't be used for more than a day on a single charge.  The same isn't necessarily the case with various other brands of smartphones.

BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), which has probably been the biggest driver of RIM's success in this region still works just as well and is in fact using the new version of BBM which was launched recently on BlackBerry AppWorld.  Most other Apps I used to use on my previous BlackBerry, seem to work just as well.

Convenience Key

What you do miss out though on is the fact that the Bold 9900 has only one convenience key button on the right side of the device whereas the Bold 9870 had one on each side.  This means you've got one less key to use a shortcut and can take some getting used to.  With the touch screen though, it is quicker and easier to open up Apps though.


The biggest adjustment though is getting used to the size of the Bold 9900.  For those who used to use the old Bold 9000, they'd be used to design and layout of this device but my guess is, most people have transitioned on from that to the Bold 9700 / 9780, which was a form factor more similar to RIM's Curve series of smartphones.  The Bold 9900 is wider, bigger and takes more space in the pocket, though RIM have tried to make up for this by making the unit slimmer.  To get a bigger screen and keyboard, something had to give and this is evident in the physical dimensions of the device.

Future of the Operating System?

As with any smartphone purchase these days, the life of the devices can't be expected to extend beyond 12 - 18 months.  Apple has proven this with a new family of iPhone's out literally every year for the last four years and RIM has released this device nearly a year after the Torch 9800 came out.  Most smartphone buyers know this but most of them also know that when buying a smartphone, you hope the operating system will last longer than the life of the smartphone.  In this case, with OS7, RIM is using an upgraded version of their previous operating systems but all of this is due to undergo a drastic change as RIM will be adopting a completely different operating system in future.  This new operating system will be based on QNX architecture that RIM acquired and which is being used currently on the BlackBerry PlayBook.  The QNX architecture may be fantastic use but it isn't compatible with current versions of RIM's operating systems and this means that most Apps that you're currently using won't work on the new devices that come out in 2012.  This also means that if you've bought a device today, there is no real upgrade path from an operating system point of view unless RIM manages to surprise us somehow with an interface that works on both systems.

The fact is, the operating system market has been getting very competitive with each platform raising their game, whether it be Apple's iOS, Google's Android, Microsoft's Windows 8 (due next year), HP's WebOS or indeed BlackBerry's own OS.  If the operating systems don't move forward, then the companies that have hardware for those OS's can't expect to move forward either.  This does mean that hardware manufacturers are left with touch choices and RIM has clearly decided to make one here.

Concluding Remarks

There will be some out there who are going to be critical of the fact that BlackBerry devices don't offer the same functionality as an Apple or Android device.  I don't think they're intended to necessarily to replicate  everything an Apple or Android does.  Although I always carry around two handsets at any given point of time, the fact remains, I've had a BlackBerry with me always for the last four years.  The other handsets have changed, whether it be a Nokia, HTC, Apple or Samsung device.  I can't afford to be without the BlackBerry and I think this is probably true with many other users.  The Touch & Type interface is the real winner for me in this device as I often found myself touching the screen of by Bold 9870 previously just out of habit and not seeing anything happen.  Nokia has had Touch & Type on some of their devices but if you want to take advantage of the relatively competitively priced BlackBerry data plans that we have int he UAE and use BlackBerry apps, namely BBM, the Bold 9900 is the way to go.

Posted By: Ashish Panjabi, Chief Operating Officer, Jacky's Electronics