BlackBerry Bold 9900: The Swan Song of a Standard

When it debuted in 2008, the BlackBerry Bold quickly achieved iconic status as the must-have executive smartphone, with a QWERTY keyboard that made emails a snap. Not four years later, the Bold is struggling to remain relevant, as its creator Research in Motion tries to reinvent itself with a new OS to replace the BlackBerry platform that once defined mobile computing. The BlackBerry Bold 9000 series is the end of the line for the BlackBerry we all knew.

When it debuted this past fall, the Bold 9900 switched to a touchscreen (thus the common moniker "Bold Touch") in an attempt to appeal to a market that had gone gaga over the iPhone and Android family. But the Bold Touch retained its QWERTY keyboard; RIM addressed those who wanted an onscreen-only keyboard with a revamped BlackBerry Torch model. When you get right down to it, the BlackBerry Bold is pretty much a BlackBerry Bold -- it's not a major departure from the once-iconic device's history, which may explain why it has struggled in the marketplace.

[ Updated for iOS 5, Android 4, BlackBerry OS 7, and Windows Phone 7.5: Learn how to manage mobile devices in InfoWorld's 20-page Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF special report. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

The BlackBerry Bold 9900 costs $550 with no contract or $200 with a two-year contract from AT&T, and $600 with no contract or $300 with a two-year contract from T-Mobile. As the Bold 9930 (which designates support for CDMA networks), it costs $500 with no contract or $200 with a two-year contract from Sprint, and $520 with no contract or $230 with a two-year contract from Verizon Wireless. (We tested the T-Mobile version.)

Hardware

At first blush, the Bold 9900 looks like its predecessors, except for the larger screen: a 2.8-inch, horizontally oriented 640-by-480-pixel touchscreen, giving the traditional keyboard-oriented Bold its first touch capabilities. Although the screen has twice the resolution of the previous Bold 9700 model, it's still too small to use for most Web pages and the kinds of apps you'd run on an iPhone or Android device. It's also painfully restrictive for many apps, including the Settings app, but it works OK for messaging and simplified Web pages, such as for dashboards. The display is quite crisp.

But the BlackBerry Bold's hardware has been upgraded in several other ways. First, the Bold 9900 sports a faster processor than its 9700 predecessor -- 1.2GHz single-core ARM versus 624MHz -- but still is less powerful than most competing smartphones. The bezel feels higher-quality, with its carbon fiber and metal. The physical keyboard feels more responsive, and its labels are easier to read as they are both larger and dispense with the muddy red-on-black theme for symbols. I find a touchscreen keyboard easier to use, but that's a personal preference.

The Bold 9900's included 8GB of RAM is 32 times as much as in the previous Bold's 256MB but still meager compared to competing devices. It can be expanded to 40GB via SD cards. The battery has less capacity, going from 1500 milliamp-hours to 1,230mAH, as the battery was shrunk to make room for other components. Still, battery life remains excellent.

The rear camera (there is none on the front) is a typical 5 megapixels with an LED flash, but without autofocus as you'll find on most competing smartphones. The Wi-Fi radio now supports 802.11n networks in addition to 802.11b and 802.11g networks. There's also a near-field communications (NFC) short-range wireless chip, but it's not enabled in the OS as yet. Finally, the Bold 9900 runs on 3G celullar networks. Don't believe the 4G claim from T-Mobile and AT&T, which misleadingly apply the 4G moniker to the fast-3G HSPA+ cellular standard.

In a nutshell, the Bold 9900's hardware is behind most competing devices, excepting its very nice keyboard and high-quality bezel.

E-mail, calendars, and contacts

The BlackBerry pioneered mobile email, but today its approach is often awkward and primitive -- ditto for its calendar and contacts apps.

E-mail.

Setup is painful, as you step through poorly designed configuration screens where fields are hard to navigate via touch and text is tiny. Using special symbols such as for passwords and email addresses on the BlackBerry keyboard is also difficult and error-prone, unless you're already a proficient thumb-typist.

If your IT department allows it, the BlackBerry OS does let you set up Exchange accounts via Outlook Web Access without having a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) installed; BlackBerry OS 6 introduced it about 18 months ago and carried forward in BlackBerry OS 7 (which started life as BlackBerry OS 6.1, reflecting its minor changes). If you use BES, the setup is familiar to IT admins. To review, BES is the server that brings all that control the BlackBerry is famous for; if you're not using BES, the BlackBerry is actually less secure than an iOS or Android 4 device managed under Microsoft Exchange.

The BlackBerry persists in its puzzling time-stamping of email messages: It lists the messages according to when the device receives them, not when they are sent. (If you open the message, you can see the real date and time.) When you first set up an email account, all your available messages flood in with the same time stamp, making it hard to find the new ones. And if you're offline for a few hours, such as when on a flight, all messages that come in during that period end up with the same time stamp.

The second frustration was discovering how hard it is to navigate email. I use folders extensively to manage my messages, and navigating them on the BlackBerry requires extensive use of menus, and no easy way to go back and forth -- you don't get the persistent hierarchy as in iOS. Also, by default when you move a message to a folder, a copy stays in the top-level inbox, which is confusing -- did I read it or not? Fortunately, you can turn that dual message location off, but it's not the default.

It's not so hard to read emails on a BlackBerry, though the Bold's squatter screen means more scrolling is required. In the BlackBerry tradition, you have to use the menu keys for basic actions such as deleting, replying, and forwarding. At least now most of these options are available both from the Menu button and by long-tapping the screen to open a dialog box with icon buttons. I'm not sure why both actions don't give you the same menu style. The reliance on menu sequences is more cumbersome than the use of gestures and in-context buttons in iOS, though the small Bold screen probably precludes such a visual interface.

The BlackBerry provides a quick way to jump to the top and bottom of your message list (the T and B keys, respectively) and scroll one screen at a time (the spacebar). In contrast, iOS gives you only a shortcut to the top, by tapping the top of the screen, and Android has no such options. But the BlackBerry can only multiple-select contiguous messages (you need to use two fingers to start the selection range, an unintuitive approach), which limits the utility of such selection. There is a work-around for some situations: You can search your messages by name, subject, title, or attachment status, then select those files -- still contiguously -- to work on them.

You can search messages by several criteria -- more, in fact than in competing platforms -- as well as sort messages. Again, this is a BlackBerry exclusive.

The BlackBerry lets you view common attachment formats such as Word, Excel, and PDF, as well as see a list of the contents of zipped files so that you can open the ones you want; iOS can't do the latter. The touchscreen makes navigating and zooming of such attachments easy -- a nice improvement from the adoption of a touch UI. But the BlackBerry OS has a weird approach to returning to your message when viewing an attachment: You must press the Back key repeatedly to go through your actions in the attachment before you can return to the message containing it; there's no single-step way to go back to the message. On the positive side, once you open an attachment in an email, you see a preview of that file the next time you open that email.

As you'd expect, you can add people who email you as contacts, but the BlackBerry unnecessarily complicates the process. If it can't figure out the person's name, it forces you to enter that before it will save the contact. iOS and Android, on the other hand, let you fill in that information at another time, so at least the email address is stored for easy access later. iOS and Android also note who you respond to and add them to the quick-selection list of addressees they display as you begin tapping a name, even if they're not in the address book. The BlackBerry only displays names in the address book.

Calendars.

The BlackBerry handles calendar invitations straightforwardly: They're simply added to your calendar whether delivered via Exchange or an .ics attachment. There's no option to accept or decline an invitation, as there is in iOS.

A BlackBerry doesn't recognize multiple Exchange calendars, so even if you distinguish private from work calendars in Exchange, the BlackBerry does not. The same is true if your desktop calendar app has multiple calendars; the BlackBerry sees them all as one.

Where the BlackBerry calendar shines is in the calendar entries themselves. The UI for adding events is clean and straightforward, and it has a few options not available in competing platforms, such as the ability to set recurring appointments for multiple days in a week or for relative dates such as the first Monday of the month. But switching views is a bit of a pain, requiring a trip to the Menu button. There's no touch control for switching views, though you can scroll through your calendar via gestures. It's an example of a recurring issue in the BlackBerry OS: inconsistent and incomplete use of the touch UI.

Contacts.

The Contacts app is more primitive in appearance than the Calendar app. There's no Save button when you enter a person's information; you click an obscure icon at the upper right of the screen instead. Still, it's easy enough to add contacts manually, and you get some sophisticated options such as custom vibration patterns, as in iOS 5, and even per-user settings for whether the LED flashes when you receive a call or text message from that person (iOS 5 lets you turn LED flashing on or off only for all users). You can also add contacts from your emails by long-tapping a From or To address, then choosing the Add to Contacts option. But you can't import contacts from, for example, a Google account, though you can access Exchange contacts if you are using BES with an Exchange server.

Social networking.

You can set up Twitter and Facebook accounts on the BlackBerry to have updates posted to the home screen's notifications area. Although the Twitter and Facebook apps are fairly primitive, they have the basic messaging capabilities you're likely to use from a smartphone. You can also see a unified list of all your social feeds -- BlackBerry Messenger, Facebook, Google Talk, Twitter, and Windows Live Messenger -- using the Social app, from which you can then open, respond to, and share the posts.

Applications

Research in Motion has been trying for several years to interest developers in its BlackBerry platforms, to little avail. Joining the developer program was never easy, and apps usually had to be customized for each device, unlike for iOS and Android. But RIM does include some apps with the BlackBerry OS, including the enhanced social networking integration mentioned in the previous section.

Apps.

The selection of BlackBerry apps remains limited, and the apps themselves are typically pale, pathetic imitations of iPhone apps. That's a function of the history of a primitive, text-oriented UI in the BlackBerry, coupled with the multiple form factors and OS versions. When you do find an app for the BlackBerry, installing it is straightforward, though slow. The bright spot is that apps are now unlikely to cause the BlackBerry to slow to a crawl, as was common in previous-generation devices, thanks to the faster CPU and the greater amount of system RAM in the Bold 9900.

For most users, the notion of BlackBerry apps means -- or should mean -- communications apps such as email, messaging (via the very popular BlackBerry Messenger), and social networking. Communications is the BlackBerry's sweet spot -- not productivity, media, or creativity apps. The BlackBerry's notifications tray in its home screen, and the ability to have such notifications also appear on the lock screen, make those communication capabilities that much more convenient, though iOS 5 and Android have long since duplicated this historic BlackBerry feature.

Still, given the BlackBerry's professional audience, some users may want to do at least basic editing when on the road. For that audience, the BlackBerry includes a basic version of Documents to Go (RIM owns the company that produces this software). Docs to Go is awkward to use but can handle basic text edits in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, as well as simple formatting such as boldfacing text. Tracked changes are removed from the document, and though extensive editing is theoretically possible, you're hamstrung by the device's tiny screen.

1 2 Page 1
Shop Tech Products at Amazon
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.