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.

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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.

If you want a smartphone with apps you'd want to actually use on a smartphone, look elsewhere than the BlackBerry.

App Management.

The BlackBerry puts apps in one of four screens (All, Favorites, Media, and Downloads), which you can easily swipe among from the home screen. There's also a Frequent screen that holds copies of icons to frequently used apps. To get to the apps screens, just drag up the triangle icon at the bottom of the screen. Often, the first row of your All screen appears on the home screen; you can drag it up to see more icons, as well as swipe to navigate among the four apps screens in that single-row view. Note that the icons are often obscure, so it's hard to know what app an icon opens; there is of course no text label or option to display one.

You can also move among screens and to folders, but the process is a bit awkward: Long-tap the app, then choose Move from the grid of icons that appears. Directional handles now appear on the icon, indicating you can tap a new location in which to move it. (No, you can't simply drag it.) To move an app to a folder, first create the folder using the Menu button's options, then long-tap the app icon, tap Move to Folder from the icon grid that appears, and choose the destination folder from the menu list. It's another example of not taking advantage of the touch UI on the Bold 9900.

Updating apps is similarly awkward. You have to open the BlackBerry App World app, then go to the My Apps pane. You'll see red text at the top indicating how many updates are available. For each app with an update available, the My Apps pane will display the text "Upgrade Available" beneath its name. Tap an app to open a new pane, then tap Upgrade to upgrade it. (No, you can't upgrade them all at once.) You then get a prompt a few seconds later letting you know you have an older version and are about to replace it. That's an unnecessary time waster when upgrading an app -- after all, the button says "Upgrade." Some apps even require a device reboot after installation. I can't recall ever having to do that in iOS or Android. As you can see, it's a very unfriendly process.

Location support.

The BlackBerry supports location detection via GPS and Wi-Fi signals. The BlackBerry comes with a navigation app from TomTom that can find your current destination, provide directions, and otherwise help you navigate. It's a serviceable app, but no more than that. What you don't get is the ability to selectively manage each app's access to your location information, as iOS provides. You are asked when installing an app for permission to use your location information, but that's it.

Web and Internet

Thanks to the crisp screen, the Web is usable on the BlackBerry Bold 9900. Unfortunately, you're effectively limited to using only mobile-optimized websites (such as InfoWorld.com) because you can see too little of a full-size website on the Bold's small screen. Also, zooming and scrolling on the Bold are often very slow, with blank areas appearing until the data is refreshed and reloaded.

BlackBerry OS 7 does have solid support for the evolving HTML5 standard. In the HTML5Test.com benchmarks, it scores 260 (out of 450 points), versus 230 for Android 4, 222 for Android 3, 184 for Android 2.3, and 141 for Windows Phone 7.5. But iOS 5 outperforms them all, scoring 296.

The BlackBerry browser has what you need in terms of capabilities: bookmarking, multiple windows, text selection and copying, image saving, and the ability to send the current URL to others via email, text message, or social networks. It's comparable to the browsers on Android and iOS (though with more sharing options than iOS provides). On a larger screen, such as on a BlackBerry Torch, you'd be more inclined to use the Web, even with its slow performance.

User Interface

The BlackBerry Bold 9900 assumes you want a traditional BlackBerry that happens to use a touch UI in visually oriented apps such as the browser, and its user interface continues to strongly favor the traditional BlackBerry approach of thumb-typing and menu selections. As noted multiple times in this review, it doesn't provide a great touch experience, nor does the device work equally well with just the keyboard and touchscreen.

RIM would argue that if you want an iPhone-like UI on a BlackBerry, you should get the BlackBerry Torch instead. I agree -- the BlackBerry Bold is designed to augment the traditional BlackBerry interface with touch, not convert it to touch. However, even in that narrow context, BlackBerry OS has unnecessary flaws.

Operational UI.

Typing numbers and special symbols on the BlackBerry's physical keyboard can result in hand-wrenching positions, and you need to use both thumbs, due to how the Shift key works. Entering numerals with regular text is particularly a pain. In settings screens, the position of the fields you are meant to complete are hard to accurately select when tapping on the screen; it's clear no one bothered to rework them for touch-based selection, even though that is faster when editing existing information.

As noted previously, the inconsistencies between touch-generated menus and Menu button-generated menus are confusing; fortunately, there's a Full option in each touch-generated menu that opens the Menu button's selections. I was also frustrated that BlackBerry OS 7 is inconsistent in making use of gestures, such as for zooming. Also as mentioned above, some actions take way too many steps, such as exiting a file attachment or updating apps.

On the BlackBerry Bold 9900, the screen is often hard to read -- ironic, given that its faithful users are typically men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are least able to read tiny text.

I also found myself accidentally pushing the BlackBerry's camera button a lot -- it's in the perfect position to be pressed unintentionally. You can disable it by setting it to Do Nothing via the Convenience Key setting.

Text Selection and Copying.

One area where BlackBerry OS 7 relies on touch is for text selection. You tap the target text for longer than a regular tap but shorter than a long-tap to display the text cursor, which you can then drag to the desired location. Note that a single letter is highlighted, suggesting that whole character is selected, but it's not. Instead, anything you type is inserted to the left of that character; deletes remove to its left as well. To select a range of text, tap two fingers simultaneously roughly around the text you want to select and two text handles will appear. Now drag one to the beginning of your text selection and the other to the end. You can cut or copy the text using the Menu button or by long-tapping the screen to get a grid of buttons; both methods provide the Cut and Copy options. It's not as elegant as the method in iOS or even Android, but it works.

One thing BlackBerry OS 7 could really use is an auto-correct feature for its email and other core apps as in iOS or an auto-suggest feature as in Android 4 -- it's very easy to mistype your text, but all the BlackBerry does to help you achieve correct spelling is ... well, nothing. It doesn't even indicate possible spelling errors.

Security and Management

The BlackBerry is known as the most secure and manageable mobile platform available. That's true, as long as you pony up for a BES license (there are free versions for small businesses). With BES, IT can apply more than 500 policies to convert the BlackBerry into a highly regulated appliance, covering everything from on-device encryption to camera usage, from interapplication permissions to access point connectivity. Of course, that's not what users want or find productive, so most have turned to iOS and Android, whose security and management is less intrusive and constrained, though sufficient for most organizations. Of course, there's no reason BES can't be applied in a constructive way.

Without BES, IT has no ability to secure or manage email, contacts, calendars, and apps in BlackBerry, nor the ability to remotely lock or wipe a BlackBerry device. Organizations that don't need BES's high level of control can't use native Exchange policies, as they can for iOS and Android 4.

BlackBerry OS 7 has on-device encryption turned on by default, with a higher level of encryption than on iOS or Android, so a locked device is much harder to crack, such as by a thief seeking corporate secrets who gets a hold of your CEO's BlackBerry. It also supports VPNs, though the setup is nightmarish. You have to know the brand of VPN hardware, for example, so IT will have to do the work for users. That's not the case in iOS. Similarly, to connect to a PEAP-encrypted Wi-Fi network, you have to know the certificate authority in use, which means IT again must do the work or share such secrets with employees. Again, iOS automates this setup without divulging such information to the user.

The bottom line is that BlackBerrys can be more highly secured, regulated, and managed, but it takes an active effort by IT to set up each device.

Conclusion

Many people are mourning the possible death of RIM, as its "BlackBerry reboot" effort to reinvent itself for the modern era has been delayed, its sales continue to shrink, and investors are getting desperate enough to seek a takeover (those rarely end well). Unfortunately, there's nothing in the BlackBerry Bold 9900 -- RIM's flagship device -- to buy RIM the time it needs.

The BlackBerry Bold is better than the previous BlackBerry 9700 in its integration of social networking, and it offers a better Web browser, beefier hardware, and the partial adoption of touch. But compared to every competing mobile OS, it's an awkward, uncompelling device. If you love the old-style BlackBerry, the Bold 9900 is your last chance to maintain the tradition. It's RIM's swan song to the BlackBerry heyday of the 2000s, not the triumphant comeback anthem RIM could really use.

This article, "BlackBerry Bold 9900: The swan song of a standard," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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