RIM's BlackBerry Bold: Messaging Is Still Job One

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The BlackBerry Bold, RIM's new executive QWERTY handset, enters the scene at a time when the utility of the fixed keyboard is under debate. This review overlapped with my longer-term evaluation of touchscreen and touch/keyboard devices, including the BlackBerry Storm, T-Mobile G1, AT&T Fuze (HTC Touch Pro), HTC Touch Diamond, and of course the iPhone 3G. I've had to ponder the question myself: Is the Bold worth its $299 price tag, much less worth a look at all?

I started out unimpressed, but after AT&T pushed out some substantial firmware fixes to the device, I resolved that the Bold has a real place in RIM's lineup and the enterprise mobile market. The Bold respects the enterprise formula, keeping sacred everything that makes the QWERTY BlackBerry a unique business and IT tool but enhancing it in well-selected places. The enhancements start with a platform modernization that exploits a fast CPU and accelerated graphics, enabling an updated GUI framework that makes high-res, widescreen QWERTY look like a million bucks.

(Take a slideshow tour of the BlackBerry Bold. How does the Bold stack up to the competition? See InfoWorld's guide to the best mobile devices.)

Live for the Message

Messaging (e-mail, IM, SMS) is still job one. The global BlackBerry notification and delivery infrastructure turns all messages into instant messages. Even polled IMAP and POP mailboxes are monitored by RIM's servers, not your handset, so BlackBerry magic such as prioritized assured delivery, on-demand attachment download, and initial fragment push are part of the coverage plan. No back end is required. If you write as often as you read, there is still no substitute for fixed QWERTY.

Beyond business as usual, Bold takes on a state-of-the-art feature roster, including 3G (UMTS on AT&T's network); 802.11b/g Wi-Fi; GPS; video and still camera; Bluetooth stereo headphones (A2DP) and Bluetooth remote (AVRCP) profiles; and external microSDHC storage expansion. The handset is wrapped in a handsome and durable chassis that incorporates a padded grip, and the piano-black face has broad, well-lit keys and buttons. It looks great from all angles and feels good in either hand, and when it's time to type, the screen stays the same size.

RIM finally let its own programmers use the BlackBerry platform's GUI frameworks for a QWERTY phone. The home screens look gorgeous, and you can reorganize app icons to your liking. You'll need to, since AT&T loaded Bold's default home menu with consumery music, video, and ringtone stores. The carrier also manipulates the menu via over-the-air updates, a few of which AT&T issued during my testing. You can stuff little-used or unused icons into folders.

Text remains BlackBerry's stock in trade, and believe it or not, the Bold's text clarity exceeds the BlackBerry Storm's, even with the smaller display. The tiny widescreen is sharper than ink. Although I frequently adjust the text size on the BlackBerry 8800 I carry to compensate for eye fatigue, I find that I can read the BlackBerry Bold at its minimum point size, whatever the time or time zone.

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