Here it is, my BlackBerry Bold 9900 review. As can be expected I was very excited when this device was announced and even more so when I finally had the 9900 in my hands. I was first able to play with the 9900, 9860 and 9810 at the BB7FanNight in Toronto, and it was there that I decided the Bold 9900 was the next device for me. RIM has definitely done a fine job in developing the 9900 to be the best “traditional” BlackBerry that is currently on the market today. And while many people may criticize RIM for their choices in processor speeds, memory size, screen resolution, etc. The truth of it is that this is what a BlackBerry is meant to be. Now before I start going on a rant about the way in which RIM has been attacked by analysts and other opponents, let us get right into the review by looking at the specs and hardware design first.
The Bold 9900 is the first BlackBerry smartphone to be released with the new Snapdragon 1.2GHz processor, which is quite a step up from the slow and tired 624MHz processor we have become accustomed to in previous versions. The other big step up is the RAM which is sitting at 768MB with 8GB of eMMC storage for media content. The 9900 is also the first Bold to include a touchscreen to compliment that front facing qwerty keyboard. The screen is a 2.8” VGA display that has a 287 ppi (pixels per inch). Here is the full list of specs;
- Tri-BandHSPA+,Quad-BandGSM/EDGE (9900)
- Dual-BandCDMA/EV-DORev.A,Dual-BandHSPA+,Quad-Band GSM/EDGE (9930)
- Dual-Band Wi-Fi – 802.11 b/g/n at 2.4 GHz and 802.11 a/n at 5 GHz
- Bluetooth® 2.1+EDR support
- 5.0 MP camera, supports 720p HD video recording
- 768 MB RAM; 8 GB on-board memory, plus microSD slot supporting up to 32 GB cards
- 2.8″ capacitive touch screen display – VGA (640×480), 287 dpi resolution
- 1.2 GHz Processor
- 115 x 66 x 10.5 mm, approximately 130g
- 1230 mAh removable, rechargeable battery
- Built-in GPS / aGPS
- Orientation Sensor (Accelerometer), Digital Compass (Magnetometer), Proximity Sensor
- Ultra-easy QWERTY keyboard, optical trackpad
- BlackBerry 7 OS
The thickness of the Bold 9900 is something that will leave you in amazement, at only 10.5mm thick the 9900 is the thinnest BlackBerry to date. The increase in the specs are just a part of what makes this phone special, sure the camera with 720p recording is important, but we will cover those separately. The design of the Bold 9900 is what really makes me like this device.
The new higher powered processor can be felt in all areas of this phone. No longer are you getting the hourglass when simply trying to open an app, and the dedicated GPU makes the graphics run without any lag whatsoever. The easiest way to see how the GPU and CPU are working together is by doing to everyday task of swiping back and forth between panels. After using my Bold 9900 for only a few minutes and then going back to my Torch 9800, I could immediately feel the difference, and to be honest I could never go back to my 9800 now.
The addition of the Magnetometer and Accelerometer in the latest Bold has made it possible for RIM to look towards new apps and capabilities when it comes to the platform. This is demonstrated within the new Wikitude Browser which will allow you to explore the world around you like never before on your BlackBerry.
When you first take your Bold 9900 out of the box you are immediately drawn to the stainless steel bezel that surrounds the device. The use of actual stainless steel opposed to the traditional plastic chrome painted makes the Bold 9900 a very sharp dressed fellow. I know that the bezel is very similar to another manufacturer’s phone, but I don’t care about that, the fact remains that the bezel suits the 9900.
The other big new design feature is the battery door which has a carbon fiber type of styling that is a refreshing change from the faux leather backing on the previous Bold’s. The new battery door also has the NFC antenna in it, which is also a first for BlackBerry. The new battery door design truly suits the new stylings that have been incorporated with the 9900, and add to the overall “high class” feel that the device has.
The inclusion of the NFC antenna is a new departure for RIM, and seems to be the way that some manufacturers are going these days. However this can also been seen as “specs padding”, as there is really no use for NFC at the current time. I am hoping that RIM is going to be the front runner in looking for partnerships with companies to make NFC a usable feature, much like you will find in Asia. If there aren’t any mobile payment partnerships made by RIM I truly think RIM will regret putting the NFC chip into this device, however on the polar opposite side of that it could really work out in the end.
Keyboard and Touchscreen:
Now that we have looked at the overall design of the 9900, it is time to look at the two main characteristics that make this the best traditional BlackBerry out there. First of all let us look at the keyboard. It was widely accepted by many that the Bold 9000 had the best feeling keyboard that RIM has ever made, and with the changes made to the 9700 in term of size, there were many that felt RIM had abandoned one of their greatest selling features. Now don’t get me wrong the keyboard on the 9700 and 9780 were still fine keyboards, but they did lack the finesse and grace that the 9000 had. Well I am happy to say that the keyboard of the 9900 has dethroned the 9000 as the best smartphone keyboard out there. And yes I just did say smartphone instead of BlackBerry. The throw that the keyboard on the 9900 has is almost angelic, and it has just the perfect amount of “clickety-clack” that any self-respecting keyboard should have. The main reason the keyboard feels so extraordinary in the hands is because RIM was able to make it 6% larger than that of the 9000, and while only a small percentage it does make a world of difference.
Next we have the touchscreen on the 2.8” display of the 9900. I am still in the process of conditioning myself to use the touchscreen, as it is a foreign idea, but once you get used to it overall usage is definitely improved. The touchscreen is very responsive, and I didn’t encounter a single instance where it didn’t swipe the way I wanted it to, or move at random moments when trying to select an icon. After using my 9900 for a day or two I went back to my 9800 to see the difference and it was surprising at how much better the touch responsiveness on the 9900 was.
I truly believe that the combination of the keyboard and the touchscreen of the 9900 are the real reasons we can call it the best traditional BlackBerry to date. As a duo they complement each other perfectly and make the end user experience all that much better.
With the launch of the Bold 9900 we also get the introduction of BlackBerry 7, which was initially known as 6.1 before it got it’s re-branding. So let’s get real about this, BlackBerry 7 isn’t a big change and it isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind. The OS is visually pretty much the same and we still don’t have that nice QNX UI that was introduced on the PlayBook. The good news is that if you have a current device that is running BlackBerry 6 you won’t have to re learn how to use your BlackBerry.
Even though the OS looks the same, the feel of it is much improved. RIM has attributed this to the “liquid graphics” that have been baked into the OS, and while I am still a little unsure of what exactly these liquid graphics are the OS does feel much better. When the Torch 9800 launched the OS was something new, but it did have issues handling transition between panels. This is not true of BlackBerry 7. BlackBerry 7 brings some features that many of us felt should have been included within BlackBerry 6. Personally I am an “All panel” kind of guy, and I really don’t feel the need to have the other panels that you can accidentally swipe between. RIM must have heard us all and they did include the ability to manage panels within OS 7, and I am so thrilled about it. The other nice new option that can change the way in which you use your panels, is that you can hide icons on certain panels and leave them visible on others.
Now I am sure that there a few of you out there that don’t think these minor, yet important, changes are enough to make anyone excited about BB7. In one sense I can agree with those arguments, however at the same time you have to look at the full picture, and one cannot ignore how smooth BB7 is, and I am sure that a vast majority of that can be attributed to internal enhancements (ie. Processor, RAM). There is no denying that when you double the speed of the processor that the overall feel, and smoothness of the device is going to improve. I may become a little un-popular for saying this, but there is really no excuse for why RIM didn’t release these BlackBerry 7 devices at the time that they launched the 9800. I truly believe that if the 9900, 9810 and the 9850/60 had been released last August when the original Torch 9800 was released RIM wouldn’t be getting as much slack from analysts and those tech journalists that seem to have a hate on for BlackBerry’s.
The truly exciting part of BlackBerry 7 is the way in which many apps are integrated together. We have previously seen how BBM social is starting to progress, but it does seem to work a little better on the 9900. The major new app that is part of BB7 is the Wikitude Browser that brings social media and augmented reality together to change the way in which we use our BlackBerry’s. Now I am not going to go in depth on the Wikitude browser here, as I am going to give it a section all to its own, but needless to say it is something that has given me some more faith in the BlackBerry platform as a whole and the direction that it is going in.
The WebKit browser has also seen some drastic improvements in BB7. RIM has stated that the browser in BlackBerry is 40% faster than the BB6 version and 100% faster than OS 5. The browser has always been a point on contention when trying to convince someone why they would want a BlackBerry opposed to a iPhone or Android device. As someone who does carry, and use, multiple platform’s every day I can say that the new and improved browser does hold its own with the rest of the field. Later on in the review you will find the browser showdown video so you can get a better idea of the speed of the new Webkit browser. In terms of style and functionality, there really isn`t anything new in the browser, as with the rest of the OS, if you have used a BlackBerry 6 device you will be comfortable with BlackBerry 7.
The browser on BlackBerry 7 is well…much faster. In terms of everyday, normal use this is probably the one thing on BlackBerry’s that desperately needed to be addressed. We could deal with the lag of the OS, and the lack lustre specs, but a reasonably fast and usable browser is a must in this day and age. I ran some test between my Bold 9900, a Nexus S and my old Torch 9800 and the 9900 was on par with the Nexus S and blew the 9800 out of the water. I will be posting a video in the coming days dedicated solely to the improvements in the browser.
In an age of mass media consumption a smartphone’s browser is the key to unlock all the information one may need or want. RIM had previously fallen way behind its competitors when it came to mobile browsing. Let’s be honest here, on OS5 or older devices, browsing the web was a chore and pain all in one. I for one felt embarrassed trying to search for something at the same time as my iPhone touting friends and would usually be minutes behind. With the introduction of the WebKit browser, thanks to the acquisition of Torch Mobile, RIM finally stepped up the plate, and with the ongoing enhancements and changes that have obviously gone into the browser on BlackBerry 7 BB fans can now hold their heads up high when participating in a browser “search off” with their friends using Apple or Android products.
We were all very happy to hear that the new BlackBerry 7 devices would be able to record in 720p, this was something that we had expected with BlackBerry 6, but alas we had to wait another full year to get it. However the cheers and high fives did end after it was discovered that the camera had been changed from previous devices, due to RIM making the 9900 the thinnest BlackBerry to date at 10.5mm thick. In order to accomplish this RIM did have to switch to an always in focus EDOF (Extended Depth Of Field) 5MP lens. Now the big difference here is that opposed to an auto-focus lens, the 9900 has a lens that is always re-calibrating to remain in focus, which to some if not an ideal lens type. Regardless of all of this the Bold 9900 does till take relatively nice pictures, although some tweaking of the settings is required more than usual depending on the situation.
The video recording is quite nice, especially with that 720p. Certain critics have asked by RIM didn’t introduce 1080p with the new devices, but I am not looking for a top of the line camcorder when I am purchasing a phone. Rather I am looking for a smartphone that has a decent enough camera and video camera that allow me to lo leave the house without my digital camera and HD camcorder. The Bold 9900 is just what the doctor ordered for this use case, as it will capture that important moment while you are on the go, as well as allow you to shoot some pretty decent videos of any special occasion. All around the camera on the 9900 is a decent camera and fulfills all of my needs in a phone, but I am sure that there are some of you out there that put more emphasis on the camera than others, so make sure that you go and get some hands on time with the device before dropping the cash on it.
Now I am sure by now that you have all heard about the smaller battery in the Bold 9900, and yes it is smaller than previous Bold’s. The JM1 is the new ultra-thin battery that RIM has used for the 9900, and at only 1230mAh it did make me a little worried about how well it was going to hold up to my daily routine. Battery life is very subjective, as not everyone uses their phone in the same way, personally I am a heavy user and even with my 9700 I would have the battery completely dead by the end of the day. So when dropping down from a 1500mAh to a 1230, my immediate reaction was to carry a charger with me at all times. As it turns out the battery life isn’t horrible, and I can make it about 9-12 hours on a charge depending on circumstances.
One thing that should be noted with the 9900 is that when signal is a little weak the battery gets eaten up very quickly, at a rate that I have not experienced before with previous BlackBerry’s. Now I am sure that this will be tweaked as we get more OS builds (anyone else remember that 141 build for the Torch??). Another thing to note is that the battery also did much better when connected to a WiFi network, then when it wasn’t. So if you live your life surrounded by WiFi you should get some decent battery life out of the JM1.
The JM1 will most likely last a light user a few days, a moderate user a full 24 hours, and a heavy user like myself will need to charge at some point in the afternoon to keep on trucking. If you are a heavy user you will most likely want to look at getting a spare battery for those emergency situations when you aren’t close to a wall charger.
Now for what many may think is the less glorious parts of a phone review, but really they are the key things that we use every day. Personally I have never really had an issue with BlackBerry’s and their call/audio quality. The 9900 performs quite well on phone calls and I didn’t notice any echoes or tiny sounds from the ear piece. The speaker also performed well and I actually found the volume to be closer to that of the 9000 and its dual speakers. I did notice that sounds would go a little funny if you had the speaker cranked up, but I don’t know why anyone would try and use their phone as a boom-box. Even when used with a Bluetooth earpiece, visor mount, or a pair of headphones with an inline microphone the call quality was very good.
The WiFi on the 9900 is Dual-Band with 802.11 b/g/n at 2.4GHz and 802.11 a/n at 5GHz, and as previously stated the battery performance does seem to improve when you have the WiFi connected. The one thing that is missing within the WiFi settings is to create a mobile Hotspot with your 9900. If you remember back to some of the leaked roadmaps this was mentioned as a key spec, and that we would be able to connect up to 8 devices. So where has that mobile Hotspot gone? Well it seems that RIM has removed the functionality and for the time being we don’t really have any reason for it. This is one of the most disappointing parts of the 9900 as with its 14.4Mbps modem the speeds that we could pull down on our BlackBerry’s was finally starting to improve. Now there have been some rumors that we may see the functionality get added with a software update, but a part of me believes that carriers will do everything they can to keep it from hitting the devices. Hopefully I am wrong and within the next few months we will get an update and *poof* it will be there and ready to use.
So we reach the end of this review and I am still a huge fan of the Bold 9900. I know that many people will criticize RIM for the lack of innovation, and that the OS is past dated and needs to get refreshed. We know that QNX is coming to phones at some point, hopefully Q1 of 2012, but the QNX operating system us untested on phones, and may take much longer than expected. So what reasons can I think of that would stop me from buying a 9900? Well to be truthful and to the point… there aren’t any. Personally the traditional BlackBerry is the form factor that allows me to accomplish the most with my phone. I am not the type of person that wants to download game after game to play on my phone that is what my Xbox and PS3 are for. Rather I use my phone to communicate with friends, family, co-workers and anyone that wants to share some thoughts on Twitter. With the addition of the new CPU and GPU my 9900 is a dream to use, and I rarely get the dreaded hourglass anymore. The keyboard is the best in the game, and quite frankly BlackBerry 7 is an OS that is tailored to my needs. I am not saying that the phone doesn’t have some cons going for it. The battery life is still a little worrisome and who knows how long it will take app developers to get on board with BB7, but for the most part the Bold 9900 is the best phone for me. I have a feeling that there will be those of you out there that prefer the 9810 or the 9850/60, and by all means get some hands on time with all of the new BB7 devices and decide which one best suites your needs. And if you are thinking of switching to an iPhone or Android device, please give these devices a chance first, as I think they may change your mind.
- 1.2GHz Snapdragon Qualcomm processor & 768 MB RAM
- Liquid Graphics for smooth touchscreen
- new Webkit browser
- Wikitude Browser
- full qwerty keyboard
- 2.8″ touchscreen
- thin & lightweight
- 720p video recording
- EDOF camera
- only 188MB free for apps
- small 1230mAh battery
- possible short shelf life due to QNX devices coming eventually