I reviewed the very first BlackBerry Bold 9000 way back in October 2008 so I was excited to get my hands on the latest addition to the Bold family, the pricey BlackBerry Bold 9930 ($250 with a two-year contract from Verizon). In terms of design, this phone has come a long way. Finally, the Bold gets some touch screen love, but still retains that iconic QWERTY slab design. But is adding a touch screen enough to keep the Bold relevant in today’s smartphone wars? If you’re longtime Bold owner or a BlackBerry fan, you’ll love the 9930’s updated design and new operating system. On the other hand, if you’ve been using an Android phone or an iPhone, the Bold probably won’t catch your eye.
Thin profile, classic design
The Bold is the thinnest of the series at only 0.41 inches thick. Measuring 4.53 inches tall and 2.6 inches wide, the Bold 9930 feels quite nice in hand with solid brushed metal edges, a glass face and a glossy patterned back. The Bold series has always been the most fashionable of the BlackBerries (well, the first Bold’s leather back was a bit gaudy) and the 9930 is definitely no exception. The whole phone feels high quality yet durable—which is gratifying given its hefty price!
The Bold 9930’s keyboard is possibly the best physical keyboard I’ve used. This is the Bold’s biggest draw, in my opinion. With its sculpted keys and guitar fret-like dividers in between keyboard rows, I could bang out long e-mails, texts and flood my social networks quickly, errorlessly and without any finger cramping. The keyboard is wide enough so that even my larger handed colleagues felt comfortable using it. You get a large space bar and the usual BlackBerry alt, sym, shift and speaker keys. Between the display and the keyboard, you’ll find the Talk, Menu, Back and Power/End physical keys. You’ll also find the touch-sensitive trackpad, which is also quite responsive.
The 2.8-inch 640-by-480-pixel display is bright, sharp and responsive. I can’t help but feel a little strange when I use a touch display that small, but at least you have both the trackpad and the display to work with. Unlike the new BlackBerry Torch models, the Bold does not have an accelerometer, which wouldn’t really make sense on a display that small.
BlackBerry OS 7 and NFC
Like the Torch 9810 and the full touch Torch 9860, the Bold 9930 runs the new BlackBerry OS 7. You can read our full hands-on of OS 7 here. BlackBerry OS 7 is a lot faster than OS 6, but aesthetically it is very similar. One cool feature, however, is that the Bold is the first BlackBerry to offer Near Field Communication support (NFC). When I spoke with RIM last week, they informed me that the Bold is the first of many devices that will have NFC support and that the company is working with developers in creating NFC enabled apps for mobile payments and content exchange.
To some people, camera quality on a smartphone isn’t a big deal. For me personally, however, it is a huge. I don’t always want to lug around my DSLR or even my point-and-shoot, so I want a phone that can take decent photos (or at least, decent enough for Flickr or Facebook). Frustratingly enough, the Bold’s camera doesn’t have autofocus, which is a must-have for high-end smartphones. Maybe RIM thinks that business users, which the Bold is geared toward, don’t care about autofocus? But in my opinion, if you’re paying $250 for a 3G BlackBerry, you should get top-of-the-line specs and features and that includes autofocus. I’ve heard rumors that RIM dropped autofocus in the 9930 to make the phone slimmer. While I love how thin the 9930, I would take a few extra millimeters over blurry photos any day.
Fortunately, when you’re standing perfectly still, photos taken on the Bold turn out pretty well. The 5-megapixel camera boasts 4X digital zoom, a flash, face detection and image stabilization (which almost makes up for the lack of autofocus). The phone also has some fancy new shooting features, such as scene modes and face detection, and it presents everything within a clean, easy-to-use interface.
The Bold also gets HD video capture at 720p, which is one of the big updates in BlackBerry OS 7. Video quality was pretty good, but I noticed that the Bold’s camcorder struggled with fast-moving action shots. Quick-moving objects were immediately blurry and out of focus.
The Bold 9930 ships with a 1.2GHz processor, has 768MB or RAM and 8GM of on-board memory (expandable up to 32GB via a microSD card). Overall, I found the Bold’s performance to be speedy and reliable. Apps launched quickly, scrolling was smooth, but pinch-and-zoom in the browser could have been more fluid. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the pinch-and-zoom issues in the Torch 9810, but it still stuttered a bit with certain image-heavy websites like PCWorld.com and TheBoldItalic.com.
Disappointingly, the Bold is just a 3G phone—not a 4G LTE device. It would have been awesome to have an LTE or WiMax BlackBerry this time around, but for now, we’ll have to be content with the HSPA+ BlackBerry Bold 9900 coming to AT&T and T-Mobile. Even so, browsing over Verizon 3G on the Bold was quite fast. Web pages loaded up quickly in the revamped browser, which now includes HTML5 support.
Call quality, unfortunately, was hit-or-miss. Verizon’s 3G network is very reliable in San Francisco so I always had reception and never experienced any dropped calls while I was testing the Bold. However, my friends voices sounded a bit tinny and unnatural and I noticed some static on a few of my calls. My friends on the other end of the line reported that my voice sounded distant and robotic.
BlackBerrys generally have very good battery life and it seems like the Bold is no exception. While we haven’t formally tested the Bold’s battery life, it held up over 2 full days of heavy testing and data use with still about 35% of juice left.
Of the three new BlackBerries coming out this fall, the Bold 9930 is definitely my favorite. The keyboard is superb, its design and construction is pristine and the new features in OS 7, like NFC and HD video capture, are a huge plus. BlackBerry fans will be delighted by the Bold, but as I mentioned earlier, the Bold doesn’t have enough to sway existing Android and iPhone users. On top of that, I think that its price is way too high, especially for a 3G phone. I’m looking forward to RIM’s future QNX OS phones (which will run the same OS as the Playbook), but who knows when those will actually come to market. Right now, the Bold (as well as the other new phones) are enough to keep RIM relevant in the smartphone arms race, but it won’t help them gain new customers.