Hands on with the BlackBerry Bold

When I finally got my hands on one of the year's most highly-anticipated smartphones of the year late last week, I was dubious that the BlackBerry Bold would live up to the hype.After playing with it for the past four days, I'm happy to report that by and large, it has managed to pull off that feat.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

BlackBerry BoldWhen I finally got my hands on one of the year's most highly-anticipated smartphones of the year late last week, I was dubious that the BlackBerry Boldwould live up to the hype.

After playing with it for the past four days, I'm happy to report that by and large, it has managed to pull off that feat.

On paper (or should that be on screen?), the Bold has everything you could want in a phone: 3G, Wi-Fi, GPS, a gigabyte of built-in memory (plus a MicroSD slot), a super-fast processor, a removable battery, and a ridiculously gorgeous 480x320 screen. Of course, all of those bells and whistles come with a price -- $299 with a two-year AT&T contract, plus voice and data plans -- which start at $39.99 and $30, respectively. Unlocked, expect to pay well north of $600. Taking advantage of the GPS radio will run you an extra $9.99 a month if you want to use AT&T's Navigator service. (The Bold will be available starting Tuesday.)

And in practice, the phone makes excellent use of those ingredients. E-mailing, as it should be on a BlackBerry, is outstanding, and the large, responsive keyboard is an absolute pleasure to type on (and makes me realize how lame the keyboard is on my Samsung Blackjack II). I've used a variety of BlackBerries over the years, and the keyboard on the Bold is far and away, the best I’ve seen.

THE LOOK Much has been made of the Bold's 2.75-inch screen, but you actually need to see it to believe how crisp and bright it is. When I've shown the device off to friends and family over the past few days, it was playing one of the of canned demo videos (a coming attraction for Speed Racer) that consistently made people say “wow.” (Actually, it typically wasn't that G-rated, but you get the idea.)

And to say this is RIM's best looking BlackBerry ever sounds like faint praise, but in fact, while not necessarily iPhone-sexy, the Bold is a very attractive phone, period. Sure, it's a little chunky – with a full keyboard, it would be hard for it not to be – but RIM did the best they could to make it look sharp. The front of the device is black with silver trim, and the back is a textured plastic, which is actually far less tacky than it sounds.

The built-in two-megapixel camera includes a flash, and takes good, but not great photos (though the flash does mean significantly better shots than possible with the flashless iPhone or T-Mobile G1 (aka, the Google phone). The Bold can also shoot video, which once again, is fine, but nothing to write home about.

THE FEEL And oh yeah, the Bold is a mighty fine quad-band phone too. Even without a headset, the sound quality on calls is simply superb (and folks on the other end of my calls said the same thing). The speaker on the Bold is arguably the loudest and clearest that I’ve ever heard on a smartphone. Loud enough, in fact, to allow you to use the Bold as a decent micro-boombox.

Now of course, the BlackBerry OS lacks the grace and panache of the iPhone. If you're already a Blackberry devotee, you'll be very comfortable with the Bold. But if the Bold marks your entrée to the BlackBerry world – and it should certainly be worthy of your consideration – it will take some time to get used to what at times feels like a very archaic user interface.

THE BOTTOM LINE: BETTER THAN THE IPHONE? If you're working for a company that's a Blackberry shop, you should beg and plead for a Bold, and if your company won't pay for it, you might consider forking over the $299 for it yourself (assuming your IT folks will give it access to their servers).

Making the handset decision becomes a bit harder if you don’t need to be on a Blackberry. For me, there are now two handsets that sit heads and shoulders above the rest – the Bold, and the iPhone 3G. (I would put the G1 right behind them, though that's based on what it will become once programmers start developing more software for it.)

If web browsing is a critical function for you on your phone, and you find yourself needing to read a lot of e-mails, but not necessarily write all that many, I think the iPhone 3G is your best option. In fact, after using one for a couple of months, I have found it extremely difficult to surf the web on any other phone – particularly the super-lame Windows Mobile version on Internet Explorer. If not for the iPhone, I would have been very impressed with the Bold’s browser, but the bottom line is that it’s not in the same league.

Factor in the iPhone's best-in-class media playback, gorgeous design, loads of free and paid add-on applications, and much-improved battery life (not as good as the Bold's, but at least you can now get  full day's work between charges), and you get a nearly-perfect smartphone.

But – and it's a big but – if typing e-mails is just as important as reading them, then I think you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone who would argue that the iPhone is in the same league as the Bold. Yes, I know, your friends and colleagues swear that once you get used to it, that tying on the iPhone becomes second nature. And sure, I'm sure there are some folks out there for whom that might even be true. Me? Sure, after a couple of months on an iPhone, I had gotten better at typing on screen, but I would still estimate that my typing speed is about twice as fast on the Bold than it ever was on an iPhone, and I reckon I’m not alone.

In a perfect world, someone will come up with a device that incorporates the best of both worlds – a phone with a full keyboard and a touchscreen that allows you to use finger swipes and other gestures to easily magnify and reduce web pages.

And sure,  T-Mobile's G1 has both a keyboard and a touchscreen, but so far, the software pales in comparison to the iPhone, its keyboard can't compete with the Bold, and it doesn't yet do corporate e-mail. And while those who have seen it swear that the next BlackBerry on the horizon, the touchscreen-based Storm, takes on-screen typing to a whole other level, I'm going to reserve judgment until I see it for myself – which will hopefully be within the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a best-in-breed smartphone, at least there are now have two outstanding options to choose from.

For more coverage, including photos and video of the BlackBerry Bold:

ZDNet Review: RIM BlackBerry Bold

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