iPhone 4 vs BlackBerry Bold: Which is the better work mobile?

Apple or RIM? Touchscreen or Qwerty? Fun or frustration?
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor on

Apple or RIM? Touchscreen or Qwerty? Fun or frustration?

Of all the battles currently raging in the smartphone space, few are as fiercely fought as the war between BlackBerry-maker RIM and iPhone-creator Apple.

silicon.com decided to square up the companies' respective handsets and see which comes out on top. In the red corner: the Apple iPhone 4. In the blue corner: the BlackBerry Bold 9700. Let the battle commence...

BlackBerry Bold vs iPhone 4

BlackBerry Bold vs Apple iPhone 4: There can be only one...
(Photo credit: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

Email set-up on BlackBerry and iPhone

BlackBerrys and email go together like strawberries and cream, or so BlackBerry-maker RIM would have us believe.

Push email is where it all started for this smartphone and if your company has embraced RIM's proprietary infrastructure it will already have a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) to push new emails out to the handsets.

Having BES infrastructure is certainly the most straightforward way of getting email on a BlackBerry, not least because the Bold 9700 I am using for this feature offers only the following option in the email set-up wizard: "I want to use a work email account with a BlackBerry Enterprise Server."

Of course not every company has - or wants to - buy into BES. And in my case I can't use a work email account with a BlackBerry Enterprise Server as my company has a limited number of BES licences, none of which are destined for me.

Another way to get email on BlackBerrys is through BIS - the BlackBerry Internet Service. BIS allows BlackBerry users to access POP3/IMAP/Outlook Web Access email accounts without connecting through a BES. The handset needs to be registered, and its SIM needs to be provisioned for BIS so this route can be torturous to say the least.

A third option for getting Microsoft Exchange email on a BlackBerry without having to provision the SIM is to use Outlook Web Access (OWA) via the BlackBerry's browser. It's only a workaround but one that enables rudimentary access to email without having to get on the blower to an operator.

BlackBerry OWA email

Viewing Outlook Web Access via the BlackBerry Bold's browser
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

A day and a half after getting the IT department to make the necessary calls to the company's network service provider, I receive a text notifying me the Bold has been registered as a wireless device. Firing up its email set-up I'm now confronted with The BlackBerry Prosumer Service Agreement - which takes me to a set-up page for Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft Live email accounts, plus an "other" option for getting my Outlook email synced.

At this point it's necessary to throw myself back on the goodwill of the IT department and our in-house smartphone guru gets on the case. However, email account set-up on BIS does not run smoothly: the system takes a dislike to my password, and snubs the domain name.

The company smartphone guru told me the average set-up time for the handful of BlackBerrys already in our company was two hours per device. Ouch. In the end, I leave the BlackBerry with him - feeling more than a little guilty at creating all this extra work for him in the name of journalism.

Meanwhile, getting work email on the iPhone certainly appears more straightforward than the BlackBerry set-up - since the device has native Microsoft Exchange support. I tap Mail to set up an email account, selecting Exchange and then inputting my login and server details. But then I hit a wall: the email won't download - instead a dialogue box informs me the connection to the mail server has failed. Repeated attempts later I'm still mail-less.

Tech support again gets in on the act and all becomes clear: turns out there have been some problems with Exchange syncing since the latest iteration of the iPhone OS - iOS 4 - launched. Our in-house Apple guru points me to a fix and, after downloading the configuration profile, I manage to get my mail to sync.

iPhone Exchange email

Exchange email on an iPhone 4
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

No such resolution is forthcoming for the Bold, however. Despite repeated attempts to get my email synced on the Bold, including waiting an extra day to ensure the device has registered properly, setting up a test account, changing the password on my account, trying alternate email addresses, our smartphone guru returns the BlackBerry still email-less.

In a twist of corporate fate, my work phone is being upgraded to a BlackBerry Curve and the tech department manages to get email working for me on this device. So for the purposes of the next segment of this article - on emailing - I'll be sneaking the odd look at the Curve too...

Using email

Given the Bold is not hooked up to a BES - nor, apparently, provisioned for BIS - Outlook via owa.com is my workaround for composing emails on the BlackBerry.

I was expecting to prefer the physical keyboard of the BlackBerry Bold for writing emails, and the iPhone 4's more generous and high-resolution screen for checking mail - but the iPhone 4 wins hands down.

While I'm not a massive fan of virtual keyboards in general - certainly not for doing lots of text inputting, as I find they slow down my typing and can lead to more typos - the iPhone's capacitive touchscreen is excellent, and when coupled with that is the fact that the vast majority of emails I send are fairly short, I have no trouble firing off day-to-day emails on the iPhone 4.

It's actually quicker to use than using the Bold's physical keyboard as the latter is on the small side and requires careful finger positioning to hit the correct keys, as well as needing a physical key press. If I press the wrong key on the iPhone's virtual keyboard its auto-spelling correction kicks in, catching and correcting many of my virtual typos on the fly.

To make the comparison between the Bold and the iPhone fair, I set the Apple handset to work on OWA via the browser. Its pinch-to-zoom and large high-resolution screen mean it copes well, while OWA on the Bold's browser involves a lot of thumbing around to navigate and squinting at tiny writing to decide where to zoom in.

I find I'm unable to attach files to OWA emails on the Bold as well, underlining how this really is only a temporary workaround until I can get BIS enablement working.

Email on the Curve offers a glimpse of fully featured BlackBerry email - five emails are displayed on screen at a time showing the name of the emailer and the subject line. The iPhone's official Exchange app also has five emails per screen but also fits in the first couple of lines of each email.

BlackBerry email

Exchange email on a BlackBerry Curve
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

BlackBerry email

How an email looks on BlackBerry
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

There are a lot more email options apparent on BlackBerry - including pointing the user to alternative comms routes such as SMS, MMS and voicemail - along with email options such as 'forward as' and 'next unopened item' that have the potential to be useful but contribute to menu clutter and consequently slow down navigation by requiring more thumbing around.

The iPhone 4's Exchange email app has a very different approach, stripping back functionality to the basics: reply, reply all, forward, move to folder, compose email, plus next and previous. Icons are used at the edge of each email to point users to email options, rather than having lengthy pop-up text menus.

Attachments are possible but you have to work backwards on iPhone by going to the file you want to attach first and then tapping the 'email' option there. Copy and paste can also be used to add attachments to emails.

The iPhone's email app may have fewer features but it also prioritises those you're most likely to need. As a result, it's easier and quicker to use than email on BlackBerry. Scrolling through emails with a finger flick is also much more pleasant than the endless thumbing of the Bold's small optical nav-pad.

Sorry BlackBerry, but for me mobile email is all about ease of use and here the iPhone wins hands down: BlackBerry's email system looks and feels old. Long-time BlackBerry users doubtless value its consistency over the years but for a relative newcomer like me it really feels like taking a step back in time to an earlier age of desktop-style mobile computing.

One more thing: a test email I send arrives faster on the iPhone 4 than the Curve where it limps into the inbox 14 minutes later. RIM has suffered the odd high-profile email outage over the years but other issues such as email clumping and delivery lags look to be a more common foible of its email system.

Internet browsing

The iPhone's virtual keyboard is undoubtedly best in class but even so typos are inevitable when inputting lengthy URLs - something which the autocorrect feature can't help you with. The Bold's physical keyboard sneaks ahead here.

However, with no physical Qwerty to accommodate, the iPhone's big advantage is screen real estate. Its screen is close to double the size of the Bold's and can also orient in landscape mode, thanks to the built-in accelerometer. And, being higher resolution, it's undeniably a lot easier on the eye.

One of the iPhone 4's flagship new features is its so-called Retina display. Apple has upped the pixel density to 326 pixels per inch, versus iPhone 3G S's 163ppi to avoid pixellation. In contrast, the Bold's screen resolution is 245ppi and webpages are often rather fuzzy round the edges, as the photo below demonstrates.

A silicon.com photo story as seen on the iPhone 4

A silicon.com photo story as seen on the iPhone 4
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

BlackBerry Bold screenshot

The BlackBerry Bold loses out to the iPhone 4 on screen clarity
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

As with Apple's previous iterations of the iPhone, the device supports finger-based browsing via its multitouch interface, thanks to the much-lauded pinch-to-zoom and flick-to-scroll interface. In addition, Apple's Safari browser allows for multiple web pages to be opened and tabbed through. All of this makes navigating around and between different web pages quick, intuitive and easy.

The Bold meanwhile has an optical trackpad positioned under the screen which does the heavy lifting. Thumbing on this moves a miniature cursor around the screen, highlighting any hyperlinks as it goes. It sounds painstaking but does mean you can browse using just one thumb. Zooming in requires clicking the nav-pad when a magnifying glass icon (shown below) is displayed and hitting the back button to zoom back out. It's certainly much less elegant than pinch-to-zoom, and on large, text-heavy web pages it can get tiresome staring at all that minute detail.

Browsing on BlackBerry is a linear experience: forget opening multiple web pages at once. There are 'back', 'recent pages' and 'history' options - a navigation system which looks incredibly dated by today's smartphone standards. No surprise then that RIM is in the process of developing its own WebKit-based browser - an update that's coming in BlackBerry OS 6, due this year.

BlackBerry Bold screenshot

Browsing the web on the BlackBerry Bold
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

But the main bugbear with Bold browsing is speed: the BlackBerry browser is often frustratingly slow.

I connect both devices to the work wi-fi network and test load a few web pages. First up the silicon.com mobile site - the iPhone loads the page in less than two seconds, versus around six seconds on the Bold. But it's more complex websites where the Bold really struggles to keep up: I browse to the Home Office website - the iPhone's there in circa three seconds, compared to around 10 for the Bold.

The speed gap is even more pronounced when it comes to the content-rich BBC News website: the iPhone loads it in around three seconds but the Bold doesn't get the page fully populated for more than 30 seconds.

Documents and attachments

Both Apple's iPhone and RIM's BlackBerry devices claim to be able to open and view the usual line-up of document and image formats - such as PDFs and Word, Excel and PowerPoint files and so on - although there is a footnote on RIM's specs page that warns: "Certain features require a minimum version of software and may require BlackBerry Enterprise Server." Which may explain why the Bold has trouble with a large PDF from Nokia.

The device won't let me view it, offering instead the option to save the PDF, squirreling it into My Documents. When I track it down again to see if it can be viewed, I'm met with the blocker "Unable to display file".

I also test via the Curve to see if viewing the PDF is possible but it's still a no-go: I'm told "request entity too large".

No such trouble on the iPhone 4: Viewing PDF content is where the iPhone shines and browsing the PDF is almost enjoyable.

Viewing a test Word document attachment works fine on either device, although the iPhone's more generous screen real estate again comes into its own.

The iPhone also handles viewing Excel documents like a pro - although it doesn't offer an option to edit the spreadsheet.

Excel spreadsheets can be both viewed and edited on BlackBerry - I test this out on the Curve and while it gets one over on iPhone with its Documents to Go editing feature, viewing spreadsheets on such a tiny screen is a last resort scenario at best. I can't imagine getting serious work done on the device, more the odd strategic correction.

BlackBerry - viewing an Excel document

Viewing an Excel spreadsheet on a BlackBerry
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

BlackBerry Documents to Go

Editing an Excel spreadsheet on a BlackBerry
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

While neither the BlackBerry nor the iPhone is big enough to do much more than the odd bit of document editing or note-taking, I find the pre-loaded notes app on iPhone 4 is handy. It's quick and easy to use since typing on the touchscreen is so fast - perfect for jotting down to-do lists on the train or making notes in meetings. There is no shortage of other third party note-taking and to-do list apps on the iTunes app store either.

iPhone 4 notes app

The iPhone 4's pre-loaded notes app
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

Taking photographs and video

No surprise that the iPhone's superior, five-megapixel camera takes a better snap than the Bold's 3.2-megapixel offering. Compare the following two photos:

iPhone 4 - testing the camera

A Maneki Neko as photographed by the iPhone 4's five-megapixel camera
(Photo credit: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

BlackBerry Bold - testing the camera

A Maneki Neko as photographed by the BlackBerry Bold's 3.2-megapixel camera
(Photo credit: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

The iPhone's video recording is also far superior to the Bold's effort too - this should come as no surprise either, with the iPhone offering HD recording.

Comparing a similar recording made on each device, the iPhone footage is crisp, clear and smooth while the Bold's footage has a murky pink hue, making it look washed-out. There are also a series of glitches and distortions produced by panning around.

Making a phone call

With so many features vying for our attention, the humble telephone function of a smartphone can often feel overlooked. That's fine by me though: 90 per cent of the things I do with a smartphone don't involve my own vocal chords.

The iPhone 4 has been dogged by the now well-aired reception issues. Apple designed the iPhone 4 with a partially external antenna - the metal band running around its rim is part of its antenna system. However, touching this band with bare flesh affects the device's reception, although using an iPhone case or even covering part of the antenna with sticky tape solves the problem.

On call clarity neither device is amazing - the Bold can sound rather muffled and the iPhone as if your interlocutor is speaking to you through a small puddle.

On the iPhone I also experience a few dropped voice calls and disconnected sessions on FaceTime, Apple's video-calling service. There's even a bizarre incident when the phone's screen informs me a voice call has ended yet I can still hear my friend speaking on the other end of the line.

But at the risk of sounding as if I'm siding with Apple CEO Steve Jobs - who drew fire by apparently showing other makes of phones having antenna issues - in my experience, reception gremlins on voice calls are par for the course with mobile phones. The iPhone 4 may perform less well as a telephone than some other mobile devices but it still performs most of the time which is good enough for me.

Making a video call

Since the Bold has only one camera, which is on the back of the device, videoconferencing is not an option. On the iPhone however, video calling is pretty much the defining new feature: say hello to FaceTime - Apple's iPhone 4 to iPhone 4 wi-fi videocalling app. Currently FaceTime will only work between two iPhone 4s but the protocol is an open standard so it's conceivable FaceTime between an iPhone 4 and a non-iPhone might be possible at some point in future.

FaceTime on the iPhone 4

FaceTime video calling on the iPhone 4
(Photo credit: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

A video call can be initiated with another wi-fi-enabled iPhone 4 owner in your Contacts list by tapping the FaceTime button next to their details. There's also an option to switch on FaceTime when you make or receive a phone call.

During FaceTime there's also the option to switch to the camera on the back of the device to show your immediate surroundings. I FaceTimed an iPhone-4-owning friend who's currently in San Francisco and he uses this feature to show me where he's staying. I don't think twice about calling the US since these calls are routed over the company's wi-fi network using VoIP and therefore are free. Pretty handy if you have iPhone-owning colleagues based overseas who you know are in wi-fi range - but of course it's nothing you can't already do via the likes of Skype and a webcam.

There's a Skype app for the Bold for VoIP calls but without dual cameras on the device, you can continue to whistle for any kind of video calling.

FaceTime on the iPhone 4

FaceTiming a friend in San Francisco
(Screenshot: FaceTime on iPhone 4 by Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

I can't say video calling is the app I've been waiting for all my life. Perhaps SMEs with employees spread far and wide might find it a useful and relatively straightforward way to keep a team in touch but, judging by Apple's FaceTime marketing, it does seem aimed first and foremost at consumer iPhone users.

Apps on iPhone and BlackBerry

A picture may be worth a thousand words but cold, hard numbers talk like nothing else: there are around 225,000 iPhone apps on Apple's iTunes App store, versus less than 8,000 apps on BlackBerry App World.

It's worth pointing out that, unlike the iPhone, apps can be loaded onto the Bold in more than one way. While iPhone 4 means using only iTunes, BlackBerry apps can be downloaded straight from the internet, from third party app sites such as GetJar, and also via App World.

But nothing says convenience like an app superstore - and on ease of use and range of content, the iTunes superstore wins hands down.

Want your phone to do something handy or cool? Chances are there's an app for that on Apple's app store.

Loading apps onto the iPhone is incredibly easy provided you already have an iTunes account. Setting up a new account via the iPhone is fiddly. Apple presumably assumes iPhone users will already have an iTunes account and won't allow you to download free apps without one, which is annoying.

BlackBerry App World does let users download free apps without being registered on the other hand.

If you want to download paid apps on a BlackBerry though, you currently need a PayPal account, although RIM is soon to add the option of credit card and operator billing. Since PayPal is even more unlovely than iTunes, that can't happen soon enough in my opinion.

Once you've signed your life over to Apple and got yourself an iTunes account, app downloading is child's play. Just hit install and the app icon materialises on your homescreen.

Getting apps to work on BlackBerry can be a bit more painful. Option-packed set-up wizard menus often overshadow the app itself - by the time you've waded through the set-up process, enthusiasm for the app itself has waned. I even find some apps requiring a manual re-boot of the device to establish new settings.

I download RIM's Facebook for BlackBerry app. Once I've logged in and agreed to lengthy T&Cs, the app asks if I want to connect my Facebook account with the BlackBerry Message app, Calendar app and Contacts app and to update existing photos in BlackBerry contacts list with Facebook profile pics.

Call me old-fashioned but I like my apps to be quick in and out affairs, not deeply embedded in everything else offered by the phone so avoid I untick all the pre-ticked embed options, then I can choose to save the settings or continue with further set-up. I hit save and arrive at the Facebook homescreen but the app is painstakingly slow: slow to navigate and slow to update selected sections.

Facebook app for BlackBerry

RIM's Facebook for BlackBerry app
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

A message in the notification menu says RIM has developed keyboard shortcuts to "connect and share with your friends even faster". That's certainly one way to avoid scrolling lag but I still find myself wishing for more hardware muscle and the ease of a decent touchscreen.

No such issues with the official Facebook iPhone app. It's fast, there's no T&Cs to agree to and it doesn't try and colonise other areas on my phone.

Facebook app for iPhone

Facebook's iPhone app
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

I also downloaded Twitter for BlackBerry - another app made by RIM. On downloading it, I'm greeted with the familiar terms of service user agreement to be thumbed through and agreed to.

Twitter app for BlackBerry

RIM's Twitter for BlackBerry app
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

Once I've signed in I find this a much more usable BlackBerry app experience than Facebook. It's still not the fastest app around but the lag is manageable. The quality bar doesn't match the official Twitter app for iPhone which is lag-less and a pleasure to use. Kinetic scrolling comes into its own for a list-based service like Twitter.

Twitter app for iPhone

Official Twitter app for iPhone
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

My favourite app for the iPhone - at least in the usefulness stakes - is Dropbox, an app that once installed enables me to turn my device into a cloud storage appendage. Photos or videos I take with the iPhone can be uploaded to Dropbox - from where I have access to them from my work or home PC. It's extremely handy for accessing and transferring documents and photos and means an end to emailing attachments to yourself.

I've been using Dropbox throughout writing this feature to transfer screengrabs from my iPhone to my work PC. Uploading files to Dropbox is simple and quick and once they're uploaded I get a pop-up message on my work PC telling me how many files have been added. From there I can open Dropbox and grab the files. It's truly child's play.

As yet there's no Dropbox app for BlackBerry - though one is apparently in development. However there is a similar cloud storage app called SugarSync which I download. I sign up for a free SugarSync account on my PC - since sign-up on the Bold appears not to work - and then fire up the app to see what it has to offer.

Where Dropbox succeeds (usability, speed, simplicity), SugarSync fails. The web interface is slow to navigate and overly complex and, while the app's UI looks nice, it's confusing, with multiple places to upload files to when one will do.

I try to upload a screengrab I want to use for this feature but instead of thumbnails of images I'm greeted with a the following text list - not exactly helpful when searching for a photo to upload.

sugarsync blackberry app

SugarSync app: Attempting to upload a photo
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

There's no doubt RIM has been expending a lot of energy and marketing muscle on App World, writing its own apps and trying to woo developers to the BlackBerry platform. But so often the experience of apps on BlackBerry is a painful or painstaking one, involving fiddly or blind browsing through text menus with only guesswork to guide you. That's not usability but rather an unwelcome and ugly encounter with platform legacy.

Where the iPhone's intelligent design puts the user experience front and centre, the BlackBerry platform often requires the user to do the heavy lifting. In the tiny screen world of mobile I have even less patience than usual - gadgets have to just work or they are not doing their job properly. If apps are frustrating to use, they won't get a second look-in.

Battery life

The official specs for the iPhone 4 and BlackBerry Bold suggest you'll easily get a day's use out of each device before needing to charge, with Apple quoting up to seven hours talk-time for iPhone 4 (on 3G), up to 10 hours video playback, up to six hours web use (on 3G) and up to 40 hours audio playback. Standby time is quoted as up to 300 hours.

For the Bold, RIM says there's up to six hours talk time, up to six hours video playback and up to 38 hours audio playback. Standby time is quoted as up to 504 hours.

Battery life

Battery drain: A measure of how useful the device is
(Photo credit: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

In practice, I find the iPhone's battery drains faster than the Bold's but that's a result of the device being used more. If I want to check an email, website or fire up an app I reach for the iPhone, not the Bold. It's simply quicker, faster and nicer to use, full stop. In that sense, battery drain acts as a measure of device utility.

But even with all this use, the iPhone's battery generally lasts a day on a full charge. One tip for minimising battery drain: remember to close multitasking apps by double tapping the home button and then pressing and holding the screen. Tap each app to close it. If you've been using the iPhone as much as me you'll be surprised by how many apps are in limbo in the background.

Multitasking on iPhone

iPhone multitasking: Remember to close apps you're not using any more
(Screenshot: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

BlackBerry Bold vs iPhone 4: The verdict

In many ways comparing iPhone 4 with BlackBerry Bold is not a fair comparison as the iPhone is newer, pricier and more powerful. RIM does also make a touchscreen handset - the BlackBerry Storm, albeit with a clickable touchscreen - which would make a more obvious comparison with an iPhone.

However Qwerty smartphones such as the BlackBerry Bold are still a very common sight in business so I also wanted to analyse the trade-off of jettisoning a physical keyboard for a full touchscreen: is it a step too far to remove physical keys entirely or do screen real estate gains more than make up for it?

In a conclusion that turns out to be almost the exact opposite of a sister feature I wrote - comparing iPad vs laptop - I found that, with a touchscreen as responsive as the iPhone's, a smartphone can happily ditch push-button keys. More than that, losing the keys feels like a liberation.

So many mobile tasks are much easier to perform with a bit more screen to play with. The touchscreen interface also feels like a natural fit on mobile where even small speed gains can turn a frustrating experience into something fun. Fun may sound trivial but such usability has helped Apple build an unrivalled app ecosystem. And think of it another way: if your staff enjoy viewing spreadsheets, checking and sending emails and participating in videoconference calls, that's probably a good thing for your business.

Of course there are other factors to consider too: cost and security. Rolling out iPhones is going to be a more expensive way of mobilising a workforce - if expense is considered only as a measurement of initial outlay. Time and productivity gains may change that calculation.

Meanwhile on the security side, RIM claims to have nailed down every security certification that matters.

UK government ministers are one group banned from using iPhones, since Apple's hardware has not been cleared for use by the appropriate authorities and ministers have been furnished with BlackBerrys instead.

The iPhone is not without corporate security basics - passcodes, remote wipe, VPN, encryption, WPA2, device restrictions and so on. While it does not qualify to sit in a UK Minister's briefcase, that should not automatically disqualify the iPhone from many businesses.

As a mere mobile user I'm not able to choose my work mobile device - that decision is down to the IT department - but if I'm offered the choice of BlackBerry or iPhone, I know which one I'd lobby for.

iPhone vs BlackBerry

iPhone beats BlackBerry for this mobile user
(Photo credit: Natasha Lomas/silicon.com)

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