With 3G, quad-band and Wi-Fi calling, RIM BlackBerry Bold 9700 is best fixed QWERTY smartphone to date

Research in Motion's BlackBerry Bold 9700 is the ultimate QWERTY BlackBerry handset.

Research in Motion's BlackBerry Bold 9700 is the ultimate QWERTY BlackBerry handset.

The Bold 9700, which replaces the Bold 9000, is the product of an array of minute refinements on the flagship BlackBerry model and classic QWERTY form factor. If you're a power user who's addicted to the BlackBerry style (or required by corporate), this is the BlackBerry to get.

OUTSIDE

The new Bold is a visual departure from the old, which was "bold" in the sense of being large, masculine and clad in chrome and leatherette. The new 9700 is slim, smaller and has far more in common with the Curve 8520, including RIM's new optical trackpad, which replaces the spotty rollerball. It's a change that's surprisingly easy to get used to.

[Image Gallery: RIM BlackBerry Bold 9700 hands-on]

The 9700's smaller, more compact profile (4.29 in. tall by 2.36 in. wide by 0.56 in. thick; 4.3 oz. in weight) means it's actually lighter than the Tour. Compared to the Bold 9000, the new Bold 9700 actually has a smaller screen -- 2.44 in. versus 2.75 in. -- but the stunning 480 x 360 pixel resolution (245 ppi) means images and video playback is quite sharp and vivid. You won't miss the 0.31 inches.

Another reason you won't miss the lost space is because BlackBerry OS 5.0, while including welcome refinements, hasn't changed very much to require the extra space. Changes include an easier-to-use calendar and alarm clock, as well as a few new shortcuts that make it easier to customize the device to your liking.

Most of the Bold 9700's physical features are as you'd expect: a refined, tight (in a good way), stiff 35-key full QWERTY keyboard with raised ridges; a 3.5mm headphone jack; a microUSB port/power connector; a customizable shortcut key; another convenience key that's the camera by default; a volume rocker; mute and lock buttons; and a camera and flash on the back side.

The upgraded camera is now 3.2 megapixels (from two) and offers zoom, auto focus, flash, video-recording and basic editing. You can also use GPS to geotag photos. I found the camera on the Bold 9700 to be well-balanced, fairly crisp and accurate in color reproduction. It won't knock your socks off -- this is a smartphone we're talking about here -- but it's a strong contender based on what's currently on the market.

The T-Mobile version of the handset comes with an AC adapter, a USB cable, a 2GB microSD card, a wired stereo headset and a belt holster. AT&T also offers the device.

INSIDE

The Bold 9700 is T-Mobile's first 3G BlackBerry, with support for UMTS/HSDPA 900/1700/2100. The box proudly proclaims the device's UMA support for Wi-Fi calls (make and receive unlimited calls over Wi-Fi without using voice plan minutes), and tucked inside is also a faster processor (624 MHz) and an updated OS.

The only major downside of the Bold 9700, and it's a notable one, is the Web browser that comes with the operating system. Compared to other smartphones on the market, it just can't compete in terms of functionality or usability, and while it's relatively snappy (thanks to faster Javascript and CSS processing), it leaves you wanting more from an otherwise crisp smartphone: there's no tabbed browsing, navigation is still the same and it just doesn't accommodate for the way users now browse the Web.

The hardware is still formidable. The Bold 9700 offers quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, voice-activated dialing, smart dialing, conference calling, speed dial, visual voice mail and text and multimedia messaging with threaded chat view.

The 9700 also sports background noise suppression technology, GPS, Bluetooth (mono and stereo), hands-free support, dial-up networking and serial port profile, among other features.

For those who use corporate BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), you'll have more e-mail functionality: you can now manage e-mail folders, access remote file share and forward and view calendar appointments, all welcome changes.

With BlackBerry Internet Service, you can access up to 10 personal/business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts. There's also an attachment viewer for opening Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Corel WordPerfect, PDF, JPEG, and GIF files. It's supplemented by pre-loaded DataViz Documents To Go Standard, which allows you to edit Microsoft Office files.

The 9700 is preloaded with AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Yahoo, Windows Live, and BlackBerry Messenger clients. BlackBerry App World allows you to fill out your app needs, but the phone's limited 256MB of internal memory means you don't have oodles of space to play with. Still, there was plenty of space to install Facebook, news from the Associated Press and ZDNet's own app.

The built-in multimedia player supports MP3, WMA, WMA ProPlus, AAC, AAC+, and eAAC+ files, and MPEG4, WMV, and H.264 video clips. It's fairly comprehensive in terms of functionality, and you can sync your personal library (including iTunes) using BlackBerry Media Sync and BlackBerry Desktop Manager software, available for Mac and PC. I found media playback to be surprisingly satisfying, but don't expect to load your entire music library on this device, as it's not built for it.

USABILITY

The Bold 9700 is far more "pocketable" than the previous Bold 9000 and slipped in and out of my bag rather easily. It's pretty light as far as smartphones go, which is nice, and its edges are smooth and don't snag on pockets.

The keyboard is one of the finest RIM has produced, and I thought the small chrome separators were a nice touch.

I tested the Bold 9700 in New York on T-Mobile. Audio was clear on both sides of the line, including during use of the speakerphone. There was a bit of tinnyness present, but I've found that to be a problem among most smartphones, and there was less problem with this on the Bold 9700 than on most others.

I had no problem pairing a Bluetooth headset to the Bold 9700.

Battery was rated at 6 hours of talk time and 17 days of standby time; I found that to be largely accurate, though expect your standby time to be a bit less in the real world, even if you don't use the phone very often.

BOTTOM LINE

The RIM BlackBerry Bold 9700 is the best and most refined QWERTY BlackBerry ever made.

In previous posts, I've lamented the obvious drawbacks of the BlackBerry operating system, including clunky navigation and Web browsing, but this device isn't built for the Apple iPhone crowd, and will never appeal to them.

With that significant point noted, the Bold 9700's high build quality, minor usability upgrades and quality media playback will bring a smile to any classic BlackBerry fan's face. The BlackBerry Storm2 might get the press for its departure from the classic BlackBerry formula, but the Bold 9700 is the powerful dark horse in RIM's stable. As a fixed QWERTY handset, it won't disappoint.