Business handheld-maker RIM once had the market pretty much to itself, but today faces stiff competition. Nokia, in particular, has made great strides with its recent Symbian-based E-series devices, the E71 being the pick of the bunch. And of course, the threat from Windows Mobile cannot be discounted.
RIM has been on a mission to boost its share of the consumer mobile email market, with recent devices placing more emphasis on design and usability. The BlackBerry Bold 9000, for example, incorporates a completely redesigned software interface. But does it also retain its appeal for business users? We obtained a review sample from Clove Technology in order to find out.
The BlackBerry Bold's colour scheme is reasonably businesslike. The black and white fascia looks professional, while the silver trim and rounded edges add a little panache to the design. The faux-leather finish on the backplate may not appeal to all, but it does help you maintain a solid grip on the device. RIM says that backplates will be available in a variety of colours.
We had a problem with the backplate on our review device: it didn't anchor well and came off easily when the Bold was sloshing about on a table. We hope this does not prove to be a recurring issue.
The BlackBerry Bold 9000 has a businesslike design, with a dash of added consumer appeal. Its mini-QWERTY keyboard and 2.6in. screen are both excellent.
The BlackBerry Bold measures a bulky 114mm tall by 66mm wide by 15mm thick, which will make its presence felt in a pocket. It's relatively heavy too, at 136g. This relatively large size has allowed RIM to incorporate a superb mini-QWERTY keyboard and a high-quality screen, as well as a sizeable row of shortcut buttons between keyboard and screen.
The row of shortcut buttons will not surprise any BlackBerry user. There are Call and End keys on the outside, and inside them are the back and menu buttons that are the mainstay of working with the device's software. In the centre a small, round trackball handles navigation and item selection.
The mini-QWERTY keyboard arranges the keys in a shallow u-shape. We're not convinced that this offers any usability advantage, but it does carry forward a design feature we first saw in last year's BlackBerry Curve.
That said, the keyboard on the BlackBerry Bold is the best of its type we've ever used. It benefits from having relatively large keys, but that's not the only ergonomic feature. The shaping of the keys is crucial: each key has a raised section that makes it easy to find with a fingertip. This is not a new idea from RIM, but it's one we greatly appreciate.
The screen is a real step up for RIM. We measured it at 2.6in. across the diagonal, which makes it one of the larger displays on a QWERTY handheld. The resolution of 480 by 320 pixels can display plenty of information — we even found it possible to read spreadsheets, which is something we've avoided on earlier BlackBerry devices because of display constraints.
The BlackBerry Bold 9000 ships with an AC adapter, stereo headphones, a USB cable and the obligatory RIM carrying case, plus a user guide and a software CD.
RIM has finally stopped releasing versions of its handhelds with and without features like Wi-Fi and GPS, and instead has loaded up the Bold with all current connectivity options.
The Bold is therefore a quad-band GSM device with GPRS/ EDGE and (a first for BlackBerry) HSDPA. It has a healthy 1GB of on-board memory as well as 128MB of flash; our review sample came with a further 1GB in the form of a microSD card. This lives in a slot on the left side of the device, protected by a cover. It's quite fiddly to get cards in and out of the slot.
Connectivity features are rounded out by Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g), Bluetooth (2.0+EDR) and GPS.
Email support includes BlackBerry Enterprise Server for IBM/Lotus Domino, Microsoft Exchange and Novell GroupWise, plus BlackBerry Professional Software for small businesses. The BlackBerry Internet Service also supports up to 10 personal email accounts.
There's no front-facing camera for video calling, but you do get a 2-megapixel camera at the back. This is an entry-level specification these days, and it may not please consumers, who are now accustomed to 3- or even 5-megapixel phone cameras. However, it's perfectly acceptable for images intended to be sent as MMS messages. The camera shoots video too, at 480 by 320 and 176 by 144 pixels.
There are two 'convenience keys', one on the left edge and one on the right, which can be configured to launch whatever application you like. Out of the box they access voice dialing and launch the camera application respectively.
The a volume control (a rocker) is on the right edge, while the left edge houses the mini-USB connector (used for charging and PC connectivity) and a 3.5mm headset jack. It's good to see a jack of this size as it means you can use your own headphones if you prefer.
The Bold handles a range of audio and video formats including MP3, WMA, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+ for audio and DivX for video. This should help to broaden its consumer appeal.
RIM has completely redesigned its software front end to provide a much-needed lift to what had become quite a tired-looking design. Application icons are now large and bright. Existing BlackBerry users may take time to get used to the new icon design, but the general look and feel is an improvement.
The home screen has a top bar displaying status information such as date and time, signal strength, current profile and the number unread emails. It is, as ever, easy to switch profiles: you simply highlight the profile icon with the trackball and press to select it, then choose the required profile from a list.
At the bottom of the home screen is a row of six icons that give quick access to frequently used applications. Clicking the menu button brings up the full list of applications.
The software bundle is eclectic. The web browser is considerably improved over earlier versions thanks in no small part to the Bold's high-resolution screen. Even quite complex sites display well, using almost the full screen with just a small status bar along the top. Zooming is also easy, thanks to a mini-cursor that you place over the target area before clicking the trackball.
Other on-board applications include Documents To Go (for editing Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents) and Blackberry Maps (navigation and positioning). The latter pinpointed our position accurately even when seeking satellites from indoors through a window. There's also a Facebook client and the perennial BrickBreaker — now supplemented by a Soduku game, two card games and a word-making game.
Performance & battery life
Battery life is quite good. RIM claims 4.3 hours of talk and 9 days of standby on GSM, or 4 hours and 10.5 days respectively on 3G. In our tests, we got a day's usage including mobile email, some web browsing and some Wi-Fi with enough juice remaining not to worry about recharging. A daily power boost is probably advisable, but you could get away with longer.
As already noted, the keyboard is very ergonomic to use. Combined with the large high-resolution screen, this makes the Bold a strong mobile email and web browsing platform.
There is plenty of demand for smartphones that mix business and consumer features, particularly from SMEs. The BlackBerry Bold 9000 is a very good attempt at satisfying both markets.