Do you loathe on-screen keyboards and miss the day when you could buy a smartphone with a physical keyboard? Do you want a rugged phone that you can use outdoors with gloves? ...
BlackBerry Bold 9790
Caption by: Sandra Vogel
RIM's BlackBerry Bold handsets have historically been top-end 'classic' designs — half keyboard, half screen with a solid design and classy feel. The last model we examined, the Bold 9900 was one of the debut handsets for BlackBerry 7 OS and sports a touchscreen. Retailing at launch in August last year for around £417 (ex. VAT) SIM free, and now available online for around £383 (ex. VAT), the 9900 is seriously undercut by the new Bold 9790. So where have the cuts been made, and is the newcomer still a contender?
First impressions of the Bold 9790 are of a relatively small handset whose size might not suit everyone. It measures 60mm wide by 110mm deep by 11.4mm thick and weighs just 107g, and it will fit very nicely into most pockets. However, both the screen and the keyboard have drawbacks.
The Bold 9790 has a small 2.45in. touch-screen with a resolution of 480 by 360 pixels
The screen measures just 2.45in. across diagonal corners, making it very small for a modern smartphone screen. Its resolution of 480 by 360 pixels is lower than the Bold 9900's 640 by 480, but the latter device has a bigger 2.8in. screen.
Like the Bold 9900, the 9790's screen is touch sensitive. In our review of the older model, we noted that the screen could be fiddly to use with precision: the problem is exacerbated on the smaller 9790, and we found some icons very tricky to activate with a fingertip.
Touch sensitivity did come in handy for relatively broad-brush actions such as sweeping left and right for the Favourites, Media, Downloads, Frequent and All app groupings, and initiating apps by tapping their icons.
Fortunately, when a fingertip is just too unwieldy, the optical trackpad beneath the screen is its usual responsive and accurate self.
The small screen causes other problems too. Web browsing, for example, is very cramped, and we found zooming necessry on the majority of pages we visited. You can pinch to zoom, but doing so results in the need for a lot of horizontal scrolling as text reflowing is not implemented. The same is true if you use the menu-based zoom function. These compromises all add up to a less than satisfactory browsing experience.
The Bold 9790's keyboard is well made, but some users may find it cramped
The keyboard, too, suffers from being a little cramped. RIM has done what it can here, stretching the keyboard to the full width available so that the outer columns of keys actually curve into the chassis edges. The keys are, as usual, individually shaped and they give a very slight click when depressed, which helps confirm you've made contact. The general build quality of the keyboard is high, and we found we could type away quite quickly, but anyone with larger than average hands might struggle.
As usual there is an array of secondary functions on keys, and the first time you hit the '$' key you're told how to change the default dollar sign into a different currency symbol — it's that level of support that endears RIM to its users.
Between screen and keyboard are the familiar quartet of BlackBerry buttons — Call, End, Menu and Back. They're designed as isolated buttons rather than sitting on a long strip, which is unusual, but they perform well.
Many design features will be very familiar to BlackBerry users. The top edge curves towards the back of the chassis, and there's a screen lock button sitting on this edge. The right edge has a convenience key that's set to launch the camera by default, but is programmable to launch whatever you prefer. We liked it when RIM offered two convenience keys, but the standard these days is just the one.
The convenience key is a mere sliver, as is the volume rocker with its central mute button, which is also on the right edge. Both buttons are easier to find by touch than sight.
Because the top edge is curved, there are no connectors there. So the Micro-USB port is on the bottom edge, while the headphone jack is towards the top of the left edge. We can't stress how poor this latter location is: headphones snag in a pocket, jarring the connector and potentially causing damage. It's a perennial problem for RIM, and one we wish the company would fix.
The front of the chassis has a familiar black and silver design, with shiny plastic at the top, and a more matte, tactile finish on the keys. A small base plate beneath the keyboard also has a matte finish. Silver edges bleed into the backplate which has a rubberised surface for easy grip. There's a 5-megapixel camera on the back with a small LED flash.
The chassis design and button placement are reassuringly familiar, but the 9790's build quality is a little on the plasticky side.
The BlackBerry Bold 9790 has a 1GHZ Marvell Tavor MG1 processor supported by 768MB of RAM. That's slightly slower than the CPU in the Bold 9900, but we didn't encounter any performance issues.
There's 8GB of internal storage, same as in the Bold 9900, and this can be expanded with microSD cards. The slot is under the backplate and can be accessed without removing the battery.
Connectivity options are good, but could be better. The dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) Wi-Fi supports 802.11a/b/g/n connections, but you can't use the handset as a Wi-F-Fi hotspot. Mobile broadband (HSPA) caters for 7.2Mbps download and 5.76Mbps upload, but other devices offer faster connections where networks support them, and we'd like to see RIM follow suit.
The Bold 9790 runs BlackBerry 7 OS, and version 7.1 — due imminently as an update — will support Wi-Fi tethering and calling over Wi-Fi. It will also improve the NFC (Near Field Communications) functionality that's built into the device. What you actually get from the 7.1 update will depend on what your network operator chooses to allow, though.
BlackBerry 7 OS has some features we really like, the most useful of all being Universal Search. Start typing on the main screen and you can automatically search within the device and beyond it for matches. So whether you are looking for a contact, an application or the answer to a Google search, all you have to do is start typing. It's a superbly easy tool, and it's open to third parties to integrate into their own applications.
GPS and BlackBerry Maps are integrated, and between them they pinpointed our location within 6 metres with no trouble, and also produced travel directions very quickly. The small screen might be an issue when using Maps, but it worked efficiently enough for us.
RIM is trying to make its handsets appeal to both business users and consumers, and with more than half an eye on the latter has paid some attention to the 5-megapixel camera, offering face detection and image stabilisation modes as well as continuous autofocus. However, video recording languishes at 640-by-480 resolution, when 720p (1,280 by 720) is fast becoming the consumer smartphone standard.
Moving beyond the camera, the most obvious omission remains the lack of Flash support, which rules out viewing embedded video in many web sites.
Performance & battery life
RIM claims that the 1,230mAh battery in the Bold 9790 is good for up to 5.2 hours of GSM talk and 5.3 hours on UMTS, and up to 18 days GSM standby and 17 days on UMTS. You'll get up to 33 hours of music playback and up to 6.3 hours of video playback, says RIM.
As with most smartphones, we found that a battery boost was required at the end of a day's normal usage to keep the device going. However, we're doubtful about its ability to go for two days between charges.
Once we'd set up our email account, the BlackBerry Bold 9790 happily drew messages down and performed its core email tasks admirably. The system caused us no problems in terms of speed, but we did find feel hampered by the small screen on occasion.
The BlackBerry Bold 9790 doesn't offer everything that the more expensive Bold 9900 does. It's smaller, which results in screen and keyboard compromises, and some usability issues, and has a slower processor. But it runs BlackBerry 7 OS and there's a full 8GB of internal storage. If you're on a restricted budget and can cope with a compact handset, the Bold 9790 could be a good buy.
Caption by: Sandra Vogel
BlackBerry Bold 9790
Caption by: Sandra Vogel