Research in Motion (RIM) announced the BlackBerry Bold 9900 at the beginning of August, along with two other handsets for the UK, and it's already available from a variety of sources. The Bold 9900 adopts the classic BlackBerry styling and sports the latest BlackBerry 7 OS.
Our review sample came from Vodafone, where it's free on contract; we also found the Bold 9900 available SIM-free for around £500 (inc. VAT) online.
The BlackBerry Bold 9900's appearance is very much in line with predecessors such as the Bold 9780, which we reviewed in January, and also models in the Curve range — such as the Curve 3G 9300 we reviewed last August.
The Bold 9900 has a 66mm by 115mm footprint and weighs 130g, but is only 10.5mm thick
The Bold 9900 is a larger and heavier handset than either of the two above-mentioned devices, though, measuring 66mm wide by 115mm deep by 10.5mm thick and weighing 130g. The Bold 9780 and the Curve 3G 9300 are both 6mm less wide and 6mm less deep, and 8g and 26g lighter respectively. The Bold 9900 is noticeably thinner than both of the earlier devices though, by about 3.5mm.
The Bold 9900's slightly increased width means there's a little more space for the QWERTY keyboard — 6mm might not sound much, but it makes quite a bit of difference in usability terms. The keys look large and, as usual, are individually shaped for added feel. The rows of keys have BlackBerry's trademark slight upward curve — this is more pronounced at the top of the keyboard than the bottom, where the keys are almost in a straight line.
The Bold 9900's keyboard has large, individually shaped keys; secondary functions are activated via the Alt key
Almost every key has a second function attached to it, and we're slightly surprised that RIM has not implemented a long press to call up this secondary function. It's easier, and we find it faster than using the Alt key on the left-hand side. A long press capitalises a letter, incidentally.
The rows of keys are separated by thin silver bands. We accidentally pushed a fingernail between two rows of keys and noticed that the bands are quite flexible. Hopefully this doesn't indicate that the keyboard lacks robustness. There's silver banding around the edge of the chassis too, and the device's edge has a brushed finish all round. It's not quite the tough, solid handset we'd like, but BlackBerry devices generally manage to withstand knocks pretty well.
We're nonplussed by the placing of the microUSB power connector on the left edge of the chassis. The 3.5mm headset jack is on this edge too, which is an ergonomic error because an attached headset can easily snag in the pocket, risking damage to the headset jack, the handset connector, the pocket or all three. We prefer the power connector on the bottom and the 3.5mm jack on the top, but on the Bold 9900 the bottom edge is bare and the top only houses a slightly recessed screen lock button.
RIM has retained one 'convenience key' — a signature feature of the BlackBerry line — towards the bottom of the right edge. By default it calls up the camera, but you can change this. On the upper right edge are volume buttons and between them a pause button. We found the pause button very useful for media playback control, both when watching video and listening to music.
You turn the BlackBerry Bold 9900 on and off by long-pressing the End key that sits between keyboard and screen. It lies on a familiar row of keys that also houses the back button, the BlackBerry menu button, the call key and, in the middle, the optical navigation pad.
The 2.8in. screen is touch sensitive, and although it can be a little fiddly to hit it with precision because on-screen items can be quite small, we found the combination of the optical navigation pad and screen tapping worked well. We found that tapping the screen was often a quicker and more intuitive way of navigating menus than the optical pad.
The screen is relatively small because of the QWERTY keyboard, but the resolution is a decent 640 by 480 pixels. We found it clear, sharp and bright, with good viewing angles. Text was readable at even very small sizes.
A 1.2GHz Qualcomm MSM8655 processor is accompanied by 768MB of RAM and a generous 8GB of internal storage. These specifications probably come as a reaction to past criticism that RIM has not used a top-end processors in its devices. You can expand on the internal storage with microSD cards, but it's irritating that you have to remove the battery to access the slot.
Near Field Communication (NFC) support is built into the Bold 9900, providing for a range of potential future uses — sadly there's nothing in place right now.
The Bold 9900's headline feature is probably that it marks the debut of BlackBerry 7 OS. Apart from NFC support, version 7 also caters for 720p video capture in the 5-megapixel camera. RIM hasn't always shone in the cameras department, and it's good to see an effort being made here. Even so, the Bold 9900's camera is satisfactory rather than outstanding.
Universal search, which is a great usability feature, has been updated slightly. On the home screen, you can start using the keyboard and a search box appears. Matches are narrowed down as you type. Matches include apps, contacts, tunes in the music library and files. You can also opt to go off-device and extend your search by hitting an on-screen icon — you can search Facebook, YouTube, BlackBerry App World, BlackBerry Maps, Google Local, BlackBerry Podcasts and the BlackBerry Music Store.
You can also tap an icon to the right of the search box to do a voice-enabled search. Although we found this pretty accurate, the hands-free fun is disrupted by having to press a Done button when you've finished speaking.
The web browser has had a slight makeover with larger tabs, but generally the look and feel of BlackBerry 7 OS is very similar to version 6, with scrollable groups of application shortcuts along the bottom of the screen grouping All, Favourites, Media, Downloads and Frequent together. You scroll upwards to pull the single row up and display more than the maximum of six shortcuts that any row contains.
BlackBerry 7 OS includes support for the newly announced BlackBerry Balance, a service with clear appeal to business users. This allows you to separate personal and business content on a BlackBerry device, making it easier for IT managers to cater for dual business/personal use. For example, social networking applications have restricted access to enterprise data, while enterprise data can be locked down, leaving personal data accessible. IT managers can also delete all work-related data, leaving personal data untouched.
Performance & battery life
Overall, the Bold 9900's performance was not quite as slick as we'd anticipated. We found some icons reluctant to respond to finger presses, making the optical trackpad a more efficient means of getting around in these instnaces. Despite the 1.2GHz processor, there were some waits or stutters before the handset did out bidding. The fact that RIM hasn't found a way to integrate Flash support in the new BlackBerry 7 OS is a real irritation too.
The Bold 9900 has a 1,230mAh battery for which RIM claims up to 6.3 hours GSM talk time, up to 12.8 days GSM standby time, up to 5.9 hours UMTS talk time, up to 12.8 days UMTS standby time, up to 50 hours audio playback and up to 7.4 hours video playback.
We found we needed to charge the BlackBerry Bold 9900 daily, which is standard for smartphones these days but far less longevity than we've enjoyed with BlackBerry devices in the past. Given the Bold 9900's slightly larger chassis, we're disappointed that RIM hasn't found room for a bigger battery.
The BlackBerry Bold 9900 offers an upgraded operating system, solid specifications and good integration of a small touchscreen with the optical navigation pad and keyboard. But battery life is poor — by RIM's standards if not by those of smartphones in general — and we're left with a feeling that, despite the novelty of near field communications support, this is primarily a catchup device.