Look and Feel – Very Good
As opposed to the last BlackBerry Bold 9000, which was a strange mix of styles and textures, RIM got the style just right with the BlackBerry Bold 9700. The phone oozes class, and though it still sports a mix of faux-leather plastics and soft touch paint with that now-signature chrome band, the BlackBerry Bold 9700 now feels understated and slight in the hand. It's smaller and lighter than the BlackBerry Tour, even though it packs more features. Overall, the outer shell is not a departure from the modern BlackBerry look and feel, it's just the most refined version we've seen so far.
Like the original BlackBerry Bold, the standout design feature on the new BlackBerry Bold 9700 is the screen. Besides the new BlackBerry Storm 2 we just reviewed, the BlackBerry Bold 9700 might have the best screen we've seen on a mobile device. It's bright and colorful, with deep, inky blacks and vibrant, shining highlights. It's also completely wasted on the bland, textual and dated looking BlackBerry interface. There's not a single feature that looks better on a BlackBerry device than on a more polished looking phone, like the Palm Pre or the HTC Hero on Sprint. From the basic menus to the calendar and productivity apps to even the media player and fun stuff, the BlackBerry OS is in need of a serious overhaul, or fickle buyers will start passing on the great features for a phone that looks much more modern.
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 gets the new BlackBerry trackpad, which seems to be the future for BlackBerry phones with a real keyboard. We like the trackpad, and it's growing on us with each new model. It's an improvement over the trackball that dominated the middle generation of BlackBerry phones, but we can't help but wonder if navigation on the BlackBerry has gotten any easier since the days of the old thumbwheel. It certainly hasn't gotten faster, as you'll see the first time (of many) you have to approve a long set of terms and conditions, or when you need to scroll through a long Web page.
The keyboard on the BlackBerry Bold 9700 is classic BlackBerry. It's a bit small for our taste, but the slightly angled keys make for a shallow learning curve. We prefer a much wider design, with more dedicated keys for shortcuts and symbols. But BlackBerry keyboards have a strong fan base, and for simple typing, you'll find a quick and easy QWERTY on the BlackBerry Bold 9700.
Calling – Very Good
Call quality on the BlackBerry Bold 9700 was pretty good. We got to test a T-Mobile version of the device, which uses not only T-Mobile's 3G HSDPA network but also UMA calling. So, the BlackBerry Bold 9700 can place calls over Wi-Fi or the regular cell network. That's especially convenient if cell service is questionable in your home, or if the cellular network should happen to go down, as T-Mobile's network did earlier this month. When the cellular and data network went down, T-Mobile's UMA phones were still able to complete their calls.
Battery life on the BlackBerry Bold 9700 was fantastic, as we'd expect from RIM's BlackBerry phones. It wasn't quite as good as Sprint's Tour, but we also kept Wi-Fi turned on for UMA calling, while Sprint's phone doesn't have Wi-Fi capabilities. Even with Wi-Fi turned on, we got almost 6.5 hours of talking time in a single call, which is even better than RIM's estimates. Signal strength on the T-Mobile BlackBerry Bold 9700 was okay, usually hovering around 3-4 bars of service.
To synchronize your address book, the BlackBerry Bold can draw from your BlackBerry Enterprise Server, or if you don't have an Enterprise Server account, the phone can also sync your address book with Google or even Facebook, among other popular online e-mail services. We especially like Facebook sync, which pulls contact info from Facebook and matches your existing contacts to your Facebook friends.
For calling features, the BlackBerry Bold 9700 packs all of our favorites. There's speaker-independent voice dialing, which gets its own dedicated button on the side of the phone. The BlackBerry Bold 9700 does a fine job with conference calling, though like most features on the BlackBerry, you'll have to do some menu digging to accomplish the feat. Finally, the BlackBerry Bold 9700 gets visual voicemail support on both AT&T and T-Mobile. We love visual voicemail, and we can't see a future when all smartphones don't let you pick and choose which messages you hear easily from a dedicated app.
Social Networking – Very Good
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 does a fine job handling most of your social networking needs, though you wouldn't know it out of the box. There are very few application pre-loaded, at least on the T-Mobile version, and even the BlackBerry App World, RIM's answer to Apple's App Store, requires a visit to the BlackBerry Web site (ironically, the BlackBerry App World is a featured download in . . . wait for it . . . the BlackBerry App World!?). We quickly loaded up the BlackBerry Bold 9700 with Facebook, MySpace, Flickr and a couple Twitter apps to try. The best part is that most of these don't just sit on the phone like eggs in a carton, they integrate into the system, like eggs in a cake. Once you've downloaded Facebook, you start getting Facebook messages in your general inbox, and Facebook calendar items on your BlackBerry calendar. Once you have Flickr set up, you can quickly upload pics from the photo gallery to Flickr without having to open the Flickr app. None of the apps are especially good looking or feature rich beyond the essentials, but this deep integration makes the BlackBerry platform one of the best for keeping in touch and sharing experiences with your social circle.
Of course, the BlackBerry Bold also does a fine job with more basic messaging apps, a well. The e-mail app handled our Gmail account just fine, rendering our HTML e-mails properly so they looked good. For instant messaging fans, the T-Mobile BlackBerry Bold 9700 comes fully loaded with AOL, MSN, Yahoo, Gtalk and ICQ support, plus the great BlackBerry Messenger service that works as a souped-up instant messenger between BlackBerry devices. Even SMS messaging worked well, with a threaded style that shows e-mails in a more conversational form. Best of all, all of these incoming messages are collected neatly into one integrated mailbox, so you can isolate a chat on its own, or check out all your incoming messages at once.
Business – Very Good
Once upon a time, BlackBerry phones were all about business. The BlackBerry Bold 9700 doesn't skimp on business features, though your IT department will appreciate the deep security and tight integration more than you will. If you're a small business customer, the BlackBerry Bold 9700 comes with plenty of productivity options, and if you can't find what you need, the BlackBerry App World seems to specialize in helping you stay efficient. The Bold 9700 can read Office e-mail attachments, and with Documents To Go preloaded, you can even edit Word, Excel and some PowerPoint docs right on the phone. If you want to create a new Word document from scratch, you'll have to pay extra for a deluxe version of the software, but simple editing was easy on the Bold 9700, and we were able to skim through complicated spreadsheets with no trouble.
The calendar on the BlackBerry Bold 9700 is very ugly, but highly functional. It works best with RIM's own BlackBerry servers, but you can also sync with personal calendars, or use the Mac or PC desktop client to grab appointments from your desktop. T-Mobile still hasn't figured out their stance on tethered modem support, so you can't rely on the BlackBerry Bold 9700 as a laptop modem on the road, but at least the phone will sync and charge via microUSB, which means you can leave your charger behind.
Multimedia – Very Good
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 is a surprisingly good multimedia device. RIM has quietly crept up and beefed up the phone's music video capabilities, even though the media players and desktop sync software are both still a pain to use. The new BlackBerry Desktop Manager on our Macintosh was able to read our iTunes library and even sync playlists, but it took almost an hour to transfer less than 2GB of media, and the software crashed when it unexpectedly reached full capacity on our memory card. Still, we were happy to find that 2GB card pre-installed in our Bold 9700, under the batter cover but at a clever angle so you don't have to power down to swap cards. The BlackBerry Bold 9700 also uses a standard 3.5mm headphone jack so we could listen on our own earbuds, though we wish the jack was on the top or bottom of the phone so our plug didn't jut out sideways in our pocket.
The video player is the hidden gem on the BlackBerry Bold 9700, thanks entirely to that dazzling yet underused screen. The player had trouble with some of our higher bitrate H.264 video files, but most of our favorites played just fine. Actually, they looked fantastic on the Bold's screen. A short preview for Pixar's "Up" came alive in ways we'd never seen. The 2.5-inch display might be small for serious, long term viewing, but when a video comes your way, you'll love watching it on the Bold 9700′s display.
That display also comes in handy for showing off photos. We didn't love the BlackBerry Bold 9700′s built-in camera (more on that later), but when our photos were good, the Bold's screen made them look even better. Pictures weren't difficult to manage, if you don't mind digging through menus a bit, and we were able to send pics from the photo gallery and transfer them via Bluetooth. Also, the Bold 9700 shows up as a mass storage device, so it's easy to retrieve a large batch of images.
Traveling – Good
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 comes with navigation software from TeleNav for turn-by-turn directions. Unfortunately, our review unit didn't come with the navigation app preloaded, but we were able to test the phone's GPS signal using the included BlackBerry Maps software. BlackBerry Maps integrates nicely with your address book, but it looks awful and can't handle serious navigation tasks. If you'll be using the BlackBerry Bold 9700 to take a long trip, we'd spring for a TeleNav subscription instead, as our experience with the software on other BlackBerry devices has been positive, and TeleNav does a good job with directions as well as point-of-interest searches.
Besides navigation, there weren't any other useful travel apps on the phone, Even the simple calculator can only handle conversions from Imperial to Metric units, and no other convenient currency conversions. There are plenty of interesting options to pick through in the BlackBerry App World, including some location-based search software, translation and travel planning software and plenty other, so if you're willing to do some research, there are options available, just not pre-loaded onto the device. We did enjoy the subway maps for major cities like London and New York, but none of this takes the place of a strong, dedicated navigation app.
Fun – Mediocre
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 is not an especially fun device, if your idea of fun stretches beyond Facebook stalking and messaging. If you like surfing the Web, the BlackBerry is sure to disappoint. Many Web pages will only display their mobile version on the Bold 9700, even though the browser can identify itself as a desktop client. Our own homepage came through looking okay, but text was blocky and difficult to read at a wide zoom, and layout was somewhat jumbled. The phone also doesn't support flash, and a search of the App World turned up no YouTube client, which is a letdown when you have to get your "History of Dance" on. There are plenty of mobile games in the App World, but none of these come close to the level of gaming you'll find on an Apple iPhone, or even a more basic Google Android device.
The camera on the BlackBerry Bold 9700 wasn't bad for a mobile camera. It didn't produce images that we would want to print on real paper, but for Web use our pics looked pretty good. Noise was a problem, especially in low light, and bright lights swamped our pictures with a harsh blue glare, especially outdoors. But the auto focus lens, with a 2-stage button to help us lock in the focus before we took the shot, captured some decent looking images, perfect for Facebook and definitely good enough for impressive picture messaging. When you're out at night, the BlackBerry Bold 9700 uses a bright LED flash. Images with the flash held their color, but looked much more blurry, and the flash's harsh light didn't help our mug shots. Check out our image samples below.
Staying Informed – Good
For keeping up with the day's news, the BlackBerry Bold 9700 provides a decidedly 'mobile' experience, while better smartphones do a better job emulating the desktop. The ailing BlackBerry browser comes with a rudimentary RSS reader, but we'd skip it in favor of something better, like Google Reader. Even Google's own RSS Reader couldn't keep up on the BlackBerry Browser, though, and the Bold 9700 rendered an incomplete, mobilized version of the popular feed reading page. Top news sites like CNN and the New York Times would only default to their mobile versions, which in many cases means you don't get access to all the content you want to read. There's not even a pre-loaded weather app on the BlackBerry Bold 9700, though plenty of options are available for download from the BlackBerry App World.
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