Monday, November 28, 2011

BlackBerry Bold 9900

The Bold 9900 brings back the wide body of the original Bold (left), in a much sleeker design   
Having used and reviewed a LOT of BlackBerry Smartphones over the years, it only took a few minutes with the Bold 9900 in hand to realize this is the best BlackBerry RIM has built. Within the BlackBerry family of smartphones, the Bold brand is positioned as the premium offering, representing the best of everything BlackBerry, and more than any Bold before it, the 9900 lives up to its name.

While the Bold 9000 definitely made a bold statement with its sizeable dimensions and big keyboard, the abundance of plastic-chrome and faux-leather trimmings yielded an image of a BlackBerry that was blinged up in cheap jewelry. Don't get me wrong, it was still eye-catching and probably my favorite-designed BlackBerry up until the 9900, but it felt more like feigned luxury. With the next generation BlackBerry Bold 9700/9780 (and Tour 9630/Bold 9650 for that matter), RIM took a more conservative approach - downsizing the Bold to be more Curve-like in stature, and going with styling that while tasteful, was maybe a bit too understated to be considered Bold.
From top: Bold 9000, 9900 and 9780. The Bold 9900 is the thinnest BlackBerry ever!
The new BlackBerry Bold 9900 exemplifies what the Bold brand is about - luxury by design. The 9900 makes a welcome return to the wide-body design of the original 9000, but in a much sleeker package that makes use of premium materials throughout. Goodbye plastic-chrome, hello metal! With the addition of a touchscreen on the outside and hardware platform upgrades on the inside that deliver more performance than we've ever seen from a BlackBerry Smartphone, this is the BlackBerry Bold we've been waiting for.

Appearance, Form Factor, Build Quality
The iconic BlackBerry design, updated with a touchscreen. Notice how the phone looks like its smiling?
At BlackBerry World I attended a media briefing conducted by RIM's senior VP of Industrial Design, Todd Wood, who walked us through the creative process and design philosophy behind the BlackBerry Bold 9900. It was interesting to learn that before the designers get to the fun part of modeling, it all begins with the "product inspiration board." The inspiration board Todd showed us for the 9900 targeted a fictitious urban male in his 30s and the other kinds of products he owned. On the board and inspiring the design team for the 9900 were other classically luxurious products including a BMW sedan, a Panerai watch (the exact same model that appears in a few of the photos in this review actually!) and Prada leather boots. By infusing that inspiration with a respect for BlackBerry's own lineage, many iterations of design later the BlackBerry Bold 9900 were born.

Knowing the inspiration behind the Bold 9900, its readily apparent that RIM succeeded in their design goals. The Bold 9900 oozes luxury and feels more like a quality product than an electronic gadget. At 10.5mm, it's the thinnest BlackBerry to date, and also the most solid. A big part of the reason for this solid feeling is the brushed stainless steel band that surrounds the perimeter of the phone, adding a touch of class (and no, I didn't see an iPhone 4 on RIM's design inspiration board!). In the hand, the Bold 9900 feels great. At 4.59oz (130g), it weighs less than you expect it to, and the width is perfect for a phone with a full physical keyboard. With its "PopTart" like shape, the overall footprint of the phone is fairly large, even when compared to the Bold 9780, but thanks to its thinness I've found the 9900 to still be easily pocketable in the front of my jeans.

At a glance, from the front the Bold 9900 actually looks a lot like the original Bold 9000, with the update from the trackball to trackpad being the most immediately noticeable difference. Closer inspection reveals many other subtle changes. Below the display, now gone is the color from all buttons. The keypad buttons went all white on the Bold 9700, and now the Send/End keys have lost their green and red coloring. Aesthetically, I love the change.

The glass composite door looks high tech. It's a bit easy to smudge, but we're digging it.
Above the keyboard (which we'll talk about more in a bit) is the expected row of BlackBerry controls, which allow for the one-handed navigation experience BlackBerry owners like myself value so much. Instead of individual buttons, the Send, Menu, Back and End keys are all part of the same piece, with the trackpad centered in the middle.

The trackpad on the Bold 9900 has received an awesome update - it now lights up in the dark! Taking things to a new level, RIM's designers worked with the engineering team to even design the power-off sequence of the Bold 9900. When the backlighting times out, first the keyboard dims off, followed by the display, then the BlackBerry navigation buttons and finally the trackpad. It's an awesome effect. One less-awesome thing about the trackpad to be mindful of is its close proximity to the display. Now that there's a touchscreen, if you're sloppy with your trackpad up scroll you could find yourself accidentally swiping on the screen without wanting to. I wouldn't call this a problem by any means, but it might take some re-adjustment if you've been using a non-touchscreen BlackBerry and have been swiping onto the display all this time. Above the navigation is the new touchscreen display, and above that on the top right is the good ol' crack light - the blinking LED. The LED on the Bold 9900 is now circular in design, vs. the more rectangular design on previous Bolds.

The back of the BlackBerry Bold 9900 is stylish yet functional. The outer perimeter receives soft-touch rubber treatment, which aids in gripping the phone. The battery door has a high-tech carbon fiber look to it, and is made of a composite glass material RIM developed that is friendly to RF transmission (actual carbon fiber is not). I like the look of the battery door a lot. My only complaint is that it's easy to smudge and can make the phone a little bit slippery if you're holding it in such a way that you're not making contact with the soft touch rubber. The battery door holds on tight and is pried off from the bottom where there's a little gap, which also serves as the audio port where sounds emerge from the phone. 
Brushed stainless steel looks great and makes the Bold 9900 feel solid. Even the buttons are metal.
The usual buttons and ports surround the perimeter of the BlackBerry Bold 9900. The right side of the phone has the standard volume up and down keys, with the mute key relocated from the top of the phone to be in between the volume keys. They serve double duty as media keys when playing music as well, for skipping tracks and play/pause. At the bottom right is the programmable convenience key.

The left side of the Bold 9900 is kept clean, with just the 3.5mm audio jack and microUSB port present.
The left side of the Bold 9900 features two ports. At the top is the 3.5mm headset jack, and below that is the microUSB port for syncing and/or charging. Because the port is cut into the stainless housing, it makes for a nice snug fit on the connector, eliminating the sloppiness we've noticed in the past on some models.
At the top of the phone is a single button, for locking/unlocking the screen.
Centered at the top of the phone is a single button for locking and/or unlocking the screen. At the bottom are two contact points for the BlackBerry Charging Pod, which are mounted on a thin plastic strip which spans across the bottom. The brushed-plastic here is done so well I just assumed it was also metal.
The two circles are charging contacts for the always-popular BlackBerry Charging Pod
Under the battery door, RIM has engineered things to fit nice and tight, with room left for the removable battery, microSD memory card and SIM card. My only gripe here is that unlike the Bold 9700/9780, you can't insert or remove the memory card while the battery is in the phone. If you try and remove the microSD card while the battery is in place, you'll find yourself wedging the card into the battery, which puts you in a difficult situation (watch this video to see what happens!).
Things are kept tidy under the battery door, with room for the battery, memory card and SIM card.
This really is an exceptional BlackBerry from RIM. I love the design and style direction they've taken with the Bold 9900. From a hardware and manufacturing standpoint, it's the best I've seen. Over the years I've had a habit of ensuring my BlackBerrys are Made in Canada units, but the four Bold 9900s I bought and unboxed were all Made in Mexico and seem pretty perfect. As for durability, I think the Bold 9900 should be able to stand up pretty well. During the filming and videoing for this review I managed to drop it a couple times -- once from chest height onto a hardwood floor - and the 9900 emerged unscathed.
Processor / Chipset / Performance

All of the newly-announced BlackBerry 7 Smartphones, including the BlackBerry Bold 9900, are running the Qualcomm Scorpion MSM 8655 processor clocked at 1.2GHz on the Snapdragon chipset. An Adreno 205 GPU (graphics processing unit) is also onboard, powering BlackBerry 7's hardware-accelerated graphics, which RIM has dubbed "liquid graphics." At 1.2GHz, the processing power is roughly double the speed of previous generation BlackBerry Bolds. In addition to more speed, this hardware platform upgrade addresses a lot of the other nagging wants we've had for a while now, including 3D graphics support (has been lacking to date on GSM BlackBerrys), HD video recording and more.

While there may be faster processors and even dual-core phones on the market already on other platforms, when it comes to the BlackBerry OS I don't think what matters is the exact spec -- be it 1GHz, 1.2Ghz 1.4Ghz, etc. - but rather the experience it delivers. And 1.2Ghz on the BlackBerry OS is like injecting it with steroids. It actually took some getting used to the overall snappiness of phone and responsiveness of touchscreen. Honestly, it almost felt too fast at first, until I adjusted. Basic OS tasks like opening and closing apps are instant for the most part, and in five days of use I really haven't experienced any sort of hiccups or slow downs. The only time I've really seen the evil hourglass is while installing apps from App World, but even then I've been able to continue to use the phone.

It honestly has been a night and day difference compared to my Bold 9780, which even on the most recent OS builds has been running slow and hourglassing like crazy as of late. Some things still take some time on the Bold 9900, like booting up the phone after a battery pull, but so far I have yet to experience the need to be forced to pull the battery. Between the hardware and BlackBerry 7 software, everything seems to be running smooth so far. I hope this speed holds up as I get out of review mode and into even more real world use (I'm curious to see how it performs after I turn the wireless connection back on after being on a four flight - an action which normally makes my 9780 unusable for a few minutes). I'm thinking it also might be time for another BlackBerry Stress Test! Stay tuned for that.
Keyboard / Typing
The best keyboard ever put on a smartphone.
Best. Keyboard. EVER. Seriously. The previous holder of this title was the keyboard on the original Bold 9000, which I thought was unbeatable, yet RIM managed to improve upon it. The Bold 9900's keyboard is actually 5% wider than the 9000's keyboard, and the keystroke itself has improved. It takes very little pressure to press a key down, yet the rebound is still extremely fast. The keys make that definite click action and sound, which help you get into a great typing rhythm. If you want to experience something magical, try typing on the BlackBerry Bold 9900's keyboard.
BlackBerry Bold Keyboards. From top: Bold 9900, Bold 9780, Bold 9000.
I actually upgraded Miss CrackBerry from her Bold 9700 to the Bold 9900, and having never having experienced the original Bold 9000's keyboard she was absolutely blown away the ease and speed of typing on the 9900. Her exact words were, "It's like typing on air... or clouds, yeah, it's like typing on puffy clouds." Not exactly the most technical reaction, but she made me realize a good point. The keyboard on the Bold 9900 isn't exhausting. I've pounded out some super long emails on the Bold 9900 now, and by the end my fingers don't feel like they've put out any effort, which hasn't been the case for me on previous BlackBerry keyboards.

If you spend any significant amount of time each day on your phone sending emails, texts, tweets, Facebook messages, BBMs, etc., do yourself a favor and try out the keyboard on the Bold 9900. Your thumbs will thank you.
Touchscreen Display

Adding a touchscreen to the iconic BlackBerry design adds to the overall user experience 
Finally! It's almost comical to think about how long it took RIM to get a touchscreen into the traditional BlackBerry form factor, but it's finally here. It's responsive, it's smooth and it really adds to the overall usability of the device. After a few days on the 9900 I picked up my Bold 9780 again, and literally within seconds found myself tapping the screen and cursing that it didn't have a touchscreen. Oh, how the times have changed!

In addition to touch functionality, the display itself received a nice bump in physical size, color and resolution, from the previous generation of Bold. The BlackBerry Bold 9900's 2.8-inch (diagonal) 24-bit display runs VGA at 640 x 480 pixels, for 287ppi. By comparison, the Bold 9780's 2.44-inch display delivers half VGA at 480 x 360. The BlackBerry Bold 9900's display really is nice. Colors are crisp and vivid, and the display is bright - even at the default 70 percent setting. RIM tells us the display is made of "extra hardened glass," so there's no plastic here.

Now that we have a touchscreen on the iconic BlackBerry form factor, I have two new missions for RIM's designers and engineers for the next BlackBerry Bold:

Find a way to increase the height of the display by 25 percent or so. While I'm a huge fan of the pinch to zoom functionality in the web browser, I think a little additional height would make the display that much better for a touchscreen. Let's take that empty space currently above the display (and below the speaker/LED) and stretch that that screen out.
Find a way to work the BlackBerry PlayBook's bezel gestures in here. As a PlayBook owner, on more than a few occasions now I've found myself swiping down from the top of the 9900's display in anticipation of an option menu popping out. I'm hoping/assuming this functionality will come with a future BlackBerry/QNX SuperPhone, but I sure wish I could do it on my Bold 9900 instead of having to tap the menu key. Side note, if you're a keyboard kind of person and on the fence between getting the BlackBerry Bold 9900 or waiting for the first QNX SuperPhone, the rumored BlackBerry ‘colt' is going to be a full touchscreen device (no keyboard). So don't wait. Get the Bold 9900 now and upgrade later when the time is right.
Overall, the Bold 9900 sports a great display and I'm loving the touchscreen experience!


Application Memory after five days of use and a handful of apps installed.
The BlackBerry Bold 9900 ships with 768MB of RAM and has an additional 8GB of onboard memory for media storage. Additionally, there is an expansion slot that supports up to 32GB microSD cards (whether or not a microSD card comes in the box will be carrier dependent - the Rogers unit reviewed here did not ship with a microSD card).

The 768MB of RAM is up from the 512MB found on current in-market BlackBerry Smartphones, but unfortunately the user in terms of additional Application Storage doesn't realize this increased capacity. We found Application Storage Free Space out of the box to be 229.9MB (with unused languages removed), which is actually less free space than my Bold 9780 had on it when I made the switch to the 9900 (it was sitting at 242MB of free space). I reached out to RIM here to see what was eating up all this additional memory and received the following response:

The additional RAM is used to power the capabilities of Liquid Graphics and the higher resolution displays found in these BlackBerry 7 devices. The amount of free application space remaining on the device is dependent on the number of languages preloaded on the phone, applications and user data in memory. In the Applications Management screen users can manage/delete their applications as needed and delete unwanted language packs. In addition, many applications efficiently utilize both the on-device Device Memory and Media Card to store portions of the application. This is true for many of the larger, graphics intensive applications such as the 3D Roller Coaster Rush Jurassic 2 game.

So is this slight drop in Application Storage memory a big deal? With 512MB of RAM in BlackBerry 6 devices, I've personally never come close to running out of memory, so I don't foresee it causing an issue for the vast majority of BlackBerry owners. It just sucks from a value proposition standpoint - I think most CrackBerry readers, myself included, we're under the impression that the jump to 768MB of RAM would mean a ~200+ megs of additional memory to take advantage of, and that's not the case.
Battery Life

The 9900's 1230mAh battery is smaller than previous Bolds, but should get most people through the day OK.
BlackBerry smartphones have a track record of having pretty amazing battery life, so I winced when I learned RIM chose to downsize the 1500mAh battery found in the Bold 9700/9780 to the new 1230mAh JM-1 found in the Bold 9900. If anything, batteries are something I'd like to see get bigger - not smaller! The new battery is very thin, so I'm assuming this downsize was a forced compromise in attaining the status of thinnest BlackBerry ever.

Considering the new Bold has a faster processor and bigger, higher-resolution display, even prior to release we were concerned about battery life. But talking to BlackBerry Product Managers at BlackBerry World and BlackBerry 7 Fan Night, we were told that the Bold 9900's target battery life was a full day of use. RIM continues to make gains in their power management on the BlackBerry platform, and I can only surmise they'd be ok with shrinking the battery size if they knew they could hit their target. 

Here's how RIM rates the battery life on the BlackBerry Bold 9900/9930:

CDMA Talk Time: up to 6.6 hours; CDMA Standby Time: up to 12.8 days (9930 only)
GSM Talk Time: up to 6.3 hours; Standby Time: up to 12.8 days
UMTS Talk Time: up to 5.9 hours
UMTS Standby Time: up to 12.8 days
Audio Playback Time: up to 50 hours
Video Playback Time: up to 7.4 hours
So how's the real world battery life been?

Since getting our hands-on the new Bold, the crack team has been tracking battery life closely (see our initial Bold 9900 battery life analysis here). Our initial observations have been positive overall, with the 9900's battery typically getting us through the day with a little BlackBerry juice left in the tank, even with gadget-lust type use. Under more average usage conditions we've even seen the battery indicator read above 50 percent come bedtime after an 18-hour day. Not too shabby.

That being the case, average users shouldn't have to worry much about daily battery life, if at all. Heavier users may find themselves wandering into the low battery zone more often than they'd ideally like to see, but for the most part should be able to make it through a day of regular use. As for the hardcore CrackBerry addicts, no battery lasts long enough. It's a good thing we sell BlackBerry chargers and BlackBerry Bold 9900 batteries!

It's still early days for the BlackBerry Bold 9900, so I'm going to remain cautiously optimistic about the battery life but put the Happy Dance on hold for now until we experience it running on more carriers. As much as we've seen the battery last a full day and then some, we've also been hearing a few reports from some Bold 9900 owners claiming their battery needs a top-up by midday and that its not performing as well as their previous or other BlackBerry under similar conditions. We're going to keep out our eyes glued on our battery indicators over the days ahead, so keep it locked to CrakBerry and we'll follow up with our ongoing findings.
Phone, Audio, Data
Yes, the car is parked! Phone in hand while driving is bad. Don't do it!
When it comes to using the BlackBerry Bold 9900 Smartphone as a phone, it appears to handle that task just fine. Throughout testing I've had no real issues with sound quality or voice quality when talking to the people I normally talk to. My mom of all people volunteered up (without any prodding on my end) that I sounded more clear than normal, so maybe there are some subtle improvements here over previous generation BlackBerry models. ... Mothers have a way of knowing these things.

The microphone pickup is a tiny slit on the front bottom right corner of the phone, the slit is on the plastic chin below the keyboard, right next to the stainless housing. As long as you hold the phone normally when talking you'll always be good to go. I did find that by kinking my neck left and sandwiching the phone between my left shoulder and left ear, it positioned the phone in such a way that I was blowing directly into the microphone which caused some loud annoyingness for the recipient on the other end.

We did quite a bit of testing of the speakerphone, and found it to be pretty good. As mentioned earlier, the port for sound to come out is located on the back of the phone at the bottom of the battery door cover, but with the shape of the device its positioned in such a way that isn't blocked when lying flat.

On the data front, the new hardware platform on BlackBerry 7 Smartphones now sports a 14.4 Mbps HSPA modem, which is a big jump up from the 3.6Mbps modem on BlackBerry 6 Smartphones. On the Rogers network, my homescreen no longer shows a 3G icon for activity, but rather a H+ one denoting HSPA+. Is it really a 4G BlackBerry? You're going to see the new BlackBerry 7 Smartphones get marketed different ways by different carriers. The bottom line is that there's a 14.4 modem on board, so while data will be quicker, the whole 4G vs. FauxG issue is up for debate. If you want more insight into this, check out our article on Clarifying 4G vs FauxG.

Cameras / Video Recording
Hooray for HD video recording on a BlackBerry. Finally!
HD Video Recording: FINALLY we have HD video recording on a BlackBerry Smartphone. The Bold 9900 records video at 720p (1280 x 720 resolution) and I've been really impressed with the quality so far.

To see example HD videos recorded my the Bold 9900, check out Sample #1, Sample #2 and Sample #3. Be sure to set the video playback up to 720p for full experience.

5 Megapixel EDOF Camera: One of the only real disappointments I have on the BlackBerry Bold 9900 is the loss of autofocus functionality from the camera. We reached out to RIM to see what was up here, and got this response:

The BlackBerry Bold 9900 has an always in focus 5MP camera (also known as EDOF, Extended Depth of Field) which allows for excellent image quality and it has an ultra thin footprint, which allowed us to achieve the thinnest BlackBerry smartphone to date. The EDOF camera keeps subject matter in focus while offering high quality images and 720p HD video capture.

Essentially, this was a design decision that only affects the Bold 9900. Where there's a will, there's a way - I'm sure RIM could have figured out how to get it in there, but I'm guessing it was cost-prohibitive and the business decision was made to simply go with EDOF only. As for the other newly-announced BlackBerry 7 Smartphones, the new BlackBerry Torch 9810 and Torch 9850/9860 all retain autofocus. The EDOF camera still takes some great photos, including the one below I snapped on the 9900, but there are definitely times when autofocus will make for a better photo. How much this affects you is going to depend on your camera usage. I'm definitely hoping the next Bold brings back the autofocus functionality, and maybe adds a front-facing camera to the mix as well.

 he Bold 9900's NFC Antenna is built into the battery door. ... Clever!
The BlackBerry Bold 9900 is the first BlackBerry to support NFC, or Near Field Communication, which is a short-range wireless technology (4cm or less) that allows two devices to communicate - there's always an initiator and a target. On a device like the Bold 9900, that can mean a few things, like bringing the phone close to a poster to launch an action such as downloading an app, or pairing accessories together, or even making wireless payments. RIM is committed to NFC so expect to see a lot of progress here over the months and years ahead as you start using it for more and more things. The photo above shows exactly how RIM put the NFC antenna into the BlackBerry Bold 9900. They built the antenna into the battery door! On the Bold 9900, you can turn on NFC from the homescreen by pulling down the Manage Connections menu. You'll want to start training your brain to spot the NFC logo everywhere you go. 
It's an emerging standard, so much so that I couldn't find anything NFC-enabled to test the Bold 9900 out on yet while working on this review. To learn more on NFC you can read up on it here and be sure to check out the demo video we recorded of NFC in action on the BlackBerry Bold 9900 back at BlackBerry World.  
Other Internals - Bluetooth, GPS, WiFi , Other Sensors
I'm not sure why the Bluetooth on my Bold 9780 was shaky, but it's rock solid on the Bold 9900.
Bluetooth: Bluetooth isn't something to get excited about these days -- the functionality is a given -- but I have to give props for the Bluetooth in the Bold 9900/BlackBerry 7 as it solved whatever issue me Bold 9780/BlackBerry 6 was having with Bluetooth pairing in my car. I think the issue was really specific as I could never find a solution to it (I could occassionally pair once after a battery pull, and it would never repair after that), but whatever the problem was it no longer exists with the 9900. 

GPS: The Bold 9900 has GPS on board, and the few tests I've done so far have found my location very quickly and very accurately.

WiFi: WiFi connectivity is present in the form of Dual-Band Wi-Fi: 802.11 b/g/n at 2.4 GHz and 802.11 a/n at 5 GHz.

But what about the ability to turn your BlackBerry Bold 9900 into a Mobile Hotspot? Back in early 2011, when we first saw the roadmap leak for the new lineup of phones, we saw that this functionality was on the feature list. After all, the chipset definitely supports it and we've even seen/heard of earlier builds of the BlackBerry 6.1/BlackBerry 7 OS that had the functionality built-in. We reached out to RIM on this one too, and got this for a response:

Mobile Hotspot functionality is not available. 

Obviously there's no explanation here for us, but we can hypothesis a few scenarios: either RIM chose not to include the functionality (they tried and it just didn't work well on the BlackBerry OS), or that it's still coming but just isn't available yet, or it was ready to rock but they didn't get carrier support for it and pulled it out. I'm not sure what the story is exactly, but I'm still holding out hope that we'll see this feature get rolled out via a software update, as this leaked document from Bell shows. 

Other Sensors: The BlackBerry Bold 9900 includes a few other sensorts that add to the capabilities of the device, including an accelerometer for device orientation, a magnetometer that acts as a digital compass, and a proximity sensor that turns off the touchscreen display when you're on the phone.