Research In Motion’s BlackBerry Bold 9700 is the finest BlackBerry to date, combining the best of the BlackBerry Tour 9630 and the BlackBerry Bold 9000 in a slim and refined package. People looking for a major update to the original Bold might be disappointed, but BlackBerry fans will appreciate the handset’s subtle design tweaks and upgrades.
Measuring 4.3 by 2.4 by 0.6 inches, the 9700 is much more pocketable than the colossal 9000 (which measured 4.5 by 2.6 by 0.6 inches). The new handset is lighter, as well, weighing 4.2 ounces (down from 4.8 ounces). Though the leatherette back is still present, it’s minimized on this new version—a good thing. (I’m just not a fan of fake leather on a phone.)
On the right spine are the volume rocker and the camera shutter/convenience key (a function key that you can program to open any app of your choice). On the left side you’ll find another convenience key as well as the standard 3.5mm headphone jack and micro-USB port. Lock and mute buttons are at the top of the device. Below the display sits the familiar row of hardware buttons we’ve become accustomed to seeing on BlackBerrys: Talk, Menu, Back, and End/Power.
Call quality over T-Mobile’s network was spotty at times. On a few of my calls, I heard a faint hiss in the background. I don’t think this is an issue with the Bold’s hardware, though, because I’ve heard this hiss on other T-Mobile devices. The Bold 9700 also allows you to make calls over Wi-Fi using a technology called Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA); the voice-over-Wi-Fi feature improves reception in locations where cell signals are weak. (The AT&T version of the Bold 9700 does not have UMA support, however.)
RIM’s decision to add a touchpad instead of a trackball was wise: BlackBerry trackballs get dirty and start to stick, and sometimes even fall out with a lot of use. The responsive touchpad gives the Bold the feel of a touchscreen device, particularly when you’re swiping through pictures. BlackBerry loyalists who are used to the trackball might find the touchpad disconcerting. However, though it might be a different sensation, having a touchpad rather than a faulty trackball will save users money in the long run.
The Bold 9700 has a keyboard similar to that of the Bold 9000, with sculpted keys and thin metal dividers akin to guitar frets. This design is meant to eliminate finger slippage and to enhance the keyboard’s usability. The original Bold’s keyboard felt roomy and ergonomic, due somewhat in part to the handset’s measurements. Though the Bold 9700 has a narrower keyboard, I still found it quite comfortable to type on. My colleague who has larger hands than I do and is a Bold 9000 owner preferred the width of the 9000’s keyboard but didn’t have any issues typing on the 9700.
The 9700’s 2.4-inch display has a 480-by-360 pixel resolution, which is slightly better than the original Bold’s. The display looks quite stunning, especially when you’re viewing pictures and playing back video. One gripe I have about BlackBerry displays, however, concerns their annoying black border; why not make the display bigger and get rid of the border? This seems to be a signature RIM design, but maybe in the next round of devices it will go the way of the trackball and disappear.
Shipping with the Bold 9700 is BlackBerry OS 5.0, which we also saw on the BlackBerry Storm 2. BlackBerry OS 5.0 has sharper icons, brighter colors, and blacker blacks than BlackBerry OS 4.6 (which shipped on the original Bold). The interface is clean and simple to navigate, thanks to the easy-to-identify icons.
The Bold’s browser is definitely its weak spot. Because it isn’t built on WebKit, it simply doesn’t compare to the browsers on the iPhone, the Palm Pre, and Android phones. The browser will default to a mobile site when one is available, and it takes a bit of time to render a full site. That said, OS 5.0 adds some useful features, such as tabbed browsing.
Pressing the Bold 9700’s shutter key instantly launches the camera app. The 3.2-megapixel camera is an upgrade over the original Bold’s 2-megapixel lens. It also has a flash, variable zoom, image stabilization, autofocus, and video recording. The image quality of the photos I took, particularly outdoors, was pleasantly surprising: Colors looked accurate and details appeared sharp. While the flash helped with indoor shots, I detected a fair amount of graininess and image noise. Video recording wasn’t as good. In a side-by-side test with the iPhone 3GS, the Bold 9700 produced a noticeable amount of ghosting and blurriness.
BlackBerry OS 5.0’s fairly plain native music app lets you view your library by song, artist, or genre. During playback, a miniature album thumbnail appears. The app also has playlist and shuffle features, and a headphone equalizer. Sound quality was good through the included earbuds, but a bit hollow over the external speaker.
If you’re used to phones with larger screens, such as the Palm Pre or the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G, you may find 2.4 inches for watching video too small for your liking. Still, the video playback was smooth, and I saw no pixelation or distortion.
Customers who bought the Bold 9000 probably don’t need to upgrade to the BlackBerry Bold 9700 just yet. Unless you really don’t like how large the 9000 is, you won’t find enough significant updates in the new handset to justify replacing the older one. If you’re rocking an aging BlackBerry Curve, however, you should definitely consider the Bold 9700. Its keyboard, display, software, and specs make it the best BlackBerry to date, by far.
[Ginny Mies is an assistant editor for PC World.]