Sprint customers disappointed by the lack of Wi-Fi on last summer’s BlackBerry Tour 9630 will be pleased with the latest BlackBerry coming to the network. The BlackBerry Bold 9650 ($200 with a two-year contract from Sprint) offers Wi-Fi and twice as much memory as the Tour. It also sports a superb keyboard and excellent messaging features. On the other hand, the BlackBerry OS lacks innovation and the browser isn’t on par with what you’d find on an Android phone or the iPhone.
Almost identical to the Tour 9630, the Bold 9650 measures 4.4 inches by 2.4 inches by 0.5 inch thick. At 4.8 ounces, however, it is slightly heavier than the 4.6-ounce Tour. The Bold 9650’s body combines a muted chrome bezel with smooth black rubber and textured plastic. The texture contributes to the phone’s comfortable in-hand feel. Like the Tour, the Bold 9650 has a 2.4-inch 480-by-360-pixel display.
The right spine of the Bold 9650 houses a 3.5mm headphone jack, a volume rocker, a dedicated camera key (which you can customize to serve as another shortcut), and a mini-USB port for data transfers and power. The left spine accommodates the voice-dialing key (also customizable) and a speaker.
Rather than including a trackball, as the Tour (and every other year-old BlackBerry device) does, the Bold 9650 comes equipped with a responsive touchpad that gives the Bold the feel of a touchscreen device. BlackBerry loyalists who are used to the trackball might find the touchpad disconcerting, but–in comparison with a faulty trackball that repeatedly falls out or gets dirty with use–it will save users money in the long run.
The keyboard on the Bold 9650 is more compact than the one on the BlackBerry Bold 9700, yet it’s still spacious enough to comfortably type long messages on. The individual keys were easy to press and had just enough clickiness. The sculpted keys minimize finger slippage, another ergonomic advantage.
Though the Bold 9650 was announced alongside BlackBerry OS 6.0, it ships with OS 5.0, which we also saw on the BlackBerry Storm 2. BlackBerry OS 6.0 won’t ship until Q3. 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 its easy-to-identify icons.
As on other BlackBerry devices we’ve reviewed, the browser is definitely the Bold 9650’s weak spot. Because it isn’t built on WebKit, it can’t match the browsers on the iPhone, WebOS phones, and Android phones. The browser defaults to a mobile site when one is available, and it takes a while to render a full site. Fortunately, OS 6.0 will deliver a WebKit browser to the Bold 9650 and to other BlackBerry devices that are desperately in need of that update.
Like its siblings, the Bold’s multimedia features are fairly middle-of-the-road. The vanilla music player 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. You can download music via Verizon’s Rhapsody service.
The 3.2-megapixel camera has a flash, variable zoom, image stabilization, autofocus, and video recording. My snapshots captured accurate colors (especially indoors, thanks to the flash), but had a high amount of noise and graininess. The Bold can capture video, too, but the clips I recorded with the Tour had a noticeable amount of ghosting and color distortion.
[Ginny Mies is a associate editor for PCWorld.]