You can’t throw a rock these days without hitting someone who thinks RIM is doomed, but you wouldn’t think so when you put the latest BlackBerry Bold in your hand. This phone gives a fantastic first impression, with an industrial design that feels solid and polished. For all that’s been said about RIM, the company has been building phones for a decade, and it shows in the Bold 9930.

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The Design of Champions

Let’s start with the great. The keyboard is simply awesome — this is the best physical keyboard on any phone I’ve ever used, boasting buttons just the right size and shape for the thumb, with the perfect amount of backlighting. That’s actually not too surprising, since keyboard phones are where RIM typically excels, but it’s still very much appreciated. The texture of the keys feels a little more “matte” than the some previous Bolds, a definite improvement if you thought those were a bit slippery.

The buttons on the bezel are superb as well. They’re all firm, smooth chrome-colored controls, each protruding just the right distance up from the frame. The volume buttons are even angled slightly downward toward each other, so the trained fingertip can quickly tell by touch which is up and which is down. And the screen-lock button is wisely recessed. These are details, but it’s telling that RIM has thoughtfully considered each and every one of them.

Finally, the Bold weighs just 4.6 ounces, less hefty than the previous 9650 (which definitely felt too heavy). It’s not quite as featherlight as the Curve, but the Bold is certainly much more feature-rich. For what this phone does, the weight feels just right — that touchscreen and 1.2GHz processor need a battery to support them, after all. It’s still very friendly to the hand and pocket (and, notably, 0.3 ounces lighter than the iPhone 4S).

Soft on Software

Yes, there’s no doubt RIM went above and beyond in creating this phone, squeezing every bit of design know-how into producing an attractive and user-friendly device. That’s why it’s such a heartbreaking disappointment to discover that the software falls flat almost from the moment you turn it on.

The Bold is one of RIM’s first phones that runs the BlackBerry 7 OS. But system 7 is the last iteration of the “old” BlackBerry software, a stopgap until RIM switches over to the completely rewritten QNX-based BlackBerry 10 later this year. To be sure, BlackBerry 7 provides a great mobile experience . . . for 2009. This being 2012, however, it’s not hard to see why any shopper looking at a BlackBerry would be looking longingly over to the next store display full of powerful Android superphones, or that altar for the iPhone.

Take apps, for example. Not only is the selection on BlackBerry App World anemic (60,000 apps to iOS’s 500,000 or Android’s 400,000), but finding what you want is a chore. Search results give you needless page of categories instead of the app you’re looking for. I searched for “Foursquare,” RIM — that should tell you I don’t what to browse, just take me to the flippin’ app, thank you.

Then when you download, the real fun begins. First, there’s no easy “upgrade all” option when you have multiple upgrades waiting. Apps also routinely require you to reboot before you use them, and for some reason they sometimes they want you to install version after version before getting to the latest one. What is this, Windows? At least you don’t have to enter a password for every single download, even free ones, like on iOS.

Nonetheless, if you’ve used iOS at all, BlackBerry 7 OS will make you feel like you’re slumming it in a station wagon after cruising in Mustang. Convenient features like moving apps around the home screen with just your finger, or tapping the top of the screen to scroll all the way up a list – they simply don’t exist on the Bold. The home screen is cluttered, app design is inelegant, and those dialog boxes just feel clunky and dated.

Attention to Details

On the good side, having a touchscreen to complement the keyboard is a huge plus. I’ve used all kinds of BlackBerrys, and the Bold’s combo of hard and virtual buttons is by far the most powerful interface. Whenever you’re having trouble navigating the screen, just tap, swipe or pinch yourself through it. And for banging out text messages or email, the keyboard is second to none.

Phone calls were good, nice and crisp with minimal distortion. I’ve always found BlackBerrys to be competent phones, yet strangely counterintuitive to use for voice calls. Since the devices began as email-only pagers, the fundamentals of BlackBerry design demotes phone calls to kind of an afterthought (i.e. the number pad is “borrowed” from the keyboard, the phone app isn’t front and center). The same is true with the Bold: it’s a phone, but barely. Not that, in the text-and-data-driven world of 2012, you would care much either way.

The Bold boasts a 1.2GHz processor, but it’s oddly sluggish at times. Perhaps I’m just used to the dual-core offerings of Android and Apple, but I found the Bold to be just okay at doing things like browsing the web, playing YouTube videos and calling up Facebook albums. It’s a decent phone for today, but a year from now it’s going to definitely be the in the slow lane.

The camera is very good, performing well in low light without a flash (provided you and your subject keep still), with extremely brief shutter lag. Most camera phones are these days are comparable, so it’s good to see RIM hasn’t fallen behind here. Its video maxes out at 720p resolution, but that’ll be more than enough for most.

Boldly Going… Where, Exactly?

Bottom Line:

The BlackBerry Bold 9930 is a great-looking and well-designed phone, with solid features and even a few cool extras (like near-field communication, or NFC, for mobile payment apps). Which makes it a shame that it’s saddled with BlackBerry 7 OS, which just isn’t a full smartphone experience here in 2012. It’s the phone you might want to date casually for a few months because it’s so pretty, but it really just isn’t bright enough to satisfy your needs in a long-term relationship.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Good

Pros

  • Solid and detailed industrial design
  • Excellent battery life
  • Good low-light camera with minimal shutter lag

Cons

  • Primitive operating system
  • Small screen
  • Poor app selection

Key Specs

  • 2.6 x 4.5 x 0.41 inches (W x H x D)
  • 4.59 ounces
  • World phone: CDMA/GSM/UMTS
  • 35-key backlit QWERTY keyboard
  • 2.8-inch capacitive touchscreen
  • 640 x 480 pixels (287 dpi)
  • 5-megapixel camera with flash
  • 720p video recording
  • 8GB storage
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11b/g/n)



Pete Pachal