Jan 9, 2009

Tech - Test Center review: The 21st-century BlackBerry

San Francisco - The BlackBerry Bold, RIM's new executive QWERTY handset, enters the scene at a time when the utility of the fixed keyboard is under debate. This review overlapped with my longer-term evaluation of touchscreen and touch/keyboard devices, including the BlackBerry Storm, T-Mobile G1, AT&T Fuze (HTC Touch Pro), HTC Touch Diamond, and of course the iPhone 3G. I've had to ponder the question myself: Is the Bold worth its $299 price tag, much less worth a look at all?

I started out unimpressed, but after AT&T pushed out some substantial firmware fixes to the device, I resolved that the Bold has a real place in RIM's lineup and the enterprise mobile market. The Bold respects the enterprise formula, keeping sacred everything that makes the QWERTY BlackBerry a unique business and IT tool but enhancing it in well-selected places. The enhancements start with a platform modernization that exploits a fast CPU and accelerated graphics, enabling an updated GUI framework that makes high-res, widescreen QWERTY look like a million bucks.

Live for the message
Messaging (e-mail, IM, SMS) is still job one. The global BlackBerry notification and delivery infrastructure turns all messages into instant messages. Even polled IMAP and POP mailboxes are monitored by RIM's servers, not your handset, so BlackBerry magic such as prioritized assured delivery, on-demand attachment download, and initial fragment push are part of the coverage plan. No back end is required. If you write as often as you read, there is still no substitute for fixed QWERTY.

Beyond business as usual, Bold takes on a state-of-the-art feature roster, including 3G (UMTS on AT&T's network); 802.11b/g Wi-Fi; GPS; video and still camera; Bluetooth stereo headphones (A2DP) and Bluetooth remote (AVRCP) profiles; and external microSDHC storage expansion. The handset is wrapped in a handsome and durable chassis that incorporates a padded grip, and the piano-black face has broad, well-lit keys and buttons. It looks great from all angles and feels good in either hand, and when it's time to type, the screen stays the same size.

RIM finally let its own programmers use the BlackBerry platform's GUI frameworks for a QWERTY phone. The themable home screens look gorgeous, and you can reorganize app icons to your liking. You'll need to, since AT&T loaded Bold's default home menu with consumery music, video, and ringtone stores. The carrier also manipulates the menu via over-the-air updates, a few of which AT&T issued during my testing. You can stuff little-used or unused icons into folders.

Text remains BlackBerry's stock in trade, and believe it or not, the Bold's text clarity exceeds the BlackBerry Storm's, even with the smaller display. The tiny widescreen is sharper than ink. Although I frequently adjust the text size on the BlackBerry 8800 I carry to compensate for eye fatigue, I find that I can read the BlackBerry Bold at its minimum point size, whatever the time or time zone.

Browser blues
Like other BlackBerrys, the Bold comes up short as a mobile browser. Implementing an interpreted language (JavaScript) in an interpreted language (Java) carries unavoidable drawbacks. On the Bold, the native Web browser is slow and sometimes unstable even over 3G and Wi-Fi links when JavaScript is enabled. In addition, it lacks a tabbed or multisite view, column mode fails to flow text to fill the width of the screen, and rendering errors are frequent on complex pages. The Bold's snappy 3G and Wi-Fi performance do become apparent when you turn off the standard browser's JavaScript interpreter, download the freeware alternative Opera Mini, or lean toward sites designed for mobile devices.

RIM's browser loads content serially instead of using multiple simultaneous TCP connections. Opera Mini, a freeware browser that takes a server-side approach to Web acceleration, is a worthy replacement. Opera Mini passes URL requests to its servers, which compress the content before delivering it to the browser. A side benefit is that Opera Mini does not impose a limit on file download sizes, so you can pull down that 30MB podcast over 3G on your way to the airport. BlackBerry's native browser caps downloads at 5MB.

The Bold can do more with downloaded documents than yesterday's BlackBerrys, thanks to DataViz's Documents to Go. This suite equips the BlackBerry Bold (Verizon bundles the same suite with the BlackBerry Storm) for offline viewing of Office and PDF documents, including e-mail attachments. But it also permits the editing of Office files, complete with formatting and change tracking, and a small one-time upgrade charge enables creation of new Office documents.

AT&T's bundled turn-by-turn navigation software is TeleNav, a favorite and my perennial pick for killer app on any mobile platform it graces. AT&T seemingly engaged in a bit of turf protection by blocking operation of BlackBerry Maps -- the simple, fast, and free navigation tool that RIM puts in every box. Google Maps, though inferior to BlackBerry Maps for navigation, still functions.

For pros only
RIM faces a lot of competition in the enterprise and professional mobile space, not least from its own new and refurbished handsets. BlackBerry Bold puts a needed new spin on old-school QWERTY. Yes, it's a ploy to reach into the pockets of traditional BlackBerry owners who envied the Storm's after-hours potential but wouldn't lop off their keyboards or sacrifice mature enterprise firmware to get it. The Bold updates QWERTY-device feel, fun, and functionality without disruptive compromises that swing it toward the consumer realm.

Is it worth $299? If you're carrying a BlackBerry, and you are among those serious users who type as much as they read, the Bold is worth every penny. The Bold fulfills its new supporting roles as USB storage, media player, video camera, Wi-Fi client, and desktop stand-in quite well. It won't take the market by storm, but it will give those BlackBerry users and enterprises that can afford it a platform for more ambitious applications. Given that the Bold is still a working person's BlackBerry, it makes a more pragmatic perquisite than most other gadgets

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