Change is a familiar concept in the mobile-phone industry. Most recently, Apple and Google introduced mobile devices with two vital innovations: They run on fast 3G networks and use touch screens. Yesterday Research In Motion (RIMM), maker of the BlackBerry, brought out a device that goes halfway: the BlackBerry Bold, which runs on AT&T’s 3G network, but doesn’t have a touch screen.
The $300 (with two-year contract) Bold doesn’t pose as RIM’s real iPhone competitor; that distinction will fall to the touch-screen BlackBerry Storm due out later this month. Instead, the Bold serves as an upgraded version of the company’s BlackBerry 8800 series devices. These models are popular with corporations because they focus most on functionality over style. As a result, they tend to be a bit on the large side — especially compared with the BlackBerry Curve or BlackBerry Pearl.
I’ve been using the Bold for the past couple of weeks, both in New York City and in Washington, D.C., and had almost no trouble doing email and Web browsing with its 3G network connection and Wi-Fi capability. I admit that I didn’t use it much as a phone, mostly because its bulky size made it awkward to hold to my ear while chatting.
On the plus side, the BlackBerry Bold has a bright, beautiful screen and one of the most comfortable keyboards I’ve used on a mobile device. Behind the scenes, it has a speedy processor that handles email, Web browsing and video playback with ease. The Bold’s 2.66-inch screen is the largest yet on a BlackBerry.
But the Bold reminded me of my grandparents’ new Buick: handsomely polished and luxuriously comfortable, with plenty of extra bells and whistles. As much as I like the plush feel of this ride, it can feel as big as a boat when I need to park or navigate narrow city streets. Likewise, the Bold’s large size affords mobile extravagances like a keyboard I could use without looking down and a leatherette-covered back panel. But when tossed in a bag or even held in my hand, the BlackBerry Bold simply feels too heavy and too big.
Furthermore, this device’s $300 price is steep considering it comes with only one gigabyte of memory, and a memory-card slot for expanding that should you choose to do so. By comparison, Apple’s (AAPL) smallest $199 iPhone comes with eight gigabytes of memory.
The Bold’s battery lasted for me just over a day after being fully charged. RIM says a full charge will last for four and a half hours of talk time and about 13.5 days of standby. The BlackBerry 8820, by comparison, lasts a bit longer: five hours of talk time and 22 days of standby.
But the Bold’s brighter screen and faster network allow it to do things that were slow and stuttering in previous models, such as quickly loading and watching YouTube clips on the device’s browser.
Icons on the Bold’s main menu look like pale white versions of the colorful, cartoon-like icons found on previous BlackBerrys; perhaps these more-staid icons were added to make the device look more sophisticated. The Bold’s edges are distinguished with silver chrome, and buttons abound on all sides: a volume rocker on the right edge, customizable convenience keys on the right and left sides, a microSD card slot on the left, a mute button on the top edge and a one-touch button on the bottom that releases the entire back panel.
The Bold’s leatherette-covered back panel gave the device a richer feel — a far cry from the flimsy plastic back on my BlackBerry Curve that falls off if I drop it. This black leatherette back can be swapped out for other colors like blue, red, slate and brown, which can be bought at ShopBlackBerry.com.
This BlackBerry’s Web browser uses an on-screen magnifying-glass icon to remind users that they can zoom in to more easily read Web pages. Google’s G1 device uses a similar magnifying glass. The Bold’s Menu button (to the left of the trackball) offers a helpful way to browse using the Go To command. This command opens a screen with a blank address bar; a search box that can be set to use Google (GOOG), Wikipedia or Dictionary.com; and a list of bookmarks and recent history.
Emailing on the BlackBerry Bold was a breeze. I grew so fond of its keyboard design — made with flat, roomy keys and silver “frets,” or dividing lines, that separate each row — that I found myself touch typing without looking down after only three days of use.
RIM says that each key has a subtle high point on it that makes typing more comfortable, and I agreed, rarely typing an incorrect keystroke. Attachments opened in a blink, and DataViz Inc.’s Word To Go, Sheet To Go and Slideshow To Go make it simple to open and edit Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents.
As the presidential election approached, friends often emailed links to videos or Web sites with information about the latest news. On my BlackBerry Curve, I rarely even bother trying to open these links because that device’s EDGE connection is so slow. But the Bold opened Web addresses and videos with no problem, whether I was on AT&T’s 3G network or Wi-Fi in my home or office.
A pre-installed AT&T (T) application called CV, which stands for Cellular Video, holds a selection of clips from sources like CNN, ESPN and ABC as well as full episodes of TV shows (I watched a good portion of “30 Rock”). Categories at the bottom of the CV menu screen combine videos into groups like Most Watched, Entertainment and HBO Mobile, which costs $5 a month extra.
While you’re driving, AT&T Navigator, by TeleNav, makes use of the Bold’s big, bright screen by flashing clear turn-by-turn directions on the device as you go.
I found the BlackBerry Bold to be a huge asset for on-the-go productivity, and some users won’t mind this mobile device’s large build and higher price because of its luxuriously comfortable features.
If you’re thinking of upgrading your BlackBerry to get a faster experience, and don’t want to wait to try the BlackBerry Storm’s touch screen later this month, the Bold is definitely worth a look.
– Edited by Walter S. Mossberg