BlackBerry Bold 9700 Review

BlackBerry Bold 9700

“Although the Bold 9700 lacks the frills of an iPhone or Palm Pre, for utilitarian business users, it’s one of the most polished smartphones on the market today.”
  • Optical trackpad
  • Solid build quality
  • Landline-like voice quality
  • Tack-sharp screen
  • Longest battery life of all BlackBerrys
  • Keyboard potentially too small for larger fingers
  • Slow browser
BlackBerry Bold 9700

Introduction

It might have been called the Bold Mini had it been born in Cupertino, but those logical Canucks at RIM stuck to numbers. The BlackBerry Bold 9700 takes the stylistic cues and capabilities of its flagship Bold 9000, and scales them down to a more pocket-friendly form factor. The result: BlackBerry bliss.

Design and Build Quality

The Bold 9700 and one of BlackBerry’s most petite handsets, the Curve 8900, look and feel practically as if they were stamped from the same die. Both measure exactly 4.29 inches tall and 2.36 inches wide, with the Bold packing just a smidge of extra flab on the belly for a thickness of 0.56 inches and weight of 4.3 ounces with battery. Make no mistake: the extra decimals can’t do much to diminish the superbly pocketable size and weight of the new Bold, which sidles up right next to the very similar Curve 8900 as one of the most portable smartphones we’ve ever tested.

BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Curve 8900

True to the styling of the original Bold, the 9700 comes trimmed with a hefty dose of chrome, with a broad swoop on the chin, thin rails of it running up the sides, and another thick stripe on the top back. Fortunately, none of the panels are quite thick enough show fingerprints, and the rubbery black plastic used on other parts of the case repels them nicely. The full leather-wrapped back that made a splash on the original Bold has been toned down into a more modest patch of black leather on the battery door, but it still makes the same executive fashion statement. The solid feel of the phone helps complement that overall aura of quality, too.

Specifications and Features

Form factor aside, the hard specs on the Bold 9700 very much resemble its predecessor. You get full 3G Internet (a much-needed feature that scared many would-be buyers away from the Curve 8900), Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.0, and GPS. Like the Curve, it also uses a brilliant half-VGA (480 x 360 pixel) display and 3.2-megapixel camera – an upgrade from the 2.0-megapixel model on the original Bold. Out of the box, the Bold comes stacked with only 256MB of internal memory, but RIM includes a 2GB microSD card in the built-in expansion slot. The slot, which is behind the battery door, can smartly be accessed without removing the actual battery, and accommodates cards up to a whopping 32GB (although at the time of publication, cards in that capacity haven’t yet reached commercial availability).

Connections and Layout

Like almost all BlackBerrys, the Bold 9700 places the screen and QWERTY keyboard front and center, with a strip of the most commonly used controls (talk, end call, back, etc.) dividing the two, easily accessible with a thumb. On the right-hand side, a bubbled-out volume rocker and camera shutter button make it easy to access those dedicated functions. On the left, it offers a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, microUSB charging and data connection, and programmable shortcut key.

Goodbye, Trackball

BlackBerrys have always been known for their trackballs, but the Bold 9700 follows the divergent path of more recent BlackBerrys like the Curve 8520 by switching to an optical trackpad. Swipe your finger over the gem-shaped button center button and it acts just like the trackpad on a laptop computer. While BlackBerry fans might initially miss the grind of that tacky little ball, they won’t miss the reliability issues that always seemed to come from it collecting lint. We quickly acclimated to the new style, happily trading in the tactile feedback of the old trackball for a slicker, quieter solution.

BlackBerry Bold 9700

Keyboard

The keyboard on the new Bold may seem like the most obvious casualty of the shrink ray, but the smaller size might not be as unpalatable as you suspect. Although a step down from the oversized Bold 9000, the new keyboard offers all the crisp feedback BlackBerrys are known for, all in a build that feels tighter, more refined and quieter than the already-admirable Curve. BlackBerry knows keyboards, and we’re convinced this is just about the finest QWERTY you can fold into a space this size, even if it is bordering on too small.

Camera

We loved the 3.2-megapixel camera on the Curve 8900, and this identical model planted in the Bold 9700 is no different. It autofocuses with a quick half-press of the center button and snaps sharp, focused pictures with reasonable color a second later. The LED flash even musters workable snapshots in the dark, although you can expect a healthy dose of typical low-light noise to go along with it. Unfortunately, the tiny 2.44-inch screen doesn’t quite make the greatest viewfinder, and it exhibits significant latency as you move the camera around.

Battery Life

Despite the smaller size of the phone, RIM has kept battery capacity at 1500 mAhr for the new Bold, but rated it for 6 hours of talk time and 21 days of standby – significantly more than the 4.5 hours of talk and 13.5 days of standby that the first model claims. In fact, it now claims better battery life than any other modern BlackBerry.

BlackBerry Bold 9700

Screen

The display on the Bold 9700 matches the Curve 8900 exactly for brightness, resolution and color, which is to say, it’s amazing. Granted, at 2.44 inches across, it won’t run beside full touchscreen phones, but half-VGA brightness crammed into such a tiny area produces a tack-sharp display that makes even the tiniest text and details look crisp. A powerful backlight produces all the punch you need to read under all conditions, without washing out the deep blacks and vibrant colors.

Software

The Bold 9700 ships with the same BlackBerry 5.0 operating system that just shipped on the Storm 9530. Functionally, it looks and feels a lot similar to the 4.5.X software running on most other models right now, with a long list of minor but appreciated upgrades, like the ability to forward calendar entries, or resize photos upon sending them.

Apple, Palm and Google have all stepped into the 21st century with flashy, updated operating systems, leaving Microsoft, Nokia and RIM as the old men of the smartphone world, clinging on to what still works. We still prefer BlackBerry OS to Symbian or Windows Mobile 6.5, and it admittedly juggles business tasks exceptionally well, but the antiquated look and relatively small app store feel like rust on an otherwise shiny new phone.

BlackBerry Bold 9700 on top of Curve 8900

The biggest letdown may be the lack of improvements to BlackBerry’s default browser, which lags, quite literally, behind competitors. In an area with full 3G reception, it took 16 seconds to load the mobile version of CNN.com, where an iPhone on the same network with the same reception did it in 13. The same went for Yahoo, which the iPhone squared away in 10 seconds while the Bold took 14. The tiny screen also hampers browsing on pages not formatted for the Web – even if the fine resolution does make text readable right down to near-microscopic extremes.

Call Quality

Although dialing with BlackBerry’s miniature number keys can be a pain, the Bold 9700 exhibited excellent call quality on AT&T’s network in Portland, Oregon. Calls to a landline for reference sounded rock solid, with callers on the other end noting that we sounded as if we were on a landline as well. It distinctly lacked any warbles, blips or distortion, making it one of the most competent smartphones for voice use we’ve tested so far.

Conclusion

As you may recall, we fell in love with the Curve 8900, but couldn’t quite stomach a modern smartphone stuck on EDGE Internet. The Bold 9700 essentially takes that winning design and adds the crucial missing element in the form of 3G Internet access, along with a better keyboard, optical trackpad, and even longer-lasting battery. Say what you will about RIM’s glacial advancements and bland OS: Although the Bold 9700 lacks the frills of an iPhone or Palm Pre, for utilitarian business users, it’s one of the most polished smartphones on the market today.

Highs:

  • Optical trackpad
  • Solid build quality
  • Landline-like voice quality
  • Tack-sharp screen
  • Longest battery life of all BlackBerrys

Lows:

  • Keyboard potentially too small for larger fingers
  • Slow browser