Review: BlackBerry Bold 9900

RIM has millions of BlackBerry subscribers worldwide, some loyal and some not. It’s been over a year since the last BlackBerry was introduced, the Torch 9800 and this device was mildly accepted. RIM has now released a new set of smartphones that all have increased specs and a brand new OS. By far the leader and most anticipated of the pack is the BlackBerry Bold 9900.

Rogers decided to release the 9900 early, it was supposed to be available on the 15th but stores started selling them last Tuesday. I happened to come across a Rogers Store that day and quickly snapped it up and swapped out my Bold 9780. So after using the 9900 for a few days I’d like to share my findings.

This review is using a Rogers Retail 9900, complete retail box running the launch OS 7.0.261. The BlackBerry 9900 is a refresh and resurrection of the Bold line. I say resurrection because I feel that the 9000 should have evolved into this model. The 9700/9780 have their place but should not have been called Bold in my opinion. An elegant device with a large keyboard, large(ish) screen, big bold styling and looks. The 9900 definitely lives up to the moniker now.

Tech Specs
– QWERTY keyboard with trackpad
– 2.8-inch touchscreen (resolution of 640×480)
– 1.2Ghz processor
– Triband HSPA 2100/1900/850 Quadband EDGE 1900/1800/900/850
– 14.4 Down and 5.76 up HSPA+ radios
– 768Mbps of application ram, 8GB on board for storage and up to 32GB with a microSD card
– 5.0 megapixel camera with 720p video recording (camera lacks auto-focus)
– Accelerometer and Digital Compass
– Proximity sensor for screen
– Wi-Fi b/g/n at 2.4 GHz and 802.11 a/2 at 5GHz
– Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
– Debut of BlackBerry OS7
– 1230mAh battery

The Bold 9900 is refreshing. It’s refreshingly built with metals and soft touch plastics. Where the 9000 looked expensive but felt plastic and cheap. The 9900 looks and feels the part. The metal band trimming around the device is nice and well weighted. Some may say it stole the idea from the iPhone 4. Sure, but this phone doesn’t need a case to get full reception either.

The Bold is appropriately named, has quite some heft to it, and is ridiculously thin. But the thinness has some caveat’s (see battery below).

Wow, Wow. Wow, Wow and Wow. Finally. The keyboard on the Bold 9900 is the one to have if that’s one of your hot button topics. The first thing I muttered when I started typing to myself was, “Where have you BEEN for the last 2 years?” Those of you who have used and enjoyed the original Bold 9000 like I did just never really liked the 9700 / 9780 keyboard. Sure, we all got used that keyboard, but I’d be hard pressed to find a 9700 / 9780 / 9300 / 8520 user pick up the 9900 and say “nah, I like X better”.

The tactile feel of the keyboard is simply awesome. It’s perfectly “clicky” and depresses just the right amount with an authoritative sink into the pad lying underneath. The back lighting of the keypad is evenly distributed and very easy to see at night.

The Bold 9900 features a 2.8-inch capacitive touchscreen that has a resolution of 640×480. Even back in the Bold 9000’s days many wondered why RIM didn’t include a touchscreen. It would have been the best of both worlds. Some 2-years later we now have the 9900 returning with all its large keyboard glory along with a touchscreen. The touchscreen display is a welcome addition and doesn’t have that gimmicky Surepress setup the Storm had, which in theory sounded good but in application just slowed down the quick Berry typists out there. The display is responsive and quick thanks to the 1.2Ghz processor. After using the 9900’s touch+type setup I picked up my 9780 and instinctively touched the screen to swipe to a different menu, which shows how intuitive the touchscreen really is (and how realistically it should have been here long ago). If you’re pondering, “Do I really need a touchscreen 9900 Bold?”. The answer is Yes. It makes using the BlackBerry that much more efficient.

The BlackBerry 9900, as is most of the GSM BlackBerry devices that I’ve experienced, is no slouch for reception. In weaker areas it’s able to maintain calls and sounds flawlessly. Oddly, an issue that’s been plaguing myself and friends lately is that the BlackBerry line seems to be EDGE happy. It keeps dropping back to EDGE (GSM) or flip flopping while idle. Either way I found my 9900 was also doing these odd drop outs to EDGE as well. It worked well on EDGE, if you’re asking.

I also took the 9900 on a typical Drive test*. I’m located in Markham, Ontario and I traveled for about 30 minutes on both side roads and a busy highway. Needless to say the 9900 handled the drive by test with ease, and oddly enough didn’t drop to EDGE while I was driving.

* The drive by test is:
Yonge and 16th, east on 16th to woodbine. North on woodbine to 19th. West on 19th to Bathurst. North on Bathurst to Jefferson. East on Jefferson to Yonge. North on Yonge to Bloomington. Bloomington east to Bayview. South on bayview to Stouffville sideroad. East on Stoufville sideroad to the 404 south. And 404 south to Elgin Mills

Sound Quality:
The 9900 is one of the best handsets I’ve used and heard in terms of incoming call audio and quality. BlackBerry’s niche is business. The 9900 is all business. If you’re the type to still does a lot of voice minutes, then I wholeheartedly recommend the 9900. It has a natural high caliber quality of incoming audio that anyone can appreciate and enjoy.

The outgoing audio was equally decent. I had no real complaints there other the road noise. When receiving calls from friends who also purchased a Bold 9900 and were driving I could hear the road noise from the handset.

The Speakerphone, which is the same speaker on the rear of the slot where you remove the door, is plenty loud. So loud in fact that when I set up my 9900’s ringtones and all the chirps and bells that I have for Facebook, Twitter, BBM, Email and SMS I set all the volumes at 10. That was too loud. This is the first time I can remember commenting that the ringtone volume and alerts on a Berry were too loud. Which is actually a welcome change.

As such the speakerphone is actually decent. While not as rich sounding as the earpiece on handheld calls, I can say I’ll continue to use the 9900 in speakerphone mode when the situation warrants itself (not when you’re walking through the mall, ya, YOU mall guy).

The 9900 features a 5 megapixel camera with fixed focus and close up mode. It’s average. I was really wondering how the camera would be on the 9900 seeing as the BlackBerry offers some of the best social connectivity on Facebook and Twitter. Naturally being so well connected you would want to share those memories with your social sites of choice. The camera will get by, but it’s nothing special. Truth be told, most have already commented that the camera on the 9780 with autofocus is actually of better quality, and that wasn’t that great either. They got a long way to go to catch up to the iPhone or various Android camera offerings.

Modern Day Connectivity:
The BlackBerry 9900 is no slouch when it comes to modern day connectivity. Prior to the launch we heard about NFC, Wi-Fi Hotspot and Wi-Fi calling (UMA). You can also use the venerable USB cable and / or Blackberry desktop software.

Unfortunately at the time of launch, Hotspot is missing and has been omitted. Various documents circling the web show there are software revisions coming down the pipe to re-enable the missing Hotspot connectivity. I was disappointed that it wasn’t available at launch. It seems that the 9900 is the Bold that has been coming for almost 6 months, and it’s still not fully here yet.

This is the first flagship phone out of the gate from RIM that features NFC (Near Field Communication). There’s nothing you can do with it yet though. When I played with the Nexus S it read my Visa card “unknown tag”, the 9900 doesn’t. Needles to say it’s better that it has NFC capabilities now then wishing you had it later.

Commerce is convenient but the simple ability to add BBM Buddies and accessories to your 9900 via NFC will make it worthwhile. The security applications as well will be very cool. Using the 9900 to buzz into your building or work will reduce the amount of cards you need to carry in your purse / wallet / European messenger bag

UMA (Wi-Fi calling):
Missing. The hardware supports it and we’ve also posted a document showing that Rogers will bring it as well with a revision. Personally I use UMA, but I’m one of the few. I use Wi-Fi to make my own cellular connections when the network is weak, or just for the fun of it. Why it’s missing I have no clue. Should this affect your purchase? Not really, it didn’t affect mine. More is better though is my mindset and I’d rather have a feature there that I never use supported in the OS/Hardware versus it supposed to be there and not work.

Cradle charging:
Similar to the 9000 / 9700 series there are 2 contacts on the bottom of the device for cradle charging.
This is very convenient. I use my 9780 and will use my 9900 when the dock becomes available, as my alarm clock “But Treatz, what about the blinking red light causing sleepless nights!!” you may say. Bedside mode my friends! Drop it in the cradle, kill the light, dim the screen and show the old school 1980’s flip clock. Ah, serenity now! Plus, you don’t kill your MicroUSB connector when you use the dock connector.

BlackBerry OS 7:
The 9900 features RIM’s “shiny and new” OS, BlackBerry 7. The reality of the situation is that OS7 was originally referred to as OS 6.1, and in my opinion that name is more accurate. The OS, in its current form, isn’t providing UMA, Hotspot and really, it’s really not all that different. The speed and snapiness of the device is more than likely attributed to the 1.2Ghz processor. Twice that of the 600Mhz marvel units of yesteryear. The touchscreen is nice and makes full use of the OS though. If the 9900 had launched without a touchscreen the experience would have been ruined for me.

I will say though OS7, the 1.2GHz processor plus the new “liquid graphics” finally has the 9900 whizzing and popping in and out of menus and apps with gusto. This is a much needed speed change makes the 9900 experience feel even more “luxurious”.

However, another issue of OS7 is the apps. Not all the OS6 apps are compatible. The apps on BlackBerry aren’t nearly as plentiful as the competing OS’s and the ones I do use aren’t ready for OS7. At the time of writing this I was unable to install and use: TimmyMe, Shazam. ING Bank, Cineplex, Canadian Tire and Urban Spoon. It’s also known now that BES X support isn’t ready yet for OS7. They need to remedy this issue quickly.

RIM claims that with OS7 and the 9900 web browsing is “now 40% faster than BlackBerry 6 based smartphones and up to 100% faster than BlackBerry 5 based smartphones”. The truth is the browser is actually decent. Is OS7 the culprit? Is the 1.2Ghz processor the reason why? I’m sure both of these things work in unison. I was able to surf all the web pages except flash, as there is no flash support. Compared to what RIM is coming from this is a much needed and improved browser experience that BlackBerry purists and casual will appreciate. Does it match the performance of the iPhone and various Android phones, Yes and no. Yes in that it’s much improved and can be on par with iPhone and Android, No in the fact that as a consumer I’m not looking for an on par experience. I want each interaction of the device to leapfrog itself and the competition. While the 9900’s browser leapfrogs OS6 and the prior generation, it’s still not markedly better than the competition. All jokes aside, the OS6 browser wasn’t exactly hard to beat either, so a 40% bump in something that was already behind was almost mandatory.

Battery Life:
The 9900’s battery life, in my usage, needs to be improved. I have had to charge it twice daily. It’s a 1230 mAh battery, and frankly it’s not enough. The Bold 9000, 9700 and 9780 all came with a 1500 mAh battery. Why are these batteries getting smaller? Sure the 9900 is 10mm thin, but I don’t recall people saying the 9000 was too thick. I would rather have 1-3mm more thickness if this would afford me a 1750 or 2000mah battery. The construction of the rear door also alludes to the aftermarket making covers with a rear bump to afford a larger battery, plus they will still need to make space for the NFC antenna contact points.

If the 9900 is your main device keep a charger handy, or a spare battery. Are you seeing different batter life then me? Please sound off in the comments.

Closing Thoughts:
The 9900 is the next BlackBerry, but how long will this unit be relevant? My fears are that many developers simply won’t develop for the OS7 platform when RIM’s new QNX platform is on the horizon. As a Developer would you code your app for OS7 when QNX is approximately 6 months to 1-year out? With the Rumored QNX Colt coming first quarter of 2012 we’re not that far off.

If you’re dying to get the 9900 and can no longer use the 9700 or 9780 then you will enjoy the 9900. The keyboard alone and the speed of the OS is awesome. You’ll need to decide if it’s $549.99 outright or 199.99 on 3-year worth of awesome to you though.

– Top of the line build quality, fit and finish
– Very quick and nimble feeling OS and BlackBerry
– Best keyboard in the industry
– BlackBerry experience.
– Metal bezel
– 720p video recording
– 14.4 / 5.76 HSPA+ radio access
– UMA / Wi-Fi calling
– BES corporate support

– No Hotspot, No UMA at launch
– Battery life, 1230mah, versus 1500 on 9700 / 9780
– Not all OS6 apps are ready for OS7
– No BES X support on OS7, yet
– Aftermarket battery solutions may look ugly
– OS7 isn’t all that new