Since we first heard about the BlackBerry Bold 9900 I was hoping it would be codenamed the Phoenix. For years I have been going to BlackBerry conferences begging RIM to bring back the BlackBerry Bold 9000 form factor with beefed up hardware and software. The BlackBerry Bold 9900 proves that they have unquestionably delivered the best BlackBerry experience coupled in a stunningly beautiful design.
For the last few days I have been using a Verizon BlackBerry Bold 9930 as my main device and it has truly been beautiful. The device takes packs the pedigree of the BlackBerry Bold 9000 and improves upon it tenfold. My first impression when I unboxed the device was one of awe. I had played with the 9900 quite a few times but now that it is finally available I feel like a kid on my birthday. The keyboard is simply expansive and the wider larger form factor fits perfectly into the palm of your hand.
Once I powered on the device and switched all of my info to it I was floored with the speed. Even activating the device on our BES took less than 2 minutes. The best description of what RIM has done to the BlackBerry OS with BlackBerry OS 7 is “liquefy” it which is probably why they call the main improvement “Liquid Graphics.” The BlackBerry Bold 9900 and 9930 packs a 1.2Ghz Snapdragon processor which is just a tad shy of double the processing speed of the last few generations of BlackBerry devices. The RAM has also been upped to 768MB and the screen is stunning. RIM has not only raised the resolution to 640×480 pixels but has also added a very responsive touchscreen that easily glides under your finger. You still have the touchpad for one hand use but the touchscreen really rounds out the device.
BlackBerry Bold 9900 Design & Engineering
The BlackBerry Bold 9900 finally does away with the plastic siding of previous and really makes a statement with its beautiful metal siding. This is actual metal instead of plastic painted with chrome. Even the buttons seem to be made out of metal. The back battery cover is made of a glass composite they told us about at BlackBerry World which has a very slick pattern imprinted on it. Surrounding the battery cover is a rubberized plastic that helps you grip the phone.
The Bold 9900 is also the thinnest BlackBerry ever clocking in at 0.41 inches or 10.5mm. On the other hand from the front it looks almost exactly like the original BlackBerry Bold 9000 but with more luxurious buttons and a trackpad instead of a trackball. Everything about the BlackBerry Bold 9900 exudes style combined with function including a trackpad that now lights up. The metal siding is not sharp against your palm and fits perfectly in your hand despite its thinness. The call, BlackBerry, back, and end call buttons surrounding the touchpad are all made out of the same piece but they are much easier to press than the BlackBerry Bold 9700 and are very responsive. Another interesting change is that RIM has made the microphone hole almost imperceptible by making it just a tiny sliver on the bottom right side of the front bezel. They have also rounded out the blinking notification light to look like the 9800 instead of the 9700 style.
RIM has moved the lock button to the top middle of the device and it is nicely recessed yet easy to press though it no longer mutes phone calls. For that RIM has placed a new button between the volume up and down buttons on the right side of the 9900. That middle button now acts as the mute button. They also placed the only convenience key on the right side. On the left side RIM placed the headphone jack and the MicroUSB jack partially into the metal bezel which creates a very slick profile. The bottom of the device has charging contacts which will probably be used for a charging pod though hopefully CaseMate is working on a Fuel case using them! All in all I have to say I am impressed with what RIM has done with the device design. Unlike the BlackBerry Bold 9700 or the Torch line the Bold 9900 is just begging to be shown off in the executive boardroom.
Internal Hardware (Aka “the Guts!”):
One of the main things RIM has overhauled in the BlackBerry Bold 9900, along with the rest of the BlackBerry 7 line, is the internal hardware. For over 3 years RIM was using the same 624Mhz Marvell processor in all of their top BlackBerrys. The BlackBerry Bold 9900 is the first to break that mold with a huge jump to a 1.2Ghz processor along with a built in graphic processor. This combined with the updated 768MB of RAM and screen resolution bump to 640×480 with a 287 ppi pixel depth 24 bit display lead to what RIM calls “Liquid Graphics.” I call it the BlackBerry OS you love on methamphetamines (speed) dunked in the fountain of youth.
The screen on the BlackBerry Bold 9900 is stunning and beautifully crisp making use of every pixel. I sort of miss the extra real estate on my Torch 9800 screen but the keyboard is well worth the compromise. RIM has also packed in a compass and GPS into the device to allow for augmented reality apps. On top of that we also have 8GB of storage built in to the device which you can expand with a MicroSD card. The only downside is you have to pull the battery to swap the SD card. The Wi-Fi radio was also updated to the newer 802.11n standard like the latest of the previous gen BlackBerry 6 devices.
The battery on the 9900 has also changed from previous Bold devices actually bringing down the capacity from 1500mAh to 1230mAh. I was really worried about this because the device is now packing a processor that runs at twice the speed. From the last few days of usage I have noticed that battery life is pretty much on par with my previous BlackBerry Torch 9800 easily lasting through a day. I did run into one day of heavy usage (screen on all the time and testing the browser) where the battery died in about 12 hours but hopefully there will be Fuel cases and extra batteries to solve that for hardcore users.
Camera Photo & Video Recording:
One of the compromises RIM made to make the 9900 so thin was to put a different camera in there from previous gen devices and the other BlackBerry 7 devices. The 9900 camera is fixed focus instead of autofocus. In my real world tests that resulted in sharp pictures for everything but macro shots. That means taking pictures of events or people came out perfectly but taking pictures of text or receipts close up was fuzzy. On the other hand the 9900 has almost no shutter lag. You press the button and the picture is taken. Oddly this also seems to be why the right side convenience key does not have two push down stages like the 9800 which let you press down half way to focus. In short some people are going to enjoy the camera and for others it is a place RIM could improve on in future Bolds.
On the other hand video recording on the BlackBerry Bold 9900 got a nice boost to HD. You can now record 720p HD videos which means 1280×720 resolution. The videos look amazing and the audio comes out loud and clear instead of crackly. I had image stabilization turned on but my sample videos came out sharp especially when taken in daylight. I had some issues with darker settings but that is practically every video recorder.
Phone calls, Audio, Reception, Data Speed
One of the things I was really interested to test out was the audio quality on the new Bold 9900. The Bold 9000 had a great speaker phone and phone calls were always clear. I found that the Torch 9800 was good but not great so I was really curious to see where the 9900 stacked up. I am happy to report that the earpiece on the 9900 is crystal clear and really easy to make out what people are saying. I asked friends how I sounded and even in low reception they had no issues hearing me though that could be Verizon’s service instead of the dreadful AT&T call quality I am used to. What I also really liked is the touchscreen proximity sensor on the 9900 works MUCH better than the 9800 and I have yet to have my face push a button while on a call.
The speakerphone on the 9900 is located at the bottom of the batter door right where the device arches up towards the metal side banding. That allows the audio to get out without being muffled against a table. I found the audio out of the speaker acceptable for phone calls though not amazing. People had a bit of trouble hearing me though I was testing it out in a relatively noisy environment. The speakerphone was decent for listening to podcasts but I found that music sounded “tinny”. To summarize the audio is solid for phone calls with a better than average speakerphone experience.
In terms of reception I found that unlike the BlackBerry Bold 9650 the 9900 picked up reception almost immediately when I came back into coverage. I would jump between towers quickly on Verizon and right when I got out of the subway I would get my emails. I cannot comment on how the GSM variant of the device works but we will be testing that soon. In terms of data speed this 9930 is running on the 1xEVDO network which is considered 3G instead of Verizon’s 4G LTE network. While 4G LTE would be nice you can see that the battery life on current 4G phones is abysmal.
One of the things I was really excited about the 9900 was that it was packing NFC radios. This Near Field Communications technology promises to be a disruptive one with uses ranging from mobile payments to simply exchanging information like contacts or URLs. Sadly Verizon has decided to disable the NFC radio on the Bold 9930 at launch though hopefully that will change shortly once uses for NFC start cropping up. Until then I asked RIM why carriers are disabling it and this was their official response:
RIM believes that NFC is an exciting technology that will enable many new capabilities, and we are aligning with our partners in supporting the overall NFC ecosystem by investing in NFC in our products. The BlackBerry Bold 9900 series are the first to be NFC ready and we are working closely with carrier partners on their roll out plans for NFC.
In other words it looks like a chicken before the egg problem. Carriers are trying to find a solid application for NFC technologies that leads to money in their pockets. On the other hand for such a solution to come to fruition devices need to have NFC built in and enabled… Hopefully this won’t be another case like Verizon and GPS where they will fight tooth and nail to disable it unless they can make money from it.
Included Accessories (Verizon Bold 9930)
One of the things that really impressed me about the BlackBerry Bold 9930 from Verizon was not the actual device. The retail packaging for the Verizon 9930 includes a slick holster case that has to be one of the best BlackBerry cases I have used to date. It has a great feel and the locking flap magnet is much stronger than previous cases. It also has a nice ratcheting clip that stands up to more pressure. The Verizon 9930 also comes with a USB wall adapter with a MicroUSB cable to charge using that adapter or sync to your computer. Oddly it did not include headphones though I hear these bundled accessories are up to each carrier individually.
For a majority of BlackBerry users the BlackBerry Bold 990 will be THE BlackBerry to own. That is until QNX powered BlackBerrys start up. The only real complaint I have about the device is that even with the 1.2Ghz processor the device does still hourglass when installing, updating, and deleting applications. Other than that I have only seen the hour glass once or twice while trying to do multiple heavy operations on the device at the same time. The 9900 speeds up practically everything you do with a BlackBerry from typing on its huge keyboard to using the touchscreen to interact. It all simply feels fluid and effortless compared to previous generation devices. The browser is super responsive and the messages app now opens HTML emails instantaneously. It makes me wonder if I will ever be able to go back to my old Torch 9800 or Bold 9700.
If you are in the market for a new BlackBerry I highly recommend the BlackBerry Bold 9900 and 9930. The 9900 is truly an engineering breakthrough for RIM with software that makes it shine. It really shows you that RIM is a player to contend with in the smartphone space. Now all we need is a QNX subsystem for BlackBerry smartphones to open up the platform to more developers and increase the number of feature rich 3rd party applications.