If you were feverishly anticipating a cellphone this year, it was one of two phones: this is the other one. That's because the BlackBerry Bold is RIM's most powerful, polished handset ever. With 3G, a glossy new UI, a real web browser, serious hardware and an almost beautiful body, the Bold doesn't redefine the BlackBerry experience, but it does elevate to the highest point its ever been.
Let's be clear: If you hate BlackBerry phones, you will still intensely dislike the Bold. As many coats of polish as RIM has thickly layered on the Bold, it is still a BlackBerry, with all of its suit-and-tie DNA fully intact. Fundamentally, it works and plays just like every other BlackBerry, but with a load of small-to-medium improvements, updates and tweaks that add up to a richer, more refined phone that also looks far better than the rest while doing its thing. Screen Yes, the Bold's 480x320 screen is dazzling enough to warrant its own section dedicated simply to praising it. Incredibly rich and contrast-y with stunning pixel density, it's so nice you want to touch it. I actually tried to once or twice to hit okay on a dialog box, forgetting that it wasn't the touchy kind of screen. It almost makes reading the plain text of an email depressing, knowing you could be looking at a gorgeous video instead. Keyboard A BlackBerry lives and dies by its keyboard. When RIM diehards countered reckless banter about the death of the BlackBerry per the iPhone's Exchange support by pointing to the keyboard. After you get used to the slight angle shift in the Bold's keys, they're fantastic, like a delicately balanced wine, with a perfect blend of springy, punchy and spongy. The glossy navigation keys are overly large for reasons I cannot quite divine. The backlighting is beautiful. Body It's hands-down the best looking phone RIM has put out, not to mention one of the most attractive pieces of kit on the whole market, even if the clean chrome on black is borrowed from another phone (and we're not saying it is). It looks like an incredibly modern business device, what you imagine people with more important jobs than you would carry to conduct business that's more important than yours, while talking to their accountant about how much fatter their bank account is than yours. It exudes power. Welcome to 2008, RIM design department. It's larger and wider than the Curve, but it still feels fine in my hands, which aren't giant-sized by any means. The faux-leather backing, however, is absolutely puzzling, like RIM tried to add a touch of class in the same way Donald Trump's hairdo gives him a touch of handsome. In other words, it's fake as crap and feels tacky. Insignificant, really, but it's actually the thing I hate most about this phone. Nonetheless, it feels rock solid. Connections It has everything you want: 3G, GPS and Wi-Fi. Despite earlier reports that it suffered from bad 3G problems, I found that it was more consistent and reliable with its 3G connection. It wasn't uncommon to grab four bars of signal where, say, the iPhone only saw one. (I realize bars are not standardized or totally accurate, but the disparity between the two was often significant, two or more bars.) In drive-testing, handoff went smoothly. GPS was slower than I would've liked, more often than not taking up to a minute to get a lock, and the maps app could be snappier (and prettier) than it is, but it'll do. At least on AT&T it will immediately have a decent navigator app. Battery It's a champ. Despite lots of 3G browsing, email and other everyday app use, a half charge right out of the box got me through an eight-hour day with no problem. Expect more detailed battery test update later, but all indications are that this thing will last you throughout the day with no problems at all. Way to go, RIM. Browser Okay, so there was some controversy about how quickly its browser renders compared to the iPhone. In my tests over Wi-Fi—and believe me, I triple checked to make sure it was on Wi-Fi—it was either tied with, or just behind the iPhone, like the dude who lost to Michael Phelps by a finger tip. The speed difference really is trivial. It's the best BlackBerry browser ever (this phone is a lot of "best BlackBerry ______ ever"), and one of the most usable mobile browsers around. In other words, it's actually usable. Not a miracle. The trackball isn't the most elegant way to navigate pages—largely because of the zoom metaphor—but it gets the job done, and the vast majority of the time, the Bold shows you pages the way they're supposed to be. It definitely sets a standard for what mobile browsers should do at a minimum, and it's fine for light surfing. Email What's a BlackBerry without email? Perhaps wisely, RIM chose to mostly not fix what ain't broken, adding small but significant tweaks like the ability to see pictures in message, full HTML and attachment viewing. Otherwise, it's basically the same experience you're used to. The higher res screen makes the text pop more and adds clarity, but it's not any prettier, which somewhat stands out against the rest of the overhauled UI. Media The Roxio-powered desktop Media Manager still sucks total balls—can you please get a decent integrated manager, RIM? And the music/video setup is essentially unchanged—same menu system and organization—but it has a cleaner, less tacky skin on top that makes it look like it's greatly improved, even though it isn't. But! Watching videos on this thing is a-maz-ing. The sample Speed Racer trailer was so gorgeous and yummy, I almost wanted to watch that 80-car-pile-up of a movie. Almost. The external speaker is surprisingly good, too, with richer sound than most other handsets. Still, this is one of the areas of the phone that needs work—the video quality nearly woos me into giving it a pass—but I can't emphasize enough how much it needs a decent media manager. OS & UI RIM has re-skinned the entire operating interface, shifting from pixel-y, realish bitmaps to slick, almost Tron-like high-res icons that have a neon pseudo-science fiction modernist feel to them. One issue: It's no longer immediately apparent what each icon does, so expect to hover initially. (With Precision Zen, the theme with splashes of color, it's easier to discern what icons represent.) I like them, but it's really an issue of personal taste—still, future skins will benefit from being able to go high-res. All of the top-level menus have been cleaned up as well, with crisp white text on a black background. It feels nice, and goes with the look of the handset itself, conveying the sense of it being modern and powerful. Unfortunately, when you go into applications themselves—mail, contacts, etc.—or deep into settings, you feel like you've entered a time warp three years into the past. It's like eating a tuna sandwich after a piece of sashimi—the tuna sandwich alone, uncontextualized, is fine, but next to a pure, clean slice of maguro it looks like crap. Startup on this device has been exceptionally slow—I initially thought my unit was busted or something (maybe it is), though I suppose BBs are always damn sluggish on cold starts. For the for first minute or so after booting, the OS kind of chugs as well, but after clearing the pipes, I guess, it runs totally smoothly, as it should with its speedy 624MHz processor. Still, overall, it's the same BlackBerry OS as before, just prettier and running on snappy hardware. If you're used to a BlackBerry, you won't have any problems getting around. If you're not, well, it's one of the easier mobile OSes to learn and deal with, everything is more or less up front, and on top, at least, it's pretty. Conclusion This is RIM's best phone ever. Does that mean it's the phone for you? If you're a BlackBerry fanatic, yes—it really is the phone you've been waiting for, if you're not hoping RIM radically changed the recipe. Because they didn't. It's cleaner and brighter, but it's not an overhaul by any means. It's a more powerful and beautiful distillation of the same experience. For other people who were eyeing it as the time to switch to BlackBerry, the issue is less straightforward. As I said in the intro, it's coming into a complicated world, where it has more consumer crossover appeal than a flagship RIM device—currently, the 8800—ever has before. (No doubt, even more people are looking at it in light of 3G problems on other handsets, either suit-and-ties who were considering the jump, or people looking for their first high-end smartphone, though more of the former.) At its heart, this thing is a corporate workhouse. It will play movies, music, browse the internet and all of the things consumers usually want—and do it well—but it is coming from a different mindset than the iPhone, something to keep in mind if you're torn between these two phones. AT&T has not set a price (or a date for that matter) but we're hearing that it will not touch the $199 mark when it launches in September. Depending on how aggressively RIM and AT&T want to push it, it looks like it could go as low as $249, but $299 seems more likely, another factor that makes it more suited to corporate than consumer. (Update: We're hearing that it's definitely $299, and it will hit September 12.) Still, whichever side you're on, this is a fantastic phone that perhaps pushes the BlackBerry experience to its peak. The flipside of that is that with its next generation of phones, RIM might have to radically reinvent it to stay ahead of the game. Huge, huge thanks to Wireless Imports for providing us with the hardware!