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AT&T BlackBerry Bold Review: Best BlackBerry Yet

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We reviewed the BlackBerry Bold months ago when it was available everywhere in the civilized world except for the US, because it looked like it would arrive here shortly afterward. It didn't. Held up by the lack of proper immunization papers, it finally debuts tomorrow. We've been using an official AT&T-branded Bold for the last week to see if the extra quarantine time paid off, and we're happy to say it's still the best BlackBerry yet, though it's by no means perfect. The hardware is exactly the same, so here we're sticking to evaluating what has or could have changed in its AT&Tification process—networking and software tweaks. Taken out of context of our earlier Bold review, what's below will actually sound kinda bad. It's not—the Bold is an awesome (if massive) piece of hardware with an amazing screen and keyboard. It's got a pretty, easy to use OS that really elevates the BlackBerry experience, though the media functions could stand to be beefier and more intuitive. The battery life is incredible for a 3G device—a day of heavy use is no problem. In short, it's the best BlackBerry you can buy. Network Since RIM CEO Mike Lazaridis told us when we checked out the Storm that AT&T certification was behind the hold up, let's start with the network. The Bold's 3G is vastly more reliable than the iPhone 3G, even after the latter's otherwise magical 2.1 update. Anywhere in New York City that the iPhone would seizure into EDGE, the Bold held on to 3G with an iron grip (this is more of an iPhone issue than a Bold one, but for people looking at both for whom network reliability is an issue, the Bold easily outperforms it). In short, we never saw any network issues with the Bold—the connection was steadfast. One issue, however, is that you cannot manually select EDGE, to save for battery life or for any other reason. Wi-Fi could also be kind of finicky—it simply wouldn't connect sometimes, even though 10 million other devices sat pretty happily on my wireless network. Rebooting the router got it to hook up, but that's unacceptable. Browser(s) While I didn't fully consider before how asinine it was that the Bold has essentially separate browsers for Wi-Fi (hotspot browser) and 3G (internet browser) that you have to manually configure, it really, really bothered me this time around. Especially because connecting to a Wi-Fi network isn't as deliciously pie-easy as it should be. There needs to be one browser that does Wi-Fi and 3G, totally seamlessly. The current setup is unnecessarily confusing and aggravating. Update: So apparently, the Internet Browser should actually jump to a saved Wi-Fi profile automatically—you shouldn't need to use the Hotspot browser. After some finagling, I did get the internet browser to jump onto Wi-Fi automatically most of the time, though if you use AT&T's MediaNet browser (which only uses cell service) and then switch right to Internet Browser, it'll only use cell as well. My issues could possibly be related to the fact the Bold had issues with my Wi-Fi network from the start (even though a brigade of other phones and devices sit on it just fine). Okay, so even with the Bold's 3G network advantage over the iPhone—or hell, even when they're on the same playing field on Wi-Fi—the Bold's browser(s) just can't keep up with Mobile Safari. (And I made sure not to repeat the mistakes we saw in the last showdown.) The Bold's browser is exceptionally competent, with few pages rendered inaccurately—notably, National Geographic—but it still chokes hard on script-heavy pages that Safari otherwise breezes through (like the full version of Giz, or National Geographic). From what I can tell, the dire serious Javascript issues some people ran into appear to have been fixed—the Bold still doesn't like scripts, and runs them slowly, but I never had it crap out on me, using either the Internet browser or the hotspot browser. One weird problem I ran into though, and I'm not sure what caused it, is that at one point, neither the internet nor hotspot browser would work—they would finish requesting a page, then after they started loading it, they would simply stop, displaying blank white pages. The only way to resolve the problem was to pop out of the battery and hard reset the phone that way. I haven't been able to repeat it, but given that browser issues were likely the other half of the Bold's epic delay, it's worth noting in case someone else sees this happen. All that said, it's the best BlackBerry browser around ('til the Storm, anyway, which Lazaridis confirmed will have a newer, even betterer browser than the Bold) that's highly usable will make most people extremely happy, even if it still can't quite step to mobile Safari. Apps All of the usual BlackBerry apps, like BrickBreaker and ones for editing Office docs are there, with one notable exception—BlackBerry Maps has been entirely dropkicked off the phone in favor of AT&T's standard Telenav-powered navigation app, even though it appeared on the non-AT&T Bold I reviewed earlier. And yeah, you gotta pay for it after the free trial expires, so Google Maps is your best free option. I more seriously considered the app situation for the Bold this time around, since it's now clear how critical the app situation is for a smartphone. So, while the BlackBerry dev scene is gravy, from a user standpoint, the app experience is frustrating compared to the iPhone or G1. BlackBerry's entirely browser-based solution is subpar and slow in comparison to the streamlined find, grab and install experience of a bona fide app store. On both the BlackBerry app site and AT&T's Mall, navigation and searching is unintuitive and time-consuming since you have to wait for every page to load in full. Also, some apps just aren't available for the 4.6 OS yet, according to the BlackBerry site (most notably, AIM). There are apps for BlackBerry, great ones, there just needs to be a better way to get them, so the BlackBerry Storefront can't come soon enough. Conclusion Like I said, taken out of context of the earlier Bold review, this doesn't sound so excellent. But really, the Bold is a great phone. AT&T just didn't improve it much, and it needs a few tune-ups in user friendliness: Most importantly, a single browser that better switching handles Wi-Fi and 3G, and an app store, since those are the two things people will be using the most outside of email (the internet and apps). A decent desktop media manager wouldn't hurt either. But it's still the best BlackBerry you can buy. For now, anyway.