bbe4I have made no secret over the past several months of my serious disdain for the status quo in the ‘smartphone’ universe. My desires are not especially complicated. I want a phone that is reliable, extensible, usable, compatible with IMAP push email, and has a physical keyboard. There are plenty of nice-to-haves—a decent camera, a stylish design and interface, 3G high-speed Internet access, a physical mute switch, long battery life, and more—but I would gladly sacrifice all of those for a phone that met each and every one of my simple primary desires.

After much comparison shopping and mounting frustration with my previous phone—a Windows Mobile-based AT&T 8525—I settled on the RIM BlackBerry ‘Bold’ 9000 as the phone to serve me for the next 18+ months. BlackBerrys, from Canadian firm Research In Motion (RIM), have long been held in high esteem among corporate and government buyers as a mobile email powerhouse. The Bold, however, is aimed squarely at buyers like me: those who like the flash and finish of the iPhone, but want a phone that actually has some power under the gloss. Yes, we like web surfing and media capabilities, but we also want a solid, reliable device that has a full-function personal information manager (PIM) and can be extended without the express approval of the manufacturer or carrier.

The Bold came closest to meeting my requirements, but it did not meet them completely. I didn’t like the ‘BlackBerry Way’ of doing email and had some misgivings about the relatively limited PIM functions, but I went ahead and took the plunge because I could find nothing better. Much to my surprise, after a solid week-and-a-half as a BlackBerry user, I’m finding that I actually like it quite a bit and—dare I say—am completely satisfied with my choice.

Style & Specs

bbe3bbe2The first thing that strikes you when you pick up a BlackBerry Bold is that the thing looks darn good. It has sleek lines and smooth black texture very similar to that of the iPhone, though its front includes the traditional keyboard and there are more buttons around the device. The back of the phone is a faux leather texture that you might think would look stupid, but it doesn’t.

The screen, while horizontal and physically smaller than the iPhone’s at 2.75″, sports the same pixel resolution (480×320) and a high degree of visual clarity. The default theme is very slick, and can be easily customized with your own background image (as I have done). BlackBerry OS 4.6 is a major improvement over previous iterations of the BlackBerry operating system, introducing all kinds of classy visual improvements (transparency, fades, etc.) to make the system look right at home next to the iPhone and Google’s Android operating system—and the major desktop systems as well.

bb-1-homeObviously style is (and should be) a relatively minor concern when shopping for a phone, but it’s still important. You want to feel like you’re using something modern when you spend this much money on a device (you hear me, Palm? Microsoft?). Bold delivers.

Insofar as hardware specifications, the Bold also delivers. The 624mhz processor is more than sufficient for its eye candy, video playing, etc. I haven’t come close yet to filling up its 128mb of on-board program memory (RAM) or 1gb data memory, let alone the 4GB micro-SD card I added directly from my old phone. It has an on-board 2 mega-pixel camera, 802.11 wireless networking, Bluetooth, and a GPS location device. Also, in a first for RIM, the Bold utilizes AT&T’s 3G high-speed data network and can thus surf the web far faster than any other AT&T BlackBerry device (if you live in a 3G area, which I do).

Usability

bb-1-phone1The iPhone and its imitators (‘slab’ touchscreen phones, including RIM’s own BlackBerry Storm) are like the flashy teenagers of the phone world, handling music and movies and the web with unmatched aplomb but falling to pieces when you try to do adult things with them (like write a lengthy email on a non-tactile on-screen keyboard). The Bold is more like what the iPhone would look like if it grew up a bit. Yeah, maybe its media and web capabilities are a bit more limited, but you can manage your day and write long emails and more without any headaches. Finding and then calling a contact from the phone or home screen is as easy as beginning to type his name (on real buttons). The touch screen world seems very kludgy for certain functions, while RIM’s tried-and-true ‘keyboard and trackball’ method works perfectly with little practice.

To me, this phone is drastically more usable than any other phone I have ever seen or owned. Palm OS comes close to the new BlackBerry OS, but its age is showing and its stylus-based roots force you to resort to the touch screen too often for tasks that would be quicker if you could keep your hands at the keyboard. The Bold, like every BlackBerry so far except the Storm, goes to the opposite extreme—there is no touch screen at all. Every menu, function, program, and feature is directly accessible using physical buttons and the BlackBerry trackball. This takes a little getting used to, but once mastered it is incredibly efficient—especially since the BlackBerry OS doesn’t hide features miles-down through nested screens and menus like certain mobile operating systems (ahem, Windows Mobile).

bb-1-phone2The setup is simple. When you turn it on, you have your favorite six applications across the bottom of the screen. Roll the trackball to highlight the one you want, then push in on the trackball to select it. If you want something that you can’t see on that first screen, push the ‘menu’ button (labeled with the BlackBerry logo) to show the rest of your stuff. Most applications work this same way—common features displayed immediately for your use, and the rest accessible with the menu button. Now you know how to operate a BlackBerry.

The Bold also includes a pretty cool voice dialing feature, which is accessible directly from the phone or through a Bluetooth wireless headset. Instead of having to be ‘trained’ like most voice dialing systems I’ve used before, this one uses real voice recognition. If I say ‘Call Scott Bradford’ (clearly), the phone will ask me to confirm (‘Yes’) and then it’ll call Scott Bradford without any training. This feature also allows you to check signal strength (‘Check Signal’) and various other things without touching the phone, which is great when you’re driving. The Bluetooth radio, however, does not seem to be as strong as the one in my 8525 and succumbs to interference with the slightest obstruction (like my old Treo 650 did).

I really only have one basic usability quibble: this device is designed, in part, to act as a personal digital assistant (PDA) . . . and yet there is no ‘today’ view by default to show you what appointments and tasks are coming up. This is easily remedied with the addition of third party software (see the PIM section below).

It’s also worth mentioning that RIM’s business-oriented roots shine through in one key area: in addition to your standard crappy sing-song ring tones, the Bold also has a variety of ring tones that sound like phones ringing. Ah, I love good, professional ring tones. There are also some very cool little surprises, like the phone can detect automatically when it is placed in its holster—disabling the keyboard to prevent erroneous input and turning off the screen—and then spring to life when taken out.

Reliability

My old Palm Treo 650 crashed every couple of days from the day I got it, mostly because Palm OS has no modern memory protection features. I learned to loathe that sudden blackening of the screen followed by the orange Palm logo telling me I had lost whatever I was just doing. My AT&T 8525 crashed slightly less often, but instead of rebooting itself as my Treo usually did it would just stop doing anything at all. It would mock me by continuing to display my half-written email on the screen and refusing to respond to input. A manual jab of the stylus into the reset hole was required to get everything running again.

I’ve been running my Bold now for going-on two weeks, and it hasn’t crashed once. A couple of times it seemed to freeze up on me, but it seemed to resolve whatever it was doing after a few seconds of hanging and continue on its merry way. Once again, Bold delivers.

Email

bb-2-email1Email is supposed to be RIM’s bread-and-butter super-feature, and yet this was the area I was most suspicious of. The way BlackBerry email works is that you configure (on the device or on a web site) your email addresses on the ‘BlackBerry Internet Service (BIS)’. Then, the magical RIM servers poll your email account regularly to see if you have any messages and then ‘push’ new messages to your phone. I don’t like the idea of RIM’s servers standing between me and my email; I prefer my phone talking directly over the web to my servers.

Overall, I’ve adjusted. I have a couple of remaining complaints though.

The RIM go-between server doesn’t do as good a job as I would like of syncing email status. It supports ‘reconciliation’ of read-status and deletions, but it’s somewhat limited. For example, if I read an email in Thunderbird on my computer immediately after it comes in, my BlackBerry might still alert in the next minute or two that I have a new email. The system should be smart enough to see that it’s already marked ‘read’ on the server, and thus shouldn’t be treated as ‘new’ by the phone. Similarly, if I delete an email on my phone (and tell it to do so on the server as well) it happens almost instantly, but if I delete an email in Thunderbird it can take up to an hour or two (!!) for the RIM reconciliation system to remove it from my phone.

bb-2-email2My last and biggest complaint is that there’s no way (except deleting) to move an email out of the inbox on the BlackBerry. I have an IMAP folder on my mail server called ‘Archive’ that I like to move messages to after I’ve handled them so I can file them away on my main computer’s hard drive later without it cluttering my inbox in the mean time. I can’t do that from the BlackBerry at all. I’ve looked into third-party email solutions like Tiggit Mail and LogicMail as solutions, but each falls short—LogicMail can’t move messages yet, and Tiggit can (in theory) but gives me an error and its developers have not responded to my support request in over a week now.

Having said all that, the included email client is pretty good. It can handle HTML formatted email with graphics and such, and can handle many common types of attachments through its own viewers or through the included ‘standard’ (i.e., limited) version of Dataviz Documents To Go (upgradable to the ‘professional’ version for $69.99—a bit overpriced, in my opinion). Despite my annoyances with the RIM go-between server, it does indeed deliver my emails to my phone within a minute-or-so (usually) of its arrival. With a couple improvements to their IMAP support through BIS, this could be an excellent solution for me. In the mean time, it’s ‘good enough’ to do the job even if it’s not the perfect work-flow.

Internet

bb-3-web1With the onslaught of the Apple iPhone and, to a lesser extent, the T-Mobile G1 running Google’s Android, all of the smartphone makers are being forced to up their game with regard to Internet access. A stripped-down, single column browser like Palm’s Blazer, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, or BlackBerry’s old browser just won’t cut it anymore. Opera Mini is a viable third-party browser delivering a pretty good ‘full web’ experience that is available for a wide variety of phones, including BlackBerrys, but it lacks the integration you get from from a native-platform web browser.

BlackBerry’s browser on the Bold is much, much, much improved over previous incarnations and—much to my surprise—I’m using it instead of Opera Mini as my primary mobile browser. It still needs some work, and I’m sure that subsequent software updates will continually improve its capability, but most web sites I throw at it work quite well. On the rare occasion that I have a problem, I just slide over to Opera Mini (which did not allow me to take screenshots, but works very well).

bb-3-web2You can also customize the experience pretty easily. If you want the ‘full’ versions of web sites, you can configure the browser to identify itself as Firefox or Internet Explorer (so sites don’t give you their stripped-down mobile versions), turn on JavaScript support, and dive in. It handles this fairly well, but the more complicated the page the more likely you are to have problems. Like its iPhone and Android and Opera brethren, most web sites default to an ‘overview’ display from which you can scroll around and zoom in.

I found navigating a page with the trackball to be very easy with the BlackBerry browser, however the cursor responded much, much more slowly in Opera Mini. In Opera Mini, I opt instead to use keyboard shortcuts to move around a page.

All-in-all, RIM clearly ‘gets it’ and is striving to tie a rich web experience to its preexisting strengths, and it’s well on its way to doing just that. I’m eagerly awaiting the next revision or two of RIM’s web browser, since it won’t be long before it matches the iPhone and Android on web usability.

PIM

For those of us who became addicted almost a decade ago to PDAs, we now rely on our mobile devices to manage our contacts, calendars, tasks, and notes. The BlackBerry OS includes each of these functions, but they have some limitations. I am happy with the contacts manager and the notes manager, though the notes manager could use better categorization options. I am disappointed with the calendar and task managers.

There is no ‘today’ screen displaying all your upcoming appointments and tasks in one place. The task manager is an absolute mess, displaying all your tasks by title with no due-date or priority information visible unless you click into the individual task. The calendar is better, but shows too small a portion of your day forcing you to scroll around to see what’s coming. Switching to ‘Agenda’ view helps, but, again, shows appointments only and no information about tasks you might have due on those days. There is a setting to display tasks in the calendar, but they look exactly like calendar events which isn’t particularly useful and, in fact, serves to confuse rather than enlighten the user.

bb-5-pim1Thankfully, this is where the BlackBerry’s extensibility comes into play. While Apple prohibits software developers from ‘duplicating functionality’ that Apple wrote into the device software, BlackBerry developers have free-rein to augment, improve, or replace any built in capability they want. With the addition of WebIS’s Pocket Informant for BlackBerry, the event and task management weaknesses of the built-in software are obliterated. PI’s agenda screen combines tasks and appointments in one place, you are given additional options for repeating events and tasks, more options for snoozing, and so on. Pocket Informant is well worth the $19.95 price tag if you intend to use the BlackBerry as a PDA.

Best of all, Pocket Informant syncs everything directly to the built-in PIM databases so it doesn’t mess up synchronization with your computer!

The only problem I had was that newer BlackBerrys, including the Bold, default to having special calendars for each configured email address. Most applications that deal with calendars (Pocket Informant, as well as the Missing Sync synchronization software I mention below) don’t know how to handle that. After initial sync headaches—both between Pocket Informant and the built-in PIM, and then between the BlackBerry and the Mac—I finally wiped off all my PIM data, removed the extra calendars (by removing the ‘CICAL’ entries for my email addresses from the Options > Advanced Options > Service Book menu), and then started over. Since doing that, all my syncing has worked flawlessly. Unless you have a need for separate calendars associated with your email addresses (which you probably don’t), remove the unnecessary CICAL service books! Otherwise you are setting yourself up for all kinds of software synchronization headaches.

GPS Navigation

bb-4-map3The Bold, like the iPhone and many other new phones, has a built-in Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver. AT&T wants you to pay them a monthly fee to enable their ‘TeleNav’ service, but there are better (and cheaper) alternatives. Google makes their mapping software available free for mobile phone users on all of the major smartphone systems, including BlackBerry.

Most phones support a mediocre location discovery system based on cell tower locations, allowing almost anybody to approximate their location (as you can see at the right). On GPS enabled devices (or using an external Bluetooth GPS receiver), Google Maps can pinpoint your exact location. Even if it can’t get a GPS signal because you’re indoors (as I was when I took the screenshot), the tower-based approximation will still work.

Google Maps is useful (and the price can’t be beat), but it is not a full navigation solution. After weighing my options, I decided not to pay a monthly fee to AT&T for use of their TeleNav system and instead opted for Garmin Mobile for BlackBerry. Functionally, Garmin Mobile is essentially the same as AT&T’s TeleNav in that it receives its data live over the web. Garmin Mobile, however, costs only $99 for a one-time activation that allows you to use it for the life of the device (it is not transferable to another BlackBerry). After doing the math, this worked out quite a bit less expensive for the expected 18-month life of my phone than paying AT&T monthly—and even less expensive if I keep my phone longer than 18 months.

bb-4-map1Garmin Mobile launches with a simple, intuitive menu allowing you to begin navigating to a destination (‘Where to?’) or simply to view a map of your current location (‘View map’). The application can receive local traffic reports and adjust your route accordingly (I have not experimented much with this), provide weather reports, and has several options to allow you to avoid toll roads and carpool lanes and so on.

Once you’re navigating, Garmin Mobile works nearly identically to standalone Garmin GPS navigation units. You are provided with visual and audible cues to tell you which way to turn to get where you’re going, and a useful display of your current speed and estimated time of arrival at your destination. It also has options, for example, to find the nearest gas station, hospital, or other point of interest.

All-in-all, the on board GPS receiver is fairly accurate. When stationary, it correctly identified my location in a shopping center parking lot within about two meters. When moving, it seemed to be very accurate as well though perhaps slightly laggy. It was never a serious enough lag for me to have missed a turn though, and perhaps that’s just normal for GPS units (its an area in which I, admittedly, have pretty limited experience).

Camera & Media

bb-6-media1I’m not huge on the media aspects of a phone, since my primary use of a phone is web, email, and phone calls . . . but the Bold is marketed as a media phone worthy of competing with the iPhone, so it’s definitely worth some attention.

The built-in media manager is pretty cool, and allows easy access to any music, movies, ring tones, photos, or voice notes you have stored on the phone through a single, slick interface. I have not loaded any MP3s myself (since my iPod is my mobile music player), but the phone comes with a couple of example songs and videos. All played flawlessly and at high-quality. The speaker is pretty good for a phone, but any serious media listening should be done through headphones. The Bold includes a standard headphone jack, and the quality was just fine to my ears through my regular ear-buds.

The phone also can stream YouTube videos over its 3G Internet connection without having to add any third-party software. The quality isn’t great, but it is sufficient to get your Charlie the Unicorn fix.

The camera, on paper, is equivalent to the one in my AT&T 8525, however I personally find that the Bold’s photo quality isn’t so great. It’s okay, and I don’t demand high quality photos from a cell phone . . . but I think the 8525 had a better camera. This and the Bluetooth radio are the only places I can think of where the 8525 was better. I’m trying to figure out if I can tweak some settings to improve photo quality, but haven’t been successful yet.

Desktop Sync

bb-7-sync3The BlackBerry Desktop software is provided free of charge by RIM, but it is available only for Microsoft Windows. This software allows you to perform full device backups and restorations as well as install software and OS updates, in addition to basic synchronization features. Through a licensing deal with PocketMac, RIM also provides a free copy of PocketMac for BlackBerry to allow synchronization with the Mac OS X address book and calendar software. Admittedly, I didn’t even try PocketMac and went straight to the more-familiar Mark/Space Missing Sync for BlackBerry (I have had good experience with Missing Sync for Palm OS and Missing Sync for Windows Mobile in the past). At $39.95, this might be something you only try if you have problems with PocketMac.

bb-7-sync2Unfortunately, neither PocketMac nor Missing Sync allow for full system backups or BlackBerry OS updates. For these functions, I must resort to using BlackBerry Desktop in a VMWare Fusion installation of Windows. This is a hassle, but a minor one since OS updates come rarely and I only perform full backups monthly.

Missing Sync for BlackBerry does all the standard stuff—syncing contacts, calendars, tasks, and notes between the BlackBerry and the Mac. Mark/Space provides a useful notes viewer, since there isn’t a ‘standard’ Mac application for notes/memos, and will automatically sync any photos you take on the phone into iPhoto. My only complaints are that there doesn’t seem to be a video sync plugin, or automatic sync of voice memos (even though Missing Sync for Windows Mobile does both). I’d like to see those features added.

Missing Sync also fell victim to the multiple calendars issue I mentioned earlier, where all of a sudden it started syncing with an empty calendar instead of my default (populated) calendar and caused all kinds of problems. The same fix I used to repair Pocket Informant—removing the extra ‘CICAL’ service books—solved the problem with Missing Sync as well.

I’d also really, really, really like to see a Mac option for full device backup and installing OS updates. PocketMac, apparently having RIM’s blessing, ought to be able to swing this, as should the talented programmers at Mark/Space. Also, since I hate being tied to any platform, I’d like to see RIM, PocketMac, Mark/Space, or somebody else develop a usable Linux sync solution for BlackBerrys.

Battery Life

Last, but not least, is battery life. I’m not a real stickler for battery life, as long as it lasts the whole day. My usage usually includes constant email/SMS connectivity, occasional bouts of web surfing, and a couple of phone calls each day. During my hour-long commute to work and then the same distance back at the end of the day, I have my Bluetooth headset on and connected. In other words, I’m not a hard-core battery drainer but I’m not one of these people who can imagine his phone ever lasting more than about 1.5 days without a charge.

My old Treo 650 usually lasted a solid day, and then maybe half of a second day if my usage was a bit light. My AT&T 8525 lasted a solid day when it ran Windows Mobile 5, but the Windows Mobile 6 upgrade reduced that and from then until the end it was lucky to survive a whole business day without needing a charge. In the last several months, battery life began to diminish further—sometimes with the phone dying at 2pm or so—and annoying me no-end.

I don’t know what magic incantations RIM does on their phones, but my Bold—more powerful, by a long shot, than either my 650 or my 8525 and seeing nearly identical usage patterns—has a battery life that boggles the mind. On Monday, I decided not to plug in my phone in the evening and do a little test. I figured I’d need to charge it some time on Tuesday, but to my surprise it lasted until about noon on Wednesday. During that time it was connected to the USB port on my computer a few times for syncs, but other than that it saw no incoming electricity. 2.5 days of battery life while receiving emails, making calls, and surfing the web? Incredible.

Conclusion

bbe1All-in-all, I am very, very impressed with what RIM has produced here. Despite a few hangups and adjustments I had to make to the new device, I’m quite happy with my purchase—and I am hopeful that my minor quibbles will be fixed with future software updates. With the addition of some third-party software, the Bold easily trounces anything Palm is making these days (though I am, admittedly, still rooting for a Palm resurgence). When compared to the iPhone or the T-Mobile G1 running Google’s Android, the BlackBerry Bold holds its own.

During the 18 months that the Windows Mobile-based AT&T 8525 was my phone, I kept running into snags and issues and problems and—quite often—found myself missing the Treo 650 that had been my first smartphone. I plowed ahead with the 8525 mostly because moving back to the 650 would have been moving back to a beat-up piece of hardware, a lower resolution camera, and losing my 3G Internet speeds.

In almost two weeks with the Bold, I haven’t longed for my old Treo once (it goes without saying that I don’t really miss the 8525—good riddance).

So if you’re looking for a smartphone that isn’t a kludge, isn’t an outdated anachronism, and doesn’t require Steve Jobs and Apple to approve everything you do to it, the BlackBerry ‘Bold’ 9000 is worth a very serious look. Kudos to RIM for upping their game and making a device that competes strongly with anything else in the smartphone field, but does so without sacrificing its usability strengths (particularly the physical keyboard) in the name of ‘cool’.