When the first BlackBerry Bold debuted late last year, I called it the best BlackBerry smartphone yet. Now, I've gotten my hands on the updated BlackBerry Bold, the 9700, and I like it -- a lot. But can it top the excellent BlackBerry smartphones that have debuted in the past year, like the BlackBerry Tour? Maybe. Just maybe.
Price and Availability
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 is available from both T-Mobile and AT&T. Both carriers are charging $199.99 for the phone when you sign a new two-year service contract. That's less than the $300 the original Bold cost at launch.
The Bold 9700 is considerably smaller than the original. It measures just 4.3 by 2.4 by .6 inches, and weighs only 4.3 ounces.
One of the trade-offs for the smaller size is that the screen gets smaller too; the Bold 9700's display measures just 2.4 inches diagonally. But it does feature a high resolution (480 by 360 pixels), and it's absolutely gorgeous.
The other trade-off for the small size of the phone is a smaller keyboard. But I wasn't too bothered by the smaller keys; the still sport slight ridges that make them easy to use for thumb typing.
Like the BlackBerry Curve 8520, the Bold 9700 forgoes the traditional trackball found on most BlackBerry phones in favor of a trackpad. RIM reportedly is moving toward all trackpads in the future, and the change is welcome. I found the trackballs often too loose to use comfortably, and they have long been one of the least durable parts of a BlackBerry phone. The trackpads, meanwhile, are less susceptible to breaking, and are very comfortable to use, allowing you to scroll with ease.
The T-Mobile and AT&T versions of the BlackBerry Bold 9700 are nearly identical, but there is one important difference between them: the T-Mobile version supports UMA (unlicensed mobile access). This technology that allows you to make voice calls over Wi-Fi wireless networks, not just a cellular network. This can allow you to make voice calls in places where you have a wireless network, but the cellular coverage is spotty.
My BlackBerry Bold 9700 review unit was a T-Mobile model, so I was able to test the Wi-Fi calling feature. Calls made over Wi-Fi sounded very good, with voices sounding clear and loud on both ends of the line. Making voice calls over wireless networks also can save you from using the voice minutes on your monthly plan, but it does require signing up for T-Mobile's Unlimited HotSpot Calling plan, which costs $10 per month.
The Bold 9700 ships with version 5 of the BlackBerry operating system, but even in its most recent version, the BlackBerry OS is mixed when it comes to software. You do get access to BlackBerry App World (it wasn't installed on my review unit, but I was able to download it by going to blackberry.com/appworld on the phone's browser), RIM's application store which is growing nicely. It lacks the enormous (and often overwhelming) selection of apps that you'll find in the iPhone App Store, but you will find a decent selection of titles.
Like most recent BlackBerry phones, the 9700 has the DataViz Docs To Go editing suite preinstalled, but you only get the Standard Edition, which doesn't allow you to create new documents. For that capability, you'll have to upgrade to the $70 Premium Edition.
Overall, though I find the BlackBerry OS just a bit unorganized and harder to navigate than it should be. That's largely because it comes with too many folders. For example, you get one folder called "Applications" and another called "Downloads." Since many of your downloads are actually applications, it's not always clear which folder they should be in.
The Bold 9700 features a built-in GPS radio. The T-Mobile version of the phone will come with a TeleNav GPS application, while the AT&T version comes with AT&T Navigator. Both of these are extra-cost services. Neither application was installed on my review unit, so I was unable to test their capabilities.
Like all BlackBerry phones, the Bold 9700 is a messaging champ. It will support 10 personal or business e-mail accounts, and setting them up is a breeze. Several instant messaging applications, including AOL's AIM, Google Talk, ICQ, Yahoo Messenger, and Windows Live Messenger, come pre-installed. You also get support for text and multimedia messaging.
While the interface of the built-in e-mail client is a bit bland, it's very usable. It's easy to see unread messages at a glance, and typing messages on the 9700's keyboard is comfortable and fast.
Browsing the Web
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 is T-Mobile's first 3G BlackBerry phone; like the AT&T version, it supports both the high-speed HSDPA 3G network as well as Wi-Fi wireless networks, so you have plenty of options for speedy Web browsing.
What it lacks, though, is a top-notch Web browser. The BlackBerry browser is serviceable, but it's still lacking the refinements found on rival mobile browsers. Accessing the address bar requires opening a menu, and then going to an entirely new page -- you can type in a new URL while viewing an existing site. And while you can go back a page by pressing the button below the 9700's display, you can only move forward by opening a menu again.
The 3.2-megapixel camera on the Bold 9700 is a notable improvement from the 2-megapixel shooter found on the original Bold. The snapshots it captured were remarkably clear and colorful. You get an autofocus, too, which is a nice touch -- unless you're trying to capture a moving subject. The kids I was trying to photograph couldn't seem to sit still long enough for the autofocus to do its work. The camera captures serviceable video clips, too.
Music and More
The included media player is not exceptional, but it's perfectly serviceable -- and that's not a bad thing. It's easy to use as a way of organizing and playing back audio and video files. Music quality was very good, and videos looked gorgeous on the 9700's sharp display.
The AT&T version of the Bold 9700 comes with some multimedia extras that the T-Mobile version lacks, such as support for AT&T's mobile music service.
The BlackBerry Bold 9700 is an excellent smartphone -- but is it the best BlackBerry yet? I think so. It's sleeker than the excellent BlackBerry Tour, and it offers Wi-Fi support, which the Tour unforgivably lacks. But the Tour has the benefit of running on the Verizon Wireless network, which may be enough of a draw for many users.