If you follow me on Twitter, you know that a few weeks ago, I picked up the RIM BlackBerry Bold 9700 to use on my personal AT&T account. I’ve never used a BlackBerry, save for reviewing the Pearl for MobileBurn.com, so I figured it’d be a good chance to check one out – plus I got it free with an upgrade, so no money out of pocket.
The phone itself is really well built. There are no creaks or squeaks when using it, and I didn’t immediately notice any major light leaks like we tend to find on Nokia’s latest Eseries smartphones. The Bold series is the top-of-the-line BlackBerry, having the best cameras (3.2 megapixel with autofocus and single-LED flash) and full 3G support on AT&T’s network, which is why I got the Bold instead of the more stylish (in my opinion) Curve series.
Having sold BlackBerries for a while now, I was familiar enough with the interface – like other non-touchscreen smartphones, it’s d-pad and icon-driven, so there’s really not much to figure out other than up, down, left, right, click. I did, however, immediately notice that my signal strength wasn’t quite as good on the BlackBerry Bold 9700 as it is on my Nokia N97 in and around my house, but I have WiFi, and the BlackBerry happily (and more importantly, stealthily) switches seamlessly between WiFi and cellular, so I was fine.
I also sprung for the desktop charging stand for $20, which should come as no surprise given my desire for these things. I was especially pleased to find that, as I hoped, this stand does more than simply charge the phone. It also activates a special mode on the phone that you can customize, which is spectacular.
After a week or two of off-and-on usage, I can definitely see that the BlackBerry has some awesome features that some folks may like, but for me, there are a few that just ruin the whole thing.
When I talked about getting a BlackBerry, the first thing everyone said was to make sure I added folks to my BBM list, as that’s the real killer feature of BlackBerries. I did, but honestly, I didn’t really see what that offers that Gtalk on Android and Ovi Chat on Symbian offers – there are no compelling BlackBerry-only features, that I could tell. Just another platform-specific IM service.
Email is a mixed bag. I have set myself up so that I sync all my important stuff with Google – email, contacts, calendar. Of course, you can easily download the Google Sync app for BlackBerry to get contacts and calendar syncing, so that was no problem. I previously thought that BlackBerries were supposed to be the end-all-be-all of email experiences – this is true, apparently, unless you use Gmail. Currently, BlackBerries do not have a full 2-way sync with Gmail. Update – apparently, RIM started rolling out the update to fix this, but I haven’t gotten it through AT&T just yet.
If you receive an email in Gmail, it arrives on both the desktop and your BlackBerry – check. If you read it on your BlackBerry, it gets marked as read on your desktop – awesome. However, if you read it on your desktop, it *doesn’t* get marked as read on your BlackBerry – you have to manually go through and read them all….again, on the phone. This is a huge deal, and apparently BlackBerry is working on a fix. However, BlackBerries and Gmail have both been around for how long? It’s absurd to have this issue still in the current release.
Facebook on a BlackBerry is one of the best Facebook experiences I’ve had. It’s smooth, stable, and integrates deeply into the phone, which is awesome. The only annoying aspect here is that if you receive Facebook notifications via email, they get converted to native Facebook notifications on your BlackBerry, so again, at the end of the day, I was left to clean up my desktop Gmail inbox – not fun.
The camera on the BlackBerry is what I would call acceptable. It’s not going to blow your mind with features or the resulting photographs, but it does a better job than most phones on the market. I suppose I’m rather spoiled with my Symbian-powered smartphones and their cameras. Once you’ve taken a photo, you can easily share that with Facebook or Twitter (provided you have a Facebook or Twitter app installed). Easy peasy.
For music, I admittedly haven’t used the built-in music player at all – I’ve found myself rather uninterested in locally stored music on my mobile devices, but have used streaming music services quite a bit. Tragically, Last.FM is nowhere to be found for my BlackBerry Bold 9700, and Last.FM doesn’t seem interested in fixing this (though they have a BlackBerry app, it’s just not available for download for the Bold 9700 for some stupid reason). Thus, I’ve been using Pandora and TuneWiki, and it’s been awesome.
While limited, I found the BlackBerry App World to be quite nice – it’s easy to navigate, easy to download apps, and I was even able to use my Paypal account – which is better than my HTC Eris, for which I had to setup a Google Checkout account. I’ve no complaints there, other than a lack of ‘fun’ apps like I find on Android’s Marketplace and Symbian’s Ovi Store.
One thing I did notice, though, is that everything is at least $2 more expensive on BlackBerry than on other platforms. This has been confirmed already, but it was quite annoying, honestly.
I like changing themes on my phone, and BlackBerry themes can actually change the most things out of any platform that I’ve tested. Simply by changing your theme, you can get an entirely new layout on your homescreen, reorganize your main menu, change icons, backgrounds – the works. Unfortunately, I was hard-pressed to find a decent free theme – most of the themes that I found for my BlackBerry Bold 9700 were $3.99 and up – quite ridiculous, when you think about it.
I also had trouble finding a theme with decent icons – I really hate the default icons in BlackBerry OS v5, they make me think of stick figures and completely waste the high-resolution display on high-end devices like the Bold 9700. I couldn’t help but wish for Android or Ovi icons, both of which I think look great and add character to the interface.
There’s one thing that BlackBerries are definitely not short on, and that’s settings. Holy crap, you can change dang near anything on these phones, and sadly, all of these settings are dumped into a single ‘Settings’ menu item, listed out in black writing on white backgrounds – no icons or anything, just lists, lists, and more lists. It’s unbelievable, really.
I did purchase one app, called BeBuzz, and ironically, it’s more or less a ‘settings’ app. With BeBuzz, you can customize the multi-colored notification LED on your BlackBerry for all sorts of awesome things. For instance, on mine, if it blinks purple, I know I got something (phone call, sms, mms, email) from my wife. If it was white, I knew it was from a coworker, and if it was blue, I knew it was a Facebook notification. Orange is for email, green is for Twitter, and the list goes on and on and on. Completely brilliant, and this app definitely contributed to the ‘crackberry’ addiction that had me glancing at my phone at every spare second.
The BlackBerry homescreen is honestly the most confusing part of the whole thing. There are a few different layouts you can choose from, typically with a row of 5 icons – shortcuts to apps – along the bottom or side of the screen. The theme I chose also has a slot in the top right corner for a Weather application, which then shows the current conditions/forecast. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how to change these icons to the apps I wanted them to be, so I finally asked a BlackBerry user. It turns out, these are simply the top row of icons in your main menu screen – to change them, you simply re-arrange your main menu.
Coming from Symbian, and having used Android and Windows Mobile, this seems like a tremendous waste of space to me. If I already have these icons on my homescreen, why on earth would I need them in the top row of my main menu? It’s absurd, really.
Now, here is where the BlackBerry Bold 9700 completely dominated every phone I’ve ever used in my life – I simply could not manage to kill the battery in a single day. I had email running all the time, constant texting in and out, Twitter and Facebook both constantly logged in, and did a few hours of Pandora Radio streaming music and still managed to have at least 1/4th of the battery left at the end of the day. It’s simply amazing.
Like most smartphone platforms I’ve tried out, the BlackBerry isn’t really worse or better than Symbian, it’s just different. There are things it does better than Symbian, but there are also things that I really miss about Symbian. Overall, I’ve actually found myself keeping my SIM in the BlackBerry more often, mainly for the battery life. It’s awesome to be able to go through your day using all the features of your phone without worrying about how they’re going to hit your battery. I frequently stream music while driving (I hate FM radio), use GPS, and I like to have Facebook and Twitter logged in all day long.