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Nov 7, 2008

Review: The BlackBerry Phone

But phone has mediocre call quality, unimpressive camera

The BlackBerry Bold 9000, Research In Motion Ltd.'s formidable contender in the 3G market, has finally arrived. And though the Bold boasts a sleek design, a sharp display and high-speed connectivity, it fails to impress in other areas, particularly its call quality and its camera's image quality. As enticing as this phone is, its faults may prevent the Bold from justifying its steep price tag -- the phone costs $300 with a two-year AT&T Inc. contract, and $680 with no contract.

(The PC World Test Center is testing this smart phone's battery life. We'll update the review and assign an overall rating for the Bold when testing is complete.)

The most stylish BlackBerry yet, the Bold comes with a removable black leatherette cover that gives the phone a classy, sophisticated look and makes the handset comfortable to hold. You can personalize the back cover with an optional blue, brown, green, gray or red back. At 4.5 by 2.6 by 0.55 in., the Bold has roughly the same dimensions as its predecessor, the BlackBerry Curve 8300; it also has curved corners and a glossy face. The phone weighs 4.8 oz., making it heavier than the the BlackBerry Curve 8320 (which weighs about 4 oz.) but equal in weight to Apple's iPhone 3G.

The Bold lacks the iPhone's touch screen, though that feature will appear on RIM's forthcoming BlackBerry Storm. But the Bold does have a terrific keyboard and the various corporate e-mail and infrastructure-friendly characteristics that the BlackBerry is known for.

The Blackberry Bold smart phone sells for $300 with a two-year contract.Unfortunately, the Bold's call quality disappointed me. For some reason, while calls to land-line phones sounded clear, calls to other cell phones (on various carriers) consistently suffered from background hiss. And though voices had ample volume, they sounded somewhat tinny. Meanwhile, the people I called on the Bold reported hearing a lot of background noise, as well as some distortion in my voice; one of my contacts said that I sounded robotic.

Though it takes a lot for a handset's QWERTY keyboard to impress me, the Bold succeeded. For this model, RIM revamped its keyboard with sculpted keys designed to minimize finger slippage. Thin metal dividers akin to a guitar frets separate the keys and enhance the keyboard's usability. The result is a roomy, ergonomic typing area that makes texting and e-mailing a breeze.

The BlackBerry operating system gets a makeover as well. Now in Version 4.6, the interface looks cleaner and more attractive than it did in previous iterations. The home screen features background wallpaper and a customizable application-shortcut view, also known as the Ribbon. Pushing the dedicated menu key takes you to the main application screen, which is populated with spruced-up new app icons. Sometimes it's a bit hard to tell what a particular icon symbolizes; many of them look pretty similar. But when you roll over an icon with the Bold's handy trackball, a label appears in a text line beneath, clearly identifying the icon's function.

The phone supports 3G, tri-band HSDPA and quad-band EDGE data connectivity. Accessed over AT&T's 3G network, Web pages loaded quickly on the Bold's browser. NBC.com's home page loaded in 21 seconds, as did PCWorld.com. Amazon.com loaded in 31 seconds. Wi-Fi performance impressed, too, with NBC.com loading in 18 seconds, PCWorld.com loading in 14 seconds, and Amazon.com loading in 21 seconds.

The phone's display wowed me: Images and video looked spectacular on the Bold's 480-by-320-pixel VGA display (with support for over 65,000 colors). That's twice the resolution of the BlackBerry Curve, and it matches the iPhone's resolution (though not its screen size). Video playback looked great and ran smoothly with little pixelation or blurring.

Unlike the T-Mobile G1 and the iPhone 3G, which display large album art and are highly visual, the Bold incorporates a fairly plain native music app that leaves much to be desired. You can view your library by song, artist or genre. During playback, a miniature album thumbnail appears. The app also has playlist and shuffle features and a headphone equalizer.

The Bold comes with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack (the T-Mobile G1 does not), which boosts its potential as a media player.

The 2.0-megapixel camera includes some advanced features, including a flash and 5X digital zoom. But in my hands-on tests, the flash was blindingly bright, causing indoor pictures to look grainy and overexposed. For such an expensive smart phone, the Bold seems weak on megapixels (3.0 would have been a more suitable number) and extras (such as white-balance controls and a self-timer, both absent here).

The BlackBerry comes preloaded with applications such as Facebook for BlackBerry (the most popular BlackBerry app) and Mobi4Biz (a subscription-based on-demand video service), as well as a few games. RIM's BlackBerry Storefront, due to launch in March 2009, will provide a centralized online market for BlackBerry apps, to compete with Apple's iPhone 3G App Store and the T-Mobile G1's Android Market.

The BlackBerry Bold delivers high-speed browsing and powerful messaging capabilities, and it represents a major step up in form and function over existing BlackBerry models. But faults such as mediocre call quality and an unimpressive camera impede its potential to compete with the iPhone and the Android-based T-Mobile G1. In addition, its high price (compared with $199 and $180, respectively) will make competing for consumers' attention even harder for the Bold.
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