The new Bold from BlackBerry is a BlackBerry done right. If you think of all the changes that BlackBerries have undergone over the past few years, they've mostly been evolutionary. All the current designs stem from the success of the Pearl, which was the first BlackBerry to use the trackball for navigation. But that design is nearly two years old. The Bold takes BlackBerry in a new direction.
Gone are the straight-laced plastics and squarish designs, and in comes the chrome and black leather, baby! (Seriously, the back of the Bold is covered in black leather.) The front of the device has been given a thorough make-over. It has smooth lines and chrome accents that flow around the phone. It is simply a good looking phone. But it is a large one. It is about the same size as the current 8800 series smartphones from RIM, though the rounded edges make up for that a bit. It is also a bit thicker than we'd like it to be. But these minor detractions don't take away from the phone's luster. When you see it, you can't help but want to reach out and touch it. You can't quote close your hand all the way around it, but the way it sits in your hand is by no means uncomfortable. Despite its size, it will fit in your jeans pocket without too much trouble.
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The Bold carries over the trackball for navigation, but the function keys and keyboard have been redesigned a bit. There are no nubby keys on this BlackBerry. The keyboard is a nice smooth arch from one end to the other, and feels very comfortable to use. It is wide enough that your thumbs don't feel cramped using it, but not so wide as to make you feel as though each key requires your thumb to travel miles to reach it. The buttons have sloped surfaces and are made of glossy plastic. We found it to be very easy to type with. The trackball has been embedded a bit further into the phone than on previous models. RIM staffers reminded us that the software for the device is still not final, so we weren't surprised to see that the trackball didn't work perfectly.
Aside from these obvious hardware improvements are some more serious changes. The BlackBerry OS has been updated. The updates include all-new media applications, improved icons and themes, as well as other under-the-hood enhancements that weren't immediately apparent to our eyes. The home screen and main menu have seen the most drastic changes, with an all new look. The basic function and way that the menus work appears to be similar to that of current BlackBerries, but it just looks so much better on the Bold.
The music application borrows heavily from its predecessor, but the media player itself has a refreshed UI with nice icons and graphics. Sorting through your playlists and such is a breeze. The camera software has been upgraded modestly, with better zoom functionality. The gallery app is also much nicer.
The browser and mapping application are both quite good. The trackball is put to very good use, with most zoom and scroll action functioning intuitively without your thumb ever leaving the trackball. In the maps, clicking the trackball toggles between panning and zoom modes.
A cursor in the browser lets you scroll around and click on any area to zoom in. The rendering comes close to a desktop version, except the text size is cranked up quite a bit to make everything easier to read. That's fine for many sites, but can cause the layout to get funky on other sites. A smart zooming causes text columns to fill the screen perfectly with one click. The fast speed provided by 3G data is apparent and much appreciated in both applications.
Unfortunately the devices that RIM had on hand did not have full inboxes, so we weren't able to get a sense of what the email and messaging experience of the Bold is all about. This is a shame, because it is obviously the device's primary attraction. What we were able to see showed a very slight update to the appearance of the inbox. It is more appealing to the eye, less utilitarian.
Once you dig down several layers from the revised menus and icons, you begin to see those old black and white BlackBerry menus appear, so this means RIM didn't take the underlying code too far from its roots. Still, the basic experience you get with the Bold is much closer to that of a feature phone, than with a business device with some features slapped in for good measure. The multimedia functions feel like less of an afterthought. That's a good thing.
Here is a short video preview of the Bold: