Review: BlackBerry 9650 Bold
Research In Motion boldy goes nowhere new with its latest BlackBerry, the 9650 Bold. It's solid and capable, but fails to break any new ground. For boring suits, it suits just fine.
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Research In Motion has taken the 9630 Tour, added Wi-Fi and a touchpad, and re-christened it the 9650 Bold. The "Bold" name has historically been reserved for RIM's top-of-the-line BlackBerries. This compact, QWERTY-toting smartphone represents the best that RIM has to offer, though its best often doesn't match up with the competition. It's an email machine, to be sure, but RIM's operating system is getting old and we know the next revision is coming soon. Is the 9650 worth taking a chance?
The 9650 is a classy device. It's a bit bigger than the 9700 Bold, and feels heavier. The fit, finish and materials are of the best quality, and the soft touch paint on back cover gives it a slightly grippy feel in the hand. It will slip into a pocket no problem, though the weight will easily remind you that it is there.
The front has a full QWERTY keyboard. The keys have a sculpted shape that makes them very easy to tell apart, and the four silver frets that separate the rows of keys aid in helping your thumbs determine exactly where they are on the keyboard. Travel and feedback from the keys is absolutely perfect. As with many of its predecessors, the 9650 clearly demonstrates that keyboards are one of RIM's fortes. I'd only ask RIM to change one thing. In order to type a "period", users have to press the ALT key first. The "dollar" sign ($) has its own key. Really? Periods are pretty important, and RIM's double-tap-the-spacebar trick isn't very helpful when entering URLs because it adds a space after the period. The "$" key should be the "." key, period.
The nav controls are above the keyboard. The send/end keys, BlackBerry key and Back key are all generously sized and very easy to find and use. Travel and feedback of these keys is perfect.
The 9650 also has an optical trackpad for on-screen navigation. So far, no one makes trackpads as good as BlackBerry. The trackpad is lightning quick and very responsive. The fact that users can customize its sensitivity helps. I like it much better than the old trackball.
On the left side you'll find a single application key. Feedback was a bit mushy with this key. The right side of the 9650 houses nearly everything else. At the top is the 3.5mm headset jack. Below that is the volume toggle, which feels pretty good. It is small and easy to accidentally press up when you mean down and vice versa, but the action is good. An application key is below the volume toggle. It, too, is hard to find, but the action is spot on. Last you'll find the microUSB port.
The lock/unlock and silence buttons are on the top surface of the phone. Since they are built into the surface of the phone itself, you basically just press down on the top corner of the 9650 to activate either of them. Travel and feedback is pretty good.
In order to get at the microSD slot, the battery cover (but not the battery) needs to be removed. The cover itself fits snugly.
Perhaps the only real negative I will complain about is the Bold 9650's lack of personality. It looks like just about every other BlackBerry made in the past few years. From an arm's length, they can be hard to tell apart. I'd prefer the 9650 to have more individuality. Alas, RIM believes that its smartphones should be as boring as the "suits" using them day in and day out.
The 9650's screen boasts 480 x 360 pixels, which makes it gorgeous to look at. The problem is that it's tiny. RIM's competition is clearly favoring displays bigger than 3 inches, but RIM hasn't followed suit. Given all that we do with modern smartphones, I want more screen real estate. But, it is bright, and pictures, video and web content look fantastic on it. As for outdoor view-ability, it rates OK.
Phone Scoop was given the Sprint version of the 9650, not the Verizon version. It performed on par with other Sprint phones I've tested in the metropolitan New York area. Most of the time I used it, it held onto two bars of Sprint's EVDO 3G network. I never saw it drop to 1X. I missed two phone calls, but never had any data problems. The 9650 didn't drop any calls.
The 9650 has quad-band 850/900/1800/1900 GSM in addition to 2100MHz WCDMA. This means it can roam onto GSM-based networks in Europe, Latin America, and Japan if necessary. I wasn't able to test this out, but users who need to travel to Europe have the option of keeping their number with them overseas.
Phone calls sounded superb. I had zero quality issues when it came to the phone. Those I spoke to also reported good quality. Earpiece volume was excellent, as was the speakerphone. Both provide ample volume to conduct calls. The ringers can be set to ear-shattering volumes, and the vibrate alert is strong. This is one area where RIM excels.
BlackBerries are known for their excellent battery life and the 9650 does not disappoint. With extensive testing, I was able to get a full day's use with the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios on, and there was still plenty of charge left to get me through the next day. My guess is the average business user will be able to get through 2 days with no problem. Consumers who make fewer voice calls and leave Wi-Fi and Bluetooth off may easily reach three days of battery life.
The 9650 runs the 5.x system software from RIM. Out of the box, there are six app shortcuts running along the bottom of the screen. These can be changed up by the end user. Press the BlackBerry key to get at the main menu from the home screen. All of the apps, folders and settings controls are in this main page. Again, everything on this screen can be moved around and lumped into / retrieved from folders as the user wants. Users can also choose to hide unwanted or unused applications.
The icons on the main screen and some of the sub-folders are nice, but once you dig down deep into the menus, the 9650 (still!!!) resorts to simple text lists on a white background. This has remained unchanged forever and looks more dated with each new BlackBerry.
Within any given application on the 9650, the BlackBerry button is the main way to take action, make changes or adjust settings. No matter what it is that you need to do in an application, the BlackBerry key is the way to do it. Having this default method system-wide makes it easy to learn.
Overall, the 9650 is very responsive. There's no lag when using the optical mouse and navigating around menus. All of the applications that are pre-loaded from RIM and Sprint jumped to life with no delay.
The big "but" in all of this is that we know OS 6.0 is due to launch before the end of summer. According to what Phone Scoop has seen, OS 6.0 offers a solid upgrade in usability and integration between applications. RIM hasn't made it clear if existing BlackBerries will be able to upgrade to the newer OS. If you are bored with OS 5.0, it might be worth waiting at least a month or so to see what OS 6.0 has to offer.
Calling features on BlackBerry devices also haven't changed much over the years. Pressing the green send key opens up the list of recent calls, displays your own number and offers a window in which to type a number to call. If you type in a name with the keyboard, the application searches your contact list and will show you the contacts matching those letters. Once the list has been narrowed a bit, you can use the trackpad to select the exact one you want.
During a call, the BlackBerry key is what you need to press if you want to perform actions such as merge calls, jump to the calendar or contacts list, turn on the speakerphone, etc. Because the 9650 is a device that will be used by business customers, there are a wealth of business-friendly features, such as call logging, and smart dialing to interact with PBX systems that require extensions. These are old-hat tasks for RIM. (The Verizon version of the 9650 also offers its EVDO Rev. A-based push-to-talk service.)
If you jump directly into your address book from the home screen, there is a search function built into the top of the app. Start typing a name, and the app searches until you find the contact you want. You can also scroll down using the trackpad, but for large contact lists, this can be time consuming. Once you've found the contact you want, hitting the BlackBerry key again opens up a magical, extensive list of actions you can take concerning that contact, including dialing them, sending them an SMS or editing their information. Each contact can hold a wealth of information about that person, including far more phone numbers and email addresses than any normal human being should have.
If you're not using this 9650 with your company's email service and need to load your contacts onto the 9650, there are several options. You can choose to use the BlackBerry Desktop Manager software, which requires attaching the device to a computer. Or, Gmail users can use Google's Sync product to wirelessly load their contacts onto the devices. I found this to be the best option, because it lets you refresh your contact list when on the go.
The integration between the calling features and the contacts program is designed around one-handed ease-of-use and minimizes typing to almost zero. It may not look pretty, but it is clearly meant for the road warrior who is running through an airport and has to do things with the phone one-handed while clinging to luggage with the other.
Blackberry devices are powerhouses when it comes to messaging tasks.
On the email side of the equation, the 9650 has your bases covered. It will support up to 10 different email accounts (Exchange, POP, IMAP) if you're crazy enough to have that many, and can merge all emails into a unified inbox of sorts that collects every message sent to the device. You can also choose to view each inbox separately, though if you have a lot of accounts that can be a real pain. Probably the most powerful aspect of the email app is the search function. Because BlackBerries keep messages stored for months (unless you delete them more often), searching your inbox might be a painful prospect for that one email or SMS you know contains vital information. With the search function, you can find practically anything in your inbox as long as it is still stored on the device.
When viewing emails, the BlackBerry software recognizes phone numbers and email addresses. When you scroll down a page, they are auto-highlighted, allowing you to email people or call them without having to type anything. Simply scroll over the name or email to highlight it, press the trackpad, and bingo. Hitting the BlackBerry key opens up the options list for the emails or numbers found in your inbox.
SMS and MMS messages are threaded into a single conversation with nice visual cues to let you know which messages are yours and which are from your contact's.
The 9650 has Windows Live, Yahoo, Google Talk, AIM, ICQ and BlackBerry Messenger all built in. The first four behave as they do on other handsets, the only difference being the way you interact with them via the BlackBerry user interface. The 9650 is running the latest version of BlackBerry Messenger. The power of BlackBerry Messenger, which uses device PINs to shuttle messages back and forth, shouldn't be underestimated. It is a free way to send messages that uses RIM's BlackBerry Internet Services/BlackBerry Enterprise Server to deliver missives instantly.
The 9650 is pre-loaded with Facebook, MySpace and Flickr applications. They all get the job done. The Facebook application, in particular, has become much better at integrating natively with BlackBerry features, such as the inbox. I really like the way it doesn't feel like a siloed application, but instead an extension of the device's natural messaging and photo capabilities. For power Facebook users, the BlackBerry Facebook app is second only to the iPhone's.
Similarly, Twitter and RIM worked together to develop an official Twitter application for the BlackBerry platform. The Twitter app just recently received a much-needed upgrade, and works almost flawlessly at updating timelines and allowing you to interact with your Twitter friends/followers. There are also downloadable alternatives for Twitter if you don't like the native app.
The basic music application appears to be mostly unchanged from other 'Berries. It lets you select from the songs, artists, genres, albums, playlists, etc. There is an equalizer available for users to alter the sound, You have to hit the BlackBerry key to find it, under the options selection. It offers 12 equalizer pre-sets to adjust the sound to your tastes. You can also turn an audio boost function on and off. This raises the maximum volume of playback.
You can play or pause/stop the music with the trackpad, as well as skip forward and backward tracks. As with most media players, a progress bar shows you how much of the song remains, and album art is displayed if it is tagged to the song. Again, the BlackBerry key pulls up a big menu of options that can be altered during playback, such as sending the music to a Bluetooth headset, setting the current song as a ringtone, and others.
Music can be side-loaded directly onto a microSD card. It can also be drag-and-dropped through mass storage mode, or synced via BlackBerry Desktop Manager (which supports iTunes).
The music sounds just fine, played back through stereo headphones, or stereo Bluetooth headphones.
The 9650 has a 3.2 megapixel camera with autofocus and flash. The software controlling it isn't changed all that much compared to other BlackBerrys. Launching the camera takes about 1.5 seconds. There isn't a dedicated camera key, but you can set one of the two app keys on the side of the 9650 to launch the camera if you wish.
The display shows the subject and there is a bar along the bottom that shows you what the camera's settings are at a glance. The volume toggle lets you zoom in and out, as does swiping up and down on the optical mouse.
I dislike that you can't change any of the settings (except zoom) directly from the viewfinder view. You have to press the BlackBerry key to open up the options list. RIM has added some more controls over the camera. In addition to white balance, picture size/quality, and autofocus, users can now also adjust image stabilization, geotagging, color effects and default behavior for the flash.
The camera focuses and snaps pictures quickly. After the picture is taken, the Bold 9650 takes about 1 second to process and save it. Then you're ready to take another shot. After you take a picture and it is saved, you have 5 immediate options to choose from. The default is to take another picture, but you can also choose to send the image (as an email or MMS), rename it, set as desktop/caller ID, or trash it. In all, usable software, but not really unique or fun.
The gallery app is accessible from the Media icon or from the camera application. In the gallery, if you hit the BlackBerry key you get a long list of options. With this list, you can basically take any action imaginable, including setting the selected image as your home screen, emailing it, renaming it, moving it and many more. After you have a picture open, hitting the BlackBerry key brings up another list of actions, including zooming in and out and some of the options of the aforementioned menu. There may not be advanced editing capabilities, but you can send picture files just about anywhere via multiple methods.
You can view the gallery in a grid or a list. With pictures open, you can scroll from side to side using the optical mouse to view the image library.
I was not super impressed witht he 9650's 3.2 megapixel camera. The Bold 9700, which has the same camera, performed better. Color and white balance were hit-or-miss, and clarity and detail were also inconsistent. Indoor shots exhibited occassional grain and images lacked sharpness. Outdoor shots looked much better. When on vacation this summer, you can get away with snapping photos of the Statue of Liberty, the White House, or the Golden Gate Bridge no problem. But that family picture at the dinner table? Use your point and shoot for that.
Video can be recorded at an MMS-friendly resolution/length (176 x 144), at a slightly higher resolution (480 x 360) and at longer lengths depending on what you want. Videos shot indoors were below average. Images were free of ghosting , but digital artifacts were plentiful. The video recorder had difficulty responding to drastic changes in light. It's odd that the 9650 doesn't perform as well as the 9700, but unfortunately that's the plain and simple truth.
3GPP / MPEG-4 format (viewable with QuickTime)
File size: 2.8 MB
The 9650 has RIM's standard HTML browser. The browser uses the same user interface that is on other BlackBerrys. If you press the BlackBerry key and choose the "Go To" option, you can then perform a Google, Yahoo, Live Search Wikipedia or Dictionary search from the browser. This is also where bookmarks and browser history are stored and can be accessed.
Browsing speeds were consistently good with Sprint. I never experienced any drastic hang-ups, and speed tests consistently scored 1.4Mbps for downloads.
Something to keep in the back of your mind: RIM is working on a WebKit-based browser. WebKit is the same browser tech used by Apple's iPhone and Google's Android platform. The new browser is supposed to become available with OS 6.0 later this summer. Hopefully the browser can be downloaded and installed by all (or most) of the existing BlackBerrys, although RIM hasn't confirmed that.
The 9650 can be customized about as much as any of its BlackBerry predecessors. It lets you re-arrange the main menu as you see fit. You can hide applications, stuff them in folders, or move them anywhere on the screen. You can set pictures as wallpapers, music as ringtones, and customize when the phone goes on/off, turns the radios on/off and so on.
You can add words to the dictionary at will, you can tell the dictionary which word to pick more often when you type a key combination that could be two or more words, and make adjustments to how the spell check app functions.
Both application keys on the left and right side of the 9650 can be customized as short cuts to your favorite or most-used applications or settings menu.
The options menu lets you alter the phone as you would expect most phones for personalization. You can change the fonts, the size of the text, whether or not text is bold and more. This alters the view of your inbox and the majority of the text-only menus you interact with on the 9650 a great deal.
Because BlackBerrys typically target business users, there are literally hundreds of ways to configure the phone, set limits, and so on. Most of these will be completely unused by normal people.
All BlackBerry phones now have access to RIM's own apps store. App World may not have the 100,000 applications that the iPhone Apps store does, nor even the 50,000 apps that the Android Market has, but it still has more than enough to appease most users of the 9650. It is nice to see that Apps World is pre-loaded on the 9650. It wasn't pre-loaded on all BlackBerries. Beyond App World, the BlackBerry platform is supported by a wide array of Java software from third parties such as Google that can be downloaded directly from those companies.
The 9650 supports most Bluetooth profiles that are out there. Pairing with mono and stereo headsets, other phones and PCs was an absolute breeze. Calls sounded good through mono headsets and music sounded OK through stereo headphones.
BlackBerries have a really nice analog clock that takes up nearly the entire screen. Too bad that's not the default screen when the device is sleeping. You have to manually select the clock to see it. If the device falls asleep when the clock is open, you'll see the time nice and big when you wake the 9650 up. During most regular use, you're stuck with the smaller digital read-out that's at the top of the screen. In other words, it's a pain to check the time on the fly.
Alternately, you can set the 9650 in "bedside mode". This essentially assumes that you're going to place the 9650 on a nightstand within arms reach when you're in bed. It will show the clock and let you interact with the alarm. Bedside mode can also be activated when the 9650 is charging, which means the clock is visible any time it is plugged in.
The 9650 has GPS and comes preloaded with Sprint Navigation or you can choose to download Google Maps. The latest version of Google Maps is really robust and offers a lot of features, such as traffic layers, MyLocation, Buzz, good driving directions, etc. Both Sprint Navigation and Google Maps worked fine at routing me through city streets and around traffic snarls. It's worth noting that Sprint doesn't charge an extra fee for its navigation service.
The Sprint 9650 comes with the usual batch of Sprint applications, including NASCAR, its new football application, Sprint TV, the Sprint Music Store and the Sprint Zone. Sprint Zone is a new application that users can customize to alert them of account information, promotions, tips-and-tricks, etc.
The BlackBerry 9650 is one of those phones that gets nearly everything right and has minimal quirks or other problems. The hardware is top notch; it feels great to hold and interact with. It is a little weighty, and I wish the screen were bigger, but die-hard BlackBerry fans will likely be forgiving of these issues.
The BlackBerry user interface hasn't made any leaps or bounds in usability over the years, but it offers a wealth of features that can be configured and controlled by end users to suit their tastes. It's worth keeping in mind that new system software is going to be available within the next few months, and it might be worth waiting for.
The messaging capabilities of the 9650 are solid, with email support being the strongest of the bunch. The threaded SMS software looks and works great, and all the IM clients on board mean you can always get the message. Social networking has also improved with better Facebook and Twitter applications that integrate more tightly with the device itself.
The music client is still a bit on the weak side, and the performance of the camera and video camera were surprisingly inconsistent with other BlackBerries. The browser isn't the best that's available, but it surely beats what is available on most feature phones.
In sum, for those who need a QWERTY-equipped smartphone with all-around solid performance, the 9650 is a good choice on either Sprint or Verizon's network.
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