We've been playing with AT&T's just-launched BlackBerry Bold for a few days now, and once we got past the absolutely gorgeous display (seriously, it's mesmerizing), we wanted to find out what else there was to RIM's latest QWERTY device. Is the Bold more than a pretty face? Well, it's a BlackBerry, so you can count on it. Read on.
Physically, the Bold is one of the most elegantly designed devices we've ever had the pleasure of using. The matte metal ring doesn't add even a hint of gaudiness -- it's tasteful and totally appropriate for business use. We noticed that the top half of the front (everything above the keyboard) is glossy while the bottom half is matte, which we thought was a little strange. Glossy probably makes more sense for the screen, and we would've been fine with the gloss being continued down onto the keys and the strip of plastic at the bottom. We also had some misgivings about the pleather back at first, but it has grown on us; it doesn't look bad, it gives you some extra grip the same way a soft-touch back would, and we're sure there'll be plenty of aftermarket replacements if you're really unhappy with it.
Although RIM has made a huge splash in the consumer market over the past couple of years with devices like the Pearl and Curve, there are still aspects of the BlackBerry operating system that let the company's all-business roots shine through. This is evident in places like the Options screen, where you get a completely plain-vanilla list of categories that makes Windows Mobile look like a shining example of circa-2008 UI design (okay, that's a stretch, but you see what we're saying), and the bare-bones MemoPad app that lies somewhere between the Unix commands ed and vi for sophistication. Not to say we're complaining -- quite the contrary, actually. In an age of superfluous animated screen transitions and over-the-top visual elements, it's an ironic breath of fresh air to see software that just gets down to business without any fuss.
That being said, there are places where the Bold's OS 4.6 doesn't hold back on the eye candy. RIM clearly spent a ton of time on the default theme, working to maximize use of the stunning 480 x 320 display. It looks great, but we'll echo a complaint voiced by many users -- the meticulously-designed wireframe icons that are used throughout the system are actually pretty difficult to differentiate from one another. If you find that you rely on visual cues to select items from a list (which you probably do, either consciously or subconsciously), it can be tricky to tell the Applications folder from the Setup folder at an ultra-quick glance. Different colors are used from one icon to the next, but it's used only very sparingly. After a bit of use, we figure you'd learn the icons by their position in the menu, but that's not something you'll likely be able to do overnight. Fortunately, you can always download and change themes.
Let's turn our attention to the Bold's most important function: calling. Despite some sporadic reports of dropped calls, we had no problem using the phone on AT&T's 3G network. Voice quality was good, and perhaps more importantly, volume was excellent -- we could turn the phone up loud enough to nearly hurt our ears. We wish we had the same praise for the music player, though. At volumes loud enough to use as a makeshift table radio, we encountered enough distortion to make it basically unusable. The good news is that there's a 3.5mm jack, so the problem's mitigated somewhat as long as you're not looking to share the music with friends; the bad news, though, is that the jack is on the side. This makes for a downright awkward experience if you plan on connecting a headset and dropping the phone into a pants pocket, so try to use a pair of buds with an L-connector if you can.
So how about that keyboard? We were skeptical going into it -- tiny keys smushed this close together aren't often compatible with fat thumbs -- but we adapted to it in short order. Anyone coming from an 8800 series (pictured left) will feel right at home, though Curve users might have a little learning curve ("curve," get it?) since they're used to having a little space between keys. What really saves the Bold's keyboard, we think, are the keys' curious texture, which sweeps to the left on the left side and to the right on the right side; it does a surprisingly good job of keeping your thumbs in the right place and prevents the majority of mistypes. We noticed that keys would occasionally click twice (but only register a single character) when pressed, which was pretty annoying, but definitely not a deal-breaker.
In the final analysis, is this the BlackBerry that's going to win over a whole new generation of users from competing platforms? No, we don't think it is -- it's a really evolutionary device, and the Storm probably has a better shot in that arena. Is this the best QWERTY BlackBerry ever made, though? There's absolutely no question about it, and we're certain that users upgrading from Curves and 8800s are going to be delighted with what they find here.