BlackBerry Bold 9700 review

RIM's successor to the original Bold -- the BlackBerry Bold 9700 -- has finally landed on our doorsteps. The 9000 is in many ways a hard act to follow. Hardware-wise, it lived up to its name, going where most phones never went with its retro, leathery, nearly clunky looks in an age of rounded edges and shiny curves. Don't get us wrong -- we loved the 9000's aesthetics obsessively -- which is why we couldn't wait to get our hands on its newborn child. A few questions we had in mind: would the 9700 live up to its predecessor's notoriously uncompromising fashion sense? Would the new Bold feel as good to hold and use in the hand as its loving parent? How would it stack up against other, new devices from RIM? If these are the kind of questions you think you might want answers to, read on for our impressions.

As we already mentioned, we were serious fans of the original Bold's hardware, and it would be pretty hard for a successor to live up to it. As far as we were concerned, it really had no close competitors in terms of mobile phone design and, you know, attitude. What we liked most about it aesthetically was its fearless defiance of conventional phone stylings at the time of its release. Faux leather and chrome edging rather than plastic all combined to produce a phone that was just a little off the beaten path, that felt substantial in our hands, and that definitely caught and kept our attention. The 9700 has kept some of those details -- there's still bits of chrome and leather here -- but it's also dropped nearly any flourish of attitude from the original design. RIM's chucked out the weird metal surrounding the camera on the back, and the full, old timey-looking leather battery cover, in favor of what essentially amounts to a Tour with an optical trackpad. Honestly, we recognize our own personal oddities, and understand that a lot of RIM's choices here favor modernization of the handset, which we heartily support. However, we also sort of wish the designers had had some exciting new ideas to add to this Bold -- but it feels like they didn't. The new Bold is all about, well, normalizing the handset and bringing it up to speed with other new RIM offerings, a la the 8520 or the Tour, as we previously mentioned.

We do, however, love the smaller, more sleek form factor of the whole package, and the device feels nice in the hand. Much more streamlined than the previous Bold, the 9700 feels light without feeling overly cheap, though it does feel a little less substantial than older BlackBerrys to us. We prefer the leather-strip on the back's feel over the slightly more rubberized Tour, and the rubberized volume rocker on the right side is preferable to the 9000's variation.

The QWERTY keyboard will be familiar to a Bold (or more recently, Tour) user, and it's worthy of our affection. Typing on it is a joy, and if you've been away from it for a while, as we had, it's just like getting back on a bicycle... it all comes back to you, and you're in love again pretty quickly. That said, the 9700 is much smaller than the 9000 or the Tour, and you'll feel that. We still don't mistype on the keyboard, but we could see the larger-handed among us feeling pretty cramped.

RIM's gone ahead and popped its new optical trackpad into the 9700, too, and this is one modernization we can really get behind. Yes, it takes a little getting used to -- but in our opinion it makes a far superior navigational tool and provides a smoother experience. Regardless, we were also big fans of the old trackball, but this is probably the right direction for RIM to move its hardware in. All of the 9700's other hardware buttons feel great and clicky, and we have no complaints about them.

The 480 x 360 display on the 9700 is up from the 480 x 320 of the original Bold, but in practical terms, it looks very much the same -- also terrifically clear, crisp and beautiful. The colors are bright, but we find ourselves wishing for a bit more screen real estate, (which is par for the course in our experiences with BlackBerrys), especially in the increasingly sad browsing experience. More on that in a moment.

The 3.2 megapixel camera (up from 2.0 on the original) is noticeably improved, with crisper images, and it responds a lot faster than the 9000 as well. They've ditched the 3x digital zoom for a 2x digital zoom, which in practice is fine with us as the extreme zoom always produced rather disappointing results, anyway.

This brings us to the performance of the 9700 in terms of user experience. Although the processor is clocked at the same 624MHz as its older sibling, the 9700's obviously got some special sauce under the hood, because with no interface changes in sight, this device is much snappier overall. Navigation, which has always been pretty quick on a BlackBerry, is tightened up a bit, and we found that opening up a bunch of applications stressed our device out a lot less than the original Bold, which was sometimes inclined to give us the dreaded clock. Thankfully, we haven't seen much of the old lag here -- and the fact that the 9700 ships with BlackBerry's OS 5.0 probably helps it along a bit, too. The battery -- which RIM says gets about 6 hours of talk time -- seems like a real strong point on the phone, and is more than adequate to get through a full day's heavy use.

Call quality is good, and the volume is nice and loud, though we can't help but feel the speaker phone is a bit weaker than the 9000's, but that could just be our weakening hearing, of course. RIM says it's enhanced the browser on this newest device, and we'll admit it's a bit faster, but as we said earlier, we are left with the feeling that browsing on a BlackBerry will not be satisfactory until there's a serious updating of the software.

And, at the end of the day, that's one thing we can't get past -- serious BlackBerry enthusiasts will tell you that the interface is doing just fine, and there are plenty of reasons to get hooked on these devices. For us, however, the BlackBerry UI is showing its age, and ultimately, beautiful hardware aside, this device is essentially exactly the same as every other BlackBerry. Whether that's a good thing or not, we'll leave you to decide. The BlackBerry Bold 9700 (as you can see) is headed for T-Mobile by Black Friday, and the AT&T variety will appear on November 22nd. Both carriers are offering the handset for $199 with a 2-year contract (AT&T's deal requires a $100 mail-in rebate).