At the risk of gushing, we've got to say it again: in person, this is a really stunning phone, and we think it goes without saying that this is the best-looking device RIM has crafted to date. The Bold isn't far behind, but the 8900 gets nipped and tucked in just the right places and adds just enough matte chrome to take the prize (believe us, we hate shiny overkill as much as the next guy, but the chrome's legitimately tasteful here). It also swaps out the white trackball for a stealthy black one and replaces that polarizing pleather back with a far, far more agreeable slab of brushed aluminum. In a way, you can think of the industrial design as a Bold / Storm hybrid.
We figure a lot of buyers here are going to be upgrading from an 8320, so we wanted to put the father and the son side by side to see just what has changed. In a word? Everything. It's amazing to think that the 8300 was on the forefront of RIM's ID when it launched, because when you put it side-by-side with the 8900, it looks like a child's toy dominated by bulky, painted plastic. That alone could be enough to sway a few particularly fickle, superficial users into a new two-year contract (read: us), but what's more, you're getting a significantly higher resolution display -- just like the Bold -- along with a new default theme that really puts the tight dot pitch in the spotlight. On the downside, we noticed that the 8900's max brightness is noticeably lower than the 8320's, which could be an issue in direct sunlight; otherwise, you'll be fine.
Just as the Bold carries over the 8800's keyboard design, the 8900 carries over the 8300's -- keys are spaced with a gap between each, and unless you're a psychotic keyboard aficionado, we think you're really unlikely to experience a difference in accuracy, speed, or comfort between the two. The key layout is identical so there won't be any learning curve there, though the shift keys have shrunk from double-wides to single-wides; we didn't have any trouble quickly and accurately hitting them, so no big loss.
The user interface is a total walk in the park for anyone familiar with the BlackBerry ecosystem -- particularly an OS 4.6 device like the Bold -- and T-Mobile's made the expected customizations like myFaves access from the home screen. As we've said, the now-familiar wireframe theme is attractive and really shows off the power of the 8900's ultra-crisp 480 x 360 display, but when you look at the main menu, it can be a bit overwhelming; the icons have a tendency to blend into one another and it's a little difficult to quickly pick out what we're looking for by sight. We're sure we'd learn the locations of icons and commit them to memory after a couple weeks' of use -- either that or we'd change the theme -- but for new users, this could be a source of some intimidation out of the box.
Speaking of the user interface, speed could be a concern. At first, everything hummed right along at a comfortable clip without any lags or freezes, but when we connected to a WiFi network, the story changed -- it'd frequently take half a second to move among menu items or icons, which would try even a casual user's patience in no time. After a while the lag seemed to dissipate on its own, so it's unclear at this point whether it's an isolated incident or something you can count on seeing from time to time while attached to WiFi. If there's a bright side to this, it's that RIM's been awfully good about rolling out new firmwares at a brisk pace lately, and this is the kind of issue we'd expect to go away with updates over time.
T-Mobile's dragging well behind its competition in rolling out 3G spectrum and hardware, and unfortunately, the 8900's a victim of that tragedy. Actually, T-Mobile can't be blamed for that one -- we're all too used to cases where these guys get screwed out of a good phone on account of their wacky frequencies, but this particular phone is 2G no matter where you go. Really, the fact that several European carriers -- carriers that typically wouldn't fathom launching a 2G device these days -- have launched this as a headline phone in their 2009 portfolios is a testament to how good it is and how very loyal BlackBerry users tend to be. That said, though, 2G is still 2G, and it hurts. The 8900 is powerful enough in every respect to be streaming media, browsing desktop-class websites, and sending thousands of MMS messages a month, but EDGE makes those tasks painful at best.
Fortunately, the 8900 throws in WiFi for good measure, which bails out T-Mobile on two levels: one, it gives 'em an out for high-speed data, and two, it lets them tout compliance with its UMA-based HotSpot @Home service. In the past, we've experiences hiccups with HotSpot @Home, but the 8900 performed flawlessly connected to an AirPort Extreme network running WPA -- voice quality was exactly the same as we'd expect over GSM, and we were able to move in and out of range without dropping the call. It's a cute feature to have, and an extremely low-cost femtocell alternative for anyone who's already got a WiFi network running in their home.
Turning our attention to sound quality, the earpiece and speakerphone are both clear as a bell. We could've used another couple notches of volume on the earpiece, but the speakerphone is a marvel of modern engineering -- by the time we topped it out, it nearly hurt our ears from a couple feet away. We'd say it's very usable for impromptu conference calls, and hey, isn't that what BlackBerry is all about?
The 8900 features a simple but capable media player and -- more importantly, we think -- a 3.5mm audio jack, making the phone a viable PMP replacement. On the high side, the audio quality over the jack is among the best we've ever heard from a phone and the volume gets pretty tremendous at the topmost setting. On the flip, though, the jack's on the side of the phone, which is pretty ridiculous if you plan on shoving the thing in your pocket while you've got headphones on (particularly if they don't have an L-shaped connector). We also would've like to have seen a finer volume control -- ten or twelve notches would've been better than six -- but it's a minor niggle at best.
After briefly fiddling with the 8900's Maps application, we're not sold that it's the right way to be taking advantage of its integrated GPS capabilities. Loading of new map segments was slow, even over WiFi, and it had a tendency to "freak out" from time to time and render blank and crosshatched sections covering all or part of the display. It's great functionality to have available, but if you're counting on it in a pinch or you have some crazy delusion about trying to use it in a car -- well, don't.
The camera seems good enough for quick and dirty shots, but unlike... say, an N95, don't expect the 8900 to take the place of your point and shoot. The flash is going to give you just enough light to focus, not to properly illuminate the scene (see the example here), but you will get some reasonably crisp shots thanks to that all-important autofocus. Shutter lag is a concern -- it took about a second for a picture to actually get taken after we pressed the trackball -- so we wouldn't recommend taking it to your next F1 race, cricket match, or little league game (that's what the camera in the picture is for).
Flaws aside, is this the best BlackBerry RIM has ever made? Not necessarily -- we bet we could find a diehard Bold lover for every 8900 lover out there -- but until the Storm gets its act together, it's certainly in the top two. Think of it as a Bold with the style-to-power ratio knob turned just a tiny bit further in the direction of style. Sure, you give up 3G, but who needs high-speed data when you're hypnotized by all that chrome?