With the inclusion of Wi-Fi, the BlackBerry Bold 9650 from Sprint addresses the BlackBerry Tour’s biggest setback, while ditching its predecessor’s trackball in favor of an optical trackpad that offers better navigation precision. Even though this feature-packed smart phone ($199 after $100 mail-in rebate), doesn’t have the wow factor of a superphone like the HTC Evo 4G, and its browser badly needs an upgrade, the Bold is still a champ in its own right. An elegant design, snappy performance, first-class e-mail, and worldwide connectivity make it a great buy—and the best non-touchscreen phone for Sprint.
Other than the obvious swap of the Tour’s trackball for a trackpad, aesthetically the Bold 9650 looks nearly identical to the Tour. Its black and metallic tones are an eye pleaser, and the soft-touch battery cover gives it a comfortable feel. The optical trackpad on the Bold has a glossy finish that is a bit slippery to touch. Unlike the trackball, the trackpad’s flush design prevents dirt from entering the phone and rendering it unusable, so this is welcome. Curve and Tour owners might find a slight learning curve getting used to the new input, but we found navigating through the BlackBerry OS an overall improvement with the trackpad, especially when browsing the web.
With a 2.4-inch, 480 x 360-pixel display, colors are rich and vibrant. Images and video look great on the Bold’s small screen, although we found ourselves squinting more often than we’d like when viewing web content.
Measuring 4.4 x 2.4 x 0.6 inches, the Bold 9650 is dimensionally identical to the Tour but slightly heavier at 4.8 ounces (compared to the Tour’s 4.6 ounces). Whether it’s in your shirt or pants, the Bold is very pocket-friendly. A 3.5mm headphone jack is located on the right side of the phone, as are the volume controls, a microUSB charging port, and a camera launch button. On the left side is a voice command button, while soft keys for locking and muting the Bold 9650 are integrated on top. We would prefer that the lock and mute keys were highlighted with a backlight instead of the dark gray decals that are harder to see, but it’s a minor quibble.
The backlit QWERTY keyboard is one advantage the Bold 9650 has in today’s touchscreen takeover. The typing experience is favorable on the Bold even when compared to other hardware keyboard phones like the Palm Pre. The keys on the Bold are fairly large and have good tactile feedback. Due to the phone’s small form factor, there is little space between keys, which can result in a few errors when typing fast; still, it manages to defeat by far the speed and accuracy of most touchscreen phones on the market.
The Bold 9650 comes loaded with BlackBerry OS 5 (188.8.131.521 to be exact). While practical and intuitive, OS 5 seems a bit ho-hum and vanilla compared to interfaces like Sense on the Evo 4G and webOS on the Pre. There are six icons at the bottom of the desktop screen, with more inside the main menu. RIM hasn’t made many improvements here versus the Tour; still, the overall experience was speedy. Applications opened and closed fast; not to mention the phone has great multitasking capabilities. We were able to check e-mails, type up a few documents, and browse through some photos all while streaming tunes from Pandora with ease.
E-mail and Messaging
The Bold graciously flaunts its top-tier e-mailing capabilities that BlackBerrys are recognized for. Setup is a breeze; simply input your account e-mail and password, and in no time your e-mails are delivered to the handset. Thousands of e-mails can be stored on the Bold, and opening Word and Excel documents are a cinch thanks to the preloaded Documents to Go software from DataViz, which also allows for some light editing.
For messaging aficionados, the Bold is preloaded with AOL Instant Messenger, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, ICQ, and BlackBerry Messenger, basically covering it all. BlackBerry OS 5 has text threading support, but unlike the HTC Hero or Palm Pre’s ability to automatically break down long messages as you type away, with the Bold you must manually start a new text message.
The web browser on the Bold is exactly the same as the one found on the Tour. Due to the high-resolution display, the ability to read text comfortably without zooming in most instances is almost unavoidable. Plus, the redraw rate when panning through pages on the Bold is noticeably slower than the faster WebKit browsers found on the iPhone 3GS and Evo 4G. RIM promises to bring a WebKit browser to the BlackBerry platform, and we hope this phone receives that update soon. Thankfully, the Bold is swift when paired with Sprint’s EV-DO Rev. A network. It loaded the New York Times mobile website in just 11 seconds, and even more impressive was its Wi-Fi capabilities that loaded the same page in 4 seconds. The inclusion of Wi-Fi is really handy when you’re not in a 3G area, or maybe experiencing a weaker signal indoors. The Wi-Fi operates on 802.11b/g, which is good but doesn’t offer the range or speed of the BlackBerry Pearl 3G’s 802.11n.
Like the BlackBerry Pearl 3G, the Bold is a world phone with both CDMA and GSM capabilities that allow you to use it while traveling abroad. The phone comes factory unlocked, meaning you can use nearly any SIM Card hassle free. Sprint provides coverage with various international partners in over 210 countries. Rates vary by location, and Sprint sells an international plan for $4.99 a month that offers a discount on the additional data and voice fees. For calls to Canada, Sprint offers a $2.99 monthly plan that allows calls to be made in the country at $0.20 a minute, almost a third of the $0.59 you would be charged on standard roaming. Worldwide monthly e-mail plans start at $69.99.
So far there are more than 2,500 apps available for download on the Bold 9650 through BlackBerry App World; a miniscule number compared to the 50,000 for Android devices and 200,000+ for iPhone users. Still, there are plenty of standouts, like the official Twitter and Facebook apps, as well as the Slacker music app and movie-finder Flixster.
Application download speeds were swift over both Wi-Fi and Sprint’s 3G network. You can’t install apps directly to the Bold’s included 2GB microSD Card, which is somewhat of a bummer; the bright side is that the Bold gets a nice bump in RAM from 256MB to 512MB. It’s nowhere near the capacity of available memory on phones like the Palm Pre or iPhone 3GS, but still better than any of its predecessors. Buying premium content from the BlackBerry App World is somewhat of a nuisance with its reliance on PayPal, instead of the seamless credit card billing structure that both iPhone OS and Android offer.
Speaking of apps, Sprint preloads some of its own software as well. Nascar Sprint Cup Mobile will appeal to die-hard fans, while Sprint TV allows 24/7 access to popular networks such as USA, MSNBC, The Disney Channel, and ABC. There’s also the highly useful Sprint Navigation app that we’ll touch on later.
The stereo headset supplied with the Bold 9650 gets the job done, but serious audiophiles will want to upgrade. The Sprint Music Store was undergoing changes at the time of this review, so we weren’t able to download tunes; however, we did connect the Bold 9650 to a PC via USB and quickly transferred “The Fame: Monster” album by Lady Gaga to the SD Card, and Alicia Keys’ “The Element of Freedom” directly to the internal memory. The music app found each album, and switching between songs was seamless. The external speaker got fairly loud, but was slightly distorted when cranked to full volume. Video content looked superb thanks to the high-res display.
The 3.2-megapixel camera of the Bold 9650 took blur-free images in all light conditions with very little shutter delay. We snapped a few moving cars during a trip to Los Angeles, and were impressed by the clarity of stills and color saturation. The inclusion of LED flash allows the Bold to snap decent stills even in dark light conditions. Captured video looked smooth and crisp, although resolution is capped at 480 x 352.
Sprint Navigation is included with the Bold, and is powered by TeleNav. The good thing here is that Bold owners will not incur the $9.99 monthly charge that TeleNav requires on other devices, saving you $120 a year, while offering a robust GPS experience; including turn-by-turn speaking navigation, and even warnings when traffic incidents occur.
Call Quality and Battery Life
Every test call we made with the Bold 9650 in New York and Los Angeles sounded crystal clear, and friends said they could hear us perfectly. Conferencing with the speaker sounded good as well, as we could hear other callers a good 3 feet away. Not once during our testing in both states did we experience a dropped call.
RIM continues to lead the competition when it comes to battery life. Even though the phone is rated for 5 hours of talk time, we were able to get through a whole day and evening of e-mailing, surfing the web, making calls, listening to music, and testing a few applications without having to charge.
Pricing and Value
The BlackBerry Bold 9650 costs $199 after a mail-in rebate with a two-year commitment with Sprint. You can opt to pay the steep $449 if you’re not eligible for an upgrade, or want to use the phone on another carrier’s network. A Sprint Simply Everything plan starts at $69 for 450 voice minutes, plus 5GB of data, unlimited text messaging, and use of services like Sprint TV and Sprint Navigation.
Even with BlackBerry OS 6 on the horizon, the BlackBerry Bold 9650 from Sprint is still a very good smart phone. Yes, it’s lacking the better browser, 720p video recording, and 4G data of the identically priced HTC Evo 4G, but it’s a great business tool for road warriors who prefer a physical keyboard and longer endurance. And, unlike the Evo 4G, you can stay connected overseas. The BlackBerry Bold 9650 will surely quench the thirst of BlackBerry lovers until the next revision of its OS arrives.