T-Mobile's new BlackBerry 9900 screams luxury from every angle. Impressively thin and sporting both a touchscreen and a physical keyboard, this 4G handset is RIM's answer to the growing legion of Android phones encroaching on its territory. But at a staggeringly high $299, the dual-core powered Bold 9900 is priced out of reach for most shoppers. Find out if the most advanced BlackBerry ever to hit T-Mobile has the chops to compete for your hard-earned cash.
Looks alone will make BlackBerry addicts crave this new device. With its 0.4-inch profile, the Bold 9900 is the thinnest RIM handset yet. Extremely pocket-friendly, this 4.6-ounce phone begs to be shown off. Cast in hues of silver and black, a brushed-metal band wraps around the Bold 9900, giving it both strength and elegance. On the back is a black soft-touch finish that rings the phone's rear edges and angles toward an acrylic battery door. Here sits the 5-megapixel camera and flash plus metallic logos that seem to float beneath the surface.
The top right side contains two silver volume buttons which bracket a play/pause key. Below is a button that launches the camera and doubles as a shutter, but it can be configured to activate other functions. A headphone jack and microUSB port occupy the handset's left side, and a lock button is placed on top.
Beneath the screen, the 9900 sports the traditional BlackBerry keys: End, Menu, Back, and Home buttons. In the middle of these keys is an optical trackpad that augments the touchscreen. Some may question the need for a second input device, but we found that it made for fast scrolling.
Typing on the BlackBerry Bold 9900 is a delight. The keys are very large, have plenty of travel, and provide superb tactile feedback. Each key is also chiseled with a slight curve for better gripping. Like BlackBerrys before it, the Bold includes staple shortcuts such as pressing the space bar during e-mail address entry to automatically add an @ symbol and hitting the bar twice to add periods at the ends of sentences. Bottom line: Sending messages on the 9900 is much faster than when using a touchscreen-only device.
The tradeoff of having such a sizable physical keyboard is the BlackBerry 9900's tiny 2.8-inch display. Even so, the 640 x 480 resolution screen has a high pixel density for its real estate. As a result, menus are crisp, images are sharp, and we enjoyed wide viewing angles when watching the Contagion movie trailer via YouTube. That said, the display's small size made it hard to read websites without zooming in. Playing games and watching videos on the 9900 also felt cramped.
The Bold 9900's touchscreen was responsive, whether we opening applications or zooming in on websites and photos. We did see some lag once or twice, but overall our experience was smooth. Using the touchscreen to copy and paste text was also a cinch.
Software and Interface
The Bold 9900 runs RIM's latest BlackBerry 7 OS. On the surface, it looks almost identical to BlackBerry 6: You'll find multiple home screens for quickly scrolling through groups of apps. These include Downloads, Favorites, Frequent, and Media. You can configure the number of apps that appear on the home screen (from one to three rows) by pulling the title bar up or down.
At the center of the home screen is a digital clock flanked by a speaker icon on the left (for adjusting audio settings) and a search symbol on the left. Under the clock is an alert area that shows new messages grouped from many services. Tapping it opens a window displaying e-mail, text messages, calendar appointments, any missed calls, and Facebook and Twitter updates.
BlackBerry 7 also includes new updates that are more behind the scenes. The web browser now uses enhanced HTML 5 (but no Flash), voice search has been added to Universal Search, and there are augmented-reality apps and planned support for NFC (Near Field Communication).
E-mail, Messaging, and BBM
Like with all BlackBerrys, messaging is at the core of the Bold 9900. Besides the notification area that puts incoming messages up front, users can view all text communication at once or split them out into their corresponding accounts (Exchange, Gmail, Yahoo, etc.). The handset supports up to 10 email accounts and has three instant messaging clients on board: Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, and Windows Live messenger. All three are supported by the versatile Social Feeds app, which merges social networking and IM updates into one place.
The latest BlackBerry Messenger application is also on board, which lets BlackBerry owners share messages, create groups, and send pictures and videos to other users. The app is tightly integrated with other apps such as Foursquare and ScoreMobile for BlackBerry. In addition, Wikitude allows you to see what other BBM users have said nearby using augmented reality.
Specs and Performance
Equipped with a robust 1.2-GHz Qualcomm CPU and 768MB of RAM, the Bold 9900 is the fastest BlackBerry we've used, on a par with its sibling, the Bold 9930 on Verizon Wireless. Opening and switching between apps was practically instantaneous. The camera launches in less than 2 seconds, and we were able to play rounds of Bubble Breaker while listening to Internet radio in the background. That said, we did notice some lag when web surfing (see below). Out the box, the phone comes with a total of 8GB of internal memory, and users can add up to 32GB via the microSD card slot.
Web Browsing and 3G Data
RIM touts the BlackBerry Bold 9900's browser as being "next-generation," designed to offer optimized zooming and panning. Sadly, it isn't optimized enough for our tastes. First, the browser doesn't support Flash, like Android phones do. In addition, when we were viewing large sites such as the desktop version of CNN.com, the phone often stuttered a bit as we zoomed in or out, pausing to display blank white spaces or ugly checker boxes. Double-tapping the screen, which tells the device to scale pages and text to match the size of the screen, was also problematic, often presenting views too large or too small to read.
The handset does handle tabs well, however, with a useful multi-window icon to right side of the address bar. When you click the icon, the Bold launches a window that lets you quickly switch between tabs.
Unlike the 3G BlackBerry Bold 9930 on Verizon, the Bold 9900 features an HSPA+ 4G data connection on T-Mobile's network. However, we didn't see 4G speeds in practice. The phone took about 6.5 seconds to load the mobile version of The New York Times site. The ESPN mobile site took an average of 9 seconds, while the full Laptopmag.com site required 23.5 seconds. These times were slightly slower than the Bold 9930 (on Verizon's 3G), which opened the same mobile sites in 6 to 7 seconds and the Laptopmag.com site in 20 seconds. Other Android-based 4G phones on T-Mobile, such as the myTouch 4G Slide and the HTC Sensation 4G, loaded those same mobile pages in 5 to 6 seconds and Laptopmag.com a much shorter 12 seconds.
It took the Bold 9900 2 minutes and 18 seconds to download the Wikitude app (a 2.7 MB file), about the same amount of time as on the Bold 9930. Unlike Android devices on T-Mobile, the 9900 lacks a way to share its mobile connection via a hotspot app or tethering.
A major weakness of the BlackBerry platform is its lackluster App World storefront. By last count, the store offered about 35,000 apps, which can't compete against the breadth of Apple's (425,000) or Android's (200,000) libraries.
We do like some of the apps available, such as Wikitude, which let us hold up the phone's camera to see an augmented reality view displaying real-time info such as events, tweets, and restaurant details linked to nearby locations. The app pulls in data from BBM, Flickr, Starbucks, Twitter, too. Another useful program is Tunein Radio, which streams such local New York staples as WABC and WNYC public radio.
Pre-loaded apps include BlackBerry Protect to locate and remotely lock or wipe your device if you lose it. You'll also find MemoPad, Tasks, and a Voice Note recorder.
The Bold 9900 comes with a few options for keeping yourself entertained between e-mails and tweets. Slacker streams Internet radio, and the Amazon MP3 store makes purchasing tracks easy. We also enjoyed listening to music through the handset's speaker, which provided plenty of volume, a wide sound field, and even a touch of bass. The classic "Ocean Rain" by Echo and the Bunnymen was a treat to hear, with clear guitar riffs and clean resonant vocals.
Camera and Camcorder
Taking pictures and video on the Bold 9900 is a bit of a mixed bag. The phone's 5-megapixel camera snaps pics quickly, but Android handsets such as the T-Mobile myTouch 4G Slide capture much crisper images (especially in low light). Photos taken outdoors on a bright sunny day were certainly keepers, with good detail and convincing color in blue skies and green grass. With the flash activated, subjects ran the risk of being blown out if shot too closely.
The Bold 9900's 720p camcorder recorded clear video of New York street scenes, complete with detailed taxi cabs and textured brick and concrete buildings. The microphone was also sensitive enough to pick up the hum of traffic, honked horns and vehicle engines, and even bits of nearby conversations.
Call Quality and Battery Life
We enjoyed excellent voice quality over T-Mobile's network, hearing spoken words loud and clear through the Bold 9900's earpiece. Callers on the other end reported that we sounded indistinguishable from calls made via landline. The speakerphone belts out enough volume to fill a medium-sized conference room, and it transmitted our voice well, even when we stood a few feet away from the phone.
Battery life has always been a BlackBerry strength, and the Bold 9900 is no exception to the rule. The phone's 1230mAh battery is rated for up to 6.3 hours of talk time. During everyday use that included light web surfing, e-mails, and posting to social networking services, and occasionally streaming Internet radio, the device still had 30 percent charge after 36 hours. That's much longer than the typical Android handset, which needs to be plugged in every night.
T-Mobile offers the BlackBerry Bold 9900 for $299 after a $50 mail-in rebate and with a standard two-year contract. Verizon sells its BlackBerry Bold 9930 for $249. This may seem like bargain--until you consider T-Mobile's less-expensive service plans. For example, T-Mobile's Classic 500 Unlimited Plus plan includes 500 mintues, unlimited texts, and 2GB of 4G data for $69 a month. A comparable plan on Verizon costs $89 per month. Including handset costs, the Bold 9990 on T-Mobile would cost $430 less over two years.
While very elegant, the $299 BlackBerry Bold 9900 suffers from the same affliction as its Verizon cousin, the $249 Bold 9930. Both represent the ultimate in messaging devices, but the tiny displays and lackluster app selection leave us wanting more. For $100 less, the myTouch 4G Slide boasts a great keyboard, a superb 8-MP camera, true 4G data, and a much bigger 3.7-inch display. Of course, business users who don't want to kick the BlackBerry habit will find lots to like here, such as beefed-up performance, a sexy design, and the Bugatti of mobile keyboards. So hopefully their IT departments can foot the bill.