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My thoughts on the Blackberry (9000) Bold.

Having been a user of RIM’s 8707 for over a year (I was using one on Vodafone UK’s Network before DoCoMo released a domestic model), I and many other users have been eagerly awaiting the release of the next Japan network compatible 3G model. In typical NTT fashion, DoCoMo has announced the release of much awaited upgrade for Spring 2009. Yeah, they hate their customers as much as they envy mammals with opposable thumbs.

Luckily, there are other telecom companies around the globe and a few of them actually are driven by consumer demand, however unwise that may be. A few months ago I managed to procure an unlocked grey market Bold. A few hours later, I had the new BlackBerry hotness running, connecting to my corporate BES, and happily pulling data from DoCoMo’s 3G network. Normally I wouldn’t recommend this path just to get the newest model, but in September, March seemed very far away, and after over a year on my old 8707 I was itching for a change. In case you are thinking of this yourself, make sure you have a friendly BES administrator and you might want to check out the forums at blackberryforums.com for the latest news on firmware issues.

Now that I have had a chance to really run the device through the ringer, I thought I would post up my thoughts on the upgrade.

Software
BlackBerry’s offered by DoCoMo are currently running a version of BlackBerryOS 4.2. That was great for early 2008, but it’s like almost 2009. The US has an African American about ready to be sworn in as President. It’s time for CHANGE! The Bold is shipping with 4.6, and compared to 4.2 it’s a major upgrade. Note that most of the cool stuff came with 4.5, but it’s looking doubtful that there will ever be a 4.5 upgrade for the 8700 line. So what’s included?

For starters, support for HTML email. I work with Lotus Notes (largely against my will I might add), and this has always been a problem for me. Unless a graphic is specifically attached to an email as opposed to simply pasted in and embedded, there is no way to view it. Graphics must of course then be viewed through a separate viewer. No support for tables or text formatting means that even the most simple formatted mails are reduced to a plain text dump. It may not seem like a big deal, but if you are dealing with edited and formatted mail it is as painful as reading Japanese written out entirely in hiragana. I am happy to report that the Bold renders rich email beautifully.

Next, email quantity and access. BlackBerry’s have always been great at getting the latest email messages, but one reason it has been difficult to totally cut the cord and leave the laptop home is that it could only hold a limited amount of that email. The relatively small memory space on the 8707 meant that older email had to be purged from the device automatically. The Bold levels that up a significant notch by supplying a full gigabyte of main memory (and plenty more space for media through a microSD slot). This means I can keep a lot more email on the device. Not only that, but the upgraded server now allows me to search through any email on my server. Even if the email came in years before I got my Blackberry, as long at it remains on my server it is possible to retrieve the mail on the Bold.

Finally, full attachment support. My Bold came with a lite version of Documents to Go. Before, the only attachment support I had was to stream information from supported attachments. The result was time consuming, frustrating, and ultimately unsatisfying. The files were view only, they could not be stored locally, and they were hard to read without support for formatting. Now I can open a Word, Excel, or Powerpoint document, make some changes or edits, and send it on, all with one hand and limited eye-strain.

There are lots of other software enhancement. A much better (and usable) browser, multi-media software, and map with GPS. I am pleased to say that the new software goes a long way in addressing some of the main complaints I have heard about the 8707, The hardware improvements take it even further. I should note that I am running the newest version of the East Asian flavor of the OS. This supports display and input in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Anyone who says that the delay in Japan is due to lack of Japanese compatibility is full of it.

Hardware
Right now, my 8707 is sitting in my desk drawer. I took it out last week to do size comparisons with the Bold. Now, I am not usually one to get all nostalgic about my former tech gadgets, but this time I did feel a slight emotional pang. Actually I think it was more like a wave of nausea. Holding the 8707 and looking at the screen made me want to throw it in the garbage, fill the can with kerosine, light her up and then hide under my bed stoking the Bold and calling it “my Precious”.

Basically, everything is better. The screen is gorgeous. While just slightly larger than the old screen, resolution has been bumped up to iPhone specs and the tighter pixel density, bright LED backlight and high contrast make this the prettiest screen on a mobile device I have ever seen. I still prefer the iPhone’s larger screen, but inch for inch, the Bold has the better look. The included video clips show that there was a reason for last summer’s Speed Racer movie after all. The psychedelic color scheme shows off the Bold’s color range beautifully.

Next size. While basically maintaining the 8707’s face profile, the Bold shows what serious trips to the gym can accomplish (a lesson I am still working on adopting). Noticeably thinner, I can now hold the Bold in my front pants pocket without that embarrassing or misleading bulge. The leather backplate also classes up the look and makes holding the BlackBerry feel somewhat less geeky. My only complaint on the build is the fake metal rim that surrounds the device. I guess the designers took the whole “make it look like an iPhone” directive a bit too literally. While at first glance it looks pretty classy, it feels rather cheap and one scratch on it will give the whole game away. I’m waiting for a titanium replacement bezel that should protect the device better without adding too much to the weight. Until then I have to be careful not to drop the bold or else it will look like the front bumper of a Saturn after a fender bender.

Making a debut in Japan are all the features we have heard about on other recent devices, but have yet to make their appearance here. Wi-fi, GPS, and a built-in digital camera. This definitely has the feel of a flagship device with every option thrown in for good measure (although I have yet to locate the kitchen synch option). The one feature I heard someone lament was the lack of built in Felica/Smartcard functionality. All in all, these functions work ok, but not great. The wi-fi is a bit twitchy and I can’t seem to get good speed off of it but it does work and can offer a cheap alternative for web browsing and data packets while I roam (UMA is still a distant dream I think). The GPS is usable, but hardly robust and I find too often I have difficulty getting a good fix. The camera is much better than the iPhones crappy monocle, but nowhere near Nokia, Sony, or Samsungs level. Still, I think the majority of the drawbacks can be at least improved with future software enhancements. In the end though, these are more toys that most business professionals like to have, but are hardly requirements.

Verdict
Well, can you tell that I like the Bold? Simply put, it is the best BlackBerry made to date. Then again, is that really saying much? If I make the best butter churn in the world does that mean everyone will want one? If you like Blackberry’s or want something a step up from your existing 8707 then this is good news. Well, mostly good news anyway.
A smudge on the Bolds shine is the ridiculous price plans doled out by the DoCoMo overlords. Already painfully priced (the little bit of Bostonian in me wants to toss crates of handset into Tokyo bay), the enhanced capabilities will only push up packet usage pricing these new models significantly higher than the current generation. Still I think this device is a winner and companies will just have suck it up and get ready for the pain (unless of course rumors of a SoftBank entry turn out to be true).
Compared to the 8707, this new model has improvements in nearly every pain point. Smaller, easier to use. more powerful features, heck they even crammed a bigger batter in it to improve the battery life. Anyone who uses a BlackBerry in Japan will look at this upgrade as a long overdue breath of air. But you won’t find me chucking my iPhone anytime soon.
I need to use a BlackBerry because it is the only device my company can support. I need the functionality and this new Bold will make that even easier. But it will never meet my personal need for personal network connectivity. The iPhone remains my personal favorite flavor of meta-crack. So I carry both around with me. I still use a PC at work, but I wrote this post on a Macbook (using Google Docs no less).

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