Smartphone Review: BlackBerry Bold 9650

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Pros: The RIM smartphone adds Wi-Fi, a trackpad and double the onboard memory, and offers worldwide roaming capability with messaging.

Cons: Running BlackBerry OS 5, Web browsing is cumbersome and lacking compared to other handsets.

Bottom Line: The BlackBerry Bold 9650 is a solid, mobile computing device for Verizon and Sprint customers who want overseas connectivity and messaging.

RIM's BlackBerry smartphones get less respect than the iPhones and the Androids of the world nowadays. That's a shame. In spite of those platforms' gains in the business segment, today's BlackBerrys are still the most popular (and many would say the most capable) smartphones for the enterprise and the mobile devices IT pros find the easiest to manage and support.

One of the newest BlackBerrys on the market is the BlackBerry Bold 9560, the follow-up to the popular BlackBerry Bold and BlackBerry Tour models. It is RIM's latest international model for CDMA operators Sprint and Verizon Wireless.

With the Bold 9560, like with the Tour, frequent travelers won't have to worry about losing connectivity when abroad. That's because the new Bold includes a second, GSM (UTMS/HSPA) radio, in addition to its main CDMA/EV-DO radio. This lets users make voice and data calls (i.e. Web and e-mail) in more than 100 countries when out of range of their local carrier's network.

Sprint sells the Bold 9650 for $200 and Verizon Wireless sell it for $150 with a two-year contract. We reviewed the Sprint version.

In addition to the Bold 9650, the box it comes in also includes a USB sync and charging cable, an AC Micro USB Travel Charger, RIM's excellent standard stereo headset, a 2GB microSD card (the smartphone's memory slot supports up to 32GB microSDHC cards), a leather holster, CD with user tools, and  it was nice to see, paper manuals—a growing rarity in today's e-everything world.

Not quite as stylish looking as the first Bold, the 9560 sports the slightly more utilitarian looks of the BlackBerry Tour. For those businesses and mobile professionals committed to the BlackBerry platform, however, it should make a nice upgrade over both models.

At 4.8 ounces, the Bold 9560 is slightly heavier than either of those earlier devices. And yet, at 4.43 x 2.4 x 0.56 inches, it easily still fits comfortably in the pocket and the hand. There's something to be said about a slightly thicker device when it comes to utility.

Although it doesn't include a touchscreen like many of the market's hottest mobile devices, the 2.4-inch, 480 x 360-pixel resolution display is bright and easy to read. And, like with RIM's other smartphones, it will automatically dim and brighten depending on the environment.

For text input, the Bold 9650's full QWERTY thumb-keyboard ably lives up to RIM's reputation for typers that can't be beat. It's nicely separated rubberized keys made typing a breeze during testing, essential for a mobile device that places such as premium on messaging.

When RIM introduced its trackball with its inaugural BlackBerry Pearl a few years ago, it was a novel navigation solution. Not everyone was fond of the trackball, however -- grime from your fingers tended to compromise performance after a while -- so it was nice to see RIM introduce a laptop-like trackpad in some recent BlackBerry models, including the Bold 9650. I liked using the trackpad -- there was  no learning curve and it  is very responsive when navigating through menus, for example.

You take pictures and video with the BlackBerry's rear-facing 3.2 megapixel camera and flash with autofocus and 2X digital zoom. While not spectacular, as with most mobile devices, pictures and video look and sound more than adequate for most purposes. Keep in mind; this isn't a smartphone that'll replace a standalone digital camera for most people, nor is it intended to fulfill that role.

Improvements over the BlackBerry Tour include the addition of Wi-Fi (802.11b/g), great for when 3G isn't available, and the doubling of the amount of internal memory to 512MB, which allows users to run apps (and more of them) more smoothly.

Additional wireless features include GPS for location-based services such as RIM's own BlackBerry Maps software and Bluetooth with support for streaming stereo audio to wireless headsets or to a car stereo. Once paired with our car's stereo, we easily streamed great sounding music from the BlackBerry 9650 to its speakers.

Overall, as with most BlackBerrys, call quality -- whether holding the Bold 9650 to the ear, using a headset, using speakerphone, or even over Bluetooth to our car's speakers -- surpassed that of nearly every other smartphone we've tested. Useful additional voice features include voice-activated dialing and conference calling.

Be it email (POP, Web, corporate or personal), MMS for sending picture and video, chat-like SMS, IM (AIM, GTalk, ICQ, Y-Messenge, or MSN), or direct PIN to PIN communication between BlackBerrys, the BlackBerry 9650 excels as a mobile messenger. All types of messaging are well integrated into RIM's BlackBerry message indication system.

For email, users can access as many as 10 supported e-mail accounts, such as Yahoo!, Windows Live Hotmail, AOL and Gmail, which we had no trouble setting up. It also supports BlackBerry Enterprise Server (Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino, or Novell GroupWise) , which doubles as a mobile management and security platform, in corporate environments.

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BlackBerry OS 6 to Improve Web Browser

The Bold 9650 runs on BlackBerry OS 5.0, and while an improvement over earlier versions of RIM's mobile operating system, the basic Web browser is lacking, at least compared to other smartphones. Also, its interface is somewhat clunky and pedestrian looking when put up against the interfaces provided by newer kids on the block such as the iPhone 4 and Android-run smartphones such as Google's Nexus One and the Motorola Droid models. Expect an upgrade to BlackBerry OS 6.0, a platform update that promises to bring RIM's smartphones interface more in line with those others, sometime later this year.

Bundled applications include a number of games:  Brickbreaker, Klondike, Sudoku Word Mole, and Texas Hold 'Em; productivity apps such as DataViz's Microsoft Office-compatible Documents To Go suite for editing and reading Word, Excel and PowerPoint files; support for multiple calendars, contacts, and tasks; social networking through Flickr, MySpace and Facebook; a basic yet adequate media player for pictures, video, and music; the Sprint Music Store, Sprint Navigation, Sprint TV, Sprint Football Live and NASCAR Sprint Cup Mobile; and, of course, the BlackBerry App World, RIM's far less successful answer to Apple's iPhone App Store.

A fully charged battery (1400 mAHR lithium-ion) easily lasted through a day of typical usage, sometimes even two days, during testing. RIM rates the battery for up to 13 days in standby, 5 hours of talk, and 18 hours of music playback. 

And, should you make heavy use of Wi-Fi, GPS, and 3G, we highly recommend carrying a second battery just in case the need arises. Unlike the iPhone, you can easily remove the back cover of the Bold 9650, pop out a spent battery, and replace it with a freshly charged one.

The Bold 9650 is an important (albeit somewhat modest) step up from earlier BlackBerry Bold and Tour models. Its superior keyboard and support for international markets make it a terrific corporate communicator and messenger. However, as a utilitarian (in the best sense) mobile device in an age where pizazz rules, that may not be enough to slow the onslaught of competitors gunning for RIM's top spot in the hierarchy of enterprise smartphones.

TAGS:

Blackberry, smartphone review, RIM, BlackBerry 9650, BlackBerry review

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