Research in Motion (RIM), the maker of BlackBerry has been under adverse market pressure for a while now and one of its key strategies to turn things around was to speed up its release cycle. The RIM head honchos in Waterloo, Canada have probably heard enough ranting about BlackBerry smartphones featuring fairly dated processors and a visibly aging OS.

And of course, nothing makes things crystal clear to head honchos as a dip in market share, which is exactly what RIM has been witnessing globally. Even as I write this, Gartner’s latest data shows that RIM’s market share in mobile phones has fallen from 3.2 percent in Q2 2010 to 3 percent in Q2 2011, while Apple’s has nearly doubled. Of course the once mighty mobile phone leader Nokia has crashed in a far more spectacular fashion, and seeing Nokia’s fate and its own crashing stock price must be making the once-upon-a-time smartphone leader RIM quite wary.

RIM’s response: A whole new series of smartphones with mouth-watering specs have been announced and are being launched in the next few days and weeks. This is the biggest launch in RIM’s history—never before has the smartphone maker launched so many devices in so short a time, but I guess tough times demand drastic, out-of-comfort-zone measures. And the first in the pack is the BlackBerry Bold 9900.

Check out our quick video review below –

 

Blackberry 9900

Form Factor
At first glance the Bold 9900 reminded me of the Bold 9000, the first BlackBerry to feature the ‘Bold’ brand and which brings back great memories for a BlackBerry regular like me. Trawl any BlackBerry-related forum and you’ll see many users wistfully remembering the Bold 9000 despite two more great Bold smartphones (the 9700 and the 9780) being released in later years.But that’s where the similarity ends. The Bold 9900 may look like the Bold 9000 from the front, but is thinner, slightly smaller and if you compare what’s inside the difference would be as stark as comparing the insides of a Toyota commuter car with a Porsche.

Very elegant design

Very elegant design

Touted as the thinnest BlackBerry yet (115 x 66 x 10.5 mm), I think the Bold 9900 looks great—very businesslike and is built like a tank. I don’t like bling and the brushed metal rim with a thin polished edge is the very opposite of bling, as it gently whispers class. The rear battery isn’t faux leather as in the 9780, and is smooth as they come, and with good reason. Under the rear cover is the Near Field Communication (NFC) antenna, so the rear had to be smooth carbon fibre so there would be no signal disruptions. Fortunately, thanks to the gentle protrusion at the rear which is rubberised, the device won’t slip from your hands. Brilliant design!

Weighing in at 130 gms, the Bold 9900 is heavier and bigger than its immediate predecessor. RIM is swimming against the usual flow here, but I think it’s a great decision — I loved the feel of the 9900 in my hands. Incidentally, some informal dipstick surveys I did revealed that the fairer sex may find it a tad too large. Button positioning is a bit different from the standard BlackBerry style. On the right of the 9900 there are now four buttons, as opposed to the usual three. Three are media buttons with a welcome pause button in the middle and the bottom one is a convenience key you can customize as per your liking.

The slimmest Bold yet

The slimmest Bold yet

Unfortunately, there's no convenience key on the left, a glaring omission I didn't like one bit. There's a micro USB port for charging and sync and a standard 3.5mm audio out slot with a nice contoured design. On the top there's a single lock button which is placed bang in the centre and far easier to click than the top lock button on some earlier BlackBerry smartphones.

The 9900 boasts of a 2.8-inch, 640 x 480 pixel capacitive touchscreen that is incredibly sharp thanks to BlackBerry 7 OS' Liquid Graphics technology. This is the best BlackBerry display yet. The touchscreen is very precise and responsive and the trackpad plus touchscreen combo works great. Even though I prefer QWERTY over touchscreens any day, I found myself intuitively using the touchscreen often.
I'm usually not the betting kind, but in this case, I’ll bet large amounts that the QWERTY keyboard on the Bold 9900 is the best on any smartphone. Period. In my opinion, the erstwhile Bold 9000 had the best QWERTY keyboard till date, but that great keyboard has finally been dethroned by one that's even more silky soft, slightly larger and is all-in-all, jaw-dropping amazing. Not one wrong keystroke from the get go – it's that good.


Features & Performance
As mentioned earlier, what’s inside this baby is very different from your standard BlackBerry. For years, RIM used a processor clocked at 624MHz across 3 generations of Bold devices and finally (yes, F-I-N-A-L-L-Y!), the new Bold 9900 is powered by a swift 1.2 GHz processor backed by 768 MB RAM and 8 GB of onboard memory. If you consider that its predecessor (the Bold 9780) had just 2 GB on onboard memory, you’d realise this is a drastic change for RIM, and a welcome change at that. There’s also support for up to 32GB more via micro SD. Unfortunately the card is not hot swappable, which is a step backwards for the 9900 over its predecessor.

Thanks to the snappy processor, this BlackBerry was a dream to use. Quick and responsive. Even reboots were no longer a pain in the you-know-where.

Office features for the business-person on the go

Office features for the business-person on the go

Some thanks for the boost in performance must also go to the new BlackBerry OS 7, but only some. This was originally codenamed as OS 6.1 and frankly, that’s what it is and RIM should have left it at that, but perhaps RIM marketing felt otherwise. While a definite and welcome improvement over OS 6, this is the best BlackBerry OS yet, but still has some way to go before the iOS and Android fan boys will be amazed, and that way is the QNX way, which is now on the BlackBerry PlayBook and which is expected to be the next big thing from RIM. But till then we’ll live with OS 7.

As on OS 6, you get application icon views or drawers that can be swiped vertically as well as horizontally through categories like All, Favourites, Media, Downloads and Frequent. My greatest joy is that horizontal swiping can be disabled–I found it annoying since I would keep swiping to the next category accidentally. There's also the familiar drop down notification view, which is now much faster. And of course there's Universal Search that has now been upgraded to being voice-enabled. A few updated icons are also thrown in and there's now some more choice in the Settings menu. All welcome changes, but despite these and upgraded apps I still feel giving the OS a whole new number series is a bit much. Speaking of apps, Documents to Go Premium edition now comes preloaded and there's a new BlackBerry Balance feature for business users where you can automatically separate management of work and personal data. Corporate data can be managed and wiped by BES admins, but personal data is kept separate.

Excellent audio quality

Excellent audio quality

However, OS 7 definitely seems to have some issues when it comes to backward compatibility of apps. My favourite Social app, SocialScope Lite refused to run. Even apps downloaded from the BlackBerry App World available on the 9900 (Burrp! for instance) refused to run and worse, even froze up the smartphone. I believe all apps need to be recertified for OS 7, which is not a great thing. RIM certainly needs to sort out this issue and quickly. It reminds me of the BlackBerry PlayBook application disaster that RIM has still not fixed, though this is of a much lesser intensity considering I faced this problem with only around 4-5 of the 25-plus apps on my BlackBerry. Also, disclosure must be made that I used a pre-release device—commercially available devices may not face this problem.

The 9900 also features an Orientation Sensor (Accelerometer), Digital Compass (Magnetometer) and a Proximity Sensor, which should help it take advantage of BlackBerry 7 OS support for augmented reality apps.

Media
Audio on the Bold 9900 is absolutely awesome with exquisitely clear tones and a heavy bass line without a hint of jarring and well-balanced higher and mid level tones. You’ll notice some layers you never thought existed in your favourite music. Audio Boost certainly helps with output and so do the EQ presets. However, we don't recommend peaking the volume, not that you'll ever need to. At 75 percent, the decibel level is high enough to drown out the outside world.

Liquid Graphics make for clear and easy viewing of videos

Liquid Graphics make for clear and easy viewing of videos

We also tested it with various video formats. MP4, AVI, 3GP, MOV and WMV formats worked well and it plays up to 720p. 1080p is not supported. However, the 9900 doesn't read MKV or FLV formats.

Connectivity
Browser
I'd agree with RIM's claims that this is the best browser yet on a BlackBerry. It's not very far from the best browsers in the market, and a larger screen size might have really, really brought it very close indeed, but that's out of the realm of possibility, so let's focus on the possible. There are definite performance gains in terms of web page rendering and pinch and zoom thanks to Liquid Graphics. The excellent resolution makes web pages look great. But when I zoomed in and swiped down, rendering took some time. And there's still no Flash support and that's why I'm not so gaga over some of RIM's improved browsing claims.

Pinch to zoom now avilable for web browsing

Pinch to zoom now avilable for web browsing

NFC
I’ve mentioned NFC capabilities earlier, but if you’re wondering what this is all about—NFC or Near Field Communication makes possible transactions, data exchange, and connections with a mere touch. So, you can purchase products and transfer secure information by simply touching devices. For instance, if you're in Mumbai and the Mumbai Metro finally becomes reality before the world comes to an end, you could simply take your BlackBerry close to a reader to pay for the ticket from your mobile wallet. Besides electronic money, other possibilities include file sharing, mobile gaming and more. RIM is one of the first major vendors to actually go beyond talking to deploying NFC on devices and must be commended for that.

Camera
The camera is the same 5 MP (fixed focus) one with an LED used on the 9780—the only new feature is that OS 7 now supports up to 1280 x 720 video recording. Do remember though that at those specs a 21 second video I recorded gobbled up 35 MB of storage space on my media card.

Outdoor images look ok but colors aren't retained too well

Outdoor images look ok but colors aren't retained too well

Photographs clicked in good light were decent and colours were fairly well reproduced, though it wasn’t anything to write home about. Surely RIM could have provided a camera with a higher rating on its top-of-the-line smartphone rather than use yesterday’s camera that was also available on the BlackBerry 9780.

Indoor pictures in slightly low lit conditions are grainy

Indoor pictures in slightly low lit conditions are grainy

Battery
This is another grouse. There’s nothing really wrong with the thin 1230 mAh battery, but in my opinion RIM should have gone for a thicker 1500 mAh battery like the one on the 9780 rather than sacrifice capacity in the quest for the thinnest Blackberry yet. But that’s my personal opinion. RIM claims OS 7 results in lower battery drain as compared to older OS’ despite the faster processor and the touchscreen. We put the device through our tech2 battery loop test where the first loop consisted of 1.5 hours calling, 2 hours of video, 2 hours of music playback and 2 hours of audio streaming via WiFi. At the end of this tough regimen, the battery still had enough juice to go on standby for 6.5 hours before it finally went dead.

I used the 9900 over BES and as my primary calling device, and it lasted me around a day. We reckon it should last around 24 hours with full usage that would include BIS or BES (push e-mail), BBM use, social networking and web access with a little music thrown in.
That’s definitely not bad at all. But imagine what a 1500 mAh battery would do? That’s my only grouse.

The Bottom Line
Yes, this is the best BlackBerry out there and finally something that puts RIM’s offering on par with the best when it comes to a simple spec-to-spec shootout. Of course, BlackBerry fans know specs are not everything—there’s the legendary messaging capabilities, the fearsome security that has governments across the world trying to arm-twist RIM to give them access to the otherwise unbreakable encryption, the unmatched data optimisation and compression strengths (which is why if you receive the same e-mail messages and surf the same websites, your data bill will be lower if you use a BlackBerry as compared to other devices).

Sophisticated and ready for work or play

Sophisticated and ready for work or play

So, when you put together the looks, the specs, the performance and the price of Rs 32,490 (MRP), you have a great combination. Yes, there are niggles like the dated camera and my wish for a 1500 mAh battery, but when compared with the whole package, they seem small. The Bold 9900 is the top-of-the-line BlackBerry and overall, it lives up to the iconic Bold brand. I expect to see this smartphone flying off the shelves. If you’re in the market for a top-end smartphone, do give this one a good look and if you’re a BlackBerry fan, well, you’d go buy it anyway because there’s no other BlackBerry better than this one.

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