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Return to BlackBerry – A Bold User Experience

Full Circle

My cellphone pants pocket has come full circle over the course of a year and a half. Back then, I was sporting an iPhone 3G, and got my hands on an early retail BlackBerry Bold. My comparison concluded with a preference for the iPhone, citing my consumer leanings, and some serious drawbacks to the mapping application and smaller display of the Bold.

BlackBerry

Over the course of the past year, I grew extremely frustrated with the iPhone’s touchscreen typing (I am atrocious at it, even with its great error correction), and moved on to a Nokia E71. I spent a good 9 months with that phone, before I swapped over to an HTC Touch Pro2. The Nokia provided me a return to the physical keypad and I loved it, but at the same time, I wasn’t very pleased with the lower resolution display. The TP2 had a fantastic 3.6″ WVGA touchscreen display (800×480) plus a giant physical keypad.

In a bout of prescience, I had commented in that iPhone – Bold comparison that HTC’s TouchFlo 3D looked great, but would be worthless if it came at the cost of a lot of performance. The TP2 was a dog of a performer, requiring regular reboots to keep in a good working state. Integration with Exchange was fantastic and MyPhone was a great feature, never leaving me worried about the synchronization state of my computer’s and phone’s contact lists.

My focus on a physical keypad was based on a significantly higher ratio of written communication than ever before. I get on average 10-15 emails per day and go through around 10 text messages in that same time-span. That reliance on email made me reconsider the BlackBerry once more (I had used a BlackBerry Curve for quite some time). A friend recently purchased a BlackBerry Bold 9000, and showed me how the platform was “just getting good when you left it“, as he put it.

So I bought a used BlackBerry Bold.

In Use

I’ve been using the Bold for the past two weeks, with a Rogers BIS data plan. Email has been much more reliable than the Touch Pro2 (I  now receive them on in prompt fashion) and the device itself is far, far more responsive. I immediately loaded BlackBerry OS5.0.411 (Swedish 3 network version, not the Bell version) onto the device, and combined with the Reverie D theme with transitions, the interface is sublime to use. Screens fade in and out without the least bit of hesitation. Things load faster than anything else I’ve used, and just as I noted even 1.5 years ago.

BlackBerry Bold 9000

The keyboard, while not nearly as large as the one on the TP2, is fantastic to use. The keys have positive action, and a nice soft click when depressed. The slight ridges on the keys make typing very accurate, despite the size. I’m finding myself belting out more emails and text messages on the go than ever before. I always needed to slide up the screen of the TP2 to expose the keypad before I could really use that device to write anything. The candy-bar format makes this more convenient.

Furthermore, the Bold 9000 is built like a tank. The fake leather backing feels great in the hand, yet at the same time resists normal day-to-day wear, unlike the iPhone’s scratch-prone surface. Not unlike the iPhone’s monolithic bulk, the Bold also has no creaks or groans during use. I popped in an 8GB microSD card, and with the included 3.5mm audio jack, I can listen to some music on the go too. The screen isn’t glass-covered, and there are a couple  hairline scratches on this used copy, but it seems like even moderate care should prevent any serious damage to it. The TP2’s resistive screen on the other hand seemed extremely delicate. Over the short while I used it, it developed several scratches on the screen. And I take care of my gadgets. All in all, a very positive feeling for the Bold’s durability. I have no worries using it anywhere.

BlackBerry Bold 9000

Browsing on the device is decent, not great. The browser that comes with OS5.0 seems capable of handling most any site I visit, with the exception of my university’s online course materials portal. Then again, an iPhone doesn’t do well on that site either. While the screen is far smaller than the iPhone or the TP2, the resolution is on par with the iPhone’s (480×320), and text looks extremely crisp on the Bold. Cramming that many pixels into this (relatively) small display creates a very vibrant, detailed experience. My previous experience with the Bold involved some frustrating time with BlackBerry Maps. I didn’t bother loading it up this time, instead opting for the free Google Maps application. On 3G, tile loading rates are good and GPS works just fine and dandy.

To top things off, I purchased a BlackBerry charging pod, which I now use as my alarm clock. It sits on my desk and I simply plop the Bold into it when I come home. It turns into a big digital clock, and I’m able to set as many different alarms as I want via the calendar. This works great as I have morning classes on Mon-Wed-Fri, but still want to wake up at a decent hour on the other days of the week. The dock looks fantastic, provides an extra bit of functionality, and ensures that my phone is always charged. Well worth the investment.

BlackBerry Bold 9000 in dock

Speaking of charged, battery life has been solid. Over the course of a normal day from 9am through 9pm, usage includes around 10 text messages, 10 minutes in calls, 20 minutes of web browsing, 20-30 minutes of Brick Breaker, some time on Google Talk, and 4 email accounts being pushed, with 3G and Wifi enabled, the phone runs down to about 70% battery. On another run over 3 days, with one day of heavier use (on par or more than the above scenario) and two of light use, always with the 4 push email accounts, the battery ran down to 15%, at which point I got a low battery indicator. Overall, very good.

But not all is hunky dory. With only BIS through Rogers, I am unable to sync my contacts and calendar over the air with my computers, without some crazy proxies in between (such as using Google Calendar). Furthermore, I have a hosted Exchange server, which syncs my desktop and laptop. With the Touch Pro2, that also meant I could use ActiveSync to sync my phone. Microsoft MyPhone also gave me a backup option, even if there was no Exchange. With the BlackBerry, neither of these options exist without BES. A real bummer. Perhaps Mike Lazaridis’ announcement on Tuesday will address this pretty key drawback.

Wrap

After 1.5 years, I find myself back with a Bold, except this time, it’s mine and I’m loving it. The level of importance I place upon reliable communications has risen over the years, and the BlackBerry platform just makes sense for me right now. The Bold 9000 is snappy and responsive and performs its key competencies, email and communications, just so very well. The QWERTY keypad is fantastic to use, the form factor is good, and BrickBreaker’s pretty darn entertaining. It’s not a multimedia powerhouse like the iPhone or other touchscreen devices, but all I need is a cursory music player, and it has that.

BlackBerry Bold 9000

If Research in Motion would go ahead and give me OTA sync of my calendar and contacts with an Exchange server or some other cloud service, without the need for BES, I’ll be very content indeed.

Windows Phone 7 will be shown off tomorrow morning, and I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen so far at Microsoft. I’ll be waiting with great anticipation for actual shipping hardware. Until then, the Bold will be in my pocket.

Telus BlackBerry Storm Hands-On

As I promised earlier this week, I did some more extended hands on time with the BlackBerry Storm, now that it has been released by Telus. The firmware installed on the device was 4.7.0.76, which seems to be one point ahead of Verizon’s recent firmware release.

BlackBerry Storm firmware 4.7.0.76

The device I played with at a Telus ‘roadshow’ was a preproduction unit; it even had the Research In Motion property sticker on the back. The retail device I used earlier this week probably had a newer firmware as it felt significantly faster and more responsive. The portrait-to-landscape rotations were very quick, far quicker than my iPhone, if I might say so. There was very little delay between clicking on an application and it actually opening. Scrolling through the main menu was smooth. I didn’t get a chance to check out the browser as the device wasn’t activated at the time. In general, the device felt pretty snappy, although the lack of animated transitions in some parts made the experience less polished than on the iPhone.

BlackBerry Storm versus Apple iPhone 3G

The device itself feels amazing in the hand. The combination of the rubbery sides and brushed metal back is luxurious and the heft of the device lends an air of robustness. It feels like an expensive device. It looks good, although when sitting next to the iPhone, it’s easy to see that it hasn’t quite matched it in terms of industrial design. I’m certain the iPhone will appeal to consumers more from an aesthetic point of view. On the other hand, the Storm still looks professional, despite being one of the more consumer-oriented devices from Research in Motion.

Now onto the input. A few of the people at the office hadn’t read much about the SurePress display and didn’t realize it was clickable. Others, who knew about some sort of click mechanism, thought it was a localized depression of the screen, so upon finding that the entire display moved, they were a bit disconcerted. There’s no tactile expectation for touchscreen devices and although the SurePress mechanism is a great idea, it may actually end up confusing some users.

BlackBerry Storm keyboard

This time, I was able to really analyze the typing characteristics of the Storm and boy, it’s tiring. Because the screen doesn’t rebound from a press very quickly, one automatically puts more force into the screen. In addition, to ensure all presses are registered, the typing on the Storm becomes very disjointed. There’s no flow. Normally with something like a Curve, the thumbs can press keys in rapid succession, with keypresses overlapping slightly. Here, that isn’t possible. Even with other touchscreen devices, such as the iPhone, because there is no distinct rebound of the screen, it’s relatively easy to type at a quick rate. It’s very difficult with the Storm.

BlackBerry Storm menu

I also noticed some ‘play’ in the screen itself. It was slightly loose and could be moved back and forth. That makes me worry about the longevity of the mechanism itself.

In terms of multimedia, while the user interface isn’t quite as slick as the iPhone’s, the media player is quite competent, with large album art displays and simply controls. Video playback is very fluid and clear. There’s no sign of artifacting or tearing on the 480×360 resolution display. Telus includes an 8GB microSD card in the retail package so you’re off to a good start for media storage.

BlackBerry Storm music interface

RIM also incorporated a 3.2MP camera with the Storm. This is the first auto-focusing camera module RIM has put in a BlackBerry, meaning pictures turn out significantly better than with previous devices.

BlackBerry Storm

Although I had plenty more time with the Storm this time around, my conclusions are much the same. With the shipping firmware, the device is snappy, looks great and has a big screen to rival the latest touchscreen devices. The idea behind SurePress is great, but in practice, the rebound speed of the screen is simply too slow, which makes the typing experience tiring. As a result, what had the potential to be a great competitor to the iPhone, turns out to have one of any BlackBerries’ most important features, the keyboard, compromised.

Typing on the BlackBerry Storm

I had a very brief hands on with a BlackBerry Storm last weekend at a Telus ‘roadshow’. The first touchscreen BlackBerry has been hyped pretty hard, so it had a heck of a lot to live up to.

Let’s just get it out of the way: yep, a bit disappointing. Now, I spent only around 10 minutes trying out the SurePress interface system and came away somewhat worried about the execution. The idea is absolutely marvelous and accuracy seemed more than fine (I was pleasantly surprised how nice it felt overall), but the rebound of the screen was a bit slow, limiting the speed at which you can type. I think this is the main issue many reviewers are coming upon, even if they don’t identify it as such. The ‘unresponsive’ description of the touchscreen has to do with the fact that a second action is attempted before the screen ‘resets’ itself. Think trying to double-click your mouse too quickly. Is this a big deal? Yeah, it sure can be. Perhaps RIM needs to consider an option to disable SurePress and let it function as with most other touchscreens, with the select and execute actions rolled into a single touch.

Some reviews and extended hands-on comments have said given time, one gets used to the new input method. I have no doubt of that. But the question for me is whether ‘gets used to’ is enough to actually enjoy using the device. I don’t want something I simply tolerate. I should be able to get an extended try-out with the Storm sometime this week or next, so hopefully I’ll be able to see if one indeed gets used to SurePress to make it a breeze to use.

One thing’s for sure; I’m looking for the device that melds the email and business features of the BlackBerry and the big-display usefulness of the iPhone. I need some more time to see if the Storm is the device I’m looking for.

BlackBerry Bold and iPhone 3G Comparison

Introduction

First of all, let me be clear, this isn’t intended to be a full-blown review of every single little feature and function of the BlackBerry Bold. There are plenty of great, in-depth reviews of the Bold: CrackBerry, APC Mag, and more. Instead, I’m looking at this from a previous Curve and current iPhone user. I haven’t been very happy with the iPhone, especially its worse-than-mediocre wireless performance, and I wanted to see what else was out there that could replace it. After looking around, the Bold came out as the most probable candidate, given my happy history with the Curve.

BlackBerry Bold
What’s in that case?

I was lucky to get the opportunity to use a Bold for a day. This comparison tackles the larger usability points and looks at the fundamental differences between the iPhone and the Bold to see which is better suited for my use.

A Beautiful Device

BlackBerries may be traditionally thought of as ‘suit’ devices – very business-like and serious – but with Research in Motion focusing more and more on the vast consumer market, device design has vaulted up its list of priorities. The Bold is without a doubt the best-looking BlackBerry to date; I’ve used a Curve extensively and played with an 8830 on end. The chrome (plastic) ring around the device works well with the otherwise black design. The large menu and call/hang-up keys feel far more integrated into the design, as opposed to the chrome-y stubs that adorned the 8300 and 8800 series.

BlackBerry Bold

The fake leather back actually feels much harder than it might appear in photos. I half expected the soft touch of real leather (or at least some decent pleather). You certainly won’t mistake the feel of plastic for leather. It does however prevent the device from sliding around on a desk unlike the bulbous, glossy backed iPhone 3G. It also won’t show scratches, unlike other glossy phones. Great for business types who would rather worry about the meeting with the CEO rather than scratches on their phone.

BlackBerry Bold
It’s not as soft as it might look.

The Bold is a bit thicker than the iPhone 3G, but remains a pretty thin device. The chrome trim adds to overall width, but makes it feel far thinner than it actually is. The rest of the back curves in beneath the border, disappearing in the palm of your hand. The iPhone is definitely a bit easier to hold, simply due to the width differences. I still have a bit of muscle memory from the Curve and it’s a pretty big step up in width to the Bold. In comparison, the Bold feels a bit better than the 8800 series, which is just as wide, but doesn’t have the sloping back to make it feel thinner.

BlackBerry Bold and iPhone comparison

The Bold’s screen is beautiful. The Bold and iPhone both have 480×320 pixel resolution displays, but the Bold crams those pixels into a much smaller display, making it a bit crisper. A compromise had to be made to fit a hardware keyboard. It’s a trade-off between the larger, more usable display of the iPhone and the smaller, but sharper display of the Bold. Still, the iPhone’s display is still quite clear, so I’d go with the larger display in this case. Still, that doesn’t take anything away from the quality of the Bold’s screen.

BlackBerry Bold and iPhone comparison

BlackBerry Storm Launched! It’s a Good’n

The new BlackBerry Storm is absolutely drool-worthy and the early hands-on previews have been overwhelmingly positive. I’m already lusting for this device, but we’ll have to see when it comes to Rogers (whenever a North American 3GSM version comes along I guess). On the other hand, I’ve had two people (who’ve had face time with the device) comment to me that the Storm’s not terribly impressive so I’m not sure what to think. Is it a true iPhone competitor or it is just another half-assed attempt to copy the touchscreen formula? I’m hoping for the former.

RIM Disappoints, Or Does It?

It looks like even Research in Motion is being dragged down into the abyss of the financial meltdown (oh, did I mention Washington Mutual is the latest to go under?). Earnings for the Q2’09 were released earlier this evening and with the lowered margins and earnings forecast, the stock got a 20% haircut, down to $78.60US in after hours trading. I’ll point out why I think the sell-off was way overdone and why I think it’s a good time to buy.

First off, the big worry is the headline 47% gross margin forecast for the next quarter, which is a pretty big drop from the 51.3% last year and 50.7% in the most recent quarter. I’ll be blunt. Up to this point, and to and extent even now, it’s been easy sales and money for Research in Motion. In the business crowd that has been RIM’s core market for many years, there simply isn’t another option. There are certainly a few iPhones here and there amongst business users, but now more than ever I see the prevalence of the BlackBerry as I take my morning walk to work. There’s no comparison. It’s almost as if every decently dressed person is holding a BlackBerry.

With 3G devices becoming more prevalent, RIM will certainly face higher component prices. In addition, with the touchscreen Storm/Thunder looming, there are other more expensive components adding to the overall cost. But RIM still has pricing power. Many predicted that the Bold would come in at a lower price than usual to compete against the iPhone 3G, but it didn’t. Yet they still sell out at Rogers. The push towards the consumer market has meant lower average sale prices, but that’s with the result of vastly higher sales numbers. As stated in the earnings report, top line growth is expected to be even better than analysts expect, $2.95B to $3.1B for the next quarter, versus consensus of $2.9B. Sales aren’t the problem.

That’s why I found it hilarious that Jim Goldman wrote something of a self-confirmation article, entitled ‘Apple IS the Issue at RIM‘, regarding RIM’s earnings report. The premise of the article is that the nearly $380 million in sales and marketing expenses combined with the weak earnings forecast shows that RIM is struggling to compete against the iPhone. He also goes on to state that the $380 million figure was ‘an enormous figure no one was counting on‘. Wrong. RIM has clearly been putting more efforts into targeting the BlackBerry at non-business users. This past quarter, RIM launched the multimillion dollar ‘Life on BlackBerry‘ campaign, and for the first time, I’ve been seeing BlackBerry commercials on TV. Given that the sales and marketing expense for the first quarter was already at nearly $330 million, I don’t think $380 million was such a shock to most, well, except Mr. Goldman it would seem. RIM is expanding its brand outside of business. Surprisingly, many classmates I’ve talked to actually want a BlackBerry more than an iPhone. That’s saying a heck of a lot. The visibility is working.

I’m happy to see RIM increase its marketing efforts and expenses, as long as its growing sales at a proportionate rate, which it is. Margins will no doubt will be pressured by lower ASPs to the precise market they’re targeting, but sales growth is very resilient, even in light of the current economic troubles. At under $80, we’re talking about a sub-20 P/E, rapid-growth company. It looks like speculators pushing the stock rather than fundamentals, and I believe one Warren Buffet has made a killing investing in irrationally beat down companies.

iPhone 3G Is Mine

I broke. Not only did I shell out for an 8GB iPhone 3G this past Monday, I ended up getting the $30/month for 6GB data plan with Rogers. Rogers now owns me for another 3 years of bill-paying fun, and I’ve converted myself to just one more mindless Apple zombie.

And it sure feels good.

Apple iPhone 3G

The Apple iPhone 3G – now with… 3G

The device is certainly not without faults, it has plenty of them, but when all is said and done, it reaches a level of polish and integration I haven’t found on any of the devices I’ve owned or used.

I’ve had plenty of hands on time with the first generation iPhone; friends and classmates were quick to pick them up for unlocking. From day one, I was impressed with the interface and usability of the device, but never considered the device due to relatively slow wireless speeds and horrible Rogers data plans. I didn’t want to go through the hassle for a glorified iPod. It was the combination of the $30/month for 6GB data plan that Rogers started offering and 3G support in the iPhone that pushed me over the edge.

Apple iPhone 3G
A great screen. It has the uncanny ability to look like a printed picture.

Data performance is to the point that browsing is more than simply tolerable. Coupled with the Safari browser, I think this is about as good as it gets (currently) for HTML web on something this small. Google Maps gets a huge boost with the assisted GPS feature. Being able to whip out a map to search for anything without fear of a $100 overage bill at the end of the month is liberating.

Another enticing feature is the Apps Store. I’m certainly a tech/gadget enthusiast and didn’t shy away from searching out good software for my previous devices, but I’m finding my free time to do so is starting to dwindle. Having a ton of applications all available in one location is super convenient. Streaming radio from Last.fm? Yes, please (although I fear for the battery life consequences). Of course there’s the video and music capabilities of the iPhone, but I’m more inclined to carry around my Zune for that purpose. I hardly want to waste the battery life on that…

Apple iPhone 3G
Ooooooo, shiny.

Which leads me to the bads. Battery life is far from impressive. I’ve been spoiled by the awesome battery life of the BlackBerry Curve. Even with push email and moderate voice use, I can usually get through most of a work week. My initial testing of the iPhone has yielded far lower, to the tune of less than 2 days. The last time I had to recharge the iPhone (less than 10% battery warning), the usage counter in Settings showed that I had used the phone for 4 hours between charges, along with 1 day and 16 hours of standby. Granted I’m still in the introductory stage of trying out random features and generally taxing the device more than typical usage, it’s still disappointing. It’s going to have to be connected to a charger pretty much every day. I understand that 3G inevitably eats up more battery than EDGE/GPRS (as can be seen with other 3G phones as well), but with an all-in-one device, battery life is even more important.

The lack of push email is also mildly disconcerting, but understandable given I just switched from a BlackBerry. Without something like Exchange or MobileMe, the best one can do is to set the iPhone to poll for emails every 15 minutes. Of course, that isn’t very friendly on the battery, which ties into the previous point. Additionally, the vibrate notifier is terribly weak. Again, I’ve been spoiled by my BlackBerry’s veritable earthquake of a notification, but I’ve already missed calls because I simply didn’t realize the phone was vibrating. I almost always keep my phone on silent, given I’m in class and other discrete locations for much of my day, so this is a big deal.

I’d also be remiss not to clearly point out that this specific iPhone will be going back to Rogers for a replacement. Pieces of glue and rubbery material were flaking out from the right side of the screen when I carefully inspected it after I took the iPhone back home from the store. Rogers with its characteristically amazing service (note: I’m being sarcastic) led me to visit the physical store twice and call into customer care/relations/tech support/the physical store 4 times before finally arranging a replacement. I was passed back and forth like a soccer ball for 3 days on end before reaching some form of resolution to the issue.

But is it worth it overall? My current response is yes. I’m loving the almost ubiquitous (and more importantly, usable) data connection.

BlackBerry Bold – Brief Hands On Impressions

One of the joys of going to school in Waterloo, home of Research in Motion, is the opportunity to see just about every new BlackBerry device before they’re publicly available. A couple days ago, I finally got my hands on a BlackBerry Bold. I only had a few minutes with it, but I was able to test out most of the defining feature differences in the Bold. If you’re looking for a detailed breakdown and review with tons of photos, I’ll unhesitatingly point you to CrackBerry.com. However, if you’re looking for another person’s impressions, read on.

Upon holding the device, the two most obvious differences from the Curve are the display and the width. I use a Curve and after handling both of them, one after another, I felt that the Bold was distinctly wider. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I had no trouble holding onto the device. One handed operation may be slightly more difficult (I can reach the opposite side of the Curve with my thumb without issue, but the added 5mm or so could make a difference).

Of all the mobile devices I’ve used, the Bold’s display is most comparable to the iPhone’s in quality. The display is much closer to the protective covering over it than most devices, making the screen look more like an image than an actual display. The iPhone’s display also has this effect. Furthermore, the higher screen resolution (480×320) is evident even in the menu. Don’t expect anything too fancy in terms of the OS. Option menus are still mainly text-based.

I was a bit worried about the Bold’s keypad when I first saw leaked images. After hearing horror stories about the BlackBerry 8800’s keypad, I expected the worst from the Bold. However, after punching out a couple lines of text on the device, I come away with the opinion that either 8800 users were grossly exaggerating the issue or the Bold’s keypad is not like the 8800’s at all. If anything, I liked it a bit more than my Curve’s keypad. The grouped keys don’t exhibit the slight wiggle of the Curve’s keys. Additionally, both the trackball’s and keys’ presses are a bit more cushioned than with the Curve. Where there’s a distinct ‘click’ with the Curve, the Bold’s feels more refined and firm. I like it. The call, menu, back, and end buttons are also much improved from the small-ish size on the Curve.

I didn’t get a chance to try out the browser, but I was told that it features a significantly improved browsing experience. As well, navigating through the menu and starting/switching applications felt snappier. I didn’t see any loading animations and  starting the camera module took only about a second. The device itself also felt very solid. There were absolutely no creaks in the casing (it had a smooth battery cover, not the advertised ‘pleather’ pattern), despite being a pre-production unit. The 8800/Curve was a big styling step from the 8700 series and prior models and the Bold takes it to the next level.

So, what’s the final word? I’m seriously considering an upgrade from my Curve to the Bold. Throwing together the significantly improved display, faster processor, and new OS, the Bold is a significant change over the Curve, despite being of a similar form factor. Anyone looking for a well taken care of BlackBerry 8310? 😉

BlackBerry 9000 Bold Launched. I Want.

Research in Motion is my equivalent of Apple for most other people. I attentively read all the news and gossip that appear about rumoured devices and although their product line isn’t quite as varied as Apple’s, it just makes those product announcements all the more sweet.

So after reading several indepth reviews of the BlackBerry 9000 over at CrackBerry.com, I was getting mighty excited for the launch of the BlackBerry Bold today at WES2008.

Overall feeling? I want. Now, how can I justify one after only a couple months with the Curve…?

Update: Okay, a couple people (real life as opposed to web) have asked me why I’d want to upgrade from a Curve. Well, for me, it’s a combination of the much higher resolution display (hands-on opinions of the display have been phenomenal), new OS4.6, which includes a significantly improved web browser and probably HTML email support, improved performance, and Wi-Fi.