T-Mobile BlackBerry Bold 9700 Review

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Every few months RIM manages to bring to market a new BlackBerry that remedies minor flaws to the OS from previous iterations with updated hardware that’s both gorgeous and functional. The Bold 9700 is no different, but the latest flagship model still isn’t what it should be while managing to be the best BlackBerry to come out of Waterloo. A very conflicting statement, we know.

At first glance, you’ll notice a lean and mean Bold in a much smaller package than its predecessor. To the untrained eye, the 9700 looks like the Curve 8900 or the Tour that’s available from Sprint and Verizon. The Bold 9700 is sans trackball and taking its place is an optical trackpad, which first showed up on the Curve 8520. It offers a more natural method of navigating the UI and Web pages. The microUSB charging port resides on the left side of the device along with the 3.5mm headset jack and customizable convenience key. The right side also has a customizable convenience key, which defaults as the camera button and volume up/down. The mute and power on/off buttons inhabit the top of the device and protrude above the faux chrome frame making them easier to access and activate.

(Check out TIME’s Tech Buyer’s Guide 2009)

Unlike the battery cover on the 8900, the 9700’s faux leather battery cover fits perfectly with zero wiggle. It’s a much tighter design. Under the cover, RIM redesigned the microSD memory card port to sit above the battery and below the camera at angle.

The keyboard looks quite a bit like that of the Tour, but it’s a hybrid between that and the first generation Bold. Keys are slanted just enough that they’re distinguishable from each other without ever having to look down while typing. Very little sound emanates from each keystroke making it easier to type when friends or colleauges would otherwise call you out. It’s as close to perfect as you can get.

The screen. Oh, the 2.44-inch screen! If there’s one thing that RIM has done well with black and chrome BlackBerrys of late it’s the crisp high-resolution 480×360 screens. The 8900 and Bold both have rather thin and flimsy screens, but RIM decided to go with a hard plastic screen on the 9700. The blacks are black and the colors are ridiculously vibrant. It’s absolutely stunning.

Like previous camera equipped BlackBerrys, the Bold 9700’s 3.2-megapixel camera works about as well, if not better, than most camera phones available today. Auto-focus seems a lot faster than our Curve 8900 and snaps photos at a faster rate. Nothing negative to say here, so let’s move on.

(See TIME’s 50 Best Inventions of 2009).

Believe it or not, the battery life on the 9700 blows every other 3G device away. We pulled the 9700 off the charger Friday night and just now (11/16 at 6:15PM ET) plugged it in for juice. Mileage will vary, but light Web browsing, a handful of phone calls and heavy BlackBerry Messenger have not affected battery life significantly. We used very little Wi-Fi and we all know that this will dramatically deteriorate battery life, but take it for what it’s worth. The same usage pattern on the iPhone 3GS would have left us dead in the water by Saturday afternoon. Looks as though there’s a reason why every BlackBerry device has a different battery. Kudos to you, RIM.

But it does make phone calls? Yes it does. Unlike AT&T, T-Mobile’s 3G network rarely drops calls, but the caveat is that it’s not as widespread as AT&T or Verizon or even Sprint.

It’s unclear which processor powers the 9700, but it’s fast. Faster than any BlackBerry before it. Going from one application to another is seamless with little to no delay.

(See TIME’s Must-Have Travel Gadgets for 2009)

The Bold 9700 has built-in Wi-Fi (802.11b/g), which is common among the majority of smartphones available today. What sets the T-Mobile flavor of the 9700 apart from the AT&T version is support for UMA. This allows users to seamlessly switch between T-Mobile’s network and saved wireless networks. If you find yourself overseas quite often then do yourself a favor and pick up the T-Mobile version of the 9700. You’ll save yourself from having a heart attack when getting your bill the next month. Data and voice protocols will simply run over Wi-Fi instead of over foreign networks.

It’s a well known fact that BlackBerrys are notorious for having terrible browsers and the 9700 is no different. Most will find it sufficient enough, but compared to Safari on the iPhone and the webKit-based browsers found on Android devices and Palm webOS devices, the 9700 falls short. Even with T-Mobile’s 3G network behind it, the 9700’s browser comes to a complete halt when rendering pages like TIME.com or the NYT. RIM really needs to put the development of their webKit browser on the fast track or they’ll end up falling even further behind than they already are.

Lastly, we’ll touch on v5.0 of the BlackBerry OS. It’s a vast improvement from previous builds, if only cosmetically. Text messages are now formatted like IM conversations and just hitting the enter key will send your text message to its recipient. It’s more refined and doesn’t make us think that RIM just slapped some high-res icons over their aging OS.

The Bold 9700 is unequivocally the best BlackBerry to date. It’s the perfect hybrid between the original Bold, Curve 8900 and Tour. While RIM is making considerable leaps from iteration to iteration, they must fix the Web browser among other things. Developers tend to steer clear of the platform because there are so many different versions of the OS floating around. It’s hard to develop for one specific version when every BlackBerry device runs a different version. RIM really needs to take a page from Apple and reduce the number of varying models and standardize the OS to run across all devices. With that being said, the Bold 9700 is definitely the best BlackBerry available. It’s available today from T-Mobile for $199.99. AT&T will release its 9700 on 11/22.

More on Time.com:

Photos: Inventors and their Inventions

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