BlackBerry Review – Smartphone Round Robin
Those of you who read this site generally come here for coverage of all things Nokia, but as you know I am a part of the Smartphone Round Robin this year and we are looking at the five other platforms for the next five weeks. As you know this week I am looking at the RIM BlackBerry platfom, with a focus on the BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Storm2. I consider myself a pretty well-rounded smartphone user and have dabbled in the BlackBerry world from time-to-time, but it was great to spend time with the extremely knowledgeable Kevin Michaluk from CrackBerry.com a couple of weeks ago and find out more about the BB platform that I would like to share with you all below. So let’s take a look at some hardware, the OS, some capabilities/functionality, a comparison to S60 and Maemo, and my closing thoughts before we move onto another platform next week.
Hardware: Storm2 and Bold 9700
I spent a bit of time with both devices at the Smartphone Round Robin event, but not enough to be an expert on both of them. For real in-depth reviews, I recommend you check out the reviews on CrackBerry.com for the BlackBerry Bold 9700 and BlackBerry Storm 2. That said, I do have some impressions from a heavy Nokia user that may interest you and mirror some of your findings if you pick up a BlackBerry and give it a go.
This device is the second generation in RIM’s touchscreen lineup and I have to say I found it to be much improved over the Storm1. I tried the Storm1 and honestly had to put it back in the back after about 15 minutes and send it back to RIM since it was just a very frustrating experience with a display that moved too much and required completely distinct presses to enter text. I understand that the Storm2 improves upon the original Storm with a new display technology, WiFi radio added, increased memory capacity and response, and a better camera. When I first held the Storm2, as shown in my video, I was pretty amazed by the way the touch screen does nothing when it is off and then magically turns on and is pressable when the display is turned on. Kevin told me it uses four capacitors to enable the touchscreen and I have to say it works MUCH better than the first generation product as it allows simultaneous presses as well.
The Storm2 felt very solid and had that expected rugged BlackBerry feel to it. The camera seemed to take decent photos and video, nothing like a Nokia, so you could capture things on the go. The large high resolution display was very nice for viewing video content. I actually wonder where RIM can go with their touchscreen lineup next since this device pretty much has it all.
BlackBerry Bold 9700
I actually purchased an AT&T Bold just over a year ago and thought it had the best QWERTY keyboard on any smartphone at the time, but the device was quite wide and I couldn’t get over the lack of Exchange support. IMHO, the Bold 9700 is a nicer device than the Bold because it is much more pocketable, has an optical touchpad instead of a trackball, has a nice 3.2 megapixel camera, and has a slightly higher resolution (though smaller) display.
The 624 MHz inside this device makes it fly and I never saw any lag in using the device. I was just getting used to the trackball on BB and Android devices and now see that RIM is switching to an optical touchpad. I understand from talking with Kevin that the trackball has been an issue with many BlackBerry devices and replacement balls are one of the biggest sellers in the CrackBerry.com store. The touchpad offers a navigation method with no physical rotating mechanism and should require less maitenance. I was actually surprised how much I liked the touchpad and how responsive I found it to be compared to a trackball. I believe that people will prefer it over the trackball.
The keyboard is nicely designed and angled and RIM does have some nice shortcuts included in the OS. However, I don’t like that you have to press the alternate button to enter a @, period, comma, and question mark. The Nokia E71 is setup better for these common symbols and I wish RIM would setup their keyboards a bit better in this regards.
Again, like in the Storm2 I wonder what else RIM can do with a front facing QWERTY device since this Bold 9700 seems to have it all in an almost perfect form factor that seems to be optimized for all the specifications. I think the changes we will see are in the operating system rather than the hardware so let’s move on to my take on the RIM BlackBerry OS.
Operating system: RIM BlackBerry 5.x
Similar to what we have seen with the S60 platform, there looks to be very little that has changed over the year in the BlackBerry OS. We went from seeing 4.x devices to 5.x devices and like S60 3rd Edition Feature Pack 2 and S60 5th Edition there were lots of backend tweaks and performance improvements with some minor usability and other improvements. It may not have looked like much physically, but tweaking things to make them more stabile and functional is always a good thing and really if it isn’t broken then why mess too much with it.
The BlackBerry platform has always focused on messaging as its key feature and honestly it does it VERY well. I was particularly impressed with the BlackBerry Messenger client/service that Kevin showed me as I personally have never tried this myself. With review devices in the past, I never took the steps to get myself associated with a PIN on a particular device since I knew I had to send it back after a couple of weeks. BB Messenger is a powerful and capable messaging solution and I can honestly see why people will stick with the BlackBerry platform just to keep using this feature.
We have seen BlackBerry doing extremely well in North America these past few years and I think a large part of that success is their cross carrier availability and focus on improving consumer experiences. The most popular BlackBerry devices roll out on all four major US wireless carriers so you aren’t really too limited by your carrier choice. RIM has also added some decent cameras, beautiful high resolution displays, attractive designs, and better media playback to appeal to consumers. RIM also makes the out-of-the box and out-of-the store experience painless for customers who are required to have a data plan with the device that gets them their email without any real effort on the part of the consumer. I have seen a ton of soccer moms using BlackBerry devices this year because it is easy and just works.
We also see this year that RIM launched the BlackBerry App World so discovering and installing new 3rd party apps is an enjoyable experience right from your BlackBerry device. I was pretty impressed by the number and quality of software offerings in the App World too.
Like most mobile operating systems today, the BlackBerry OS is very icon/shortcut driven so that selecting an icon launches an application. Similar to what we see on S60 you can organize these application shortcuts in folders and on the menu screen to your liking. You can install apps to customize your standby screen and also wallpaper the background to your liking. You will find the BlackBerry platform very similar to S60 in terms of interface elements and customizability.
Multitasking is supported on BlackBerry devices and from what I saw it is handled quite well by the OS. I didn’t get a chance to discover how to quickly switch between running apps or discover the task manager so I can’t talk about how this works at the moment.
I actually hated the Options area on the BlackBerry devices and it seems like there is no real organization or sense made to what is going on here. Then again, I think much of the same can be said of S60 and the options/settings we see on our devices as well. I know that it is probably only the real smartphone geeks that get into this area, but it sure would be nice to see a bit more sense made out of it.
Coming from the Nokia S60 platform where you can install apps onto local integrated memory or onto any external storage card, I found it interesting that BlackBerry apps all get stored into an internal memory area with your expansion memory card primarily serving as a media storage area. With the focus on apps today and the new BlackBerry App World I wonder if power users are hitting the limit of loaded applications on BlackBerry devices and wonder if this restriction will ever be lifted. Then again, from what my experiences with BlackBerry the OS has a ton of capability loaded by default and is very capable.
While I appreciate that RIM released a touchscreen device, I still find their hardware QWERTY devices to be the real strength of the platform and what most people associate with the name BlackBerry. If you are looking for a hardware QWERTY device, then there isn’t much better than the BlackBerry platform if you can live with the BlackBerry Internet Service or BlackBerry Exchange Server. In the past when I tried to own a BlackBerry I had issues popping my SIM out and putting it into one of my unlocked Nokia devices because the SIM was provisioned for BB service. I also have an Exchange server at work and since I work at a small company they will not be paying for a BES anytime soon. Thus, I find I am limited to email over the Outlook Web Access (OWA) method and cannot sync calendar and contacts without cabling to a PC and using the BlackBerry desktop manager. These are my two primary issues for not having a BlackBerry device in my collection.
Like Nokia, BlackBerry devices are durable and seem to handle drops and bumps quite well. This appeals to those who want a smartphone, but don’t want to worry about babying it either. They want something that works all the time. I also understand that BlackBerry devices have long battery life and this appeals to most people as well.
S60 and Maemo comparisons with BlackBerry
If I switched from a S60 device to a BlackBerry device I would gain BlackBerry Messenger and access to more common apps, but I don’t see much else compared to a device like the Nokia E71. I would lose a better browsing experience, fairly functional Exchange integration, and high quality media capture capability. Due to lack of usage, I can’t comment on the BlackBerry phone call quality or RF reception, but we all know that is a huge strength with Nokia S60 devices. As you can see, the RIM BlackBerry OS and Symbian S60 operating systems actually match up very well.
It probably isn’t really fair to compare the Maemo 5 OS and Nokia N900 with a BlackBerry since the N900 is really a portable Linux computer more than a smartphone. The N900 and Maemo 5 gives you the BEST mobile web browser and BEST multi-tasking experience of any platform, along with some of the slickest communication services integration I have ever seen. I do think BlackBerry does email much better though and really sets the bar in that regards. Battery life has been a bit of an issue for me on the N900 too and I never hear anyone complain about battery life on a BlackBerry device.
Wrapping up BlackBerry week
I appreciate all of the insight and help that Kevin provided to me on the BlackBerry platform and the look at two of the latest devices. I received a warm welcome from the CrackBerry.com community over in the forums and appreciate their input. I think the platform is extremely capable and even though it is one of the seniors in the smartphone community, like Nokia, it gets the job done and is a solid choice. It may not be as flashy as some of the latest platforms, but for the targeted messaging consumer it works very well.
If web browsing is down low on your priority list while messaging is primary then I would definitely think you want to take a look at the BlackBerry platform before you then decide to pick up the E71. Like the name of our sister site, once people start using a BlackBerry they can get addicted to it and the seamless connectivity it provides.
My favorite aspect of BlackBerry devices is definitely messaging and my most hated thing is the lack of Exchange support and reliance on 3rd party servers to sync data. When RIM servers go down everyone is affected and that does concern me a bit. Then again, Nokia’s new Messaging services are hosted by them too and we have seen the same impact to our messaging capability.
Thanks again to Kevin and all of those in the CrackBerry.com community who participated this week and responded to my questions in the forum. Remember to keep contributing to the various forums and threads to be entered into the Smartphone Round Robin contest where you could win your favorite smartphone. Stay tuned next week for my perspective on the Google Android OS with HTC Hero and Motorola DROID devices.