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Working out RIM's BlackBerry Bold 9930 over Christmas break

Research in Motion's PR team in November had seen enough of Network World editors piling on RIM and its BlackBerry smartphones, so they offered us a chance to be wowed by the company's latest offering, the combination keyboard/touchscreen Bold 9930.

My manager, John Dix, declined the offer, having already decided to switch from his BlackBerry to an iPhone 4S while at the end of his contract -- a decision he is largely happy with (Dix recounts his early experiences with the 4S here).

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I, meanwhile, was pretty early in to my Verizon/BlackBerry Bold 9650 contract, so I took RIM up on its offer to review the new phone, which was introduced back in May and started shipping over the summer (I'm sending the phone back after I test it). I apparently earned some outreach from RIM public relations after poking a little fun at the company's Name Your BlackBerry contest and mentioning my envy of my wife's iPhone 4.

I should say from the start that I'm not as much of a road warrior as some BlackBerry users: I spend more work time around the office than in the field, though I do use my current BlackBerry mainly for email and the phone. I try to use it for Web surfing or apps from time to time, but my experience with the BlackBerry OS 6 phone has been so frustrating, I've pretty much abandoned that.

I didn't get a chance to test out the 9930 right away when RIM sent it, but I told them I'd give it a whirl between Christmas and New Year's, while I was on vacation. Our IT team switched my work email over to the new phone, which they said was a snap and it worked flawlessly from my end.

I prepped for my review by reading a review of the BlackBerry Bold 9900 done in late August by colleague Al Sacco, who writes for fellow IDG Enterprise publication CIO.com and is a true BlackBerry expert. Al's review was written with an eye toward how the phone would perform in enterprise IT settings, and he called the device the best BlackBerry to date. I double-checked with him before I started testing the unit myself, and he maintained his admiration for the device, describing it as his main phone though noting its shortcomings on the app front versus Android and iPhone (he also had issues with the 9930's battery life, which he said would not make it through a full workday for a heavy phone user).

I pretty much agreed with Al's review. As he notes, the BlackBerry OS 7 device is sleeker and sturdier-feeling than earlier models, and the keyboard is slightly bigger, making it easier to navigate (not that I'd try to write this review using it). The 9930 stands 4.53 inches high and 2.6 inches wide, with depth of 0.41 inches versus the 9650 which stands 4.43 inches high, 2.4 inches wide and 0.56 inches deep. The newer model weighs in at 4.59 ounces, .21 ounces lighter than the 9650.

The combination touchscreen and keyboard capabilities were relatively easy to use, though sometimes things I thought would be tap-responsive via touchscreen turned out not to be and the Web pages skittered around a bit when I'd go to scroll up or down. Still, such as when I was using the BlackBerry to zip through my Gmail messages, I was able to scroll and reply to messages with the keyboard and tap on the screen to return to my inbox. I also tried out the touchscreen on BlackBerry's BrickBreaker game (during non-work hours!), and while my weapon could be controlled either by touchscreen or keyboard, I wound up defaulting to the keyboard, perhaps out of habit.

I also toyed with the voice-activated search, which, while no Apple Siri, did the job of dialing up phone numbers in my contact list.

The upgrade I was most curious about was the supposedly improved Web browsing speed, no doubt helped by the phone's 1.2GHz single-core Snapdragon processor from Qualcomm. Indeed, the 9930 was much faster for Web browsing than my Bold 9650, which I positioned side by side to search for networkworld.com and other sites, with the 9930 winning easily every time. I'd give you a minute-to-minute or second-to-second comparison, but for the most part, the 9650 gets stuck in limbo, never reaching its destination. So there's really no comparison. I watched a few YouTube videos on the 9930, and while the screen size (640x480) pales in comparison to those on some other smartphones these days, the videos were watchable for at least short periods of time (though I had to cut short a new NSFW Lady Gaga music video that popped up on YouTube, and not because of anything to do with the phone).

I gave the 9930 its best workout while checking messages on the road from Massachusetts to Connecticut (no, I wasn't driving) and then while sightseeing in New York City on a rainy Tuesday. The email worked fine, both for sending and receiving.

While in NYC, the stark app support contrast between even this newish BlackBerry and the iPhone hit me almost right away. My family and I visited the American Museum of Natural History and one of the first things we were offered was a chance to download an app to guide our way around the dinosaur bones and stuffed animal displays -- only the Explorer app was available just for the iPhone or iPod touch, not my borrowed BlackBerry (nor Android or Windows Phone for that matter). Sure enough, the iPhone app worked well, saving us when we misplaced the paper map given to us at the entrance.

One thing the Bold 9930 was good for at the museum was taking pictures. I found the 9930's 5MP camera a big upgrade over the 3.2MP camera on my 9650, taking much sharper pictures and boasting a 4x zoom versus the 9650's 2x zoom. I'll spare you the family photos in front of "Dum Dum," of "Night at the Museum" fame, but believe me when I tell you they're sharp -- and precious.

One app I'd still love to see for my existing BlackBerry and for the 9930 is Google+, which only runs natively on iPhones and Android devices for now (a Web version is available for the BlackBerry, but I'll hold off on downloading that). I was stuck subjecting only my Facebook friends to the aforementioned pictures, sparing my Google+ contacts from such a treat.

One other app notoriously not available for BlackBerry smartphones is Angry Birds, though I can live without that. The good news for RIM customers is that Rovio's popular game has just become available for RIM's PlayBook tablets and is expected to work on future RIM phones that run BlackBerry OS 10, though those phones aren't supposed to roll out until late this year. 

So, if my contract were nearing its end today and I had a choice of sticking with RIM or venturing into Android or iPhone territory, what would I do? I'd probably sit tight for now, because of the way I use my phone, and would consider upgrading to the 9930. I'm curious to see what the BlackBerry OS 10 phones have to offer as well. And at least for now, if I really get an iPhone itch, I can always use my wife's phone when she's not.

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