BlackBerry 9700 Review: Part 1

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Oh you thought we fell off. Nope — we’ve just been tearing apart BlackBerry’s latest flagship over the past week or so and our review is finally perfectly crafted. The BlackBerry 9700 replaces the Bold as RIM’s newest flagship device. Even though it’s not released yet — look for it anywhere from mid-October to mid-November depending on what part of the globe you reside in — it’s BlackBerry’s most advanced QWERTY device to date and combines all of their next generation features together in a smaller and lighter package. We’ve already detailed our thoughts on RIM and how they are doing on the software side of things and this review will be mostly hardware focused. We will also follow up with a Part 2 review as we did with the BlackBerry Tour since this model is not a production unit.

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Hardware / Design:

Gorgeous. How do you like that description? From the beveled edges to the powder-coated keyboard, this is one good looking BlackBerry. The much loved (and hated) fake leather textured battery cover makes a reappearance here as does a trackpad to handle the navigational duties.

The 9700 makes the Tour look like a bloated 8-month pregnant single mother. Shave about 24% of the surface area off the Tour, bevel the edges, round the corners, and you’ll have something close to the BlackBerry 9700. It’s the most gorgeous BlackBerry on the planet. And no, that’s not up for debate or discussion. Early units had the straight RIM color theme on the keyboards (white letters with red accents/symbols) but the unit we have which is most likely what AT&T will receive is all white. This looks great meshed with the titanium chrome finish on the bezel and the high gloss black finish on the front of the device.

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This theme is always brought up in our reviews of BlackBerry devices — RIM really keeps innovating in hardware design and manufacturing. It seems as if each device they make has a brand new manufacturing process and technique, and while you might view this as a negative, we view it as a positive. Unlike a car maker, RIM can’t make a chassis, so to speak, that they use for all their models in a series. Since each device is unique, it’s great to see RIM experiment with different planning and assembly options to deliver the best product possible. Eliminating the number one failure point on a BlackBerry (the trackball) and replacing it with something that’s not just going to save money in the long run, but is actually a better solution is great. Making desktop chargers that use battery contact points to save wear and tear on the mini/microUSB port is smart. Speaking about the trackpad, we’re not sure what’s up because there’s a nice and day difference between this one and and the one on the BlackBerry 8520. It might be the exact same hardware revision, but something about it feels better to use and after a day of not using the traditional trackball, we can’t imagine not using the trackpad. It’s a worthy successor to the trackball.

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What about something that’s often overlooked? Vibrate. We’d like to be the first ones to report that the vibrate function on the 9700 is straight up violent. It’s possibly the most downright disrespectfully loud and obnoxious vibrate mechanism we’ve heard in recent memory. And we love it. Switching gears to the physical buttons on the 9700, it will make a BlackBerry user feel right at home. Two-stage camera shutter /convenience key on the lower right side of the phone with volume up / down buttons towards the top of the right side. Left convenience key on the opposite side with lock and mute buttons on the top of the handset. There’s the now-default 3.5mm headset jack and microUSB port sitting above the left convenience key. Below those are a lanyard hole. Thrilling, we know.

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The 9700 is very much like the 9520/9550 in terms of industrial design and gives us a glimpse at where RIM’s styling is headed for the next round of handsets. Things like soft-touch rubberized finish on the middle of the handsets with matching rubberized buttons (instead of chrome), darker chrome finishes, high gloss black — all these lead to more pronounced and edgier designs for a historically conservative corporation.

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Screen:

RIM really moved in a brand new direction with the Bold’s display and ever since, they’ve been continuing the tradition of awesomeness. We’re really happy to report that the BlackBerry 9700 has the best screen to date of any BlackBerry handset. It’s that good. The resolution, which is the new RIM gold standard, is 480×360 and while you wouldn’t expect it to be any better than the Tour’s or Curve 8900’s screens, it is. Pictures appear as if they’re floating on top of the display, blacks are black and colors are crisp and vibrant. There’s a pretty decently-sized black border that goes around the entire display much like how the BlackBerry Tour’s screen looks, and while people have moaned about this ad nauseum, it doesn’t really phase us.

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OS:

The latest versions of OS 5.0 (which have leaked for existing handsets like the 9530, 9630, Bold, 8900, etc.) show a slight UI refresh with more blues, more gradients, updated icons and buttons and even — *gasp* — kinetic scrolling on some devices. Here’s where it gets a little tricky, though. AT&T’s BlackBerry 9700 evaluation units shipped with OS 5.0.0.169. The unit we have originally came with that OS and worked magically. It, however, didn’t have the updated UI that later OS 5.0 builds contain. After upgrading our unit to OS 5.0.0.215 (internal builds for the 9700 are up beyond .249, we’re told) it’s now rocking out with the updates features and sexified UI elements. Why we’re going into this so deeply is because there’s a good chance that if AT&T’s 9700 passes technical acceptance without issue (we don’t anticipate the same issues that plagued the Bold’s release), the version that will ship with the 9700 will be 5.0.0.169 or something close to it. That means that you’ll be running an “old” 5.0 build and it’s interesting to see this play out. You’ll obviously be able to install different OS versions for yourself that have been released by other carriers, but we just wanted to give you guys a heads up that the release unit’s OS might be a little different.

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Keyboard:

We don’t have to keep reinforcing it (well, we just did, we guess): we take those keyboards seriously. Throw the BlackBerry 8900 keyboard out of the window on this because it’s completely different. Imagine the BlackBerry 9700 keyboard as a mix of the Bold and the Tour keyboards. Tour-shaped (little better) with the bounce and feel of the Bold keyboard. It’s really fantastic. Definitely not as large as the original Bold’s mammoth boat-sized chiclet pad, but it’s great. We’d probably go as far as saying out of the current generation BlackBerry handsets, the BlackBerry 9700 is the best. You’ll see that theme appear time and time again in this review. Each little key has a nice carved design that allows for precision typing at its finest. Keys have a decent amount of space and even though the shift keys at the bottom look a little small (they are tiny), they’re completely usable and really don’t turn out to be a hindrance when it comes to getting your typing on.

After a couple hours of usage we have no doubts that you’ll absolutely fall in love with the keyboard. The feel of the keys coupled with the shape and proper layout that’s standard on all BlackBerrys offer a truly excellent typing experience on the BlackBerry 9700.

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Phone:

The unit as a phone is fantastic. That will obviously depend on what network you sign your life away to, but even on AT&T, when the network worked, the 9700 made for a great phone. The actual ear speaker seems less recessed than previous BlackBerrys and we could hear callers loud and clear using the ear speaker. Speakerphone also worked well (as it should) with minimal distortion at maximum volume. Quite refreshingly, the device didn’t get too hot during long voice sessions and we really had no problems using the phone as a phone.

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Browser:

While the browser in OS 5.0 comes with some improved Javascript support, it’s still no where near any of the top dogs like Apple’s mobile Safari, Android’s webKit browser, or Palm’s webKit browser. Using the browser with the trackpad as the cursor is definitely a great input method (remember when the trackball made use of the cursor back in the day for the first time?) and feels natural to navigate websites. The browser seems like one of the things that changes most as OS builds move further and further along so we’ll reserve our hatred for the browser in our final Part 2 review.

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Speaker:

While the Bold offered three different audible speaker ports (one on each side and one at the top) for pretty accurate sound reproduction, the BlackBerry 9700 uses a single opening towards the top part of the back of the device. This works fairly well and sound, uh, sounds good. We did notice a volume decrease compared to the Bold, but not by much. Maybe around 15% lower? Nothing is going to beat that Storm 2 speaker, though…

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Battery:

We’re not sure how they did it, but the BlackBerry 9700 has the best battery life of any 3G BlackBerry in recent years. It could probably even rival the BlackBerry 8900 — truly unbelievable. The BlackBerry Tour was the king of battery life, and that was odd seeing as how CDMA devices usually are a bit worse than their GSM brothers and sisters, but the 9700 has one-upped the Tour. For some rough statistics, the BlackBerry Bold with normal usage patterns lasted me around 7 hours of usage until the battery was dead. How long do you think the 9700 lasts using the exact same BlackBerry Bold battery? Try around 15 hours. We’re talking more than double with a faster CPU and using the same battery. Really remarkable and will help those on-the-go warriors.

It’s funny to see RIM use such a wide range of batteries in their devices. Then again, for a company that has 15,000 different models, 4,000 different screen resolutions, and 2,000 different form factors it doesn’t surprise us. What you’ll be happy to hear is that your existing BlackBerry Bold battery will work perfectly in the 9700 and will yield you better battery life than you’ve ever imagined.

Note: Battery life was based on OS 5.0.0.169. It’s dramatically worse in OS 5.0.0.215 which the unit is now running.

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Conclusion:

It’s pretty hard to make a general recommendation nowadays with any device, let alone a BlackBerry. With four form-factors in the BlackBerry family, it complicates things.

The BlackBerry 9700 is a much-needed refresh to the aging BlackBerry Bold. To date, RIM has released only a single 3G GSM device in the United States and with competition heating up, the BlackBerry 9700 looks to be their answer. We absolutely gushed over the BlackBerry Tour in our review and until the 9700 came along, that was our daily driver. Is the BlackBerry Tour still the best BlackBerry on the market? We think so. But as good as the Tour is, the 9700 is better. There seems to be a drastic difference between CDMA and GSM hardware on BlackBerry devices (we’re guessing it’s the Qualcomm processors opposed to the Marvells) and it’s actually exhilarating to be back on a GSM device. The BlackBerry 9700 combines the most-loved features that have been sprinkled about on BlackBerry phones over the last year (3G, 3.2 megapixel camera, Wi-Fi, GPS, trackpad, QWERTY keyboard, smaller size, faster CPU) and combines them into a single sexy and compact package.

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“So you’re saying the BlackBerry 9700 is the best BlackBerry ever?”

Yes. It’s the finest BlackBerry ever crafted and if you’re asking why it’s so much better than the Tour, it goes back to that CDMA vs. GSM argument as well as the fact that the 9700 is simply a year newer. We nailed the Tour all the way back almost two years ago, and sadly the internals seem to be a little outdated. There’s no official CPU specifications on the Tour, but if we had to guess we’d guess it’s running at around 500MHz give or take. Rumblings have pegged the BlackBerry 9700’s Marvell Tavor CPU running at close to 800MHz! It’s a lot faster in normal usage than the Bold (both running OS 5.0) so in addition to the RAM being doubled, we’re pretty sure there is a faster CPU dropped in there as well.

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Every single thing about the BlackBerry 9700 screams high-end to us, and for a device that’s a part of the Bold-series (the Bold won’t go anywhere, we’ve been told), it should. It’s the best of the best to come out of Research In Motion to date and we can’t wait until everyone’s able to use one.

Check back for Part 2 when we follow up with a review on an AT&T release unit.

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Image courtesy of TweetGenius.

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