Not that the new BlackBerry Bold isn’t a fine addition to Research in Motion’s (RIM’s) best-selling line-up of smartphones.
It’s a powerful, capable and stylish addition, in fact. And it will fit the bill nicely for corporate and other business users committed to the BlackBerry platform and looking to upgrade. But, well, it’s not an iPhone.
Sorry. We know comparisons are odorous, but especially given the near synchronicity of their launches and the similarity of features, it’s impossible not to compare them.
The iPhone launched in North America in July, Bold in markets outside the U.S., including Canada, in August. In the U.S., Bold was slated to appear in September.
Indeed, we wonder if RIM delayed introduction of Bold in the U.S. to avoid being drowned out by the cacophony of iPhone hype.
Both are powerful smartphones that work over HSDPA and GSM/EDGE networks worldwide. Both also have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS radios. Both do voice, e-mail, Web browsing, music, video, still and video photography, mapping – and a lot more.
At the time of writing, RIM has still not launched in the U.S., where AT&T will be the exclusive carrier, as it is of the iPhone. In Canada, Rogers, the exclusive carrier there for both products, sells Bold for a low price of $399. That’s with a three-year plan.
Note: double the price of the iPhone.
So how do the two products measure up otherwise?
E-mail and non-Internet-related business applications and mapping: BlackBerry Bold all the way. Just about everything else, including entertainment and Internet experience: iPhone, hands down.
The iPhone interface is obviously one of the product’s big seducers, compared to which the Bold’s largely unmodified BlackBerry interface seems pedestrian. That doesn’t necessarily mean inferior in every respect, just not as sexy.
Bold does include a physical keyboard, a full QWERTY keyboard too, not RIM’s 20-key SureType keyboard. If you do a lot of text input on a mobile, a physical keyboard is a better bet in our opinion – faster to type on, less prone to mistyping. And small adjustments to key design on the Bold make for a surer touch than past BlackBerry keyboards.
Also on the plus side for Bold, hardware-wise, it has a very fast processor (624 MHz). Bold seemed marginally faster than iPhone in some applications.
Apple, of course, doesn’t say which application processor it’s using in the iPod 3G, only that it’s a “closed platform.” It has reliably been reported to be a Samsung ARM processor, with estimates of clock speed ranging from 412 to 612MHz.
The Bold also sports a great high-resolution screen (480×320-pixel transmissive TFT, 65,000 colors).
The screen is smaller than the iPhone’s, though – 2.8 vs. 3.5 inches diagonally. And the iPhone screen is wider too, which makes it significantly better for viewing videos and Web pages.
While Bold can’t compete with the sheer elegance of the iPhone’s industrial design, it is a very nice looking smartphone, with a leather back and rounded – dare we say it, iPhone-esque – contours.
It’s thicker (.59 vs..48 inches), a hair wider (2.6 vs. 2.4 inches) but shorter (4.48 vs. 4.5 inches) and it’s a feather heavier too (4.8 vs. 4.7 oz). Hey, this stuff is important in the high-stakes world of mobile device design. Image is all. Score half a point for iPhone.
Bold’s mobile Internet experience, while good, can’t compete with the iPhone, mainly because of the disparity in screen size, but it’s definitely better than past BlackBerries thanks to HSDPA and the otherwise excellent screen. We tested it on the Rogers network, but weren’t able to measure throughput using online speed tests. They either didn’t work at all – because BlackBerry doesn’t support Flash – or delivered implausible results.
By eyeball, performance appeared little if any different than on the iPhone – possibly a tad quicker, thanks perhaps to a faster processor. No big surprise, of course, since we tested both on the same network.
We like the BlackBerry keyboard marginally better than the iPhone virtual keyboard for inputting URL text.
That said, the iPhone does make it easier to input special characters used in Web addresses – period, slash, @ sign – by putting them right on the main (virtual) keyboard. With the Bold, you have to hold down the Alt/Shift key to get special characters.
As an entertainment player, Bold predictably came second to the iPhone. It’s partly screen size, partly that music still sounds, relatively speaking, dreadful on the Bold – and great on the iPhone. Bold is significantly better at audio than recent past BlackBerries, though – and it does come with stereo earbuds.
Also, stored video looks stunning, if tiny, on the high-res, 4:3 screen, and played smoothly in our tests using the Media Player, though audio was out of synch on one clip.
It’s not quite so impressive with streaming media. Don’t bother surfing to the YouTube site. The BlackBerry browser can’t play videos at the main site. It will play videos streamed using Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP), including from ZooVision and M.YouTube, YouTube’s mobile edition.
The experience is nothing like as seamless as the pre-loaded YouTube applet on iPhone, however. You select a video in the browser and Bold switches to Media Player to play it.
At its best, the streaming video I watched was as good as YouTube on the iPhone over the Rogers 3G network – just in a smaller size. But it was often worse. It never hiccupped, and the sound stayed good, but video images occasionally degraded to the point of being unwatchable.
Although you’ll probably want to use the earbuds most of the time for listening to video sound tracks, the Bold’s speaker is surprisingly good, not as tinny as speakers on past models.
As a phone, Bold is fine, as good as any BlackBerry we’ve tried in recent years, better because of improved audio quality, especially when using it on speaker phone.
We still have to give the nod to iPhone in this category, though. The iPhone feels more like a phone in your hand for some reason and it sounds better, despite the audio improvements BlackBerry made over past models.
Dialing is also easier on the iPhone. This is the one area where we preferred the virtual keyboard. With BlackBerry, you switch to the Home screen and begin poking at the tiny number keys (no need to hold the Alt key down for numbers when dialing from the home screen.)
With iPhone, you switch to the Home screen, tap the Phone icon and tap great big number keys on the virtual keypad. It just seems more natural.
On paper, Bold has a slight edge as a camera and camcorder. Both devices feature 2-megapixel still/video cameras, but the Bold includes a built-in flash, missing in the iPhone. We also found it too easy with the iPhone to tap the onscreen shutter button by mistake – a little spasm of your trigger finger and you shoot the picture at the wrong moment.
But the iPhone took better pictures. We assume this is because of a better lens and/or digital image processing system. I did get some quite good pictures from Bold using the flash, better than anything I have been able to get from past BlackBerry cameras, but iPhone pics were generally sharper and better exposed.
Also, notwithstanding the mild preference for a physical shutter button, the iPhone is generally easier to use as a camera than Bold. And pictures look better because of its bigger screen.
It’s not sounding good for Bold, but we haven’t said anything yet about the business applications – e-mail, calendar, contacts, tasks, word processing, presentations.
Bold has a clear edge in the e-mail department, which for business users is really the most important or at least second most important smartphone application.
Corporate BlackBerry Server-based e-mail systems are still generally reckoned to be more secure and efficient than competitive server-based systems – principally systems based on Microsoft’s Exchange Server and ActiveSync (which iPhone supports).
And the BlackBerry Internet Service offers individual users push mail for existing POP accounts from any ISP. While it’s possible to set up e-mail accounts on the iPhone with providers that offer push service, you can’t get push for existing POP accounts.
The edge in personal information applications may not be as large. These are for the most part the same calendar, contacts, tasks applications as in past BlackBerries, which is part of their strength. They have a pedigree, they work well, BlackBerry users know and like them.
Bold also comes with pre-installed DataViz applications that let you edit Office documents – Word, Excel, PowerPoint – right on the handheld.
We’re not sure how useful this will be, but if you’re inclined to carry documents on your handheld that you might send to somebody else, it’s probably a good thing to be able to make small edits to correct or customize them if the need arises.
BlackBerry has an edge with its GPS application as well. Unlike iPhone, the preloaded software on Bold offers turn-by-turn directions. Turn-by-turn navigation software is available for iPhone, it just doesn’t come bundled with the product.
And the Bold GPS radio connected as faster or faster than GPS radios in other handhelds we’ve tried, including the iPhone.
Bottom line: if you’re a business user committed to the BlackBerry platform, Bold is a very cool upgrade path to HSDPA. No need to look further. All others, consider the iPhone as well.
This article was first published on SmartPhoneToday.com.