BlackBerry Bold 9650

Way back in July of 2009, BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion (RIM) released via Verizon Wireless and Sprint a strong new addition to its U.S. CDMA smartphone-lineup: The BlackBerry "Tour" 9630. Today, almost a year later, both Verizon and Sprint are offering a 2010 upgrade to the Tour: the BlackBerry "Bold" 9650.

The Bold 9650 looks almost exactly like the Tour; on first glance, the devices are identical except for the Bold's new "trackpad" for navigation, which replaces the Tour's often-problematic "track ball," and some Bold branding on the battery cover. Minor tweaks were made "under the hood:" Wi-Fi support and more application memory--in fact, the Bold 9650 currently has more app memory than any other BlackBerry on the market with 512MB.

In other words, the BlackBerry Bold 9650 is for all intents and purposes the exact same device as the Tour 9630, with some new additions to address the original Tour's most obvious shortcomings. (Read my thoughts on the name change from "Tour" to "Bold" for a possible explanation for the switch.)

I've had a Sprint-branded Bold 9650 for a couple of weeks now, and I put the device through all the paces. Keep moving to determine if the Bold 9650 is for you, as well as advice for current Tour owners on whether or not to upgrade or wait for another, more modern-feeling handset.

Heeeere we go.

One of the most notable new features found in the BlackBerry Bold 9650 is the handheld's Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) support. Wi-Fi's not new to BlackBerrys or to modern smartphones; in fact, almost all mid- to high-end devices currently have Wi-Fi. So the Bold's Wi-Fi support doesn't translate into any sort of competitive advantage. However, some wireless carriers, particularly Verizon, resisted Wi-Fi for as long as they could, for fear it would eat into their profits. And the Bold 9650 is one of the first BlackBerry devices on Verizon, behind the Storm2 and Curve 8530, to support Wi-Fi.

The Tours lack of Wi-Fi support was a deal-breaker for me. The Bold 9650 is much better suited for power-users now that it's Wi-Fi equipped. I'd really like to see a U.S. carrier other than T-Mobile announce unlicensed mobile access (UMA) support for VoWi-Fi calling, but that's another story altogether...

I had some Wi-Fi connectivity issues with my Bold 9650--it didn't want to stay connected to my home Wi-Fi network for extended periods of time. (I've never had this issue with any of the other BlackBerry devices I've used.) But I asked additional Bold 9650 users and reviewers, and the issue doesn't appear to be widespreadat least at this point.

This new Bold is the third smartphone in RIM's Bold lineup, behind the Bold 9000 and 9700, and the only Bold to support CDMA frequencies. The BlackBerry Bold 9650's 512MB of app memory means it can store more applications, themes or other software than any other BlackBerry, all while in theory performing without as many "hiccups." And it's also better positioned to run RIM's upcoming OS, dubbed BlackBerry 6, which is said to require more than the standard 256MB of app memory found within other modern BlackBerrys, like the Bold 9700 and Storm2.

The Tour 9630 has been plagued with trackball-related issues. Just ask a current Tour user if they've had any trackball problems, and you're sure to get an earful. I've used a number of Tour units, and I bought my girlfriend a Verizon Tour on the day it was released last summer. Every single one of those devices has been returned to a Verizon store or swapped out for a new unit due to bum trackballs.

RIM wisely addressed this issue by giving the Bold 9650 a trackpad. (Read my thoughts on why RIM's low-end Curve 8520 was first to get the trackpad.) Overall, I've been very pleased with my experience using RIM's trackpads, and the Bold 9650 is no exception--though I do have one significant concern I'll address in the following section. The trackpads "loosen up" a bit with wear and tear, but for the most part, they're infinitely more functional and less prone to breakage than track balls.

Like the Tour 9630, the Bold 9650 uses a 1400mAh, standard "D-X1" BlackBerry battery, and I got right around 24 hours of moderate-to-heavy use on a single charge. That's about the same battery-life I saw on the Tour 9630, and though it's not quite as strong as the Bold 9700's battery life, it's certainly not bad for a 3G device. (The 9700 employs a slightly different type of battery with a larger storage capacity.)

The Bold 9650 is a very handsome smartphone, just like its Tour 9630 brother. A silver/chrome-colored bezel encompasses the handset on its sides and bottom, complimenting the similarly styled trackpad "ring" and silver keyboard "frets." The Sprint and Verizon versions of the Tour 9630 had slightly different color bezels--the Verizon bezel was a less-shiny, matte silver--and though I haven't yet seen a Verizon version, it stands to reason this will also be the case with the Bold bezels.

The Bold 9650 feels more substantial than the 9700, which is significantly smaller, even though both devices have the same size keyboard. (The Bold 9650 and 9700 have smaller keyboards than the original Bold 9000.) The 9650 is also slightly heavier and thicker than the 9700, but it doesn't feel too clunky like some of RIM's past BlackBerrys. I still prefer the Bold 9700 form-factor to the 9650, since it's smaller and more svelte, and I'm a device-in-the-pocket as opposed to a holster-guy. But the Bold 9650 feels more "solid."

RIM's new Bold is a "world edition," i.e., it can be used on both CDMA and GSM networks. And unlike any other BlackBerry to date, at least that I'm aware of, the Bold 9650 comes factory "unlocked," meaning it can be used on any compatible GSM/UMTS network right out of the box. (Read instructions on how to switch between CDMA and GSM networks.)

Since the Bold 9650 is practically identical to the BlackBerry Tour, there are already a wide variety of accessories available for the new device. However, Tour users upgrading to the Bold 9650 should know that the microUSB port on the new Bold is in a slightly different place, so some Tour cases/skins/etc. may not fit perfectly. Other Tour accessories that don't employ that microUSB port should work just fine for the 9650, including the BlackBerry Tour Charge Pod.

The GPS in the new Bold seems snappier than the GPS in my Bold 9700; the 9650's time to first fix (TTFF) was consistently quicker than my 9700 and by a significant margin.

Finally, the BlackBerry Bold 9650 is expected to be available in both camera-equipped (3.2 megapixels) and camera-less versions for organization that ban digital cameras from certain areas or facilities, though Sprint still hasn't listed that handset for sale.

The device is reasonably priced at $199.99 with two-year Sprint contract, after rebate, and $149.99 on contract following rebate via Verizon.

Sure, that's a lot to like. But the Bold 9650 is not all smiles and thumbs-up. Here's why.....

Bold 9650 Not-So-Good Stuff: Same Old, Durability, Branding-Confusion

My biggest complaint about the BlackBerry Bold 9650 is that it's boring. Boring because it's just an upgraded version of a device that was released a year ago. Boring because it doesn't have any features that really set it apart from the current crop of BlackBerrys. And boring because BlackBerry fans know RIM's on the cusp of releasing BlackBerry 6 and a cool new BlackBerry slider device, currently known as the "Bold 9800."

In a market with so many new and innovative devices being announced every month, boring just won't cut it. Sorry RIM, but you're going to have to do better than an upgraded version of a device that's already associated with hardware issues.

Though the Bold 9650 is notable because it has more app memory than any other BlackBerry, that fact probably doesnt really mean much to your average smartphone buyer. It will surely please BlackBerry power-users, who could benefit from that extra memory, but I honestly don't see many of these folks rushing out to pick up the new Bold with so many more exciting options, from RIM and its competitors, in the pipeline.

For example, RIM's new BlackBerry Pearl 9100 touts some cool features to set it apart from the rest of the pack: support for 802.11n Wi-Fi, which should translate into faster and more reliable wireless. The Bold 9650 doesn't support 802.11n, only 802.11b/g.

As soon as I unboxed my Sprint BlackBerry Bold 9650 (watch the video here), I noticed that the keyboard felt different than the Tour 9630 keypad. It's exactly the same size; same "Bold" style, with frets; same, or very similar plastic-material. But the Bold 9650's keyboard is more uplifted than the Tour's, as if there's something beneath it keeping it from sitting smoothly in place.

The trackpad and surrounding buttons, including the Send/End keys and both the Menu and Escape keys, on my Bold are also slightly uplifted. In fact, the trackpad itself is tilted when looked at from above, and it's also upraised more on one side than the other. Due to this fact, I scuffed/scratched my trackpad the day I got it, and I can only imagine it will face more damage because of this awkward placement.

Needless to say, that's not good. RIM's scrapping the Tour name for a reason: It's associated with a device that's been nothing but trouble for many BlackBerry users. The Bold name is both a more recognizable and reputable brand within the BlackBerry world. But all it will take to throw mud all over that brand image is one Bold device with a consistently bad keyboard or a bum trackpad, etc.

It's difficult to predict how serious the upraised keyboard/trackpad will prove to be--right now, it's functioning perfectly on my Bold 9650, it's just awkward. But something about the feel of the Bold 9650 keyboard and trackpad area seems worrisome to me. In other words, make sure you opt for the extended hardware-warranty should you choose to purchase a BlackBerry 9650.

When I first heard of RIM's decision to change the Tour name to Bold, I was sure it would do little more than confuse BlackBerry users. But after some careful thought, I realized the name change could actually be a very good idea...if executed effectively.

After watching the Bold 9650 come to market, I'm not sure RIM has met my expectations. First of all, the Bold experience is meant to be the best RIM offers: the Bold is RIM's flagship device; Bold devices are arguably the best looking BlackBerrys; and they're frequently the most pricey RIM handhelds.

The first two Bold devices, the BlackBerry 9000 and 9700, feel like natural entries into the Bold family. The Bold 9650 does not. Specifically, the Bold 9000 and 9700 both have similar faux-leather battery covers. The 9650 does not. The Bold 9000 and 9700 both show a 3G icon when connected to a 3G network, stressing the fact that both are new, fast, high-end devices. The Bold 9650 does not unless it's connected to a 3G UMTS network. (RIM's most recent 3G CDMA device, the Storm2, did show a 3G icon when connected to a 3G CDMA network, but the Bold doesn't, creating more BlackBerry device inconsistency.)

So to sum all that up: The Bold 9650 doesn't feel like a BlackBerry Bold; It feels like an upgraded BlackBerry Tour. In fact, it feels to me like what the original Tour should have been. And it should've been released in June of 2009, in place of the Tour, not June of 2010, as an upgrade. Good-marketing intentions aside, RIM may have actually added to its ongoing BlackBerry branding confusion with the Bold 9650 because of this confusion.

Finally, the placement of the microUSB port toward the bottom of the handset's side, same as the original Tour, is awkward, because it makes using the device or placing calls difficult while charging, particularly for right-handed users. I also could not get my BlackBerry Desktop Manager for Mac software to recognize the Bold 9650, though the software probably just needs a update for the new device.

Now. My conclusion...

BlackBerry Bold 9650 Review Conclusion: Too Little, Too Late

The BlackBerry Bold 9650 is a quality 3G smartphone with a crisp 480x360 display, a relatively fast processor (thought to be 624MHz), a great BlackBerry keyboard, beautiful form factor, Wi-Fi, GPS, CDMA and GSM network support and a pile of application memory.

The problem: Most of that could be said about the original Tour, released last July, if only it hadn't experienced so many trackball issues and it had Wi-Fi. The Bold 9650 is functional, but it's not exactly exciting.

I also have concerns about potential hardware issues with the Bold 9650, since its trackpad-area and keyboard feel awkwardly upraised. Two-weeks time wasn't long enough for me to determine how the keyboard-area will wear and/or whether or not the problem will worsen. But it could definitely be problematic, which makes me slightly hesitant to recommend the handset, especially after the Tour's hardware track record.

Bottom line: If you're a big fan of the BlackBerry Tour, and you're not in the market for a new form factor, you'll love the Bold 9650, since it's a more powerful, more durable (hopefully) version of the same device.

If you're already on Sprint or Verizon, the two U.S. carriers currently offering the Bold 9650, you're pleased with the current service and you've got your heart set on a full QWERTY device, the Bold 9650 is probably your best optionat least for the foreseeable future.

However, if you're looking for an exciting new device with cutting-edge features and functionality, and/or you're willing to switch to another wireless carrier, you probably want to keep looking. In my opinion, the Bold 9700 is still the best BlackBerry ever. The Bold 9800 slider, expected on AT&T this summer, is also looking more and more attractive every day, so now could be a good time to hold off on upgrading your smartphone.

The BlackBerry Bold 9650 is currently available on contract for $199.99 through Sprint and $149.99 via Verizon, after rebates.

And additional information on the BlackBerry Bold 9650 can be found on RIM's website.

This story, "BlackBerry Bold 9650" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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