BlackBerry Bold 9900 vs. Apple iPhone 4 - Return to Forever

Several years ago I had a choice to make: BlackBerry or iPhone? I’d been using an unlocked iPhone 1 on T-Mobile, living on EDGE-only data speeds for $5.99/month thanks to the T-Zones plan I was grandfathered into at the time. 2007 turned into 2008, Apple released iPhone 3G, my wife became interested in the idea of having a smartphone of her own, and things started to change. Eventually we decided to drop T-Mo and pony up for a Family smartphone plan on AT&T. She was getting an iPhone, no doubt about it. But me, I wasn’t so sure. See, I’d had the chance to play around with a BlackBerry Bold 9000 and was torn between iPhone’s addictive touchscreen and multimedia prowess and the Bold’s wondrously tactile keyboard and penchant for getting things done on the go.

I went with the iPhone. Part of my decision was informed by the fact that I was rarely without my laptop during the work day, so the ability to get things done on my phone wasn’t as big a factor as it might have been for a road warrior type. The other part of my decision was informed by how much fun the iPhone was to use; BlackBerry simply couldn’t match Apple on the Fun Scale.

Fast forward four years and what seems like a lifetime’s worth of reviewing just about every mobile device available in the U.S., and my personal daily driver is still an iPhone. Then it was iPhone (1), now it’s iPhone 4, but whatever – it’s still an Apple in my pocket. And while today’s iPhone can do more, and do it faster, than yesterday’s, the rationale behind my decision is still largely the same now as it was then: iPhone’s more fun than anything else I’ve tried, and when I need to “get stuff done” I reach for a keyboard and mouse. That’s just how my lifestyle is.

With that as backgrounder, let me tell you about the week I just spent with … you guessed it! … a BlackBerry Bold in my pocket. Bold’s latest iteration, the 9900, has been winning affection from BlackBerry fans and even making a few new friends (like Jon) while also staving off the same old criticism about its outdated software doing its excellent hardware no favors. T-Mobile sent me their version of the 9900, complete with support for “4G” HSPA+ high speed data, for review, and since Jon’s already put his 9900 through its paces, I decided to focus on what I currently know best. That is, four years later can a BlackBerry still tempt me to stray – let alone actually seduce me away from – my long-term relationship with iPhone?

The new Bold adds a few modern tricks to what’s still essentially an old, familiar platform. First off, there’s a touchscreen – a capacitive display that supports pinch-and-zoom browsing, at that. Second, the BlackBerry trackball of old is long gone, replaced by an optical thumbpad less prone to the destructive forces of dirt and moisture. And third, this Bold’s multimedia abilities have been bumped up a notch by improved audio and video players, third-party support, and a modest but important selection of downloadable wares via BlackBerry App World.

As for the hardware, the incredibly useful QWERTY thumbboard that’s long been BlackBerry’s calling card is even better on this latest Bold. I could – and literally did – type all day long on this thing. I’m no speed demon, but I’ve learned to get along well enough tapping out messages on iPhone’s all glass faux keyboard. Forget that! A truly good physical keyboard is still where it’s at when it comes to heavy texting, all-day IM sessions and drafting Email memos on the go. Not to mention BlackBerry’s other calling card, BBM. Bold’s keyboard is wonderfully shaped, spaced and crafted, and with the exception of some very minor “plasticky feeling” action on the spacebar, it’s really been a joy to type on. Attribute some of that to the buttons themselves, and some of it to the phone’s wide footprint and 10.5mm thin profile, which combine to allow plenty of room for a comfy keyboard while still retaining a very easy to handle, easy to pocket form factor overall.

Also, I love two other things about Bold’s hardware: First, the keyboard is always there on the front of the phone, no sliding required. While the 9900’s screen is almost laughably small amidst the current crop of ginormous display Android phones on the market, that small screen leaves plenty of room for a front-mounted keyboard. And that means no sliding required. Which means a thin overall profile. I like thin phones and I’ve come to know that however great the QWERTY board, I’m way less likely to use it if I have to slide the device open to do so. So there’s that. Second, Bold’s optical trackpad rules. I barely ever touch the device’s capacitive touch display, except during Web browsing. Instead I flick and tap my thumb over that optical pad to find my way around those myriad menus and options lurking beneath BB 7 OS’ skin. It’s so easy, so accurate, and so fast, using that trackpad. That trackpad idea is so good, maybe Apple should think about copying it!

Without getting away from my Bold vs iPhone focus, it’s worth noting here that Android handset makers like Motorola could learn a thing or two from BlackBerry’s industrial designers. Would-be RIM killers like the new Motorola XPRT for Sprint suffer in the usability department due to their overly long and narrow hardware. XPRT’s keyboard is just plain too cramped to afford the kind of all day typing comfort that Bold’s QWERTY does.

Bold runs BlackBerry 7 OS, which is both the newest version of the platform and also destined to be its last iteration before a phone-friendly version of the Playbook tablet’s QNX platform ships early next year. OS 7 feels old and outdated and somewhat like ASCII art living in YouTube 3D’s world. But it also works really well, for the most part, for quickly wrangling multiple streams of text-based communication with your thumbs. I barely know a fraction of the keyboard shortcuts and hidden menus that make up the secret language of Crackberry addicts, but by the end of last week I was flying between IMs, Twitter DMs, Google Chat conversations and multiple Email boxes many times faster than I could hope to do on my iPhone 4. At the risk of plagiarizing my four years’ younger self, when it comes to getting things done, BlackBerry’s still hard to beat. At least it is for me and my old man thumbs.

Bold also kicks iPhone’s butt when it comes to good old fashioned voice calls. At least my T-Mobile Bold does out here in the San Francisco Bay Area, aka “Why does Apple’s phone suck so bad on AT&T  if I’m so close to where Apple made it?” Land.

The rest of what the new Bold does, iPhone 4 by and large does better. But Bold is a little more passable when it comes to capturing and consuming multimedia than it was four years ago. I’d still take iPhone 4’s camera over Bold 9900’s, and the BlackBerry needs a front-facing shooter to enable video calling and gratuitous vanity photo-taking, both of which have become quite important to me over the past year or so. But at least the 9900’s camera and screen team up to deliver a pretty decent cameraphone experience, even if said display measures only 2.8-inches and so isn’t exactly the best for TV show-length mobile video watching. Then again, the software still looks like it was designed 10 years ago. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you, or maybe you’re bored with iOS and its grid of icons, but at least Apple’s software feels reasonably modern. BlackBerry 7 OS feels old and clunky, especially when it’s at its all-text best.

BlackBerry’s next-gen operating system, the aforementioned QNX, is said to be gaining support for Android OS apps. That’s a good thing. A very good thing, actually, if you’re a RIM fan, because BlackBerry App World just can’t hang with its Android and iOS competitors in terms of breadth or quality of its offerings. Sure, Facebook and Twitter for OS 7 work, but they pale in comparison to their counterparts on those other mobile platforms. BlackBerry’s unified messaging views kill when it comes to parsing your entire meta-Inbox at a glance, but power social media users will curse BB OS’s app offerings just as many times as they praise Bold’s QWERTY board.

It’s also worth noting that BlackBerry OS still takes about a million years to install new apps, and closer to a billion years to perform a full, remove-the-battery reboot after a total system lockup. Using the phone during an app install was next to impossible, so try to schedule your installs and updates (and crashes?) before bed or whenever it is you can best sate your Berry addiction with another stand-in vice.

So four years later and where am I? Honestly, back to the same old question, at least for a moment. I was very, very surprised at how much I grew to like the T-Mobile Bold 9900 throughout the course of last week. What started out as a stream of snarky comments like, “Nice keyboard, software still looks like 2002,” steadily morphed a feeling that with the 9900 in my pocket I could live out my fantasy to be Al Pacino’s character from The Insider. You know, the TV Producer who gets things done, even when he’s on the phone while wading barefoot in the ocean behind his secluded beach house? The 9900 wasn’t much worth a damn when it came to fun and games, and it honestly helped me cut way down on the amount of time I spent surfing the Web from my phone, but man did it let me fire off all sorts of important memos, messages and tweets in rapid-fire succession! And phone calls actually sounded half-decent on the thing; Frankly, I’d forgotten what that felt like.

But at the end of the day – or week, as it were – my lifestyle is what it is. That means I’m either within arm’s reach of my desktop or laptop computer or actively don’t want/need to be “getting things done.” I’d rather type on the Bold 9900 than on the iPhone 4, but the iPhone is much, much better at the fun stuff: Capturing HD video and playing it back, controlling the Sonos music system and Apple TV video system in my house, playing the occasional round of Tiger Woods Golf while riding the train, and yes, feeding my Web addiction with my phone.

If someone could figure out the physics of grafting Bold’s keyboard onto the front of an iPhone 4 without getting in the way of its display, I’d buy their phone in a heartbeat. Until then – or until the day comes when my work and lifestyle means I’m getting stuff done on the go without always having a laptop at hand – I’m sticking with iPhone. Yes, I can hear you, friends of mine yelling, “Foregone conclusion, Apple fanboy!” and screaming, “You spend 1,700 words talking about how great the BlackBerry is and then choose iPhone anyway? You’re an iSheep!” But honestly, it’s as much about my lifestyle as it is about the devices themselves.

That said? Bring on the QNX phones, Waterloo! I honestly can’t wait to get my thumbs all over a QNX-powered Bold.