BlackBerry Bold 9790 £350
18th Jan 2012 | 11:42
Another day, another high-end BB7 handset
Overview, design and feel
BlackBerry may quietly (or perhaps not so quietly) be finessing its plans for world domination with its upcoming BBX handsets, but it's not letting the other operating system go to waste, with a stream of BB7 devices being churned out right now, among them the BlackBerry Bold 9790.
We were slightly unsure why the BlackBerry Bold 9790 exists, since it's very similar in all but size to the Bold 9900 and makes it feel like RIM is over-saturating its own market here.
However, this is a ploy to 'sex up' the Bold line and make it attractive to the younger, non-business focused market - plus some people always prefer smaller designs.
At the time of writing, the BlackBerry Bold 9790 is yet to be released, but it's expected to cost around £360 in the UK or $450 SIM-free in the US on pre-order, which makes it a good £100 cheaper than the larger Bold 9900.
And yet, with a 2.45-inch touchscreen, 8GB of onboard memory, 5MP snapper (with flash), GPS, Wi-Fi, NFC, HSPA and 1GHz processor (smaller than the 9900's 1.2GHz), it's certainly not short of bells or whistles, and can competently compete with the likes of the credible Nokia E6.
And of course, it'll be up against the Bold 9900. Which you go for may quite simply depend on whether you prefer a big smartphone or a small one (plus a few extra pennies in your pocket.)
As for the BlackBerry Bold 9790's design, this baby is small. If you've held a 9700 or 9780, then we're talking that small, although the handset also feels ever so slightly thinner. That's partly due to the tapered design we first encountered with the BlackBerry Curve 9360. The actual dimensions are 110mm x 60mm x 11.4mm.
Like the Curve 9360, we have four buttons below the screen, which are completely separate and surround a touch-sensitive trackpad. This distinguishes the BlackBerry Bold 9790 from the Bold 9900, which had four touchpads beneath its screen instead.
Indeed, the BlackBerry Bold 9790 looks almost identical to the Curve 9360, and the only thing that really sets them apart to look at is the keyboard. While the Curve 9360 uses the Curve's separate keys, the Bold 9790 employs the Bold's signature keyboard where the buttons are all crammed in together.
There's little of interest on the sides other than a volume rocker and convenience key on the right and a headphone jack on the left. The lock button is up top, while the micro USB charging and syncing port is down below.
There's a flash of silver around the sides and the back and a rear cover made of a matt rubber, which quite frankly requires a degree from Oxford, fingernails from Jurassic Park and the brute strength of Samson to pull off. Until you figure that it slides down. Oops.
At 107g it's light, so you won't be worrying about putting your back out carrying the BlackBerry Bold 9790 around.
The BlackBerry Bold 9790 gives you the latest BlackBerry operating system, BB7. It's a stretch to call it the 'new' OS, since it's been out for a few months. And even when it was first released, we didn't particularly feel that it was fresh or new compared to OS6.
Nevertheless, moaning aside, it does the job and bridges the gap before we get our hands on the all-new BBX later this year.
The icons in BB7 are a bit of an acquired taste. Like the BlackBerry PlayBook, they look a little bit hotch potch and cobbled together, although they do have the benefit of being incredibly detailed and looking like they could jump of the screen at any time, albeit at the risk of looking rather busy.
As introduced in BB6, RIM gives you several drawers to swipe between on the BlackBerry Bold 9790. The idea is that you can view all apps, just favourites or just, say, media apps. It's well-intentioned but not something we ever used, and nor did anyone else we asked.
Searching through the phone is a cinch, and you can access apps, contacts, music and more by just beginning to type on that home screen, like a number of the other big operating systems.
Ring profiles are as comprehensive as ever, with several available, although there are so many options to customise that even for an advanced user, it can get a bit confusing.
The big difference between the BlackBerry Bold 9790 and BB6-rocking devices is that the BlackBerry Bold 9790 has that touchscreen as well as a physical keyboard - just like the Bold 9900. It's useful to have but not essential by any means, and we found ourselves instinctively using the trackpad more often than not.
Sadly that's about it, because BB7 hardly pushes the boundaries, and if you're a previous BlackBerry owner, you won't find this to be that different to handsets you've used before.
Contacts and calling
RIM has always excelled with its contact management which - aside from email - could probably explain its traditional popularity among the corporates. And as the old mantra goes, "If it 'aint broke, don't fix it." Which is exactly what RIM has done for the BlackBerry Bold 9790. Nothing.
The contacts section is exactly the same as it was on BB6. Exactly the same. Which isn't a bad thing. Though we had hoped for a little more colour, since the one thing RIM has never given us in this section is aesthetics, preferring form way over function.
Adding contacts is easy as pie, with various options from BES to Google Sync to using a cable to connect and sync with your PC or Mac. We did it in seconds using a cable, and found them to all be there. Considering there are over 2000 entries in our address book, the fact it took less than a minute was definitely a plus.
Your loved ones (and the numbers of people you've acquired yet don't remember who they are) come complete with thumbnails.
Nice if you have photos of said people and have invested time in putting them where they should be. Not so nice if you haven't, because then you have a mixture of photos and BB icons, which looks a little untidy. But as we say, aesthetics don't appear to be RIM's priority.
In a contact field, you can put in any bit of information you require, ranging from date of birth to anniversaries, address, phone, email details plus custom information if you want to keep a note of their dog's name.
Adding them is as easy as doing it via the phone book options or just typing the number in on the home screen and hitting 'Save'.
Calling a person is easy - just type their name in from the home screen and smart dialling kicks in, or do it via the contacts app. You can also add shortcuts to people to dial on your home screen, a feature that our iOS-loving friends still miss out on, unless they want to go around the houses using third-party apps.
When in a call, you get the usual options, such as hold, add participant and so on. There's nothing new here. And the call quality is, as you'd expect from BlackBerry, pretty good.
Signal was excellent on the BlackBerry Bold 9790 as it always is on BlackBerry handsets, and we managed to hold onto calls well even in a moving car. Both the in-built earpiece and the speakerphone held their own, and we like the ability to write notes as you're engaged in a call.
It's very handy when somebody is giving you useful info, and negates the need to mutter "hang on while I grab a pen." Noise reduction seems to kick in automatically, and we were told we sounded very clear
There's no video calling capability, which is a shame since RIM doesn't seem too interested in keeping up with the other mobile phone manufacturers here. And as for social networking, you won't find it too deeply integrated, with Facebook and Twitter being independent apps.
While they may jump in a bit with the messaging aspect, contacts-wise there's no HTC Sense-style approach - other than a bit of contact profile image swapping between apps - and that's a real shame. We rued it on the 9900 and we rue it again.
BlackBerry may have lost its way over the years in certain aspects, but aside from when BBM went down, messaging has consistently been a strong point for RIM phones. No surprise then that it's excellent as always on the BlackBerry Bold 9790.
Email is the natural place to start, and it ticks all the boxes, with various account options open to the user from BES (business setup) to BIS (consumer-focused). It's very intuitive to set up if you're doing it yourself, and just as easy to customise.
We're big fans of the unified inbox, since you're able to throw everything in there. We're not talking just multiple email accounts but SMS/MMS, BBM, WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook. To coin the Apple philosophy, 'it just works.'
BBM is present and accounted for. RIM's proprietary messaging service, which offers encryption, is free to use (barring data costs) and extremely popular with younger people who swap BlackBerry PINs like adults used to swap cigarette cards. Group chats, file transfers and even BlackBerry Music are onboard, which enables you to share your audio tastes.
Twitter and Facebook are both accounted for, and represent their clients well. Of course, you can also use the fantastic alternatives such as UberSocial if you prefer - they all do the basics well. The Facebook app has been updated in the last six months or so to make it more visually appealing and user-friendly, although it's still not on a par with the iPhone or Android variants.
As well as full integration with the inbox for Twitter and Facebook, the beauty of BB7 is that it enables an inroads to the inbox for other messaging solutions, too. The likes of Windows Live Messenger, ICQ, LinkedIn and so on. All of them will show up with notifications in the inbox if you choose, and it looks and feels very professional.
The Bold 9900 upped the ante a little by giving more real estate, but we still feel that the keyboard on the BlackBerry Bold 9790 is pretty unbeatable, and you'll be typing out messages like an eager Justin Bieber fan club member in no time at all.
We're glad to say that the internet experience on the BlackBerry Bold 9790 is top notch as far as BlackBerry devices go. This is a fairly significant statement, because up until just over a year ago when BB6 hit the streets, the web browsing on a BlackBerry device was poor to say the least.
Luckily once RIM started pursuing its own WebKit solution, things got a bit better and here we are now.
We'll get the negatives out of the way first. There's no Flash. We always go on about this so we won't bother now - especially because Flash has become less and less important and significant. Indeed, Adobe has said it plans to drop Flash support for mobiles and concentrate on PCs and dedicated apps instead.
We need to compare performance slightly to the Bold 9900, because that has a marginally bigger processor at 1.2GHz (compared to the BlackBerry Bold 9790's 1GHz). When we used the 9900 to browse it was good, but we noticed some glitches. Pages took a while to render, for example.
We'd have expected this problem to surface on the BlackBerry Bold 9790 because of the inferior processor, but we had no such issues, which is a big win as far as we're concerned.
Pages don't load as fast as they do on comparable smartphones from other manufacturers, though. You'll not get the blistering speeds of the Samsung Galaxy S2, the iPhone 4S or even HTC Titan here. But the bizarre thing is, because BlackBerry's browsers have always been so pants until recently, you just feel it's par for the course and something to be tolerated.
The touchscreen enables you to navigate that way, but the screen is so small compared to the 9900 that clicking on links can be a bit cumbersome. Indeed, the screen size is the BlackBerry Bold 9790's Achilles' heel for browsing, because it doesn't fit much on.
When you consider we thought the 9900's screen was a little too small for web browsing, you can see why we were frustrated on this handset. Double-tapping enables tap to zoom, and text reflow works well though.
On top of that, you get nice little thumbnails for your browser bookmarks and open windows. Classy, huh?
The BlackBerry Bold 9790 comes with a 5MP camera. Clearly this isn't a snapper aimed at budding paps. Although some readers will point out that there's more to a camera than the pixel count (such as aperture, lens quality, processing software and so on), we still maintain that 5MP isn't the best out there.
The current standard is 8MP, with 12MP the next logical step. HTC is about to launch a 16MP version of its Titan in the US. With all that in mind, 5MP seems so 2009.
Luckily, one glaring omission from the BlackBerry Bold 9900 has been fixed here - autofocus. We were staggered to see it left out, but the camera gods obviously heard our wails, for here on the BlackBerry Bold 9790, it works as well as you'd expect and hope.
Sadly there's still no tap-to-focus, which is a crying shame since you may want to take care of this yourself (and why shouldn't you with a touchscreen?) but maybe one day RIM will see sense.
Photos taken in good light reproduced well, and colours were fairly representative. But those taken close up in normal light with the LED on auto mode seemed to be bathed in something that made everything look more yellow than in real life.
In pitch black, the LED light does its job well, picking out images from complete darkness. Whack it into a low light setting or just turn the light off completely and you'll see that objects are almost impossible to see.
The camera app on the BlackBerry Bold 9790 is pretty much the exact same as that offered in the Bold 9900. And that was pretty much the same as that offered in the Bold 9780. Yes, you get a few customisation options - such as a plethora of scene modes ranging from face recognition to all of the other usual suspects - but we found these to be more style than substance.
The shutter speed is still miles off that of a dedicated point-and-shoot camera, which makes something like an iPhone 4S or other excellent camera phones a far better alternative if you're looking for a phone that will also replace your bog standard camera.
ARTIFICIAL LIGHT: Taken with ceiling light on, the camera focuses well.
FLASH:With the same photo in pitch black conditions, both the flash and autofocus manage a stellar job.
MACRO:Macro mode is good at picking out text and focuses in a millisecond.
STONG FLASH:The flash can illuminate a whole room that is completely in darkness.
GRAINY:The zoom is obviously digital, not optical. And it shows.
DAYLIGHT: Photos taken in good daylight come out clearly.
SCENE MODES:The various scene modes make a little difference, but not that much.
MOVING BLUR:The shutter speed is slow. You won't be taking many snaps of kids or pets.
So if you're wondering which of the two Bolds is the Daddy, here's where the distinction is made. And it's not good news for the BlackBerry Bold 9790. We say this because the newer handset has a much poorer video shooter than the Bold 9900.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we give you 640 x 480. Yes, it's 2012 and BlackBerry's supposed 'flagship' smartphone doesn't do HD video recording. This is a crying shame, because the Bold 9900 did come with that out of the box, but it's been deliberately omitted here.
Watch our BlackBerry Bold 9790 review video sample
The BlackBerry Bold 9790 comes with a 1GHz processor, so it's clearly more than capable. The software is capable because it runs on the Bold 9900, so we remain completely stumped as to why RIM has crippled the BlackBerry Bold 9790 in such a way by providing us with the same resolution we'd expect from the more affordable Curve range.
Luckily, if you're a part time Spielberg you won't be too disappointed, since videos do look quite nice on the screen. The colours are reproduced well, the frame rate is top notch and the sound is recorded perfectly, so for watching back on your phone, you'll be quite happy with the BlackBerry Bold 9790.
Even watching videos back on a computer is OK. It's just not amazing. Movies are shot in the older .3GP format.
There is a video light, but annoyingly, you have to decide if you want to have it on or off before you start shooting your video, which is irritating - especially if you're moving around between light and dark or maybe shooting in twilight.
You have to stop recording to toggle it on and off, which can ruin videos, and there's what looks like an icon at the bottom of the screen for you to click on to turn the light on and off. Unfortunately this is just a notifier, signalling if your light is on or off (like you wouldn't be able to tell by looking at the back of the phone), and is a waste of screen real estate.
It's annoying and shows that RIM hasn't really thought this whole bit of the OS through. Most people won't notice or mind, but we did, and it irked us.
So you want to buy a smartphone that handles media well? Buy an iPhone.
That's the conclusion many people come to if they don't do their research to explore the just-as-capable handsets provided by Microsoft and Google in particular. Then there's BlackBerry. It's a business phone brand, but the BlackBerry Bold 9790 does cope with media better than many would probably first think.
RIM's been honing this aspect for a while as it goes after the youth market, and what we have here is actually a cracking little PMP. There's even a credible alternative to the iTunes music store preloaded in the form of the Amazon MP3 store, which we've used extensively and found to be just as good (and cheaper in many cases.)
Getting your non-DRM-protected music on board is as simple as plugging the cable in and using the RIM software. Both PCs and Mac are supported, so unless you're rocking Linux or Chrome, you'll probably be OK.
We were particularly impressed that the Mac version syncs playlists from iTunes, and does so with all the relevant info that one would expect. You're also able to sync your iTunes music from your computer to the BlackBerry Bold 9790 via Wi-Fi.
Syncing video is also fairly easy, although we'd recommend doing it the old-fashioned way. If you use the official software, it seems to go through some kind of optimisation process that takes forever.
However, if you go into drag and drop mode, as long as it's one of the supported file types, it'll still play but just take less time to get on.
At least RIM has been generous here and put 8GB of space on the BlackBerry Bold 9790, which means you have something to play with out of the box. And with support for up to another 32GB on top, there'll be enough storage for even the most vociferous of hoarders.
When you do get videos onboard, they look great. Colours are, again, represented extremely honestly, and you're left with a really good medium to watch your movies on. Indeed, the only downside is the screen size, but that's to be expected.
Best stick to shorter YouTube clips then. But there's no YouTube app - in fact, the YouTube icon is merely a link to the mobile site. We would say we feel cheated by this, but we saw the same thing on both the Curve 9360 and Bold 9900, so it's not a massive surprise.
Sound quality is amazing over the headphones, picking out the mildest of details that other phones (even a certain fruit-flavoured one) didn't. And a big plus for BlackBerry is that it has obviously put some thought in by enabling you to create playlists directly on the BlackBerry Bold 9790. Small things like this go a long, long way when you're using the phone every day.
Unfortunately, RIM has left one small thing off that annoyed us - an FM radio. Yes, we know that there hasn't yet been a BlackBerry phone featuring an FM radio released, so we hardly expected there to be one on the BlackBerry Bold 9790. But RIM is trying to position BlackBerry smartphones as fully-fledged media devices as well as communicators, and a radio would really have been the icing on the cake. At least that support is coming in BB7.1!
Battery life and connectivity
RIM hasn't gone to town on the battery for the BlackBerry Bold 9790. We won't beat around the bush. Under the hood, you'll find nothing more adventurous than a 1,230mAh pack. It's the same as that found in the larger-screened Bold 9900.
Not that it made much difference, since we managed to get comfortably through a day of heavy use and still have about a third of the juice left for nighttime shenanigans. This is the advantage of having a smaller screen and (marginally) smaller processor.
Plus, although we don't know the inner mechanics of it, we'd attest to BB7 being optimised to save power where it can. We're not talking Curve 8310 standards of yesterday, but it does put in an above-average performance.
Connectivity-wise, we have the usual suspects: HSDPA 3G and HSUPA, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS. Bluetooth isn't just reserved for calls but also for streaming music wirelessly to our stereo via A2DP, which we were very happy with. The Wi-Fi signal was strong and we had no problems with the speeds of our Vodafone 3G signal.
Near-field communications (NFC) is the big plus on the BlackBerry Bold 9790. NFC is to phone operators now what integrated GPS was back in 2007.
All of the manufacturers are talking about it and telling us it's the future, yet BlackBerry is one of the first to bring it to market, which you have to commend it for. In theory, the technology will enable you to use your phone to pay for goods by touching them against a sensor.
NFC is taking a while to catch on and it's still only being used in a handful of places as an experiment. But having said that, Orange said it expects a huge increase in NFC handsets brought to market this year, so be assured, it's the future (and it would know, because it also told us it's bright).
Maps and apps
There are a couple of new toys to play with on the BlackBerry Bold 9790, app-wise. For example, Wikitude comes preloaded. Augmented reality browsers have been around for a while, and appear to be the kind of thing users either love or hate. But the cool thing about this version is that it integrates with BBM so you can also see if your Messenger friends are in the vicinity by just waving your phone in various directions like a lunatic.
Unfortunately, we have few friends, and even fewer with compatible handsets in the area, so we couldn't test it out to the full.
There are also various other bits and bobs such as BlackBerry Protect (what it says on the tin), Documents to Go (the full version- yay!) and Smart Tags (which we still can't work out, other than knowing it has something to do with the NFC chip).
There's a compass on the BlackBerry Bold 9790, which will become crucial if you're orienteering in the middle or the Amazon and need to know which way north is. And to help you find your way out of the rainforest, BlackBerry Maps is also onboard. Thank. The. Lord.
We say that with all sarcasm of course, because Maps - as we have said before - has to be one of the blandest, most boring and underinvested bits of computer code known to man. Any serious mapper will just ignore it and download Google Maps straight away in its place. Luckily GPS gets a lock pretty quickly, so you won't be hanging around too long once you're set up.
Unfortunately for those of us with lower IQs, there isn't much on the BlackBerry Bold 9790 in terms of games. Obviously BrickBreaker is there (it probably will be until RIM crumbles), and Word Mole is also onboard, but that's it. We wouldn't have said no to a nice Solitaire or Chess to while away long commutes.
But at least BlackBerry App World is there to top the BlackBerry Bold 9790 up with some bespoke timewasting.
The App World still lags behind the Apple App Store and Android Market, though. Quality apps seem to cost a lot more than they do in their competitors' stores, and the free apps look, in the majority, like something created by Matthew Broderick in War Games (great film - what do you mean you haven't seen it?).
Although App World comes preloaded on the device, you're not in Apple's walled garden and, as such, can still download apps from a plethora or other stores online. Shop around!
It's hard to be massively excited about the BlackBerry Bold 9790. The Bold 9900 was a mobile phone to be excited about, since it was the obvious successor to the Bold 9700 and 9780 handsets, which seemed like they'd been around forever. But just when the 9900 gets its feet under the table, this little upstart comes along and insists it's the rightful heir to the title.
It doesn't feel like a massive leap forward, more an upgrade that has been released for the sake of it, and we can't quite see where it fits in in the BlackBerry scheme of things.
The BlackBerry Bold 9790 is a perfect size for those who don't want too much bulge in their pockets, so to speak. It takes that winning design from the 9700 more than two years ago and brings it bang up to date. And even though it's been on a diet, it's acquired a bigger heart and much bigger brain and muscles with that beefed up processor and newer operating system. Plus NFC inclusion makes this baby future-proof.
But the smaller size could also be its downfall, since bigger hands will struggle to cope - especially when prodding at the screen. The camera isn't anything special, and the internet browser is good but only by BlackBerry standards. Plus BlackBerry 7 does feel like a bit of a letdown - not so much of a problem if you're coming to BB new, but a bit of a disappointment if you're upgrading.
If you were to take the BlackBerry Bold 9900 out of the equation and judge the BlackBerry Bold 9790 on its own merits, you could quite confidently say it's a cracking little phone. We're not massively excited by it but, geek-speak aside, just the specs alone make it worthy of a £350/$450 SIM-free price tag.
If we were torn between the BlackBerry Bold 9790 and the Bold 9900, we'd pick this, albeit at the risk of grumbling about a smaller screen.