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BlackBerry Bold 9790

December 18th, 2011
RIM carves a niche for a lower-cost BlackBerry Bold.

The smartphone field is no longer as Western-centric as it used to be; it's seen madhouse lineups for BlackBerry phones for Indonesia that no smartphone maker would have seen a few years ago. With that in mind, RIM has taken the rare step of having two BlackBerry Bold phones on the same time and has added the 9790 to catch those who want the full touchscreen and keyboard without paying a premium for design. In our BlackBerry Bold 9790 review, we'll check whether RIM has managed to capture 90 percent of the Bold experience at a lower price. The smartphone field is no longer as Western-centric as it used to be; it's seen madhouse lineups for BlackBerry phones for Indonesia that no smartphone maker would have seen a few years ago. With that in mind, RIM has taken the rare step of having two BlackBerry Bold phones on the same time and has added the 9790 to catch those who want the full touchscreen and keyboard without paying a premium for design. In our BlackBerry Bold 9790 review, we'll check whether RIM has managed to capture 90 percent of the Bold experience at a lower price.

Design, the keyboard, and the display

Anyone who has used the Bold 9780 will, on the surface, feel like they're getting a repeat. There's good reason for it: with the exception of a few minor touches, it's very close. That's not necessarily a bad thing for BlackBerry users. The 9790 isn't nearly as premium as the Bold 9900, but it's a solid-feeling device and, importantly, very pocketable.

Most of the changes are subtle ones, although generally appreciated. The back has a matte, rubberized finish that makes it very stable and keeps it fairly clean looking over time. The four standard BlackBerry keys are also a step up. Instead of being flush and at times not that easy to press, they're a set of distinct, slightly raised buttons that click in definitively.

The keyboard is also very similar, although it now has a greatly appreciated backlighting like on the 9900. We still prefer the wider, overall more comfortable 9900 key layout for fast typing, but it's still one of the better hardware keyboard layouts we know. The keys are backlit and typically easy to reach, and we seldom encountered accidental pushes. As much as we believe that touchscreen keyboards are actually better -- you don't have to wait for physical feedback or hold down shortcut keys -- RIM knows how to make a keyboard worth typing on.

A tour around the sides shows some fairly well-done volume and convenience key controls, which are thin slivers that are quick enough to find without leading to accidental presses mid-call. We're not as keen about the top-mounted lock button. It often requires a very deliberate press to activate, although that does help avoid pocket-dialing friends. The headphone jack and micro USB port are placed to be out of the way but also in a logical position.

Unusually for a step-down BlackBerry, you don't sacrifice storage on the 9790. The same 8GB of built-in storage exists as on the 9900, giving a sizeable amount of space for apps, music, and video. There's a microSDHC slot for more, and it's fairly easy to slide the back on or off to get to it, even if you do need to pull the battery (shutting down your phone first) to add more storage. NFC (near-field communications) is inside for tags, MasterCard PayPass, and Telefonica payments.

The main sacrifice of the Bold 9790 over its more expensive sibling is the display, although this is a relative term. It's understandably less crisp at 480x360 versus 640x480, but it still has very vivid colors and wide viewing angles, with no banding or other visual artifacts. We didn't mind the shrink from 2.8 inches to 2.4 as much as we thought. You'll definitely want to shrink fonts if you plan to make the most of the screen; it's not as good as handling a long column of mail or Twitter updates. Still, it feels right for a small, lower-cost smartphone, and we had no problems using multi-touch when browsing the web or photos.

BlackBerry 7, performance, and apps

If you look at our earlier BlackBerry 7 phone reviews, you'll know the core of the experience on the 9790. As a whole, it's a faster, more modern operating system with a truly up to date, if slightly plodding, web browser. RIM mostly needs to catch up on overall polish, media support, navigation, and eliminating quirks like loading processes that stall the entire phone. It's not iOS or Android, but on a messaging-first smartphone, it works well enough.

The smaller Bold lives up to the more positive experience we had on the 9900 than we've had on other recent BlackBerry phones. Having touch, the trackpad, and the keyboard is very convenient on this class of phone, since you can use whatever interface is most intuitive at any given moment. It's faster to flick through a website or gallery on the touchscreen, for example, but scrolling through messages one at a time works better with the trackpad.

RIM sits the hardware in an unusual middle-ground for speed. With a 1GHz Marvel Tavor processor, it's neither the 1.2GHz Snapdragon chip of the Bold 9900 nor the frugal 800MHz chip of the Curve line. As far as the OS is concerned, it's perfectly fluid, helped by the hardware video boost from BlackBerry 7's Liquid Graphics. The Bold is loaded with the same 768MB of RAM as the 9900 and has no trouble juggling a typical app load.

The Tavor is fast enough to do some moderate 3D. We could play games like 3D Rollercoaster Rush or the clone title Fruit & Ninja smoothly, even if the small screen made it slightly harder to land completely precise gestures.

As is almost always the case now, RIM's real challenge is getting the app in the first place. BlackBerry App World is now easy to navigate from an interface perspective, but it's sorted into so many sub-categories with so few apps each that it's easy to miss content because you didn't know which category to investigate. As a whole, the selection and quality right now is noticeably lower than on iOS or Android, both out of market trends and because BlackBerry 7 has only given developers a few months to use 3D and other hardware features that rivals have had for longer.

Carrying both a touchscreen and a keyboard does give the 9790 the widest selection possible; nearly any app that supports 7 at all will work. In some ways, it's the safest bet through its using the 480x360 resolution that many BlackBerry phones have had since the original Bold.

Camera quality

Once more, the camera app is frill-free, but simple to use. If you turn previews off, the shot-to-shot time is fast, although we noticed that it struggles a bit between pressing the shutter and actually getting the shot in less than ideal light conditions, presumably as it searches for focus. It's that autofocus which helps it stand out over phones like the Curve 9380 -- autofocus exists. Unlike even the Bold 9900, the 9790 can get up close for shots and doesn't risk losing something in the foreground.

Image quality from the camera changes appropriately. With that in consideration, it's definitely not a camera on par with that of the 8GB iPhone 4 or a number of similarly priced phones from HTC, Motorola, or Samsung. Colors are generally accurate but muted, high contrast situations blow out highlights fairly easily, and noise is soon visible in low light. We wish BlackBerry 7 supported tap-to-focus so that we could properly focus off-center, though there is image stabilization to minimize blur regardless of what's actually in focus.

Movie quality takes the biggest hit over the Bold 9900. The slower processor relegates the 9790 to 640x480 (VGA) footage, not 720p. Moreover, it's not just lower resolution, but lower quality at the same resolution, too. Even on the smaller screen, it's possible to see block artifacts from heavily compressed video. Motion response and sound quality are both generally good. Ultimately, the resulting videos are just enough for a small embedded YouTube clip or sharing through e-mail rather than something you'd want to watch in full-screen on a computer or TV.

Call quality, 3G performance, and battery life

The Bold 9790 has a certain legacy to live up to for voice quality, and we can say that call performance is overall on the good side. Both incoming and outgoing voice quality aren't as bright as we'd like, but they're not muffled and serve the purpose well. RIM has added UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) support for calling over Wi-Fi with a seamless handover to GSM, but that's not enabled on most if any carriers so far.

Internet speed is another area where the cost-cutting becomes somewhat evident. RIM is using a plain 7.2Mbps HSPA radio for 3G instead of the 14.4Mbps HSPA+ of the Bold 9900. This doesn't matter as much for mobile sites, but it makes a tangible difference for loading desktop-grade pages There aren't working speed test tools to gauge the result, although past experience would put it at about 2-3Mbps downstream where we can get 5.8Mbps from the right HSPA+ phone. It's very livable, just not ideal.

Battery life holds up under scrutiny. Non-stop calling time is short at an estimated 5.3 hours on 3G. When using it for typical BlackBerry mail and data apps, though, we managed to run for two days of moderate use before we felt like we had to plug back in. Part of the achievement came from the miserly data use while idle. It consumes little when just in your pocket, and the loss overnight was usually five to ten percent, or little enough that it didn't leave us in a panic for the day to come. It's an area RIM has usually done well in so far and which matters for the more cost-conscious users the company wants to reach.

Wrapping up

When RIM launched the BlackBerry Bold 9790 in Jakarta, it triggered full-scale riots. The injuries and the debacle that followed were unfortunate. They did, however, underscore why the 9790 exists when the Bold 9900 and Curve 9360 sit just above and below it: it's a taste of the BlackBerry Bold, just at a considerably lower cost that Indonesians and others in rapidly developing countries can afford.

In that regard, the 9790 is a success. Especially using the off-contract access that's more common in the Asia-Pacific area, it's hard to tell people for whom a smartphone is a significant part of their yearly salary that they should save up for a 9900. North Americans would see the difference themselves in those terms: the 9790 can be had for $400 off-contract if you shop around; a 9900 costs $600.

Europe and North America are different matters. Buying on a contract is much more common here, and the pricing gap gets much narrower. A 9790 typically fetches $100 in Canada (and possibly the US) where the 9900 is $160. If you're willing to pay for three years of a smartphone plan, an extra $60 up front is a very small premium for a clearly better phone.

This also excludes talk of the other phones in the price range and, frequently, better. If you don't mind a slide-out keyboard, the Samsung Captivate Glide (Galaxy S Glide in Canada) and Motorola Droid 3 (XT860 4G in Canada) are clearly faster, carry bigger screens, and have better cameras. And if you're not tied to a hardware keyboard at all, you're suddenly in the territory of the iPhone 4, Galaxy S II, and other very powerful devices.

We're still positive on the Bold 9790, but it does well at fulfilling a niche role of a mid-priced, fixed-QWERTY messaging smartphone and of being the BlackBerry that someone in Jakarta can aspire to. That it's selling in North America is somewhat odd and comes across as over-segmenting the market, trying to cover every possible gap. We liked what we tried, but if we were making the call, we wouldn't be selling the 9790 in Canada or the US.

- Most of the Bold 9900 experience at a lower price.

- Good keyboard and touchscreen.

- Long battery life.

- Solid build quality.

- Reliable call quality.

- Capable performer.

- Too close to the 9900's price in North America.

- Sub-par camera, mainly for video.

- BlackBerry 7 still hampered by legacy, few apps.