You probably wouldn't consider the BlackBerry Bold a particularly great gaming device, and even now there aren't many apps or games available. But things are changing, thanks to handsets like the Bold 9900 and the other touchscreen-enabled models released this year.
With a new operating system and other innovations, RIM has had an interesting year. On the one hand, the PlayBook tablet has been selling poorly, while the business market contains many customers who have been swayed by the desire of iPhone ownership (and other smartphones).
On the other hand, kids have decided a BlackBerry (mostly the Curve models) is the only phone to be seen with, primarily for BBM (BlackBerry Messenger). And why not, given how cheap BBM makes it to keep in touch with friends?
To kids, BBM is the game changer. Throw in the excellent email service and fully integrated Facebook and Twitter and you can pretty much stop worrying about apps. What's more important than anything else is a good keyboard.
Put fingers to keys
RIM has tried models with the controversial 'SureType' messaging system, and even a phone with a traditional numeric keypad and old skool predictive text, but a proper QWERTY keyboard is what most most people want.
The touch-only Storm models did anything but go down a storm, while the jury is still out on the 9860 (we'll have our review of that up later). We can see how RIM is keen to produce a device that can be compared with an iPhone, but can it succeed without its strongest asset?
The Bold 9000, the first Bold, was both loved and hated by users. Loved for its keyboard, screen quality, and audio, but despised for being bulky and suffering poor battery life. 3G was never really needed for a BlackBerry, thanks to the BlackBerry servers stripping and compressing the data.
And then came the desire to send and receive photos and videos, as well as browse content-rich websites. 3G and wi-fi became a must, and the Bold was born.
End of class
Anyway, enough with the history lesson. The Bold 9000 was followed by the smaller 9700 and then the faster 9780, which also introduced BlackBerry OS 6. This made the user experience a lot better, with better looking menus and new apps like BlackBerry Protect, a free service that backs up your data wirelessly, as well as making it easy to trace or erase your device.
OS 6 was designed to work with touchscreen devices, which prompted the launch of the first Torch, with a slide-out keyboard, but using thinner keys without the same tactile feedback. The Torch also suffered a number of production issues that affected build quality.
With RIM seemingly trying everything, it finally got around to producing the 9900. Wider but thinner than a 9780, it packs in a powerful 1.2GHz processor and bigger screen. What's more, it now has OS 7, although the changes are fairly minimal and the only new feature of note is support for NFC (Near-Field Communication).
With the bigger keyboard, we've finally got what we missed from the original 9000. It's so easy to type that it's the nearest you'll come to being content to leave your laptop behind. The screen is now increased to a staggering 640x480 pixels, meaning you can even work on spreadsheets with relative ease. Who needs a tablet?
If only there were more games. Instead, there are plenty of apps to help with travel (clearly all BlackBerry users are jet-setters) and check on news and sport results.
Nothing comes without compromise these days, and one compromise in the Bold 9900 is the camera losing autofocus in favour of an EDoF sensor (Extended Depth of Field).
It negates the need to focus, with the benefit that you can just point and shoot with almost everything in the frame being in focus. The downside is that you can't take close-up images, and photos can sometimes look a little odd.
Compared to the photos from the 9780, the 9900 camera can't quite compete. You can record HD video at 1280x720 pixels, however, whereas previous models topped out at 640x480.
When you watch videos back - whether your own content or movies copied from your computer - the high-resolution screen makes all images look fantastic. RIM calls it 'Liquid Graphics' and the screen is one of the best I've seen on a phone.
The second compromise is the battery, put under strain from the powerful processor and display. If you go ahead and use the phone with the brightness to the max, you'll struggle to get a whole day of use from your 9900.
Given you once expected a BlackBerry to last for weeks, it's a step in the wrong direction but a trend for all smartphones. The only good news is that people are now used to charging regularly, but putting a measly 1,230mAh battery inside was still a silly decision.
You can lessen the problem by using the standard auto on/off feature, to keep the phone off overnight and back on in time to get your emails and messages in the morning, but it's still a shame to have something that can no longer survive a two or three day conference without the need to panic.
Day to day use
RIM has recently updated many of its apps, like Facebook (V2 now includes Facebook chat, for example) and the App World store, making it easier to buy and search for apps and games.
The store is still full of mostly business-focused applications. At higher prices than on rival iOS and Android stores, many people will simply make do with the standard and free apps.
Luckily, RIM spoils you here. Besides the usual email service, which delivers your mail instantly, you can also get new messages and notifications from the Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn applications in one single unified inbox. You can also work with Word, Excel, and Powerpoint documents, where the keyboard, touchscreen and optical navpad come into their element.
There are also apps to turn the Bold into a dictaphone, keep notes and check appointments - all kept in sync, safely and securely. And there's another feature for people who are issued a BlackBerry by their employer, called BlackBerry Balance. This lets you switch from a locked-down business mode to an open version for playtime, allowing you to install your own apps.
Web browsing is now quicker than it ever used to be, thanks to a complete re-write of the browser.
In the future, RIM is looking to switch operating system to that of the PlayBook. One benefit of this could be the ability to install and run Android apps, which will drastically improve the choice of apps. Don't expect the 9900 to be offered a software update, though.
The other hardware feature of the 9900 is NFC support, which can be used to read smart-tags with links to websites, video, and other content. In the future, it could be used to allow payments, but this isn't confirmed.
The Bold 9900 isn't a cheap BlackBerry, but it's certainly one of the best and contains all of the elements needed to be the best. Despite some minor flaws, it's less of a compromise than the bigger Torch, or models without a keyboard at all.
Then there's the forthcoming Curve 9360, which loses a touchscreen but retains NFC and the latest operating system. When this comes out, we'll be reviewing it to see if you can get most of the experience for less money.
For now, however, the Bold 9900 is the flagship for a good reason.