New BlackBerry finds a silver lining for RIM

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in a cave on one of Jupiter’s moons, you’ve undoubtedly seen Ontario-based BlackBerry maker Research In Motion in the news lately. Mostly for the wrong reasons.

Blackberry Bold 99301 252x300 New BlackBerry finds a silver lining for RIMWhether it’s stories about the company laying off thousands of employees as it struggles against smartphone titans Apple and Google, or reports of thugs in the U.K. using the BlackBerry Messenger application to coordinate riots and looting, our old friend RIM has been taking a public relations beating as of late.

Depending on how you look at it, this is either a great time or a terrible time for RIM to be introducing new products. Whichever the case, the smartphone granddaddy has just launched three new flavours of BlackBerry in Canada: the BlackBerry Bold 9900, the BlackBerry Torch 9810 and the BlackBerry Torch 9860.

Will these smartphones alone turn RIM’s fortunes around? Frankly, that’s an issue for people with more business savvy than I to debate. For everyday users, the key question is: are these the best BlackBerrys yet?

Well, one of them certainly is. While I tested both the Bold 9900 and the Torch 9810, the former got the lion’s share of my attention, and that’s the one we’ll look at this week. I’ve been using a BlackBerry Bold 9700 for many months now, and thus I’ve been desperate to go thumbs-on with the new Bold 9900. And I’m pleased – maybe even relieved – to report that it is a thing of beauty.

The Bold 9900 ($149 to $199, depending on carrier, on a three-year contract) is the first fixed-keyboard BlackBerry to feature a touchscreen, and it adds a surprising finesse to the BlackBerry experience. What’s already an intuitive device is enhanced by the touchscreen, as you combine keyboard typing with quick pokes and swipes of the brilliant and responsive display. The Torch may have been touted as the best-of-both-worlds BlackBerry, but I think it’s the new Bold that gets it right.

The Bold 9900 is a sturdy, surprisingly slim device, with the widebody form of the original BlackBerry Bold, rather than the narrower but thicker design of the Bold 9700. Going back to a wider ‘berry took some getting used to, but the upside is the Bold 9900 has the best keyboard you will find on any smartphone, full stop.

Like the new Torch, the Bold 9900 boasts a speedier processor (running at 1.2 GHz, compared to the 624 MHz brains found in the previous generation of BlackBerrys), more memory, enhanced graphics and the new BlackBerry OS 7 software. Together, these make everything faster, slicker and simply better. Web browsing is suddenly enjoyable on a BlackBerry. Pinching and zooming is fast and fluid. Apps open more quickly. It’s the BlackBerry experience fans love, made measurably more rewarding.

And because the new BlackBerrys run on each mobile carrier’s so-called “4G” network (our demo units zipped along on the Virgin Mobile network, which it shares with owner Bell Mobility), everything from web-surfing to app-downloading to photo-tweeting is faster.

There are a few caveats with the Bold 9900. For instance, the camera has lost the autofocus feature found in the previous Bold, and the super-slim battery is less robust than its predecessor’s. Both are concessions made to create a thinner overall design.

But as BlackBerrys go, RIM has produced a winner with the Bold 9900. In the big picture and the long run, it remains to be seen how great the impact will be. For now, though, I’m re-smitten with my beloved ‘berry.

BlackBerry Bold 9900

Price: $149 to $199, depending on carrier, on a three-year term; $549 to $629 without a contract. Available on Rogers, Telus, Bell and Virgin Mobile.

Verdict: The slick touchscreen, faster processor, revamped software and solid construction make this by far the best BlackBerry yet.

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