November 13, 2008, 5:18 PM — The scoop: BlackBerry Bold 9000 with AT&T service, by Research in Motion, about US$300 (after $100 rebate, with two-year agreement, plus service).
What it is: The Bold, which has been available in other countries for a while, finally comes to the United States through an exclusive arrangement with AT&T. The smartphone is the first BlackBerry device to support HSDPA high-speed wireless networks, bringing a level of faster data downloads to U.S. BlackBerry owners.
A 624MHz processor runs the Bold, and it includes 128MB of flash memory, 1GB of internal memory, with support for more storage via a built-in microSD/SDHC memory card slot (and it's side-loaded, not stuck behind the battery case -- woo-hoo!). The device also includes 802.11a/b/g wireless connectivity, as well as Bluetooth (including the stereo headset profile). Other features include a built-in GPS, a 2-megapixel digital camera (with 5x digital zoom, flash and video recording functions), voice-activated dialing and a media player. An HTML browser aims to provide a "desktop style" of Web page viewing, with the ability to use the BlackBerry's trackball like a mouse.
Why it's cool: The redesigned interface is very easy to use, as the icons are easier to understand and access than with previous BlackBerry models. The basic "business" features all worked well and were easy to access. I was more impressed with the "personal" applications added to the Bold, including the music player, digital camera and video player. The bright and colorful screen and dual stereo speakers made videos enjoyable to watch, and music enjoyable to listen to (the included Media Synch application made it easy to transfer music to the device). I'm even impressed by the leather back of the Bold, which gives an executive feel to it (although you'll probably want to protect the front of the device with a case).
Some caveats: Despite the claims of a "faster network" for the Bold, my Internet speed tests on the browser showed an average download speed of 311Kbps. As a comparison, an iPhone on the same AT&T 3G network averaged 774Kbps of download speed. Moving to Wi-Fi, the iPhone achieved an average of 1.14Mbps (via my home broadband). At first, the browser wasn't even supporting Wi-Fi, until I switched the browser setting to the "Hotspot browser," which allows Wi-Fi network access to the Internet without having to go through the BlackBerry Internet Service or a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (a nod to IT for security issues). Switching to the Hotspot Browser didn't really help much, as the Wi-Fi connectivity only produced an average bandwidth of 255Kbps. I'm sure there are some good reasons for the dual browser configurations, but it adds to confusion, something end users might not even investigate. The Bold may be accessing the fast lane, but its browser is being lapped by the iPhone.
Bottom line: This is a nice step forward for RIM and the BlackBerry line -- most business users should be happy with this device (unless they really want fast Wi-Fi browser speeds).
Grade: 4 stars (out of five).