November 05, 2009, 12:01 PM — Research In Motion's BlackBerry Bold 9700 ($200 with a two-year T-Mobile contract; price as of 11/4/09) is the finest BlackBerry to date, combining the best of the BlackBerry Tour 9630 and the BlackBerry Bold 9000 in a slim and refined package. People looking for a major update to the original Bold might be disappointed, but BlackBerry fans will appreciate the handset's subtle design tweaks and upgrades.
Measuring 4.3 by 2.4 by 0.6 inches, the 9700 is much more pocketable than the colossal 9000 (which measured 4.5 by 2.6 by 0.6 inches). The new handset is lighter, as well, weighing 4.2 ounces (down from 4.8 ounces). Though the leatherette back is still present, it's minimized on this new version--a good thing. (I'm just not a fan of fake leather on a phone.)
On the right spine are the volume rocker and the camera shutter/convenience key (a function key that you can program to open any app of your choice). On the left side you'll find another convenience key as well as the standard 3.5mm headphone jack and micro-USB port. Lock and mute buttons are at the top of the device. Below the display sits the familiar row of hardware buttons we've become accustomed to seeing on BlackBerrys: Talk, Menu, Back, and End/Power.
Call quality over T-Mobile's network was spotty at times. On a few of my calls, I heard a faint hiss in the background--I don't think this is an issue with the Bold's hardware, though, because I've heard this hiss on other T-Mobile devices. The Bold 9700 also allows you to make calls over Wi-Fi using a technology called Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA); the voice-over-Wi-Fi feature improves reception in locations where cell signals are weak. (The AT&T version of the Bold 9700 does not have UMA support, however.)
RIM's decision to add a touchpad instead of a trackball was wise: BlackBerry trackballs get dirty and start to stick, and sometimes even fall out with a lot of use. The responsive touchpad gives the Bold the feel of a touchscreen device, particularly when you're swiping through pictures. BlackBerry loyalists who are used to the trackball might find the touchpad disconcerting. However, though it might be a different sensation, having a touchpad rather than a faulty trackball will save users money in the long run.