Life with a BlackBerry Bold

I have had my BlackBerry now for a couple of weeks, so it is probably time for me to give my initial impressions. At this point, I can say I am quite impressed with the BlackBerry Bold. I am happy I chose it over the BlackBerry Storm or the iPhone. There is definitely room in the market for a choice of devices, and the iPhone is not always “the best”. Now on to my explanations and observations.

The Choice

Firstly, I will address my choice between the iPhone and the BlackBerry Bold. To be clear, I believe the iPhone is a great piece of technology. It is actually more of a highly mobile computer than a “smart phone”, and has some tremendous capabilities. Unfortunately, for me and probably a percentage of other users, the iPhone has some drawbacks. The main reasons I went with the BlackBerry Bold, in no particular order:

  • replaceable/user accessible battery
  • physical keyboard
  • highly reliable/configurable mail and alerts including a flashing “alert” LED
  • true multi-tasking (multiple applications running/active at once)
  • corporate VPN-like functionality for access to company services remotely

Two of the above items require some additional detail and clarification: the handling of email and alerts, and remote access via the device to secure corporate resources.

If your work critically depends on the the receipt and visibility of the messages you receive, then I think the BlackBerry wins. Each source of messages on your BlackBerry can have customizable alert behaviors: flash the light, vibrate, make a noise. Most importantly, these things all happen regardless of what application is open on the phone. The iPhone on the other hand, unless jailbroken (hacked), can make a noise. That’s it- if you miss the noise, the only way to find out later if you have messages is to open the email application. If you forget to do this, you may not have any awareness of the message(s) you received.

The way notifications work on the iPhone is a conscious design choice. The iPhone is not focussed on critical delivery of messages: instead it is, like a computer, a highly flexible platform for running different applications. Yes, the BlackBerry can run apps too, but that isn’t its forte. On a computer, you launch your email application to see if you have any messages. If you don’t do that, then obviously you don’t care, and this is the philosophy of the iPhone design. On the BlackBerry, messages are always presumed to be something you want to know about, and right away: the assumption here is that you have the BlackBerry *for exactly this reason* above all others. The iPhone establishes no such “messages uber alles” primacy.

And the BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Service) functionality is unmatched by any device. If your company has BES services, you basically can connect your BlackBerry to internal corporate resources as if you were in the office: not just mail, but instant messaging, internal corporate websites, and even terminal sessions can be remotely accessed with military-grade security and reliability. The iPhone has nothing like this currently and, since this is the secret sauce RIM has spent years developing, I doubt iPhone or anyone else ever will match the BlackBerry capabilities in this regard.

So who cares about these specific BlackBerry capabilities? If you work for a smaller company that doesn’t have a BES deployment, and if you don’t live or die based on receipt of individual messages, then the iPhone definitely has an edge in terms if flexibility. But if you work for a larger company that does have BES infrastructure, or you would lose business/suffer if messages weren’t noticed or responded to, then the BlackBerry comes out ahead.

For those who want to cut to the chase: people who say the Blackberry is “dead” because of the iPhone are totally and utterly full of shit. Hopefully that is clear enough for the tofu-eating Birkenstock wearers out there. Note that I like the iPhone, and I own several Macintoshes, so I’m not expressing an unreasonable bias. I’m using the often ignored material between my ears to actually understand why corporate users continue to see the advantage to the BlackBerry, and it is an advantage which applies to me.

BlackBerry Bold observations

It is worthwhile noting that I could have purchased a Storm if I wanted to have something more like an iPhone. However, the Storm has some tradeoffs: firstly, no physical keyboard (which is a “feature” it shares with the iPhone), and secondly, no WiFi. The latter was a deal-breaker for me. WiFi support means I can use my home network for web-browsing and messages when I’m at home, saving on costly Telco bandwidth whenever possible. Given that I’m at home at least 60% of the time that I need to receive messages, this is a good thing.

The Bold itself is bulkier than many of the smaller phones you may be used to, but it fits well in my hand and is more or less equivalent in size to many other smart phones. The basic reality is that, if you want a high quality display and some kind of keyboard input (whether physical or virtual), your device needs to be a bit larger.

Menu navigation on the Bold is via a tiny little trackball, which works quite well within the context of the Bold’s user interface, but has some shortcomings when using it with the more free-form browser. When trying to move the cursor around in the browser, the trackball feels a bit “slushy” and slow- here is where a touch screen would make a big difference. I also find the BlackBerry web browser to be pretty unimpressive overall: it seems very slow to load pages (with lots of “loading…. running scripts…loading…running scripts” delays) even on WiFi. I’m not sure how this compares to other smart phones, but on the BlackBerry it is sufficiently irritating that I try to avoid using the browser.

The email is, as you might expect, fantastic. It works perfectly for the types of messages I receive, is responsive and functional, and has a ton of flexibility in terms of customizing notifications/alerts. The RIM BIS (the “non-corporate” system for accessing the Internet via your BlackBerry) is very fast in terms of routing email. If I send an email to my BlackBerry and my home computer, my BlackBerry gets it in a second or two: my home computer (a Macintosh using Apple’s “MobileMe” service) usually takes several minutes.

I haven’t tried instant messaging yet. I’m awaiting the necessary authorizations to connect my BlackBerry to our corporate network and, once that is done, I expect I’ll be using IM pretty regularly. I have, however, tested out a secure shell (SSH) terminal session on my BB and that works surprisingly well.

GPS on the BlackBerry seems… flawed. I have found it consistently difficult and slow to get a satellite lock and, without that, there is no GPS functionality on the phone. The “Searching for satellites…” message every time you launch the GPS app is incredibly irritating. Apple has apparently done a good job with the iPhone ‘hiding’ this problem. The iPhone’s navigation and location logic relies on several inputs: cell phone tower triangulation, inertial tracking, and GPS, and does so without delaying/interfering with the user. Yes, the non-GPS methods have shortcomings, but the user at least gets *something* out of the process. The default BlackBerry navigation and location awareness is quite weak in this regard. I understand third party software can improve this functionality, but I have not yet seen it in action. As it stands, adding geo-awareness to things like your photos or Twitter posts is non-functional most of the time, and map navigation is nearly useless.

Some of the best apps on the BlackBerry don’t come from RIM at all. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • TweetGenius: the application I use to post to Twitter from my BB: it is fantastic, fun to use, and visually enjoyable. The graphics are almost edible, it truly “feels” like a BB application, and it is very functional
  • Viigo: a “swiss army knife” application which can do all sorts of things, but which I use primarily as a news feed (RSS) reader
  • BeWeather: (aka BerryWeather) I like having regular weather updates, and tried several apps before I settled on BeWeather. Like TweetGenius, this is an elegantly designed and very functional application; it can provide weather for multiple locations, with visuals showing your choice of long range forecasts, hourly breakdowns, or detail
  • QuickLaunch: This is where the multi-tasking functionality of the BB becomes visible. QuickLaunch is an application that allows you to pop up a menu of applications and switch between them quickly and easily. This is always possible on the BlackBerry, but is normally a somewhat clumsy multi-step process. You can bind QuickLaunch to one of the physical buttons on the sides of the BB and access the application menu anywhere

Some of these applications cost money, some don’t. The ones I’ve bought are all in the sub-$10 range, which i find pretty palatable: frankly, I’ve forgotten which of the above apps I paid for, and which were free. The process of acquiring and installing applications for the BlackBerry is somewhat imperfect.

There *is* a BlackBerry application store (BlackBerry AppWorld) which is functionally similar to Apple’s AppStore: it has both free and purchased applications, and has a fairly elegant and easy to use interface on the phone itself. Payments, when necessary, are handled exclusively through PayPal: personally, I don’t have a problem with this, but I know some people are adamantly against the PayPal payment service. The real problem with AppWorld, however, is that (unlike Apple’s AppStore) it isn’t mandatory. That means you can buy and download software for your BB in other ways, and in some (many?) cases the applications are only available outside of AppWorld. This makes the experience less seamless than on the iPhone: instead of having one place to look, one interface to use, and one consistent way to pay, you may have many. The positive thing about this is that applications aren’t constrained by the somewhat capricious and unwritten “rules” of the Apple AppStore- on the BlackBerry, if you want to install apps off some website, you can… and without “jailbreaking” your phone.

Conclusions / Closing Remarks

The BlackBerry Bold is a capable and enjoyable device to use. For my current purposes, it was/is a better choice than the iPhone: and in general, for “corporate” users, this is likely going to remain true for the foreseeable future. The weaknesses of the BlackBerry appear most obviously in the area of web browsing: an improved (higher performance) browser with a superior interface would make a huge difference here.

If your objective is to experiment and play games with your phone, and you have no corporate access requirements, then the iPhone is an elegant and interesting device which is in many ways superior to the BlackBerry for these sorts of “personal” functions. If you have a particular job to do and work within a corporate “umbrella”, then the BlackBerry is the clear choice. If your needs straddle the line between these two areas… I’d say the BlackBerry is a better choice, although that can be debated.

Would I buy an iPhone if I didn’t have a job at a large corporation? That depends: if I still worked in a role that benefited from having highly portable computing power, and didn’t have the requirement for “critical” notifications, I probably would. However, if the success of my work depending on my being aware of my messages in a timely and reliable fashion, the BlackBerry would still win even in the absence of a corporate network to connect to. That little flashing red light absent from the iPhone is surprisingly important in this context.

3 thoughts on “Life with a BlackBerry Bold”

  1. One of my irritations with the BlackBerry is the speed and fidelity of the browser. I don’t have much faith regarding RIM themselves correcting this shortcoming, but it seems others may be on to something. Check out the Bolt browser by Bitstream: I just started playing with it today, but it is like night and day. Speed is far more usable, and more importantly pages render in a useable fashion.

    I’m writing this comment using Bolt on my BB: that is almost inconceivable with the standard BB browser

  2. Hello, Kayli! In essence, yes: if you sign up for any kind of data contract with the provider when you buy the phone, your monthly bill will include an allowance for some amount of data use, which you will be paying for whether you use it or not. This is true of all “smart” phones (including the iPhone, Windows Mobile phones, and the new Palm Pre), and it really has nothing to do with the phone- it is related to how the service providers like to bill.

    The alternative is to pay for data as you use it, which generally will cost you many times as much per byte of data transferred. Expect to pay something on the order of $100 per gigabyte, possibly more.

    The service providers want to make it financially in your best interest to pay up front for the maximum amount of data usage you might need, and then (of course) rarely if ever use that much. So they make “pay as you go” data plans very unattractive, if they make them available at all.

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