Tuesday, May 24, 2011

BlackBerry Bold Touch 9900

RIM always introduces new hardware at its annual conference, and 2011’s BlackBerry World is no exception, with the arrival of a new flagship smartphone: the Bold 9900. The thinnest and fastest BlackBerry to date, the new Bold also sports RIM’s new smartphone operating system, BlackBerry 7.

Only 10.5mm thick, with a stainless steel frame and an attractive glass weave battery cover, the new Bold is a hybrid device, boasting both a 640x480 pixel capacitive touch screen and a full Qwerty keyboard. Underneath the skin, it’s a modern smartphone with a 1.2 GHz ARM processor and 768MB of RAM.

The Bold also has 8GB of flash storage (expandable with up to 32GB of microSD cards). There are plenty of radios, too, with support for tri-band HSPA+ high speed data, and for quad-band GSM/EDGE connectivity, as well as dual-band WiFi (2.4 GHz 802.11 b/g/n and 5 GHz 802.11 a/n) and Bluetooth 2.1. As usual there’s a replaceable battery, with charging points at the bottom of the device that work in RIM’s “pod” charger.

RIM has improved the Bold’s camera, with a new 5-megapixel sensor that supports 720p HD video recording, as well as image stabilisation. There are plenty of other sensors too, with a compass, and accelerometer and GPS – giving the Bold the tools needed to support augmented reality, and RIM is bundling Wikitude AR with the device.

The Bold is RIM’s first NFC device. Using this you’ll be able to tap your device on a tag to get a link with a prompt to open it in the device browser. There’s a developer API for NFC in BlackBerry 7, and RIM expects it’ll be used for everything from payments to quick PIN-less pairing of Bluetooth devices and headsets.

In the hand the Bold is light and responsive. The keyboard is extremely comfortable, while the touch screen reacts smoothly to the touch. The new Liquid Graphics GPU-accelerated user interface works well, with smooth animations and fast transitions at up to 60 frames per second.

There were no rendering delays when scrolling through documents, and zooming in and out of a PDF was smooth and easy, using the familiar pinch-zoom gesture. The screen was good for watching videos, with good clear blacks and vibrant colours.

BlackBerry 7 builds on BlackBerry 6and includes a new version of the BlackBerry browser with additional HTML 5 support and a new, faster, JavaScript engine – which RIM says is faster than Apple’s iPhone 4 and Google’s Nexus S.

We found it a good, fast, browser, showing full desktop versions of web pages. Under the hood there’s support for HTML 5 canvas and video, as well as bleeding edge technologies like websockets and webworkers.

RIM has also included tools for handling geolocation in the browser. However, there’s no Flash support, and we’ve been told that RIM is focusing its Flash work on QNX and the PlayBook, so we’re not expecting to see it on the Bold or in BlackBerry 7.

If you’ve used BlackBerry 6, you’ll find the look-and-feel of BlackBerry 7 very familiar. There are some changes though, including new brighter, more colourful icons, and the ability to customise the panes of the front screen.

RIM has also tweaked BlackBerry’s universal search, with support for voice recognition and deep links into application content. BlackBerry 7 also supports the new BlackBerry ID, using it as a single sign-on for Twitter and Facebook, as well as managing applications in App World.

The new screen is a higher resolution than on previous BlackBerrys, and there may be issues with some existing applications. We did try several applications on a test device running a beta version of BlackBerry 7, and everything worked and looked good on screen.

RIM is bundling new applications with BlackBerry 7 and the Bold 9900, including a new version of its Facebook application with support for Facebook chat. There’ll also be a premium version of Docs To Go, with the ability to edit Excel and Word and present PowerPoint slides.

First look verdict

RIM’s BlackBerry Bold remains the company’s flagship device. The 9900 is fast, powerful and light, with a hybrid keyboard/touch user interface that should suit all types of user. Combined with the new BlackBerry 7 operating system, this looks set to be the BlackBerry for your pocket.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Apple iPhone 4

Love it or hate it, June is the most exciting time of the year in the mobile space for one reason and one reason alone: Apple, the most talked-about company in tech, unveils the newest installment in the ongoing iPhone saga.

Sure, there are plenty of other great smartphones launching this summer, but none attract attention, adoration, fear and loathing like the iPhone.

Apple's new smartphone was hardly a surprise this time around, as a string of leaks that began with a blog purchasing a stolen iPhone 4 prototype spoiled the surprise in epic fashion.

The iPhone 4 has since been poked, prodded, photographed, video taped, torn apart, analyzed, scrutinized, idolized and criticized.

But who are we kidding? This is the new Apple iPhone we're talking about here -- the latest version of the most highly sought-after smartphone on the planet.

The leaks had no impact on the hype surrounding Apple's latest creation, and there was quite a bit of excitement as over 600,000 pre-orders were taken on the first day of pre-order availability alone.

But can the iPhone 4 possibly live up to the hype and carry Apple's smartphone series a sizeable step forward?

The Outside

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And when I first saw the iPhone 4 back in April, I thought it was hideous.

I was always of the opinion that Apple's first-generation iPhone was its best design by a wide margin. The thin frame, the smooth surfaces, the combination of metal and glass...it all came together to form a gorgeous and unique device that looked nothing like any cell phone before it.

Then came the iPhone 3G. The brushed metal on the back of the case was tossed aside and replaced by glossy plastic. In my eyes, it took a huge step backwards in terms of design. It looked more like a phone and less like something special.

The iPhone 4 seen in early leaks appeared to be another big step toward more common, humdrum smartphone designs seen in a variety of competitive products. The back looked like flat plastic, the bezel looked like silver plastic (which it may have been on the early prototype) and I found the overall design to be a bit boring.

Don't call it a comeback -- but when it comes to design and build, the iPhone 4 makes each model before it look and feel like a toy.

It also feels much more like a luxury item than any iPhone before it. In fact, it's easily the most solid and elegant cell phone in the world, discounting ultra-high end offerings from the likes of Vertu and Mobiado.

Competitive "high end" offerings like the EVO 4G, DROID Incredible and DROID X can't even come close to comparing to the new iPhone where build is concerned. Treated glass and stainless steel make the iPhone 4 extremely rigid and there is nary a wiggle to be found or a creak to be heard.

Actually, I'm not quite sure how I'll go back to using "normal" phones now. Great devices like the EVO 4G, DROID Incredible, Palm Pre and so on, are still fantastic when it comes to function but they all feel like cheap toys now.

The bar has been raised.

This is the start of a trend that will push cell phone manufacturing to the next level. A large group of consumers will come to expect this caliber of form to match their smartphones' function.

As I touched upon, iPhone 4 users -- and there will be tens of millions of them before you know it -- will have a very, very tough time moving away from the iPhone 4. The difference in build and feel will simply be too great.

It would be like ditching a top-of-the-line Mercedes for a Scion. The Scion still gets you where you need to go, but it doesn't feel anywhere near as solid or sophisticated while it's getting you there.

Even when new, exciting, feature-rich smartphones are brought to market, they'll have to look the part and adopt sturdier materials before the bulk of iPhone users will ever consider switching. Thin plastics and creaky cases just won't cut it any longer for this crowd.

In terms of design, I don't want to describe the new iPhone design as more manly, but it definitely warrants such a descriptor when compared to the 3G and 3GS. Older models were smooth and shapely while the iPhone 4 is sharp and much more linear.

Since the device is now flat and only 9.3mm thick, the iPhone 4 feels much thinner in the hand than previous models. It has a great weight to it though, and it will obviously slide comfortably into just about any pocket or purse.

As we've known since the initial leak, the iPhone 4 features a slightly smaller display compared to earlier generations, though the diagonal measurement remains at 3.5-inches. In real world use, the difference is negligible. And what the display lacks in size, it makes up for in resolution.

The updated iPhone display is, in a word, amazing. I mentioned in my iPad review that the Samsung Galaxy S was the first phone I had seen that bested Apple's iPhone display. Well, the Galaxy S isn't even out in the U.S. yet and we've already seesawed.

Apple's "Retina Display" is crisp and vibrant, and the massive number of pixels Apple crammed in there do an amazing job of displaying the UI, videos or anything else you send their way. The clarity is remarkable.

The iPhone 4 display also retains Apple's oleophobic coating to provide a level of oil resistance. You'll still smudge the screen up every time you touch it, but a few quick swipes on your shirt or pants will dispense with nearly all of the grease.

It's also still the most responsive touchscreen on the planet as well. The comparison many use to describe interaction with the iPhone's screen is the paper on a table scenario:

Place a single sheet of paper on a table. Now place your finger in the center of that paper and move it around. The paper shifts direction on the table with each and every movement, as if glued to your finger. The point of contact between your finger and the piece of paper never changes, regardless of how fast you move.

Apple hasn't truly achieved an experience that mirrors this scenario yet, but there is absolutely no question that it comes the closest.

Simply put, it's the best cell phone screen on the market.

The Inside

For my money, here's where the real fun begins.

The iPhone 4 ushers in the newly renamed iOS 4.0 and as I stated in a feature entitled Apple attacks naysayers with upcoming fourth-gen iPhone, this phone and OS combination is a direct response to iPhone critics in many ways. It's a one-two punch like none other.

Almost all of the remaining major gripes are covered in this new iOS build. Most importantly, of course, is a solution for third-party app multitasking.

While the OS still does not allow apps to run background processes, it does provide improved application state-saving along with access to seven background APIs that handle the bulk of functions desired by smartphone users (background music streaming, GPS, uploads and downloads, etc).

To accommodate these new background processes, which of course result in more resource and power consumption, Apple has tossed in its 1GHz A4 CPU and a bigger battery.

I've only been using the iPhone 4 for a short period of time so I obviously can't comment on battery life. The beefier processor definitely gives the iPhone 4 plenty of pep though, as it somehow seems even more responsive than the 3GS, though only marginally when compared to the 3GS running iOS 3.1.3.

Then again, the iPhone 3GS is a mess when running iOS 4.

While a 1GHz processor is nothing new in the mobile space -- we might even see speedier offerings in the next six to nine months -- it's important to remember that numbers only tell half the story.

Because iOS 4.0 continues to limit the amount of resources eaten up at any given time, iPhone 4 performance devastates most other 1GHz smartphones in terms of responsiveness and overall user experience.

Apps open, close and switch with the blink of an eye, and I've yet to see the iPhone 4 stutter or stammer a single time. It's impossible to make these claims about other 1GHz phones like the Nexus One, EVO 4G or DROID Incredible.

Of all the qualms iOS 4.0 alleviates, however, one of my biggest still remains. The iPhone notification system is still terrible. It's disruptive. It's illogical. It's annoying. It's abrasive. It's abysmal. It's just plain stupid.

I have covered this issue several times in the past, most recently in a feature entitled Here's what Apple missed with iPhone OS 4.0.

Complaints have been sung far and wide, but the basic idea is that iPhone notifications are disruptive. They're as disruptive as notifications can possibly be on a smartphone. A message pops up in the center of the display and the user is unable to perform any other action on the device until the notification is dismissed.

Make no mistake about it: Apple knows exactly how horrendous its notification system is, and it is undoubtedly working on a revised solution that will be introduced some time in the future. I just wish it was a bit higher on Apple's list of priorities.