Round Robin: TiPb vs. BlackBerry Bold Final Review

[This is an official Smartphone Experts Round Robin post! Every day you reply here, you're automatically entered for a chance to win an iPhone 3G, Case-Mate Naked Case, and Motorola H9 Bluetooth Headset! Full contest rules here!]

Black and white. Night and day. Left and right. BlackBerry Bold and iPhone 3G. For the penultimate Round Robin, I set aside my multi-touch no Qwerty for Kevin's touch-less Cadillac of Querty's.

And...? I loved it and hated it. How utterly appropriate. Not to be too tale of two-cities about it, but it was both the best of the Round Robin devices for me and the worst. Google's Android G1 tried to do everything but beta'd all of it (give them time though!). The HTC Fuze tried to shellack over Windows Mobile to make it more like the iPhone and -- in terms of usability -- tripped and fell all over itself in the attempt. The Palm Treo Pro, while unabashedly Windows Mobile, was still a touch screen, allowing for some level of direct comparison, and proving just how far behind Windows Mobile's interface has fallen.

But the BlackBerry Bold is a different beast entirely. Direct comparison is impossible. A pager vs. a music player, all grown up and bedecked in smartphone tech. Both devices can do similar things, but their strengths are almost polar opposites, as are the approaches they take in delivering them.

Kevin's already written 7500 words on that, however, requiring few if any from me. So rather than rehash, or duplicate what the previous Round Robin editors have said better before me, I'm going to change it up a bit (yes, again) and look at things from a different perspective. And I'll do it after the break!


The BlackBerry Bold is the nicest hardware I've yet experienced in the Round Robin. The other devices were a little too plastic, a little too creaky. I think battery doors contribute to that since structural elements can no longer be braced to the back, not to mention hinges for the sliders. With the Bold, I expected something as good as the iPhone's singular slab of glass and metal and high-density backing.

I didn't quite get that, however. The Bold is lighter than I anticipated, and some of that lightness just made it feel a tad below the iPhone in build quality to me. That slight aside aside, the whole device speaks -- nay, screams -- luxury. The faux leather, the glossy back trimmed in sliver (yeah, RIM totally ripped the look off, but they did it because it works). It really is the executive smartphone.

And yeah, it's positively covered in buttons. Full Qwerty keyboard (though it misses some of the dedicated keys other devices had, like period, search, etc.), left and right (or plain and studded) convenience keys, green and red phone keys, BlackBerry (menu) and back (yes!) key, volume rocker and mute button. It's even got left and right fake buttons (okay, yeah, they're actually contact points, but they look like buttons which is a slight design failure).

For my tastes, there are actually too many buttons, and I found it too easy to hit them and thus, too easy to do things by accident. One of the convenience buttons defaults to voice control, and so I kept getting a very helpful lady asking to help me do what I didn't want to do, when I didn't want to do it. Thanks for that!

Also, while I'm no BlackBerry ninja, I couldn't find a way to quickly lock the device in the manner of the iPhone sleep/wake button. I could hold down the red phone button, but that seemed to actually turn the services off. Otherwise, the screen would turn off, but if I bumped the wrong button, it would wake up and start to do things as I was pocketing it (again, most often that helpful lady, this time from the rather intrusive confines of my pockets!)

Oh -- and it has a nice screen. Expecting me to gush? I would but after 4 other editors, what's left to say? The iPhone is 160dpi, the Bold is 217dpi or so.

A closer comparison, though, would be the Bold and the iPod "fatty" Nano of the previous generation which had a similar horizontal screen above the control area (substitute scroll wheel for Qwerty). Inarguably it's a gorgeous display with nary a jaggy in sight, however... it's too small for my tastes. I like the iPhone screen size. It's the 52" HD LCD to the Bold's 37". Unless you're in a cramped sliver of a condo, most people would prefer the physically bigger screen, and I find the same holds true on the mobile. Now, give me that 217dpi on a 3.5 in screen and we'd be talking (Touch HD, specifically).

The BlackBerry Life

I'm not reviewing the OS. It's a Java Micro Edition pseudo-OS and despite some limp signs of life in the last (and curiously first) BlackBerry developers conference, both its limitations and the API shenanigans engaged in by RIM (which makes Apple's SDK seem positively straightforward) make it exactly where Dieter pegged it to be: at its zenith much as Garnet was for the Palm Treo 650. It does what it can do, and as a platform I'm not sure it's capable of much more. RIM should be applauded, and should desperately be working on a next generation OS of their own deep beneath Waterloo way.

What I am reviewing is the BlackBerry lifestyle, which is what is required to use this device. It's not called push because it alerts you the moment data has been sent in your general direction, it's called push because it will shove you both in how you must work to make use of that data, and the hold that data begins to take on you.

I've joked about this before, but it really is preemptive and interruptive. PING! You've got mail. PING! You've got BlackBerry messenger. PING! You've got SMS/MMS (yup, it has MMS!). PING! You've got... on and on and on... If you have any heft to your contact list, and size to your mail pipe, that little blinking red light is going to start to pwn you. Kevin says it's compelling. It's the crack. It makes you not want to put it down, and if you have, to pick it back up again often and always.

And I'm not sure that's a Good Thing.

But back to that in a moment. More than just pushing your data, the BlackBerry records and pushes state on that data. If you're messaging, for example, not only are you alerted to it being sent, but to it being delivered, being read, and even when the other person is typing a response to it.

Some call this accountability. Your boss, your partner, your fellow communicator knows what you've seen and when you've seen it. And it scares the privacy out of me. Sure, it's not dissimilar to IM status in many applications, but then I heavily restrict my IM usage as well. It's like having that boss, partner, or fellow communicator staring over your shoulder 24/7. Frankly, it's creepy. Don't just get off my lawn, get out from over my shoulder!

Back to Ping Death. I have no attention span. Give me a distraction and I'll take it and ask for another. I need to focus in a world that does everything it can to split my focus. See, it's not that I don't understand the crack in Crackberry Kevin's metaphor. I understand it too well. And the last thing an addictive personality needs is another addiction.

Slice it this way: demanding attention is different than on-demand. In my day job, we have a term called "data explosion" where so much information comes at you so fast it becomes paralytic. The BlackBerry is a little like that. Kevin has said the BlackBerry is an on-the-go device and the iPhone is a stop-and-use device. I had the exact opposite experience.

With the iPhone, I listen to podcasts or audio books as I commute. I occasionally read the email previews when at traffic lights or when walking downtown. I glance at the SMS previews likewise. (I wish I could do likewise with iChats, but more on that next week). I can surf the web or play some casual game while I'm waiting in line. It fits into the broad or broken moments of my day.

The Bold breaks my day. If I have 3 people hitting me on BlackBerry Messenger all at once, I can't handle that exchange "on-the-go". I have to stop, parse each message, make sure I'm in the right place for each one, and respond appropriately. And the little red blinker makes certain I really want to jump in and engage with those 3 people post-haste -- even if I'm supposed to be finishing this review. The more important the person is to me, the more demanding. RIM really nailed the social aspect harder than even MySpace or Facebook, and perhaps rivaled only by always-on Twitter. Once you get a bunch of people all on BBM, it's like being at a really good party and the push notifications are like shots. You don't want to leave -- but eventually you'll collapse.

With the iPhone, I've turned on push but turned off notification. Everything is there and instantly available -- but on my terms, in my time. I am master of the machine, not slave to it.

On the BlackBerry I could do the same, but then I feel like I don't really have (or need) a BlackBerry any more. Oh, sure I can edit office docs, but I could do that on Windows Mobile (and too be honest, I bought a Windows Mobile device a couple years ago for that very reason and found it crippled and frustrating enough never to bother.)

So, take this as my stand against the culture of interuption, for which the BlackBerry could most easily be the poster child. This is why I mentioned at the beginning that the Blackberry is the non-iPhone I both loved and hated the most in the Round Robin. It's not just that I think the age of physical keyboards is over (the Storm -- which I'll get to in a follow up -- gives a keyboard-less BlackBerry option), it demands an entire shift in lifestyle. It just works, in all the triple-entendre'd terror that implies.


I won't lie. I'm going to miss the Bold, and the BBM, and the instant connection to all my friends and contacts. But at the same time I'm going to enjoy getting my life back. A good friend of mine who works in a super-critical position in a huge company is a BlackBerry user and as much as he loves it, he hates it with a breathing passion because he knows every call could be his boss asking why he hasn't done something about what the boss already knows he's seen, read, or otherwise been pushed. He's highly placed in this company, with exponentially more people beneath him than above, but we all know it's the bosses (or girl/boyfriend/spouses) call that comes most often, and with the biggest impact. I can understand why people are so passionate about the BlackBerry, but I can also understand why people sue for overtime when their companies "give" them BlackBerry's to use. Crackberry is a very apt nickname.

Apendix: Sleeping with the Frenemy

A few people I know duel-wield the iPhone and the BlackBerry. To get a sense of their "best of both worlds" approach, I spent a few days Bold-only as the Round Robin demands, and the weekend slinging one on each hip.

To first address something we get a lot of in the forums, the iPod touch/BlackBerry nirvana is an urban myth. Absent 3G and GPS you'll be missing out on one of the most exciting aspects of the iPhone: ubiquitous location-based services. The Bold has the same guts, but it's user experience for this technology just doesn't compare, while the iPod touch's WiFi restriction makes it unusable for large stretches. I had an iPod touch originally. It took me all of a week to give it away and get an iPhone.

Back to iPhone+Bold. It's an interesting approach but one I ultimately found would be too cumbersome and expensive. Since I won't switch SIMs every 2 minutes, I'd need 2 plans, one with BIS (which I won't rant on now, but which deserves it for being both powerful and punishing to consumers -- you shouldn't need anything other than a standard data plan to run a smartphone in 2008! Work that out RIM!). I'm also a Mac user, and while RIM is improving Mac support (and aren't anywhere near as negligent as Windows Mobile) it's nowhere near there yet. Since many Mac users are also CrackBerry addicts, and proven price-insensitives and brand-loyalists, ignoring them (us) is just bad business.

Bottom line, I don't have a handy bat-buckled utility belt, nor do I want to be perpetually clad in vests-of-many-pockets, so convergence devices are important to me. I would only ever carry one phone. In this world, it's the iPhone. In another world (where my lifespan would not doubt be shorter and my stress level way higher), it might just have been the Bold.


Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.