Over the past five weeks I have had the opportunity to work with the Blackberry Bold on the Rogers network, including a week in California where I used it on AT&T’s network. While it has provided significant performance improvements over my previous 8820 and has several applications that just are not available for the iPhone, I still had the feeling I was running with late beta stage or release candidate firmware. The availability of a new firmware release over the past weekend has changed that feeling. But its U.S. release on AT&T has also been dogged by 3G network robustness issues.
Let me put some of these issues in perspective, incorporating my own experience with the Bold on both networks.
There are two major technical issues related to the Bold:
- Network robustness issues at AT&T
- Firmware issues that have possibly resulted in suspension of deliveries at Orange (and reports of inventory shortages at other carriers)
First, to cover the AT&T network robustness issues:
- as reported in RIM’s second-quarter report, 60 carriers in 29 countries have launched the Bold, including Canada, where I’ve had a Bold running on Rogers for the past five weeks. Somebody has to be getting their network right.
- several recent news reports have reported on network robustness issues as a contributor to the delayed launch on AT&T: Globe and Mail, TMCNet, CrunchGear
- a personal indicator: on a recent trip to California both my Blackberry Bold and iPhone 3G found an “EDGE” signal on AT&T more often than it found a 3G signal (in spite of setting the Bold to only operate on 3G). On the Rogers network I find the “3G” signal (in supported urban areas, such as Toronto and Montreal) more than 95 percent of the time.
I have to conclude, combining these issues, that the AT&T network robustness issues are real and serve as a threat to RIM’s ability to penetrate the U.S. market via the Bold. On the other hand the pending launch of Blackberry Storm at Verizon may become RIM’s primary route to to the U.S. market for their 3G smartphones, given Verizon’s reputation for, and experience with, 3G networks along with their extensive customer base. (Why else would several of my U.S.-based blogging colleagues attending the recent IT Expo all be running their laptops on Verizon for Internet connectivity with no complaints?)
Five weeks’ experience with the Bold tells me about its firmware:
- It delivers a significant performance improvement relative to the Blackberry 8820 I have been using for the past year. An half-VGA display with over 200 dpi resolution, 3G network speed and 624 Mhz processor speed all contribute.
- At no time has my experience to date inhibited my ability to carry on my normal mobile-supported business activities. I have had an opportunity to successfully take advantage of new applications such as editing Word documents.
- The display grows on you; when you find crystal clear small fonts or view Google Maps, you get this “how did they do this?” feeling. As indicated in other reviews, it’s stunning. And the supported resolution is a major contributor to my next point.
- The Bold is definitely a game changer. After my week of traveling to California with the Bold, I realized that I was experiencing a significant change in my mobile device work patterns. I was simply going to the Bold to keep current not only on email (using a strategic combination of both Blackberry Mail and GMail) but also on my Twitter feed, Facebook and Google Reader. I was able to not only read but also edit Word documents. I had lost the anxiety-inflamed urge to fire up my laptop PC to remain “always connected”; One non-technical acquaintance who has had a Bold since the Rogers launch in late August commented to me last weekend “I’m beginning to think my Bold is more powerful than my notebook”.
- At Mobilize 08 I met Google Maps senior product manager Steve Lee who pointed me to a new version of Google Maps for Blackberry which added Street View to the feature set available on Blackberry. While Google Maps itself is an excellent demonstration of both the Bold’s display quality and speed, turning on Street View and either moving down a street or rotating around a selected address brings into play both network and processor speeds to dynamically generate high quality images. (While this is a feature that will be included on Android, it is still not available on the iPhone.)
- Using Blackberry’s MediaSync, I can keep my music files updated by syncing with iTunes. But I also found having the trackball mouse a significant benefit when transcribing our interview with Josh Silverman via the media player; basically I was using the Bold as a Dictaphone.
- Skype chats running in iSkoot can run in background and provide notification when new chat messages appear. Also when my home office broadband was down recently for a neighborhood cable upgrade, I was able to use iSkoot to call into the daily SquawkBox conference call.
- Performance on WiFi has been excellent; walk into a registered WiFi zone and the Bold picks it up immediately. The actual registration process itself for a WiFi zone could be smoother but otherwise it works as expected.
- However, the Bold has been by no means perfect. Web pages would sometimes come up slowly; on some sites I would randomly get either the actual PC version of a page or the mobile version of the site. Sites were often stripped down to their basic content, absent of banners and sidebars. YouTube videos would stall with a “buffering” indicator appearing in the display; I was never able to view the complete video. I started to feel this was late beta stage firmware, not quite ready for “Main Street”. And then Friday reports appeared that Orange was possibly suspending Blackberry shipments due to software quality issues.
Friday evening I learned that RIM had released new firmware for Blackberry Bold on Rogers. It was described as addressing browser issues, delivering more stability and improving memory management, amongst other issues. I installed it quite seamlessly Saturday morning with the following immediate observations:
- The browser is much faster at bringing up standard web pages and renders original web pages correctly. Pages with few “feature enhancements” involving “scripts” load as rapidly as on the iPhone; pages with lots of “scripts” do take longer but are correctly and much more rapidly rendered.
- YouTube videos can now be played to the end. On some videos I encounter a momentary “buffering” delay but they always went to completion. The actual player itself could provide better video quality to achieve the superb quality I have seen on the Bold’s display when mpeg movie files are run but a user can readily follow the YouTube video action.
- After two days’ use, using the phone itself only minimally but with lots of web activity over WiFi, my battery is only down to the 40% level whereas with the earlier version I found I had to always do a daily overnight recharge.
Other issues need a few days’ use to determine if they have been addressed. But overall this upgraded Bold firmware appears to spell good news for not only Blackberry Bold but also the Blackberry Storm whose major differences involve radio bands supported, slightly larger display resolution and the type of keyboard but otherwise are based on the same underlying operating system, application and browser firmware.
The question that remains here is whether AT&T can fix their network problems in the near future or will the pending launch of Blackberry Storm become the real Blackberry 3G device launch product? For once I am quite happy to be a Rogers customer where they have spent over a year working with 3G technology prior to the Bold’s launch and the network performance is “just there”.
Bottom line: the Bold allows new user work patterns for mobile smartphones. It significantly reduces or removes the reliance on laptops to keep current with many communications activities, whether Skype Chat, Twitter Feeds or even minor document modification. Its 480 x 320 display makes it easy to read blog posts without ribbon bars. Background processing allows true multi-tasking. If you’re in a country where it is available it is worth checking out (especially once any residual firmware issues are resolved; if you’re in the U.S., it’s worth having the patience to await its release on AT&T or even the Storm’s release on Verizon.