• A Week Without Apple - Day Three, The Distance Between Us

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    RIM (dudes who make the Blackberry) have been king of the hill when it comes to smartphones, particuarly in North America. The Blackberry has affectionately been given the nickname "Crackberry", the word crackberry was even added to the dictionary. It's a device with cultural status, much more than any other smartphone, at least until the iPhone came out. Stereotypically, they're popular with business people who need to be in touch, on the go, or enterprises who need to hand out mobiles to their employees, due to the advanced remote management. It was probably even the best smartphone around until the iPhone rocked up. I've had the BlackBerry Bold for a solid week and been using it as my every day phone since Sunday morning. My conclusions in a brief format, follow below.

    Please note, I came at this as a consumer user. I don't have 500 employees to manage, I don't have enterprise grade servers I need to connect to. I do however, use my device often and for work purposes. Email, Twitter and IM are my primary forms of communication. I rely on my mobile device for my work just as much as anyone. I also use it to entertain me and for fun. So any "business user" experiences or features, won't be covered in this post. That's not to say I'm not a heavy user, but my infrastructure and compatibility requirements are quite different than those of an enterprise.

    What I Liked About the BlackBerry Bold


    The Screen
    It's nice and sharp and has great contrast. The resolution is 480x320, but it is kinda small (2.8"). It displays photos really well. Kudos to whoever made this LCD.

    [caption id="attachment_1263" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Click to Embiggen"]Click to Embiggen[/caption]

    Side Buttons Galore
    There's two side buttons that are customisable to be hotkeys for whatever function you like. I have one set to the application switcher (as apps run in the background on the BlackBerry, so you can effectively, Alt+Tab between running apps) and the other to the camera.

    [caption id="attachment_1254" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Click to Embiggen"]Click to Embiggen[/caption]

    [caption id="attachment_1252" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Click to Embiggen"]Click to Embiggen[/caption]

    Apps In Background
    This isn't an as big deal as I thought actually. I couldn't find any apps I actually wanted to run in the background - but, it does have an advantage - you can go between applications, without the information in the previous app going anywhere, and quicker too, as you aren't closing and re-opening apps, merely changing window focus to each one. It wasn't even a noticeable drain on the battery either.

    [caption id="attachment_1223" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="App Switcher"]App Switcher[/caption]

    No Need for iTunes
    Just drag and drop your music on to the SD card and away you go. All my music is tagged and named correctly, and I always manually add music to my iPhone, so this was great.

    [caption id="attachment_1230" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="Music Playin'"]Music Playin'[/caption]

    Video Playback Without Conversion
    The built-in video player will play back virtually any video file type you throw at it, at any resolution or bitrate, with no hesitation. Very nice. Video can be optimised for the BlackBerry (e.g: smaller res and bitrate for lower file size and less CPU grunt for playback), but it's not necessary.

    Gunk Free Scroll Ball
    Why can't Apple make a scroll ball like this for the Mighty Mouse? There's no gunk built up inside, and it's big enough to actually get a grip onto and control properly.

    Regular Ol' USB
    No need to go digging for a dock connector cable - any one of those mini USB to USB cables you've got in your cable pile in the geek room will charge and sync the thing.

    MicroSD Card Slot
    Want more storage? No worries - pick up a MicroSD card of your desired capacity, pop it in and you're golden like a golden thing covered in gold with a gold tint. Even have different SD cards for what you want. Perhaps 16GB of movies on one, and 16GB of music on another. 16GB SanDisk MicroSD cards are $100.


    Camera Flash
    No brainer and very handy. An LED just to brighten up things a bit.

    [caption id="attachment_1256" align="aligncenter" width="206" caption="Click to Embiggen"]Back of the Bold[/caption]

    Video Recording
    It's coming in iPhone OS 3, I know, but it was fun to record video of random things in random places and then upload them to YouTube.

    So Many Options and Stuff to Tweak
    You wanna customise it? RIM isn't gonna tell you how to do things, they'll let you change every conceivable option possible. I've never seen so much customisation or tweakable options possible.


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    Accurate Cursor Placement
    The scroll ball lets you insert or delete text with better accuracy than the iPhone. How many times have you rummaged around for ages with your finger to get the cursor in the right spot on the iPhone? With the BlackBerry's scroll ball, you can scroll the cursor along until you get the spot you want. It might be a bit slower if you have a lot of text to wade through, but it's rare I was in that situation.

    What I Didn't Like About the BlackBerry Bold


    Spartan UI
    The BlackBerry interface is just so, so, late-90s. For most of it, there's just a white background and black text. No thought given to how a user will interact. It's all very utility like and beyond the UI and ease of use, it's just plain ol' ugly and un-inspiring.

    [caption id="attachment_1235" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="So bare. So empty."]bbscreen25[/caption]




    [caption id="attachment_1227" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="So bland."]So bland.[/caption]

    [caption id="attachment_1214" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="RIM should hire better designers."]RIM should hire better designers.[/caption]

    Menu Hell
    If you want to interact with an app, or change it's status or do something in it, you press the BlackBerry button. It brings up a menu of all the options you can do in that particular part of an app. Sometimes there are dozens of options - having to scroll all the way down or up to do common tasks is annoying. I rarely felt like I was in control using the device, it's usually an experience of just roaming around that menu, trying to find an option to do what you want to do.

    [caption id="attachment_1213" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="This is the only way to do stuff on the Bold."]This is the only way to do stuff on the Bold.[/caption]

    Everything Goes via RIM
    This is what shits me the most (but what some people think is the benefit of the BlackBerry - go figure). You buy your BlackBerry and get a BlackBerry plan, which enables your SIM card to access the telco's BlackBerry server. Now when you want to access the Internet via the built-in web browser, the request goes from your phone, to the telco, then to RIM in Canada, to the site you want to visit, then back again. No matter what site you access, it goes to RIM in Canada. If RIM are down, or experiencing issues, no Internet for you.

    I also found the web browser to be horrendously slow. Before I ditched the iPhone, I did a simple test. Load up The Age website, in full, over 3G. My iPhone running Optus' world famous "internet" and the BlackBerry on Telstra's fast NextG network. Side by side, I set them to load simultaneously. The iPhone did it, on Optus, in about 30 sec. The Blackberry took around 70 sec. Hardly scientific, but representative of the general slowness of using the Internet via RIM's servers in Canada. RIM even compress the site and make images etc. smaller and less data intensive in order to speed things up and it's still damn slow.

    You can use the Internet without going via RIM, but then built in apps (mainly the browser and the email client), just don't work. Plus if you're on a BlackBerry plan, none of that data is in your cap and you're charged crazy dollars.

    Pathetic Browser
    The built-in browser is quite good in terms of rendering the pages. They look pretty much like the actual sites. However, try scrolling around. It's painful with that ball and the cursor. Try resizing the main body text to fit the screen. Nope, no luck. You can zoom in and zoom out, but often it doesn't pick up the divisions and text slabs. The iPhone's web browser is so far ahead, it's not funny. The experience is night adn day. Anyone who claims that they prefer browsing the web on their Blackberry versus an iPhone either works for RIM and has to say that or is a moron of the highest regard.

    [caption id="attachment_1222" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="Why is it so bad?"]Why is it so bad?[/caption]

    Lame App Ecosystem

    I will never, ever take the App Store for granted again. Even with all it's fart apps and flash lights, it's still an awesome way to get apps onto the phone, to pay for apps and to maintain updates to apps. To get an app on the Blackberry, you need to visit the developer's site and install it there. There's no system-wide auto update facility, there's no central repository for apps either. There's Crackberry, which is pretty much the de-facto app store (accessed via a website) and BlackBerry has it's own App World, which is a clone of the App Store, but it isn't out in Australia yet.

    Regardless of where you find the apps and how you get them on there and how they are maintained, the quality of the available apps just blows. It's probably the limited SDK or development features of the BlackBerry, but there's a genuine lack of giving a damn when it comes to the presentation and interaction of the programs. Many are ancient and rarely updated. Many don't adhere to things like copy & paste. Most are simply little hacks that add on features people want that BlackBerry don't provide, or are native apps to interface with web sites (e.g: Google's range of apps for the BlackBerry).

    Then there's the range of apps available. There are not many in the first place. There's bugger all fun games too. Not many non-business-related apps either.

    I think App World will fix a lot of this, and bring a higher class of app to the BlackBerry, but for now, the app ecosystem on the BlackBerry is a ghetto and hardly ever done right.

    [caption id="attachment_1241" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="Twitterberry is probably the best non-big-company made app."]Twitterberry is probably the best non-big-company made app.[/caption]

    [caption id="attachment_1225" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="Gmail looks like, Gmail."]Gmail looks like, Gmail.[/caption]

    Crappy Email
    For a device that is famous for on email, it's a bad sign I had to switch to Google's Gmail client for my email needs. The BlackBerry client *only* reads RIM's servers. If you have GMail, or any other mail server that isnt' connected to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server, you will need to create a BlackBerry account and get your email delivered via RIM's servers like that. RIM sucks the mail from your current email host and provides it to you, with the push goodness enabled. That's about the only good thing actually, the fact as soon as an email hits your inbox, it's pushed out and you're alerted via push notification, not a 5-10-15 min interval, even though your host doesn't provide push email.

    [caption id="attachment_1246" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="The inbox is all you need apparently."]The inbox is all you need apparently.[/caption]

    What really annoys me though, is that all your email is simply dumped into the inbox. If you have mail filters, which send certain emails to certain folders (i.e: all emails for this mailing list go into a folder, all emails from this person go into this folder), that's all ignored by the mail client and it's all just placed into the inbox. The mail client doesn't even adhere to read/unread status. If you read an email on the BlackBerry, your IMAP server doesn't know if it's been read or not, as RIM doesn't pass that info back. So when you return to your computer, you have heaps of unread email.

    [caption id="attachment_1250" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="No folders, just types of messages."]No folders, just types of messages.[/caption]

    I found this unacceptable and had to use Google's Gmail client, which is half-decent.

    So Many Options and Stuff to Tweak
    I listed this as a good thing earlier. But it also has its downsides. Too many options, all laid out in the same menu, buried in menu, buried in menu style, is bewildering and a pain to sift through to get to the option you want. Everything just blurs together and all looks the same. While customisation is a good thing, you can go too far and by giving people too much choice, create problems for yourself, or even problems for the user.

    [caption id="attachment_1244" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="So many alerts."]So many alerts.[/caption]

    [caption id="attachment_1245" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="Fine grain indeed."]Fine grain indeed.[/caption]

    Other Random Observations

    • Keyboard - physical, not physical, I found my speed & accuracy to be pretty much the same.

    • Battery Life - again, pretty much the same, which when you consider the iPhone gets way more hands-on use.

    • Size & Weight - the BlackBerry is very pocketable and is light. The iPhone is heavier, but is feels better in your hand. Both are good.

    • Call clarity & Reception - on Optus, it's pretty much identical (read: poor, coz it's Optus, amirite!)

    • Copy & Paste - rarely used it, btu when I did on the BlackBerry, it was a scroll-a-thon, where as on iPhone, you just tap two points.

    • OS Speed & Responsiveness - no slow downs, nothing particularly snappy either

    • Price - the Bold can be had for $900 unlocked, then another $50 or so for an 8GB MicroSD card. 8GB iPhone is $799 + $120 to unlock. So they're virtually the same price. BlackBerry plans are better value, but they have hangups (read the bit about "Everything Goes via RIM" above).


    [caption id="attachment_1257" align="aligncenter" width="220" caption="Click to Embiggen"]Click to Embiggen[/caption]

    When I was told I was to be given a BlackBerry, I was quite interested, as I've never used one before, of any incarnation. I knew how popular they are, so I had high expectations. A device with so much clout would be worthwhile investigating further. Unfortunately, all it did was highlight the extreme gap between the iPhone and everyone else. At first the BlackBerry was a novelty, with it's scrolling ball and physical keyboard. But then, came the poor UI, the constant scrolling, the sub-par web browser and the intense lag of everything going via RIM ruined it all. We haven't even got to the lack of high quality, useful, 3rd party apps either.

    The BlackBerry in general, is a tool. It does what it's required to do and it does it reliably. Does it do it well? Not always. Do you enjoy using it? Hell no. It's exactly what you get when the mindset is to add features and make sure it has a bazillion options, instead of focusing on user experience and ease of use. Not that the BlackBerry is hard or extremely confusing to use, but to use it, is a task. It's not conducive to experimentation or exploring. I probably sound like a wanker saying all this, like it's important that my phone should be all fun and a joy and make me all warm and tingly inside. But, unfortunately for RIM, that's how the iPhone makes me feel. It wows me. I *want* to use it. The BlackBerry bores me. I don't want to pick it up and play. I only touch it when I need to do something.

    [caption id="attachment_1210" align="aligncenter" width="482" caption="Home Page of the BlackBerry"]Home Page of the BlackBerry[/caption]

    In hindsight, the BlackBerry isn't the phone for me. There's plenty of other, more appropriate phones on the market. I wish Optus got back to me about the HTC Dream, which runs Android, in time for this blog series, as I think that would be the ideal phone for me. Optus sent me a Dream today, so I will have more to say (in a different article) soon.
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