BlackBerry Bold 9930 Beats Torch 9850

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The smartphone industry has become so large that it is becoming highly segmented. One key distinction is between toys and mission-critical work tools. This is where the new BlackBerry Bold 9930 comes into the picture.

I have spent the last two months testing two of the newest BlackBerrys -- the Bold 9930 and Torch 9850. They are available on Sprint ( S) and Verizon ( VZ) for the typical high-end smartphone prices.

Here is the bottom line: The Torch 9850 is a miserable experience that should be avoided by everyone. In the sharpest of contrasts imaginable, the Bold 9930 is the best BlackBerry to date, and is highly recommended as the best basic productivity tool in the market today.

Starting with the hardware, the Bold 9930 is the latest and fanciest evolution of the classic BlackBerry form factor. It's thinner than its predecessors, has a bigger and better keyboard, a much faster processor, a dramatically improved screen that is now touch-capable, and incorporates NFC (near-field communications). Clearly this hardware remains behind the competition in its lack of a front-facing camera and things such as 21 or 42 meg HSPA, or for that matter WiMax or LTE, but other than that, the Bold 9930 is the ultimate in hardware. It is the iPhone 4's equal in terms of quality feel and suitability for a pedestal in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
BlackBerry Bold 9930

I can't emphasize enough how superior the Bold 9930's keyboard is. It's the Cadillac -- or Rolls Royce -- of keyboards. It feels like you have a Lenovo ThinkPad laptop -- or an Apple ( AAPL) MacBook Air laptop -- in your hand. If you appreciate being able to type fast, accurately, and not having to look much if at all at the keyboard while doing it, the Bold 9930 is for you.

There is one downside to this Cadillac-style Bold 9930 keyboard, however, and that is that it's very wide. People with small hands may feel a little strained. This has further repercussions in the area of selecting the right kind of case, but I will get to that later.

From a software perspective, the Bold 9930 improves upon the previous BlackBerry experience primarily in two ways:

1. It's just a lot faster. You will see fewer instances of the dreaded hourglass, freezes and crashes. Things are not perfect by any means, but stability is significantly better than before. That said, I argue that on average, Microsoft ( MSFT) Phone and Apple's iOS are more stable overall. Android stability? So-so, a major hit-and-miss from device to device, but on average I find the new BlackBerry 7.0 more stable than most Androids.

2. Dramatically improved browser. With 6.0 in August 2010, BlackBerry got a major software improvement in the browser that made it at least not completely useless. However, it was not on par with the competition from Android and iOS, seemingly to a significant extent as a result of inferior hardware. This has now been fixed with the launch of BlackBerry 7.0. It is true that nothing can ever be as useful and look as good on a smaller screen, but that's a screen issue -- not a browser issue. The quality of the BlackBerry 7.0 browser appears to me to be on par with the best from iOS, Android and Microsoft Phone. This means BlackBerry has closed an important and long-standing gap.

There are important areas where the software on the BlackBerry remains behind its three chief rivals -- iOS, Android and Microsoft Phone:

1. App install and uninstall. These are insanely slow and often require reboots. Absolutely unacceptable. What's the good news for BlackBerry here though? With its new QNX operating system that's already on the PlayBook, and will be on smartphones starting in 2012, slow and unstable app installs and uninstalls will no longer be an issue. But for now, it's a big issue.

2. Generally low quality of apps. I'm speaking broadly here, but I find that the quality of the apps for the BlackBerry is lower than iOS in particular, but also Microsoft Phone and Android. One critical example: The Twitter app. It looks good because of the great screen pixel density, but has terrible behavior when scrolling. Twitter has become a critical app, and the BlackBerry version is far behind its three major competitors in terms of refinement. RIM needs to make the quality of the apps -- and critical ones such as Twitter -- a priority.

3. BlackBerry does not yet offer WiFi hotspot capability. Supposedly, this is coming soon, but until it does, this absence is a big strike against the platform as of today.

4. Unsatisfactory cloud sync. BlackBerry has outstanding cloud sync if you're on a BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES). However, regular people don't have a BES, so they mostly have to plug in the BlackBerry to the PC so that you're synchronized with Microsoft Outlook.

You can synchronize wirelessly with Google ( GOOG), but you're limited to 10,000 or 25,000 contacts -- nobody seems to know for sure, because there are two (2) ways to sync with Google, with one of them limited to 10,000 and the other doesn't say, but Google's address book itself is limited to 25,000. In addition, Google doesn't sync the BlackBerry PIN field or the categories field. Bottom line: Unsatisfactory outcome.

These warts aside, the Bold 9930 remains the best work tool of its class for some specific reasons. For many people, text entry is by far the most important thing we do on a smartphone. We read and write emails, we take notes, and we add and edit contacts. This just can't be done with any reasonable speed or accuracy if you type on glass. I've tried, and so have others, because otherwise almost nobody would be buying BlackBerry devices at least in the U.S.

Despite huge unemployment, including those who demonstrate 24 hours a day, there are still a few people who work left in this country. And some of those people have to process 400 emails a day, including writing emails that are grammatically and stylistically correct. So there is a market for BlackBerry still.

It's more than just typing on the keyboard. It also offers dramatically time-saving shortcuts, such as T for top of message list, B for bottom, U for last unread, R for reply, F for forward, and so on. I use BlackBerry in parallel with devices from Android, iOS and Microsoft Phone, and for email I go back to BlackBerry every time. It's still not a close call -- although the Dell ( DELL) Venue Pro using Microsoft Phone is in a clear No. 2 position at this point.

Furthermore, BlackBerry offers a way to handle emails that I don't see on any other platform. What I am talking about here is that I would like to be able to erase an email on the smartphone but have it show up as "read" in Gmail. As best as I can tell, Android, iOS and Microsoft Phone don't offer this option. If I have missed something, let me know. They either sync completely, so that when you erase an email on the smartphone, it also erases on the server -- or they do something else. But not change the status on the server to "read." For me, this is a huge strike against the other platforms.

BlackBerry is professional in other ways as well. I mentioned the address book issues, but they pale in comparison to the competition. At least if you synchronize with Microsoft Outlook, it allows you to have over 25,000 contacts. You can sort the entries based on company name -- not just first or last name. These things are huge for some professional people. They alone justify staying with BlackBerry despite the rapidly improving competition.

Then there are the other little things that one takes for granted with the BlackBerry. For example, what's the best smartphone in the world? The one where the battery isn't dead. While the battery life on the Bold 9930 is not great, it is still better than any Android I have tested. The worst I have experienced is five hours, and the best is over 12 hours. I think the average is six to 10 hours, which is bad, but not as bad as the best Android.

The second simple compelling reason for BlackBerry is the big red blinking light. I typically carry four smartphones and put them side by side on a table. When an email arrives, which one notifies me the fastest? BlackBerry, 100% of the time. The big red light blinks, so that's the one I pick up. Why is this so hard for iOS, Android and Microsoft Phone to copy? Apple could put RIM out of business if it just made a competitive keyboard on the iPhone and combined it with a big red blinking light for incoming emails -- and made sure that they got to the device as fast as BlackBerry does.

For these and other reasons, the BlackBerry 9930 is the best smartphone for some people in the market today. Those who do serious stuff. No games, no soft-soapy liberal arts stuff. People in the information business -- lawyers, traders, assistants, CEOs, spies, consultants... Probably not people who have the luxury of time to demonstrate against capitalism 24/7.

The strong positive verdict on the Bold 9930 contrasts sharply against the Torch 9850, which is touchscreen-only. It has no proper keyboard, just like the iPhone. On the surface, it should perform the same as the 9930, but without the keyboard.

Here is the problem: It just doesn't. Unlike the touchscreens on the Torch 9810 and Bold 9930, both of which are excellent -- the 9850's touchscreen is terrible. It seems to be made from a different kind of glass. Cheaper, not as slick.

Practically speaking, the terrible screen on the Torch 9850 manifests itself in any form of text entry. Entering user names and passwords was a nightmare. As I was setting up the device, I almost threw it out the window out of frustration. I had to re-enter user names and passwords multiple times before I got them right.

Type an email? Forget it. It will take you ten times longer (probably more) than on the outstanding Bold 9930. Without the keyboard, you also don't have the shortcuts. What about soft reboot? Memory clearing? There probably is a way, but I don't know about it. It's not obvious, coming from the Bold 9930 or any of its predecessors.

Therefore, the Torch 9850 gets a resounding F grade. Fail. I still have to mention, however, that the hardware is quite attractive. It's rounded in all of the right places, and the battery life appears competitive. The materials feel rich. This could have been a good device, but the miserable typing experience means this is as useful as a Bentley with a lawnmower engine. It makes what could have been good, into something that's 99% useless.

Seriously, RIM ( RIMM), who allowed this product to be released? And for the carriers who offer it -- Verizon and Sprint -- who approved it for sale? Has anyone actually bought it? Of those who bought it, has anyone kept it beyond the 14- or 30-day money back guarantee? If so, I would like to hear from you. I must have missed something. Or not.

So whereas the Bold 9930 is a fantastic device I recommend to almost everyone, the opposite is true of the Torch 9850. RIM sure is a study in contrasts.

Seeing as the Bold 9930 is this year's smartphone keeper for that primary workhorse purpose, I decided to also review two cases for it, both from BlackBerry case-maker stalwart Otterbox. These two cases are the Commuter series and Impact series.

The Commuter series is the fancier one of the two, and the price is $35. It's got a few problems with it. First, it's slippery. This didn't matter as much on the older 9700 and 9780 models, in part because they were not as wide. When the device is record-wide as in the case of the Bold 9930, and then you add additional width with this case, it can't afford to be slippery.

The Commuter version also covers too many ports, such as the charging port, unnecessarily. Then, it also is a bit of a chore to get on and off, unlike its predecessor for the 9700 and 9780 models. Bottom line: The Otterbox Commuter case is okay, but not good or great.

But then we have the $20 Impact case from Otterbox. This is a simple rubbery one, that's easy to get on and off, and it doesn't cover any of the ports, which is good. More importantly, however, it is not slippery, which is critical when the device itself is so wide. You don't walk around with it in your hand worrying that it will fly out of your hand. The fit is superb, and the rubber is grippy but not too rubbery where it would stick unnecessarily. It gets a perfect score.

The one advice I would give for Otterbox is to make an additional model modeled on Apple's original case for the iPad 1 in 2010. It should flip out the cover to the side, like a book, and have no magnets. It would allow for additional privacy when typing in public locations. It is what Apple itself failed to do with the iPad 2.

Bottom line: Now that you have decided that the BlackBerry Bold 9930 is the ultimate productivity-focused smartphone, you will want to protect it with the bargain $20 Otterbox Impact series protective case.

At the time of submitting this article, the author was long AAPL, RIMM and GOOG.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

Anton Wahlman was a sell-side equity research analyst covering the communications technology industries from 1996 to 2008: UBS 1996-2002, Needham & Company 2002-2006, and ThinkEquity 2006-2008.

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