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BlackBerry battles back, but Droid Bionic wows

Consumers have a choice between solid and cool

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / September 15, 2011

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From time to time, I miss my old BlackBerry Bold - the brick-like solidity of it, the snappy little keyboard buttons, its aura of stolid reliability.

This is one of those times.

T-Mobile USA has lent me the latest high-end smartphone from BlackBerry’s parent company, Research In Motion Ltd. The BlackBerry Bold 9900 is clearly a hold-the-fort product, combining the traditional keyboard with a touch-sensitive screen and a modest update to the company’s grizzled operating system.

BlackBerry is desperate to halt a relentless decline in its market share, as people are tempted away by Apple Inc.’s iPhone or, in my case, a cute Samsung Corp. handset running Google Inc.’s Android software.

Maybe the desperation helped; the Bold 9900 is so good, I very briefly questioned my decision to defect.

It’s about as slim as any phone on the market, with stainless-steel edges shamelessly copied from the iPhone. The new Bold feels firm and comfortable in the hand, and even better when you start typing. Its keyboard is the best I have found on any phone, with a decisive response that puts touchscreen keyboards to shame.

You pay for the keyboard with a video screen that is small, just 2.8 inches across diagonally. Still, it’s a bright, sharp little screen, with respectable video quality. Better yet, it’s a touchscreen, so you can access many phone functions by dabbling at on-screen icons, just like the cool kids do. The interface resembles that of the PlayBook tablet, with icons grouped into sensible categories and accessed via side-to-side sweeps of the finger. It’s a layout that gets maximum benefit from a miniature screen.

My old Bold had a lousy Internet browser. The upgraded version is much better, although it’s still hard to read on the Bold’s little screen. The old Bold had an awful camera; this one’s fantastic, a five-megapixel device that shoots very good stills and high-definition video. And the T-Mobile edition of the phone uses the carrier’s so-called 4G network for faster wireless data speeds, good enough for decent Web surfing and photo viewing.

In all, a darn good phone, enough to question a switch to Android. But then along comes the newest smartphone from Verizon Wireless and Motorola Mobility Inc. to snap you out of it.

The Droid Bionic is pretty cool. There’s a dual-core processor, a gigabyte of memory, a great big 4.3-inch screen, and an eight-megapixel camera that can shoot 1080p high-def video, compared to 720p for the Bold.

You can view videos and photos on your home television using the Bionic’s HDMI connector. It uses Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE system, which means far faster downloads than T-Mobile’s version of 4G. And like the Motorola Atrix 4G phone released earlier this year, it supports an optional $300 lapdock, a sort of brainless laptop computer with a screen and keyboard, but no processor. The Bionic, of course, is the processor. Plug it in to the lapdock, and it becomes a low-powered, but decent netbook computer.

Both the Bionic and the Bold officially cost $299 with a two-year service contract. However, I had no trouble finding them for much less online. Amazon.com offers the Bold 9930, a version designed for use on the Sprint Nextel Corp. network, for just $199. Amazon also sells the Bionic for $179.99.

So while I like the new Bold, the Bionic is more powerful and far more versatile. It can run more than 250,000 thousand software apps, compared to a mere 35,000 for BlackBerry devices. It’s even cheaper.

Still, all is not lost. Sometime next year, BlackBerry will roll out new phones built around the QNX operating system found on the ill-fated PlayBook tablet. The PlayBook flopped, but don’t blame QNX; it is first-class software, and it might represent BlackBerry’s last chance of long-term survival. For now, the company’s playing defense, and pretty well too. I bet BlackBerry loyalists will scoop up a lot of Bold 9900s, but it’ll take a good deal more to win back the traitors, like me.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.