After a big run of flashy smartphone announcements, including the Motorola Droid/Milestone and even the BlackBerry Storm2, it was easy for the BlackBerry Bold 9700 to slip in under the radar. But this very solid, if unflashy, handset shows why Research In Motion continues to thrive even in a very difficult market.

The original Bold 9000, which hit the market in May, 2008, has been the flagship of the BlackBerry line. The Bold 9700, available today from T-Mobile for $200 on a two-year contract and on Nov. 22 from AT&T, offers everything the Bold did—sometimes better and sometimes smaller.

Physically, the Bold strongly resembles assorted Curve models, though it retains the Bold’s premium look and feel with a metal bezel around the top of the handset and a leatherette back. Like recent curves, it replaces the fidgety track ball with an optical sensor that tracks finger movement on a pad below the screen—a big improvement. It weighs about half an ounce (14 g) less than then original Bold.

One reason that the Bold 9700 lost so little weight in the process of shrinking is one vital component it shares with its predecessor--a huge battery. In fact, the innards of the Bold 9700 seem to consist almost entirely of battery and the result is exceptional battery life. The specs claim 6 hours of talk time or 6 hours of 3G network time; the more important reality is that I found I could generally make the battery last through two working days of moderate to heavy data and light voice use.

The keyboard is a bit smaller than the Bold 9000, mainly because the handset is a quarter-inch (6 mm) narrower. I found the shrinkage did little damage to my typing once I got used to it--and the narrower keyboard offered a surprise benefit. Holding the Bold in my left hand, as I usually do, it was much easier to stretch my thumb across to reach the delete key when scrolling through the inbox.

The Bold shares the new BlackBerry 5.0 operating system with the Storm2. The browser is improved from the original Bold, though the smaller display makes it less satisfactory than the Storm. BlackBerry is working oin a new WebKit-based browser that it badly needs, since even this newest version is far inferior to what is offered on the iPhone, Adroid phones, and the Palm Pre.

Otherwise, what you get on the Bold 9700 is pretty much what you would expect from a top-of-the-line BlackBerry: Outstanding messaging, a very good phone, and OK everything else. Like other BlackBerrys, the Bold 9700 was seamless at switching between the phone network and Wi-Fi, and using UMA technology, it is able to make ordinary voice calls over a Wi-Fi network. This is especially important on the T-Mobile version, since T-Mo's U.S. coverage leaves a lot to be desired.

Network consideration aside, the choice between the Bold 9700 and the Verizon Storm2 presents a fundamental tradeoff: The Storm gives you a big display, but you have to sacrifice the physical keyboard. So far, at least, RIM has resisted slider designs and personally I have yet to find a slider that isn't awkward to hold and type on when the keyboard is open. Until someone finds a magic solution, this will be a fundamental compromise required in all smartphones.

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