2013-11-12

Introduction The announcement of the BlackBerry 9720 was not met with widespread excitement, largely because it is running the older BlackBerry 7 operating system and not BlackBerry 10. The company has repeatedly pointed out that there’s life in the old BB7 yet. Is it right, or is this an unwelcome step backwards? We got hold of the handset to find out. Before we jump into the underwhelming specs it’s important to note that this is firmly aimed at first-time smartphone users. BlackBerry’s Executive Vice President for products, Carlo Chiarello, explained that, "It’s perfect for customers upgrading from a feature phone or entry-level Android or Windows Phone device, as well as existing BlackBerry smartphone customers, that want a richer experience and jump up in style and performance." Sporting a 2.8-inch IPS touchscreen with a resolution of 480 x 360 pixels, and a 35-key physical, QWERTY keyboard, the BlackBerry 9720 has the classic BlackBerry look. Inside there’s a 806MHz processor along with 512MB of RAM, a microSD slot, a 5MP camera, support for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 3G HSDPA and a 1450mAh battery. Those specs are limited, but the BlackBerry 9720 will cost you £165 SIM-free, £99.95 on PAYG or you can pick it up for free on a two-year contract at £11 per month in the UK. Compare that with the £280 price tag on the BlackBerry Q5 and you can begin to see the potential attraction for BlackBerry fans on a budget. Competition at this price range comes from the Nokia Lumia 620, the Sony Xperia U, and the Samsung Galaxy Fame. At first glance the BlackBerry 9720 looks like a new model of Curve. Taking it out of the box it feels quite solid; in fact it weighs in at 120g (4.2oz). The bottom of the screen is broken up by the classic BlackBerry keys: send, menu, escape, and power, with a touchpad in the middle. The keyboard beneath is surrounded by matt plastic. At 114 x 66 x 12 mm (4.49 x 2.60 x 0.47 inches) it’s certainly very easy to hold one-handed. There’s a rubber strip that runs all the way round the sides and encompasses the headphone port, top left, the lock button up top in the middle, the volume and mute keys and a dedicated camera key on the right spine, and your micro-USB port and dedicated BBM key on the left spine. It feels and looks cheap and nasty. The textured back plate is ribbed, black plastic with the silver BlackBerry logo, and it’s easy to remove thanks to the opening at the bottom which allows you to insert a thumbnail. Flip the battery out and you’ll find the SIM slot underneath. The microSD card slot is at the top, to the right of the camera lens and flash. It’s oddly angled and leaves you feeling unsure whether the card is actually inserted correctly. You can’t expect a premium feel at this price and you certainly don’t get one, but the 9720 is comfortable to hold and easy to manipulate with one hand. Oh, and it comes in black or white – fancy. Interface Once you’ve inserted your SIM and battery and pressed that power button you might as well go and put the kettle on, it’s going to be a while until you can do anything with your new BlackBerry 9720. The handset runs BlackBerry 7.1 and it takes around three and a half minutes to boot up, which feels like an eternity. There’s a reason that BlackBerry developed the new BB 10 platform and it’s immediately obvious when you start to navigate around the home screen. BlackBerry 7 OS is outdated. It feels like a feature phone platform and it has obviously not been designed for optimal touchscreen operation. It is possible to swipe and tap with your finger, but the display is small and it’s far too easy to select the wrong thing. There are also scenarios, such as search, where you can choose something by tapping the screen, but you can’t get back out of it without resorting to the physical back or escape key. It is infinitely easier to use the central touchpad to navigate and press the button to select whatever you want. The lack of screen real estate is exaggerated further by the fact that you only have one home screen. Everything is neatly packed on there with apps, services and functions, like the camera, appearing in a scrollable pane at the bottom of the screen. The default ‘All’ screen has a bit much going on and not all of the icons are immediately recognizable. Your full list of apps is tucked away in a folder at the bottom right and, while you can set up favourites in their own pane, the lack of prominence for the apps seems to send a message. Even once you’re settled on a navigation method it’s all too obvious that the BlackBerry 9720 is under-powered. The 806MHz processor lags behind the competition. At least a 1GHz dual-core processor, even in this price range, is pretty standard nowadays. That little loading clock icon pops up in the middle of the screen all too often as you fire up the browser or open your gallery. It’s fairly easy to learn your way around, and there are introductory videos to help you get started. You can tap the menu button to bring up extra options in a window on the left and it allows you to quickly switch between recent apps. The options in here also allow you to customize your home screen which is limited to changing wallpaper and managing your panels. Notifications pop up in the middle of your screen; you can tap to expand them. You can access a call log with the send key on the left. You can also tap the display at the top to quickly access your connectivity options. Everything you need is there, but it doesn’t look or feel particularly slick. It feels closer to Symbian than it does to Android, or iOS, or even BlackBerry 10. If you’re coming from a feature phone it will be easy to grasp, but if you’ve been using Android or Windows Phone this is definitely going to feel like a step backwards. Contacts, calling and messaging Contacts You’ll find your contacts in the Contacts app. The option to add a new contact is at the top. Each entry provides fields for all the possible contact details you could want to include. You can also set up custom ring tones and alerts for messages and calls. There’s even space for their birthday, a custom field, and notes. You have to tap a contact to select them and then tap again to call from the contacts app, but you’re unlikely to do it that way. When you call someone you’ll do it by pressing the send key and then tapping the contact you want. Similarly, it is much quicker to use the messaging app than to choose a contact in the contacts app and then hit menu to select the text message option. Any contact information you had on the SIM card that you inserted in your BlackBerry 9720 is going to pop up in the Contacts app. If it’s a fresh SIM then this will be empty, but you can import contacts from various other accounts if you want to. To pull in Facebook contacts, for example, you need to fire up the Facebook app, sign in, and then hit the menu key to find ‘Options’ and then choose the BlackBerry Contacts application and, in theory, they should show up in your Contacts app at some point. It’s not clear how long this will take, but it certainly isn’t immediate. Calling Making calls is easiest via the send key. It presents you with a call log and you can tap on anyone listed to call them straight away. Scroll to the right and you’ll find the full list of contacts, swipe left and you get the dialling pad (you can use the physical number keys or the virtual dialling pad to enter a number). There’s also a search bar at the top of the call log and contacts screen and you can start typing a name or number in there to bring up a list of matching contacts. There’s no smart dialling on the dialling pad though. Call quality is good on the BlackBerry 9720. Other callers sound loud and clear with minimal distortion, even in noisy environments. The speakerphone is also decent. We didn’t have any trouble with the signal and we didn’t encounter any dropped calls either. Messaging If there’s an obvious strength to the BlackBerry 9720 then it has to be messaging. While various aspects of this device feel dated, there’s a certain comfort and satisfying functionality to that physical keyboard. It is very quick and easy to type out long messages or have conversations using the keyboard. It’s also easier to type accurately, although this is becoming less noticeable all the time. Virtual keyboards with Swype functionality and word suggestions have arguably caught up in terms of speed and accuracy, but the tactile sensation of pressing a key is hard to replicate. You’ll find the usual suspects pre-installed on the BlackBerry 9720, so you can add Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare to your standard texting app and BlackBerry Messenger. Incoming messages from any of them will pop up in your central notifications panel in the middle of your home screen, but it’s slightly annoying that you can’t clear them without tapping to enter the relevant app. The BlackBerry 9720 still uses BIS (BlackBerry Internet Service). What that means, in effect, is that you won’t be able to set up your email or your BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) unless you have BIS as part of your service. For example, if you were to stick an existing SIM card from a monthly contract on Orange into your BlackBerry 9720 you would not be able to set up email or BBM without calling Orange and getting BIS added at a cost of £5 per month in the UK. If you get a new SIM with the phone then you won’t encounter this issue. BBM has long been one of the feathers in the BlackBerry cap and it’s still a good service for chat. The fact that it is now Android and iOS too could extend its relevancy. There are a lot of messaging apps out there that replicate the same functionality, but few of them are as robust, stylish or easy to use as BBM. You’ll also find BBM integration in Facebook, Foursquare and a handful of other apps. If you prefer to use something else for your instant messaging then you’ll be glad to find Windows Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and Google Talk are all there. Internet and camera Internet The stock browser on the BlackBerry 9720 is adequate. When you load it up you’ll see the address bar at the top and you’ll find bookmarks and history below. Unfortunately, the address bar is just that; you have to enter the exact address of a website if you want to get there, it doesn’t have any search function built in. You can add bookmarks easily and it supports tabbed browsing. We added more than ten tabs and it functioned, although it did obviously slow down a lot. In terms of speed it’s not lightning fast. With a strong Wi-Fi connection there’s still some stuttering as you flick between tabs or load up a new web page. Moving onto 3G everything slows down significantly. You definitely won’t want to venture away from mobile version websites. It took about six seconds to load up the mobile version of TechRadar, but the desktop version wasn’t ready to scroll for more than 30 seconds. Even with a decent Wi-Fi signal, that basic processor and the 512MB of RAM are going to keep you waiting. Surfing the web is rendered less attractive still by the diminutive display. The pixel density, at 214ppi, is sharp enough to make text perfectly readable, but you just can’t fit much of it on that 2.8-inch screen. That means you have to scroll…a lot. Your choice is either the mouse cursor controlled by the touchpad or a finger on the touchscreen, which feels awkward when it’s this small. Keyboard shortcuts help the experience, so make sure you head into the browser options and enable them. You can also press the touchpad key to get extra options, including a zoom tool. It’s great for images, but unfortunately there is no text reflow support, so you’ll have to scroll if you want to read text. There’s no Flash support, but Java and HTML 5 will work just fine. Navigation is generally slow, but the basic stock browser is fairly robust and easy to use. If you don’t like it there are a few alternative options in the BlackBerry App World. Camera The BlackBerry 9720 sports a respectable 5MP camera with a single LED flash. The main rear-facing camera is all you’ve got, so there’s no front-facing camera for video calls. The solitary 5MP shooter is on a par with rivals like the Samsung Galaxy Fame and the Nokia Lumia 520. There’s a dedicated camera button on the right spine or you can tap the camera icon on the touchscreen or press the touchpad button to take a photo. The camera app has a reasonable range of features. There’s a flash, support for geotagging, and a range of modes including face detection, portrait, sports, landscape, party, close-up, snow, beach, night, and text. It also offers 4x digital zoom and image stabilization. It’s easy to use and you can access all the settings on the touchscreen or by using the menu key. Your maximum resolution is 2592 x 1944 pixels, or about 5.7MP. The big disappointment here is the lack of autofocus. It’s a common feature now in smartphone cameras to be able to tap on the screen and choose your point of focus, but you can’t do it on the 9720. You also won’t find any white balance or exposure settings, and there’s no gimmicky time shift, panorama, or even a burst shot. Shutter speed seems to be pretty fast and, coupled with the fact that you can hold down the dedicated camera key and launch straight into the camera app, it’s easy to capture spontaneous moments before they pass you by. You can also tap the menu key and share photos via email, text, BBM or social media. Click here to see full resolution image Click here to see full resolution image Click here to see full resolution image Click here to see full resolution image Click here to see full resolution image Click here to see full resolution image Click here to see full resolution image Click here to see full resolution image Video The BlackBerry 9720 does have a video camera function, but it’s only capable of capturing video at a maximum of 640 x 480 pixel resolution. It supports the portrait, landscape, close-up, and beach scene modes, or you can just opt for auto. You can also turn on the flash to act as a weak video light and there’s an image stabilization option. To zoom in and out you swipe on the touchpad. In theory, the video camera can capture up to 30 frames per second, but the videos we shot came in at between 26 and 29 frames per second. The video quality is far from impressive and it struggles to deal with movement or changes in light and without image stabilization the video is terribly choppy. The camera can’t deal with the transition from shadow into light. There’s a lot of noise and pixellation. When there’s no change in the level of light it definitely copes better, but movement is still a problem and image stabilization does little to fix it. We would recommend you don’t move when you use the video camera on the BlackBerry 9720. Media If playing games and watching movies is high on your wish list, then don’t buy the BlackBerry 9720. The 2.8-inch display is never going to offer a cinematic experience. There’s only 512 MB eMMC storage built-in, so you need a microSD card if you want to load any music or videos onto your phone. Luckily the BlackBerry 9720 can take a microSD card up to 32GB in size. media.jpg By far the easiest method of loading content is to put the microSD card into your computer and transfer everything you want over before putting it into your BlackBerry 9720. If you don’t mind using the BlackBerry Desktop Software then you can just drag and drop files, but it does mean installing software, hooking up your BlackBerry 9720, and waiting for it to connect and sync. Music The music player works well. It automatically lists all of the music you have on your microSD card and it will play through in order, or you can shuffle. It’s fairly barebones in terms of options though. The sound quality isn’t too bad, but obviously improves greatly when you put on the supplied earphones. You can also dive into the headset equalizer and tweak the settings to match your music. You can change the bass level, or choose genres like jazz, rock, or dance. You can browse by song, artist, album or genre, and it’s easy to create a playlist. Once the music has started you can skip out of the app without stopping playback. If you’re using the earphones then you’ve got a small volume rocker and you can quickly mute if you need to. On the phone itself you can tap the menu button to skip back into the app and you can bring up controls by pressing one of the volume keys on the right spine. There is also an FM radio and you’ll have to plug the earphones in to use it because they act as an antenna. We were unable to find a station, but the BlackBerry 9720 was tested in an area with poor reception, so your mileage will vary. Video The video player is also pretty basic. There are no real options to play with. Videos look OK; obviously the 480 x 360 pixel resolution is a major limitation. Streaming videos from various websites, or from YouTube, works well as long as you have a decent Wi-Fi connection. In terms of audio and video file formats the BlackBerry 9720 supports pretty much everything including MOV, MP4, AVI and WMV. We didn’t encounter any problems playing back files. Photos All of your photos automatically go into the pictures app on your BlackBerry 9720 and they appear in a chronological grid format. It’s easy to view them as a slideshow or set an image as your wallpaper via the menu button. You can also share, rotate, or zoom, but don’t expect any photo editing tools beyond that because they aren’t there. There’s no DLBA support here, so you’ll need to transfer videos and photos if you want to watch them on your big screen. Battery life and connectivity Battery life BlackBerry is claiming that you should get up to seven hours of talk time from a fully charged battery and up to 18 days of standby. We found that it still had some juice left, even after a busy day of testing, so BlackBerry’s claims seem reasonable. The screen is quite small and there’s no 4G, so that’s two big potential battery drains that you don’t have to worry about. The video camera seems to be the biggest drain on the battery – extensive use put a small dent in the meter – but the video is such poor quality that you’re really not likely to use it much. The phone has a 1450mAh battery and it is removable, so if you are a heavy user you could always carry a spare, but we don’t think you’ll need to. The BlackBerry 9720 compares very favourably with its competitors in the battery life department, mainly because it doesn’t have a big touchscreen. Connectivity The BlackBerry 9720 is a 3G phone. It supports Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1, and GPS. You can also use it as a mobile hotspot. All of your connectivity is easily accessed by tapping the status bar at the top of the home screen. You can tick the relevant box to turn your mobile network, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or mobile hotspot on or off. There’s also an ‘All Off’ option at the bottom to quickly turn off the lot. Everything is straightforward and easy to use. As mentioned earlier, you can use the BlackBerry Desktop Software to sync your BlackBerry 9720. It takes a little while to install and find your device when you hook it up using the micro-USB to USB cable supplied, but it’s very easy to use. You can schedule regular backups, and you can just drag and drop files in either direction to copy them either to your BlackBerry 9720 from your computer, or vice versa. Apps and games As a smartphone the biggest flaw that the BlackBerry 9720 has is the lack of good apps. There are a handful of options pre-installed and you can head to BlackBerry App World to find more, but they are seriously inferior when compared with apps on iOS, Android or even Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10. The browsing experience is also inferior because App World is not well laid out. When you find something you want you can download and install it directly, but don’t try to do anything else on your Blackberry 9720 in the meantime or you’ll find it stuttering and hanging. You should also be prepared to have to restart your device in order to complete installations and even some updates. If any of your existing apps have updates available then you’ll find the BlackBerry App World icon will have a red asterisk on it, and you’ll get a message in your notification pane. Pre-installed apps include basic utilities like a calculator, memo pad, and task list. They’re all perfectly functional and fit for purpose. The only inclusion of note is ‘Documents To Go’, which allows you to open and edit a wide variety of file types including Word documents and Excel spreadsheets. It’s very handy for business people. BlackBerry Protect also provides peace of mind with remote locate and wipe functionality. The only game you’ll find is Brick Breaker, which is a poor quality clone of the arcade classic, Arkanoid. It’s not just the lack of big name apps and games that frustrates with the BlackBerry 9720. You can find a few worthy options, but take Plants vs Zombies as an example. It will cost you though, and it is inferior to the Android or iOS versions which cost less. Services like Netflix are completely absent from BlackBerry App World. It may be true that most people only use a handful of apps regularly, but you’d be well advised to make sure that the handful you want are available on BB 7 before buying the 9720. For navigation you’ll find BlackBerry Maps on-board. It is inferior to Google Maps in every possible way. You should be prepared to wait for several seconds for the GPS to lock on and it takes an age to calculate routes. It looks very basic and it’s slow. Verdict The BlackBerry 9720 has been described as a legacy device. BlackBerry is aware that some people are still looking for a secure messaging device that isn’t too expensive, and that’s exactly what this is. Judging the BlackBerry 9720 as a basic entry-level smartphone, we can’t be too harsh about its shortcomings. The specs and the build quality are not impressive, but it handles basic phone and messaging functions well. It’s not expected to take the smartphone market by storm, and for the people it is aimed at, it will do the job fine. We can see enterprise customers buying a few, and maybe the odd feature phone hold-out with a preference for physical keyboards, but that’s as far as it goes. We liked The tactile sensation of typing on a physical keyboard is still pleasant. The BlackBerry 9720 is also genuinely ‘mobile’. It fits comfortably in the pocket and is easy to operate one-handed. The battery life also conjures up memories of feature phones that could last days between charges. We disliked BlackBerry 7 was never designed for touchscreen navigation and it shows. The operating system and the apps are a painful reminder of how far the smartphone industry has come in recent years. The video camera is also terrible, the tiny display is very limiting and the complete lack of apps will put a lot off right away. Final verdict The BlackBerry 9720 delivers on its stated aim. It offers a mild upgrade option for enterprise customers still tied to BlackBerry services and not ready or willing to upgrade to BlackBerry 10. As a budget competitor for a wider audience, we’re less convinced. Strong messaging credentials cannot make up for weaknesses in almost every other department. If you’re stuck on a tight budget then consider that the Sony Xperia U is slightly cheaper, and the Nokia Lumia 520 is even cheaper than the BlackBerry 9720. Both are better phones. TechRadar: All latest dvd recorders reviews feeds

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