As a system admin who is responsible for my company's BlackBerry server, I have carried a BlackBerry now for over five years. I started with the 8703, went to a Curve, then moved on to two kinds of Bold (the first had a rolling trackball and the second came with a square trackpad). I'm currently using a Bold 9650, at least until our BlackBerry server is retired.
I've seen first-hand how the BYOD movement eviscerated most of the BlackBerry fleet in my organization. At its peak, we had well over 130 devices; this has dwindled to less than 30. Everyone else has moved over to iPhones and Android devices, with a few stalwarts still proclaiming the BlackBerry does what they need it to, so why switch?
I'm not a BlackBerry stalwart, since it's the responsibility of any good IT pro to keep up on current trends, but I've kept mine since I need to support my users -- and I do see some wisdom in what people have said about this device doing what they need. However, I knew I'd need to evolve towards an Android or iPhone to stay relevant. After weighing the pros and cons of each, I opted for an Android, specifically the Motorola Droid Bionic running the Android Jelly Bean OS (and which I will refer to as "Android" in this article for the purpose of clarity).
I began mapping the features and functions I grew accustomed to on my BlackBerry with those of the Android. To my surprise, it isn't an easy win for Android. There are some things BlackBerry does much better, whereas Android is clearly superior in other categories.
These are the 10 categories I focused on, which I present to you in this evaluation:
- Specs and interface
- Device administration
- Web browser
- Cloud storage apps (Dropbox, Drive and SkyDrive)
I didn't compare games, although I have a few installed on both devices for those long waits in the doctor's office. Games aren't a priority for my mobile device, and BlackBerry loses the contest anyhow by not having the ability to play Angry Birds (except on PlayBook tablets).
Specs and interface
In order for me to talk about the experiences I've had using both devices, I need to address their respective specifications and interfaces. The hardware design and the way in which information is displayed, entered, and manipulated determines how handy the functions will be. For instance, Google Maps works fine on both devices, but Android makes it easier to use since the bigger touch screen allows better viewing and navigation. Touching and dragging to adjust the view is much less tedious than using the BlackBerry trackpad.BlackBerry Bold 9650 specs
- CPU: 528 MHz
- Internal Memory: 512 MB
- External Memory: External microSD slot supporting cards up to 32 GB
- Display: 480 x 360 pixels, 2.44", 65K colors
- Body: 4.4" x 2.44" x .055"
- Weight: 4.8 oz.
- Connectivity: 2G/3G/SIM/Built-in Wi-Fi
- Input methods: Physical keyboard and optical trackpad
- CPU: Dual core 1 GHz
- Internal Memory: 16 GB storage, 1 GB RAM, 2 GB ROM
- External Memory: External microSD slot supporting cards up to 32 GB
- Display: 540 x 960 pixels, 4.3", 16M colors
- Body: 5.02" x 2.63" x .043"
- Weight: 5.5 oz.
- Connectivity: 3G/4G/SIM/Built-in Wi-Fi
- Input methods: Touch screen with virtual keyboard
The interface of BlackBerry and Android.
Well, not so fast. My luck with touch screens is middling at best. Perhaps 20+ years in the IT industry has worn the sensitivity off of my fingertips, but I often have to poke and prod a touch screen twice as long as I do a physical keyboard. My wife has a Nook that requires you to swipe your finger to the right to unlock it, and it usually takes no less than 25 or 30 tries for me to accomplish this task (sometimes I give up and have one of our kids do it for me). I can bang out three paragraphs of an email on the BlackBerry before I've even got the second sentence typed on the Android's touch screen. I don't think it's necessarily just me, either, since I loaned the Android device to my daughter so she could type a Facebook update on my page, and it took her several minutes with lots of oopses and backspacing.
The physical keyboard on the BlackBerry runs circles around Android when entering text, even with Swype and word shortcuts on the Android's side. If I need to respond to an email very quickly, take a quick note, or write down a must-do task, I'll use the BlackBerry every time. I can even do this one-handed!
Then there's the display issue. You can't beat a bigger screen, but I find that the BlackBerry sometimes formats docs better and actually uses the smaller screen to its advantage in terms of margins, spacing, etc. (I'll get to that below). Also, I'm still trying to tame the accelerator on the Android (which switches the screen from portrait to landscape as you turn the device on its side), since it sometimes overreacts and abruptly changes the display, even though I haven't tilted the phone.
The BlackBerry notification screen makes it easier to see how many new emails I have, even when the display is locked. That's a nice way to immediately see what's going on -- if I have 53 new emails in the span of a half hour, for instance, I know something very bad is happening at work. Android doesn't give me a message count at present, though I could probably find a widget for that.
Finally, I must say the faster CPU on the Android doesn't seem to come into play. Both devices seem equally responsive, except when my BlackBerry hangs trying to load HTML mail. However, I think this is a limitation of the email application rather than the processor.
By "device administration," I'm referring to the nitty gritty tasks like customizing the home screen, changing settings, using storage, installing apps, and conducting updates.
It's relatively easy to drag icons around and position them where you want on both phones. Changing display, security, and font settings is also comparable. Both devices use similar storage formats, and the process of installing apps is slightly on the same page. There's a BlackBerry App World and a Google Play Store, but the first takes eons to install apps and Android loads them up within seconds. There are so many more apps for Android than BlackBerry that it's really not a fair comparison.
And then we have updates. Neither the Bold nor the Droid Bionic come out with frequent updates, but when they do, the install/reboot process is similar. Granted, the power up time for Android is much faster than on the BlackBerry, but I find I have to do this very rarely with both. So, I'd say it's a push between the two. You can install other Android operating systems, but this is not something I've delved into yet, sticking with the official releases from Motorola to date.
Once upon a time, email was the main purpose of having a mobile device (oh yeah, and phone calls). The corporate email set up on the BlackBerry is straightforward; add the user to the server, activate the device (preferably during lunchtime so the activation process has a good long time to complete), and start using it.
It's similar on Android, except instead of activating the phone, you set up the account through ActiveSync. For both devices, adding secondary or tertiary email accounts is easy, and there are an array of options using IMAP, POP, and so fort,h which have been discussed in great length elsewhere.
In terms of email usage, I think BlackBerry has superior filters. I use a plethora of Outlook rules to screen out unwanted email, or to push certain emails (system notifications, for instance) I want into specific folders. I can synchronize those folders with the BlackBerry, so I'll see the contents. With Android, I can only see the emails sent directly to me, and I haven't yet located the option to sync emails that get dropped in subfolders per Outlook rules. Since I find myself using BlackBerry for work email and Android for home email (though I mix and match), this is not a concern at the moment.Regular text-only emails seem to work just fine on both devices, and I can say I'm equally satisfied. Emails with links, however, well... that leads us to our next category.
Web browserHere's how email from one of my Linkedin groups looks on the BlackBerry and Android screens (Figure B). Let's say I want to click the link to read one of the articles in the email. This launches the browser: Figure B
With Android, I have more screen real estate and the emails look more polished.I then log into Linkedin via the devices (Figure C): Figure C
Logging into LinkedIn on BlackBerry and Android.The mobile-rendered version of the page on BlackBerry isn't very easy to read or navigate (Figure D). Figure D
It's difficult to navigate the web page on BlackBerry.However, I can zoom in, which looks like this (Figure E): Figure E
Zooming in on a web page with BlackBerry.This isn't so bad, actually, if you don't mind scrolling around constantly to read stuff. What's worse is the dreaded "Request Entity Too Large" error (Figure F): Figure F
Error received on the BlackBerry device.
I get this error so often (or just plain browser timeouts) that it's basically rendered the BlackBerry browser almost unusable. I would rather hose down a barnyard full of muddy hogs than try to do any real work with this browser.With Android, once I sign in to LinkedIn (Figure G), the page looks much like it does on a desktop web browser: Figure G
How LinkedIn appears on Android.I can scroll down easily, open links, and get other useful information (Figure H): Figure H
Navigating web pages is easy on Android.If I turn the Android device on its side and zoom in on that image (Figure I), I can see it perfectly well: Figure I
Horizontal view of the web page on Android.
There's really no contest between the two devices when it comes to the browser. Given the necessity of accessing information online, the lack of a respectable browser has really hamstrung BlackBerry.
Android lets you add popular browsers (such as Chrome and Firefox), which improve the experience, since these are familiar browsers with desktop counterparts and you can synchronize bookmarks. I realize you can add other browsers to BlackBerry (maybe, if they're still available) that help improve the browsing experience -- but ultimately, it's impossible to achieve a certain threshold of browser satisfaction with such a small screen.
I use documents constantly on my mobile devices, whether PDF, Word documents, or text files. They come in handy for my day-to-day work, personal writing, and recreational reading. So, anything I carry has to have good document viewing/editing capabilities.I use Documents To Go on the BlackBerry. Figure I shows how BlackBerry renders a Word doc and how a Word doc looks on the Android using Quickoffice: Figure I
Documents To Go on BlackBerry and Quickoffice on Android.
Obviously, it's not much of a contest. A bigger screen size means more of the document can be displayed, and you're not squinting and scrolling down. But here's something interesting. I find that I read documents faster on the BlackBerry screen, even though it's smaller. Perhaps that's because my eyes digest the material more rapidly, since the data chunks are tinier.
Something else worthy of mention: when I load a large (3.5 MB) Word doc from my Dropbox account on the BlackBerry, it will faithfully display (albeit after a wait). The Android tries to load the same file into Quickoffice but then fails with a "file is too large" error. Furthermore, if the document isn't formatted properly (e.g. a text file with erratic spacing), it can be confusing to read on the Android, whereas the BlackBerry renders it more elegantly on the smaller screen.Here's how one of my e-books displays on the BlackBerry (Figure J): Figure J
One of my e-books displayed on BlackBerry.And here's an e-book on Android, this time with the device rotated to show it in landscape mode (Figure K): Figure K
An e-book in landscape mode with Android.
You can probably see why the BlackBerry screen makes it easier to zoom through a book. Android shows more data, but Blackberry organizes it better for me.
Tasks/Calendar/NotesA task is a task, regardless of how you're logging it. Figure L shows how a task list looks on BlackBerry (synchronized with my Exchange server and Outlook account) and how a task list looks on Android (synchronized with my Gmail account using the GTasks app): Figure L
How a task list looks on BlackBerry and Android.
Adding, completing, and deleting tasks is pretty much identical. Each synchronizes somewhere else, so I can control and organize them from my desktop PC.Same thing with the calendar; the functionality is only limited by the display size. Here's the BlackBerry calendar vs. the Android calendar (Figure M): Figure M
The calendar on the BlackBerry and Android.
I have started using the BlackBerry calendar for work events and the Android calendar for personal events and haven't missed any meetings yet.
Notes are even simpler; Outlook notes are exchanged with my BlackBerry and Google Keep stores notes with Android, and I'm equally pleased with both.
Cloud storage apps like Dropbox, Drive and SkyDriveA mobile device wouldn't let you be mobile if you couldn't access your files on some other server. I use Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft Skydrive for my online document storage. While I've only installed Dropbox on my BlackBerry (Google Drive won't play with BlackBerry, but there is a Cloud Explorer for SkyDrive app that works on BlackBerry OS 6.0 or higher). I've set up all three apps on the Android, and they work in a quite similar fashion. Here's how my Dropbox account looks on BlackBerry vs. Android (Figure N): Figure N
This is how BlackBerry and Android access Dropbox.
In either case, I can open folders, download and access files, or save files back to my Dropbox account. I use the two devices interchangeably for this, so there really isn't an edge where one offers the superior experience.
CameraTo be honest, I stopped noticing a difference in megapixels once cameras hit 3 megapixels. Here's a picture I took at Fenway Park on my BlackBerry with its 3.15 megapixel camera (Figure O): Figure O
Photo taken with a BlackBerry 3.15 megapixel camera.Now here's a photo I took on Android with its 8 megapixel camera (Figure P): Figure P
A photo taken with Android's 8 megapixel camera.
Frankly, I don't see much difference. If I zoom in on someone's face or the blades of grass at the ball park, then perhaps the BlackBerry would be fuzzier and less sharp, but overall, I'm pretty satisfied with either camera -- and the convenient keys on the Blackberry make it easy to just pull out, point, and shoot. With Android, I have to launch the camera app then hit the "take picture" button. This isn't a big deal, but I'm more likely to miss those "must get now" shots.
BatteryBold battery stats:
- Stand-by: up to 312 h
- Talk time: up to 5 h
- Music play: up to 18 h
- Stand-by: up to 195 h
- Talk time: up to 10 h 40 min
These stats are really meaningless to me. I don't spend a lot of time talking on either phone, but due to my other usage patterns, I have to charge up both devices every night or they'll die by the middle of the second day. I went away to Maine with my family recently and had only one charger for the two phones. This necessitated a juggling game just so I could keep them both alive, like scuba divers buddy-breathing. Even then, I had to swap a spare battery into the BlackBerry so I could charge the Android, which takes significantly longer to power up. Such is the story of the modern smartphone user.
What I've experienced with my BlackBerry and Android device is more of a co-existence than a migration. BlackBerry wins at simplicity, convenience, and speed-reading. Android comes out on top in terms of web browsing, available apps, hardware specs, and an eye to the future. It also seems to have a better "unified mobile experience." That being said, one nice thing about the BlackBerry is that it can connect to other devices at my company since the BlackBerry server can proxy connections for it. If the browser wasn't so poor, I could even access internal websites without needing a VPN connection.
There are other priorities for business users, like video conferencing, which is simple on Android but impossible with BlackBerry. However, I don't use this feature, so I didn't include it in my review.
I don't plan to retire the BlackBerry until circumstances require it, since it still plays a valid role (and it never hurts to have redundancy). I think the lesson here is that different mixtures of options work for different people. Technology should be driven by function, and functional value can sometimes be as hard to pin down as the definition of art.
Which device do you prefer and why? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.