Blackberry vs. iPhone: No Longer a Contest

I like my Blackberry 9700. It’s a great communication device with outstanding voice quality and messaging. Unfortunately, I’ve managed to submerge it in water once and drop it on sidewalks a few times. Remarkably, it has few issues so far. But given the water damage, I’m thinking this Blackberry may soon quit working altogether. Time to upgrade.

I briefly considered the impressive Galaxy S II, but I prefer smaller (single hand) devices and more polished operating systems. An inexpensive grandfathered plan gives me an incentive to stick with Blackberry on T-mobile, but the iPhone’s 336 PPI Retina display beckons. Blackberry Bold 9900 or iPhone 4s. Which one?

iPhone 4s. No contest. Here’s why.

Update: Here’s the followup post I wrote after using my iPhone 4s for 2 months:

Blackberry vs. iPhone 4s (After 2 Two Months of Use)

Blackberry vs. iPhone Used to Be a Tradeoff

Historically, Blackberry strengths include:

  • great voice call quality
  • flexible notifications
  • inexpensive monthly plan possibilities (T-mobile USA, in my case)
  • free messaging between Blackberries

These have not been areas of strength for the iPhone. Many people love iPhones anyway because they’re such easy-to-use pocket computers.

Here’s how I’ve summed it up in the past:

If you want a great pocket computer, get an iPhone. If you want a great phone and communication device, get a Blackberry. You can’t have both, because iPhones are lousy phones and Blackberries are lousy, overly complicated pocket computers.

Until now.

The latest Blackberries are still great communication devices but also still lousy and overly complicated pocket computers. On the other hand, the iPhone 4s has it all. I’m one of 24% of U.S. Blackberry owners who plan to get one.

iPhone Has Caught up to Blackberries

I’ve always had an interest in the iPhone as a pocket computer, thanks to the superbly designed interface and impressive app quality, quantity, and diversity. I love the 326 PPI Retina display included in recent models. I use my iPod touch 4g to read anything for hours at a time. And my iPod touch just got better thanks to iOS 5. But until recently, I didn’t want an iPhone.

Here are the reasons I previously avoided iPhones and how they have been addressed:

Expensive Plans: Affordability matters to me. I get affordability with a Blackberry on T-mobile. I pay $53/month + taxes and fees for 1000 minutes and unlimited Blackberry BIS data with T-mobile USA, thanks to a grandfathered postpaid plan and a 12% AAA discount. I upgraded to the Blackberry 9700 23 months ago and am now eligible for another upgrade at the fully discounted price.

For years, getting an iPhone in the U.S. was expensive—the least expensive individual AT&T plan was $70/month for unlimited data but with only 450 minutes, which is a little below my average monthly minutes used.

In June 2010, AT&T changed to tiered data. The monthly minimum became $55/month ($40 for 450 minutes plus $15 for 200MB data). That minimum can be lower if you pool together 3 to 5 people on AT&T’s family plan. My wife’s parents already have a family plan with 2 lines with thousands of banked rollover minutes. It costs $10/month to add another line plus $15/month for the minimum data requirement. That’s a total of $25/month additional (plus taxes, fees and a one-time $35 activation fee). Wow. 200MB of data may not be enough for some people. However, I primarily access data via WiFi at home and at my office. WiFi doesn’t count towards the 200MB limit. So switching to AT&T and agreeing to a 2-year contract gets me an iPhone at the subsidized rate and reduced monthly charges. Again: Wow.

Mediocre Voice Quality: I actually use phones to, you know, talk. Old school, I know. But I do spend about 400-800 minutes each month talking on the phone. iPhones have always had problems with dropped calls and reception quality. The iPhone 4 was even worse. Some iPhones have also had short battery life. In contrast, Blackberries have terrific voice quality, WiFi UMA calling (T-mobile only), few dropped calls, and the battery life to handle long calls. So why would I want to downgrade? Thanks to upgraded software, a better Qualcomm radio, and a dual antenna setup, the iPhone 4s is the first iPhone with decent voice performance. Voice quality and battery life may not be as good as Blackberries, but many customers are reporting significant improvement after several days of use.

Unacceptable Notification System: I care a lot about notifications—enough to write about strategies for controlling interruptions and distractions on smartphones. Blackberries are terrific at giving users many options around notifications, making each kind of notification as subtle or as eye-popping as desired (customizable lights, sounds, vibrations, pop-ups, etc.).

In prior versions of the iPhone operating system (iOS), all iPhone activity was paused in order to display a new notification. To stop these overbearing distractions on my iPod touch, I simply turned off all notifications. That’s fine for a pocket reader, but a phone needs to notify me of missed calls and calendar appointments at a minimum. I’d also like to be notified of certain other events according to my preferences.

With iOS 5, incoming messages and app notifications appear briefly at the top of the display without interrupting other activity, and all messages are kept organized within the Notification Center. iOS 5 notification behavior can be customized for each app. I’ve played around with this some on my iPod touch. It’s not as customizable as Blackberry notifications, and some apps haven’t been updated to play nice with the Notification Center yet. But iOS 5 notifications are easy-to-use and they let me confine and control my interruptions adequately.

But that’s not all. You don’t need to unlock your screen to check your most recent notifications. You can quickly glance to see if you have a missed message, an important email, a weather alert, a score in the latest game of the World Series, or whatever else you happen to care about. It’s customizable. It’s getting to the point where checking these things is only slightly more disruptive than checking a wrist watch.

No Free Messaging: Free and easy-to-use messaging is a very popular Blackberry feature. Apple did not include an iphone-to-iphone messaging service prior to iOS 5. All devices that run iOS 5 now have it. It’s called iMessage. People like it. Enough said.

Other Issues: I could go into detail about other minor things Blackberries have historically done better than iPhones. Some of these things were addressed years ago, such as multitasking, cut and paste, battery life, and remote wiping. iOS 5 addresses most remaining shortcomings I haven’t already discussed. The biggest is awkward iTunes issues being solved by iCloud (sync, cloud integration, backups, iTunes wiping out your mp3’s, etc.). But I’ll just sum it all up by saying that with iOS 5, Apple catches up in most of the areas where Blackberry formerly had a big lead.

From a consumer perspective, the only major features an iPhone 4s lacks are a physical keyboard and WiFi UMA voice calls (available on T-mobile Blackberries only, and not yet for the Blackberry 9900). These are not important issues for me because AT&T reception is good at my home and office, and I’m indifferent about keyboard options. Obviously, those who prefer physical keyboards will feel differently.

Should I Upgrade to a Blackberry 9900 or an iPhone 4s? Not a Tough Decision

The latest iPhone has pretty much caught up to Blackberries in the few areas where it used to have a big lead. But the latest Blackberries are not much closer in areas where iPhones have a big lead. The most glaring example is how the latest Blackberry models still require frequent several-minute reboots to update apps and the operating system. Also slow to improve is camera hardware and software, app choice and quality, and ease-of-use, to mention just a few.

The Blackberry upgrade choices I’m currently faced with make my next phone decision easy. The Blackberry 9900 is a very nice device in many ways, but it is also worse than my Blackberry 9700 in a few ways:

  • It does not support WiFi UMA calling. T-mobile reception in my home is poor so this feature is important. To be fair, UMA is supposedly coming with a November O/S update, but should I buy a phone with a critical missing feature in hopes it will be available soon? (UPDATE: UMA became available 3/14/12 for T-mobile Blackberry 9900 users)
  • It’s expensive. The Blackberry 9900 on T-mobile costs $349 minus a $50 rebate for a net of $299 before taxes. Most of the competition charges $199 with a 2-year contract for their top-of-the-line smartphones. This is true of Apple’s iPhone 4s 16GB as well. Why pay more for a device that offers less?
  • Most disappointing of all is that the camera does not include autofocus, which means blurry close up shots. Meanwhile, thanks to more features, better software, and better optics, the latest and greatest handsets from Apple, Samsung, and HTC are reasonable substitutes for $200 point-and-shoot cameras. One more thing—the iPhone’s camera takes pictures fast, and right from the lock screen.

So the choice I am faced with is this:

Do I sign another 2-year contract with T-mobile at $53/month in order to get a $299 Blackberry 9900 that’s missing a few features I care about? Or do I pay $199 and join my in-laws’ AT&T family plan for $25/month in order to get an iPhone 4s 16gb that’s arguably the best pocket computer on the planet—and now with good voice, notification, and messaging abilities as well?

Not a tough decision.

Soon I’ll have a great pocket computer and a great communication device—as soon as my iPhone 4s arrives.

Filed in category: Product Information.

25 Comments

  1. Eric Aitala
    October 19, 2011 at 4:28 PM

    Get the 32GB… the extra space could be useful…

    And don’t forget Siri…

    Eric

  2. October 19, 2011 at 8:50 PM

    Eric – Yes people keep asking me why I didn’t put Siri in this post. Siri is very cool and I’ll be using it but it’s one of about 20 or 30 ways in which iPhones are better than Blackberries. I was a little more interested in exploring whether there was anything Blackberries still do better than iPhones. There used to be . . . until October 14, 2011. Of course, large businesses have many reasons still to prefer the Blackberry platform. But consumers? Not any more.

    I’ve stalled out at 7GB on my iPod touch 4g. Will certainly use more than that on my new iPhone thanks to pictures and video. But having trouble seeing how I’ll go over the 16GB limit. By the time I hit that, memory will be so cheap that the iPhone 6 will come out with a minimum of 32GB or 64GB.

  3. Duane W
    October 19, 2011 at 10:06 PM

    You make some excellent points, and Apple definitely should take pride in the advancement they’ve made. However, you neglect certain parts of the experience, especially when it comes to experience. Place an iPhone 4s and a BlackBerry Bold 9900 on a table. Send a text to both. Walk away for 30 seconds. Walk back. Now, look at the phones. You can tell that the Bold has a text waiting. LED indicator. iPhone? You can tell… if you click the unlock button. Same for placing a call. Of course, they both make a call. But, making a call on the Bold is a one-hand, one step operation. Making a call is a minimum of three steps. Does that make the iPhone 4s any less of an accomplishment? Of course not. But, it doesn’t negate the fact that many people, especially those with smartphone experience, prefer complexity they can control (because they can build a robust experience with it). iOS 5 is making strides. But, they aren’t there yet. Perhaps, a physical Siri button on the side? Or, a little more customization. Sound profiles would be nice.

  4. October 19, 2011 at 10:22 PM

    Good comments, Duane. Notifications are still at a bit better on a Blackberry thanks to LED and other things you mentioned. One button speed dial is nice. Note though that Siri can be used to do a lot on the lock screen. Like “call my wife” . . .

  5. charles
    October 21, 2011 at 2:13 PM

    This is a good post except:

    “iPhones have always had problems with dropped calls and reception quality. The iPhone 4 was even worse.”

    You’re right about the iPhone not being very great, but the 4 was certainly not worse. In fact, the 4 was notably better than both my OG iPhone, and iPhone 3G. I only rarely drop calls now, and I get much better data rates and availability.

    Most testing and reviews backed this up, but it was drowned out by antenna gate-esque bullshit.

    I’d still say the blackberry is a better *phone* (as in a thing that does voice calls), but only because it’s actually really nice to be able to use hardware keys on a phone. Like, press and hold one button and you’re on a call. Not slide to unlock, press home, find phone app, select “Contacts”, scroll to a contact, tap and call. But once you add in other features we expect of our phones, it’s hard to see why you’d still go with blackberry. And with the growing number of people that don’t use the traditional phone part much, blackberry is even less of a likely choice.

  6. October 21, 2011 at 2:17 PM

    Nice points, Charles. While keys are definitely convenient for speed dial, I think it’s also pretty convenient to ask Siri to “Call my wife.” Perhaps a half second slower than speed dial, but good enough for me.

  7. October 25, 2011 at 11:24 AM

    Reports continue to roll in that the iPhone 4s has much better phone reception than prior iPhone models. Here’s an example of someone with a detailed report:

    http://www.gottabemobile.com/2011/10/24/iphone-4-on-att-drops-fewer-calls-with-antenna-redesign/

  8. George M
    October 26, 2011 at 9:34 AM

    One area that is not reviewed most of the time is the balckberry push technology that is still ahead of most of the smart phones, While iphone and the rest of the phones has push, But blackberry is more reliable and faster, I have seen people putting iphone and BB next to each other and then send an e-mail to both phones and then time it, Then they would say they are both the same, It might be true for this particular e-mail, But for a long term and when you try and send a bigger e-mails with bigger attachments that test might not be technically correct, BB rely on it’s own servers to push e-mails while other smart phone doesn’t have that infrastructure, E-mails can get lost, I heard that iphone has a special service for that but you have to pay for it while BB is free, This will depend on how important is this feature to you.

  9. October 26, 2011 at 9:52 AM

    Thanks for the comment, George. Blackberry push technology has been refined over many years so is likely more reliable, as you say. On the other hand, you can’t access your Blackberry e-mail at all when Blackberry servers are down, which seems to happen a couple times per year.

    Push email is extremely important for some people – for those people Blackberry will be better. For me, push is not important. My primary email is powered by Gmail, which can be easily accessed on any kind of device. Though most places I access Gmail are not pushed, it has been very reliable. On my Blackberry, I rarely used Blackberry powered email – I mostly used Google’s Gmail app.

    However, my post probably should have included mention that Blackberry still leads in the area of push technology.

  10. George M
    October 26, 2011 at 10:24 AM

    Thanks Joe for the post, I would say that other e-mail servers can go down over the year so they all share the downtime issues not only blackberry, I use other e-mails like gmail and hotmail and yahoo on my device but I keep my BB push for the critical e-mails that I find speed and reliablity is periority, So I have all these accounts right on my BB device and I switch between them all simultiniously.

  11. October 26, 2011 at 1:27 PM

    George – I can’t disagree with the sentiment that Blackberries are the most capable pocket e-mail devices on the market today. Clearly that’s something that matters for you and these capabilities are important for certain professions.

    Though the e-mail experience on both Android and iOS devices is not as refined as it is for Blackberries, both are “good enough” for me and don’t factor into my “next phone” decision. And this is perhaps true for the vast majority of smartphone users, as I’m not seeing a lot discussion about how much ex-Blackberry users miss more capable BIS-powered push e-mail. On the other hand, I see lots of complaints about poor voice call quality, missing Blackberry messenger, that blinking red light (and many other comments related to notifications), and having a great physical keyboard. The iPhone 4s doesn’t add an LED light or keyboard, but it (along with iOS 5) takes care of other frequently discussed issues.

    I will point out I’ve lost access to Gmail for a total of just a few minutes in the past 3 years, as opposed to several hours for Blackberry BIS. Of course, now that I’ve written this, Gmail will go down for 3 days straight next month . . .

  12. George M
    October 28, 2011 at 1:12 PM

    Joe, I think this link has the information that will answer what you are looking for in a new phone, I think RIM has a strong potential with their new QNX OS that is suppose to come out in the near future, While the BB 9900/9930 goals were to keep RIM relevant in the consumer market till they launch their QNX OS phones, So here is the link…
    http://www.berryreview.com/2011/09/12/why-i-think-rim-will-succeed-the-qnx-powered-comeback/

  13. October 28, 2011 at 1:59 PM

    You may be right, George. I’m not one to get religious about any particular brand of phone, so I’m open to Blackberry (and Android) in the future. I’m on the “get a new phone once every two years” plan. 2 years ago, Blackberry 9700 was the best phone available to match my needs. At the moment, it’s the iPhone 4s. I also understand that the reason there are so many phones on the market is that every customer has a different set of requirements and desires.

    I just got my iPhone 4s yesterday. It’s blazing fast and a great pocket computer, which I was expecting. What I wasn’t expecting is that there are more glitches to setting up this phone than I’ve had to experience when setting up a Blackberry. First release of iOS 5 is a little buggy.

    Issues I’ve run into include: Unclear, cumbersome process for buying Applecare+, Notification Center (settings) didn’t work until I opened a few Apple apps, loading the apps I wanted onto the iPhone from iTunes was quirky, Siri doesn’t always activate when I hold the phone to my ear, and a few annoyances about the buying process from AT&T. All these things are minor and most of them were resolved. But I have a more serious issue that is not yet resolved: I can charge the iPhone via USB but not via an electrical outlet using the included charger/plug (UPDATE: Apple sent me a replacement plug that works fine).

    To sum up so far: This is not as much a “turn it on and it just works” experience as a Blackberry.

    On top of all that, the glass back means a case is mandatory. With case on, the iPhone 4s is way heavier than my Blackberry 9700 (which didn’t need a case, as I demonstrated by accidentally dropping it several times on cement). I’ve never used a phone with a hand feel I like better than the 9700. The bulk of the iPhone 4s with case is more than I like but barely acceptable.

    Even with all these issues, I’m happy with the 4s. Everything is fast. The browser is so fast that some pages (like a Google search) load faster than my Windows 7 system (with a fast Sandy Bridge i5 2410m processor inside). Took a picture of my driver’s license from 4 inches away: crystal clear.

    Anyway – thanks for your great comments. I really appreciate them.

  14. October 28, 2011 at 2:34 PM

    George – The Akismet spam filter got overly aggressive. I pulled your comment with the link in it out of the Spam folder. You wouldn’t believe how many spams per day a typical blog gets. Around 20-40/day for me. To Akismet’s credit, they only throw legitimate comments into spam about once a month or so.

  15. George M
    October 28, 2011 at 3:54 PM

    Joe, You are more than welcome, I really enjoyed your blog, Comments and congratulations on your iphone4s, I heard that it’s a great phone and even with the few issues that you mentioned it will still be a pleasant phone, I just wanted to share this article with you as an option for you to think about down the road, I have the 9700 as well and I was thinking about upgrading to the 9900/9930 but not after this article, I would wait and see what RIM will bring out by early 2012, I am not big on internet browsing or multimedia, I use my phone mainly for communications, E-mails/texts and calender, Also tethering with my laptop when I am away, And I must say that bb also has an edge here as they have their servers that compress data in and out of the phone that makes it faster even though it’s only 256 mbps when i use it as a modem, Plus data compression also save on battery life, So I am looking for the new QNX phone when it comes out.

  16. November 4, 2011 at 7:01 AM

    Thanks for the tip, Joe. iPhone: 1, Blackberry: 0. This does not bode well for the future of the Blackberry. And says a lot about how the iPhone keeps pulling ahead of the pack in features. It’s coming down to a race between Android and iOS with no other contenders in sight.

  17. George M
    November 7, 2011 at 1:09 PM

    Hi Richard, you might need to read this link here, It tells me that Blackberry has a lot to come up with in the near future…
    http://www.berryreview.com/2011/09/12/why-i-think-rim-will-succeed-the-qnx-powered-comeback/

  18. November 7, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    George and Richard,

    I’ve been using the iPhone 4s for just over a week and will be posting my detailed thoughts comparing the two in a few days. Here’s the super condensed version:

    Phone: Blackberry still significantly better. The worst part of the iPhone 4s is that voice quality is erratic with earbuds but perhaps this is a software bug that gets corrected in a few months (many others experiencing this).

    Notifications: Mixed bag. Blackberry still gives you way more flexibility and the blinking LED but iOS 5 gives you notifications on the lockscreen which for me is a killer feature that causes me to slightly prefer the iOS 5 notification system.

    Other minor comments:

    setup and getting started was surprisingly complicated – far more so than with either of my Blackberries

    Auto brightness works much better on Blackberry 9700 than 4s

    4s camera awesome as advertised

    surprising how many apps broke with iOS 5. Loss of Stanza is by far my biggest disappointment

    4s is a battery and data hog (though I don’t have the battery issue many are talking about)

    Siri is unreliable – not always up, often misunderstands me, and doesn’t integrate so well with Google Contacts – so it’s not turning out to be the keyboard shortcut substitute I was hoping for – though at least I can say “Call my wife at home.” Hopefully becomes more reliable over time because when it works, it substitutes for a keyboard just fine.

    4s is wicked fast and a very flexible pocket computer as expected. This is what makes this device so enjoyable to use.

    The thing I dislike about the 4s by far the most is that it is built to require a case, which makes it heavy when you add in the case. I like the weight in my hand just fine when it’s bare, but with the case it is nowhere near as comfortable to handle as a Blackberry or an iPod touch. I may end up just going without a case and pay $50 to Apple (using AppleCare+) every time I destroy it. It’s that annoying. Though maybe I’ll get used to it.

    Like I said, I’ll post a blog with more detail than this but this is my initial impressions.

  19. George M
    November 7, 2011 at 5:50 PM

    Joe, I like your line of thinking when you evaluate the devices, I will be looking forward to see your future posts about the 4s, I only have had the 9700 and never owned an iphone, Just played with the 3g and my girl friend’s iphone4, Still prefer my 9700 for what I do, I am strictly using it for communications, Leaving notes while I am over the phone, Multitasking, Voice quality and of course e-mail system is terrific on my bold, I am debating weather to wait till the qnx comes out or get the 9900, I am leaning toward waiting though but want to see what kind of features will be in the qnx.

  20. November 8, 2011 at 9:10 PM

    A minor piece of bad news for Blackberry owners who use Gmail: the Gmail app will no longer be supported by Google after November 22:

    http://googleappsupdates.blogspot.com/2011/11/deprecation-of-gmail-app-for-blackberry.html

    This won’t matter for older devices based on OS 6 or earlier as the app will still work. But had I just bought a Blackberry 9900 this would have been a big blow.

    Gmail integration with regular Blackberry mail through BIS has historically been cumbersome. Perhaps it now works well, I don’t know but the one time I tried it a year ago I thought it was awful.

  21. anon
    November 22, 2011 at 6:36 PM

    Funny that despite how much Joe tries to seem indifferent in his post and comments, he still oozes Apple Fanboy. Or maybe he’s just being paid. I’m a current android user who was looking for a reliable, unbiased comparison and instead got this.

    Thanks for nothing,
    Joe Schmo

    P.S. Don’t delete this comment Joe

  22. November 22, 2011 at 7:27 PM

    anon – I’ve been using the iPhone 4s for nearly a month now and I’m working on a comparison with the Blackberry based on a month’s experience. I can’t comment on Android devices as I haven’t used one. But I can say that the Blackberry is still a way better voice call device than the iPhone 4s. This is my first iPhone and I’ve avoided using them to date partly due to voice quality issues. I find voice quality of the iPhone 4s on the AT&T network to be barely acceptable. The Blackberry on the other hand is landline-like quality no matter whether you use it by your ear, with earbuds, or speakerphone. And it will go through an entire day without needing to be recharged under virtually any scenario.

    So, if I were a broker, a real estate agent, a sales person, or some other type of phone intensive person, I would want a Blackberry. I’m not that phone intensive, though, so the iPhone 4s is working better for me. Prior to iOS 5, I would not have been at all happy with an iPhone, for the reasons I outlined in the post above.

    As for “indifference,” I’m interested in finding the product that best meets my needs and wants (and describing differences accurately so as to help my readers best meet their own needs and wants). iPhones before iOS 5 and the iPhone 4s didn’t meet my voice quality requirements. Now it’s barely acceptable. I’m not loyal to any one vendor. So 22 months from now when I consider which phone to get, it will again be based on what best meets my needs and wants. Which of course may be different than your needs and wants.

    If you’re a real estate agent, I’d recommend you get a Blackberry over an iPhone. If you don’t do voice calling that much and want a great pocket computer – I’d recommend an iPhone 4s over a Blackberry.

  23. Thomas
    December 11, 2011 at 3:45 PM

    They are both great devices, I’m blessed enough to own both the Blackberry 9900 & iPhone 4s on AT&T.
    The email and and calendar on the 9900 is still better than the iPhone. Surfing the web and app quality is better on the iPhone.

  24. rob newton
    February 13, 2012 at 8:42 AM

    hi – i’ve read your comments, i’m in the uk so price doesnt matter. i love my bb 9700 but need to upgrade, everyone’s got the iphone, not sure i like it. shall i go for the 9900 or iphone 4s now that you’ve had more time to think about it…
    rob

  25. February 13, 2012 at 1:03 PM

    Rob – I suggest you read my followup post:

    Blackberry vs. iPhone 4s After 2 Months of Use

    The iPhone 4s has inferior voice call quality and is less customizeable around notifications. So if you’re in a call intensive profession you’ll be better off with Blackberry. If not, you’ll likely prefer the 4s.