It's hard not to feel like "the man" walking around with the P'9981. Most people have never seen one in real life. Take it out in public and people notice it. Those who recognize it and know of the Porsche BlackBerry look at you in awe (or like you're crazy to spend $2k on a phone). Those who don't know of the P'9981 stop and ask what is as they're seeing it for the first time. Owning the P'9981 turns you into a celebrity of sorts. Seriously, people will want to stop you and take photos of you and your phone. It's a very different sort of smartphone ownership experience. When you buy a P'9981, you really feel like you're joining an elite club.
As the price tag goes up so do the expectations. Unfortunately, there are a few frustrating flaws/oversights on the P'9981 that bug me. Uneven keyboard backlighting jumps out at you in the dark. Removing the microSD card is tricky as is replacing the battery door. The Call / Hang Up buttons have open edges, and I've almost accidentally ripped those buttons off the phone when pulling the phone out of my pocket more than once. Accessories are hard to find. Software updates/leaks lag the 9900, which is annoying at the moment as the P'9981 needs an upgrade to OS 7.1. And yes, like the Bold 9900, there's no autofocus on the camera. :/
You don't look at review ratings on a phone like the P'9981. With a $2k price tag, this is a luxury item. It's an emotional purchase. You're buying it because you already like the BlackBerry experience and you want it in the most exclusive manner possible and don't mind the expense that accompanies it. Comparisons to other BlackBerry phones or competitors on the market just don't matter.
It doesn't matter that the Bold 9900 is arguably a better BlackBerry for way less money. The 9900 isn't exclusive. It doesn't matter that you could buy a Bold 9900, iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy Nexus off contract for the cost of one P'9981. Everybody else has those phones. It doesn't matter that the BlackBerry OS is showing its age and doesn't have the apps of iOS or Android - if you're buying a P'9981 you probably already own three iPads and a PlayBook or two already. If and when a BlackBerry 10 exclusive phone hits with a price tag of $2k, you already know you're just going to buy that too.
The P'9981 isn't perfect. For $2,000, it probably should be. If you've been seriously considering buying one, there's no major reason I can give you not to go ahead with your purchase. You're going to buy what you want to buy regardless of my opinion. However, there are some minor things to be aware of, which I highlight in this review, so you know what to expect when you pick up your shiny new P'9981 and are able to enjoy it to the max!
In This Review
More P'9981 Info
When the first photos of the P'9981 emerged on the internet back on September 9th of 2011, nobody knew what to think of them. Overall the phone had the look of a BlackBerry, complete with a BlackBerry logo above the display. At the same time, the phone looked like no other BlackBerry on the market, and the word PROCEEDING inscribed into the top front of the casing seemed odd. Was this an unfinished hardware prototype of a next-generation QNX BlackBerry that was still running the old BlackBerry OS? Or maybe it was somebody's elaborate mod job to a 9900? We were all confused, to say the least.
It took the CrackBerry team barely 24 hours to get to the bottom of it, and the next day we posted that the device was absolutely legit, was codenamed "BlackBerry Knight" and was actually a collaboration between Porsche Design and BlackBerry to create an exclusive BlackBerry offering. Less than two months later on October 27th, Research In Motion officially unveiled the Porsche Design P'9981 Smartphone from BlackBerry in Dubai.
Based on the BlackBerry Bold 9900 hardware platform and running on the BlackBerry 7 operating system, the phone would go to market with an incredibly long product name -- Porsche Design P Ninety Nine Eighty One Smartphone from BlackBerry -- to match the incredibly steep $2,000 price tag. The phone first became available overseas and is now available in North America. Don't call your carrier looking for the P'9981. It is only available from Porsche Design stores (see locations).
In late February both me and my better half (Miss CrackBerry) started using the P'9981, both moving over to it from the Bold 9900. I wasn't in a rush to get this review posted. With demand for the phone relatively low and with a price tag as high it is, I'd rather post my thoughts on it once I've really put it to use for a month, including a couple of weeks spent roaming on different carriers while traveling.
The P'9981 isn't a new BlackBerry so much as it is a new skin for the BlackBerry Bold 9900 we all know and love. From the 1.2GHz Qualcomm processor/chipset to the 640x480 resolution touchscreen display to the location of all the buttons and ports and even the camera location, the P'9981 is basically a 9900 stripped down to its guts and fitted into a new chassis with different trimmings all around. The most notable hardware configuration change is actually the location of the microSD card slot under the battery door cover, which has been flipped around so it doesn't pull out and get jammed into the battery as it did with the Bold 9900 (I wonder if RIM made this change because of my issues with it).
That said, the 9900 really does look nothing like the P'9981. Within the context of keeping the device hardware configuration the same as the Bold 9900, RIM and Porsche Design essentially changed everything they could to give the P'9981 its own unique look and design language. They definitely succeeded. As you might suspect with a phone so closely built upon another, performance of the P'9981 matches that of the 9900 in pretty much all areas.
The appearance of the P'9981 is polarizing. People seem to either absolutely love it or completely hate it. Every article we've written about the P'9981 to date here on CrackBerry has been accompanied by user comments that range from "this is still the fugliest BlackBerry I've ever seen" to "oh my gawd that's hot, I NEED IT NOW." One thing I have also noticed is that the P'9981 gets better reactions when people see it in person - pictures don't quite do the phone justice.
While the design influence is that of Porsche Design, most initial reactions compare the P'9981 to an old school calculator. I've also heard references to Bang and Olufsen's designs from the 80's and that it also looks like a phone Marty McFly should have been using to go with Doc's DeLorean. Mixed in with its industrial design, the P'9881 definitely falls into that category of futuro - futuristic and retro styling combined.
While initially I wasn't completely sold on the P'9981's design, it has grown on me. I consider my BlackBerry to be a communication and productivity tool, and the look of the P'9981 represents that well. There's a ruggedness about it that screams I get sh!t done.
While the aesthetics are up for debate, one thing that isn't is the P'9981's ability to draw attention. Everywhere I go, people notice the P'9981. Especially when out at restaurants with the P'9981 on the table, a meal doesn't go by without the server commenting on it (I guess in the service industry you see a lot of phones everyday, so when something new and different pops up it really grabs your attention). Heck, on a recent trip to the USA, Miss CrackBerry was using her P'9981 while sitting by the gate at the airport and she kept getting stopped by people to pose for photos with her phone - people were all over this crazy-looking BlackBerry.
One of the expensive hardware components of the P'9981 that also gives a foundation to the design is the stainless steel frame upon which the phone is built. The unibody frame has been milled out of a single piece of metal, which makes the device extremely sturdy and also contributes to the phone's additional heft. The P'9981 weights in at a meaty 155 grams / 5.47 oz, compared to the Bold 9900 at 130 grams / 4.59 oz.
Looking at the device from the front, you can visually see the steel frame at the top of the phone, where it is engraved with the Porsche Design name. Below that is the display area, which contains the touchscreen display as well as the notification LED.
Below the display the Porsche Design BlackBerry takes a linear approach to the navigation buttons and keyboard vs. the curvy Bold 9900. The call / end / menu / back and optical trackpad functions are mounted on rectangle-shaped buttons in a straight line. The trackpad really struck me as being different from any other BlackBerry trackpad to date - on the P'9981 it takes the form of cross hairs, which is very unique and really jumps out.
Below the navigation buttons is the keyboard, which again is a lot different than the Bold 9900's. The keyboard is laid across four straight rows that are set into the unibody frame, each row of keys divided by a space. The keyboard buttons are interesting. The bottom corners are indented, which is where alternate characters are shown, but the indentation is preceded with a raised line. Looking at the phone in the photo above, you clearly the get impression that the keyboard has treads, just like that of a car tire. It's a not so subtle design that ties in the Porsche Design theme of the phone. I like it. In this review you can find photos that show off both the standard P'9981 keyboard, but also the Arabic version, which adds the additional characters to the top right corner of each key.
What I don't like is the sloppiness around this part of the phone. On the row of navigation buttons, you can really feel the edges, both between each button and between the top of the buttons and display. Also, the sides of both the call and hang up buttons are exposed. With the Bold 9900, these keys are mounted within the frame, so the edges of the buttons are not visible from the outside of the phone. On the P'9981, you can literally stick your fingernail under the edge of the call and hang up buttons, being able to literally pop them off if you wanted to. Pulling the phone out of my front jeans pocket, on more than one occasion I've snagged the button and nearly ripped it off the phone. Not cool. Likewise, on the keyboard, I've found the backlighting to be inconsistent. Some of the letters glow more brightly than others in the dark, for no apparent reason. I found this to be really sloppy and annoying, which if anything exudes a form of cheapness vs. the luxury I'm expecting out of a $2,000 phone. Take note, I found this backlighting issue to be a problem on both P'9981s I reviewed.
Below the keyboard, the "chin" of the P'9981 has an angular design, which slots in beautifully to the charging stand that comes with the P'9981 in the box. Overall, the phone is a little bit longer than the 9900.
The back of the P'9981 actually brings back memories of the original Bold 9000, where the battery door cover was literally the entire backside of the phone. With the P'9981 the door is a soft touch rubber, which provides a nice grip and has a pattern reminiscent of a grained leather. If anything, it comes across a bit like the material you'd expect on the dashboard of a car - another tie-in to the Porsche Design theme.
Removing and replacing the battery door is a little bit tricky. The door is held on by a pressure fit against almost invisible clips. You have to pry the door off the phone - start from the bottom with your finger nail in the speaker port gap at the middle bottom of the phone. When replacing the door, start at the top and start placing pressure down the phone to have it snap back in place. On one of the P'9981s reviewed, I found one of the bottom corners never liked to snap in nicely, though it would work its way closed. In over a month of use I never ran into any issues with the battery door falling off or accidentally becoming dislodged, which is good. So while the door isn't nearly as user friendly as the 9900's, it does the job with style.
Also visible from the back of the phone is the camera and flash, which are surrounded by a metal badge which features the P'9981 brand.
Working around the perimeter of the device, both top and bottom of the P'9981 are kept very clean. Similar to the 9900, there is single, centrally-mounted button on the top that wakes the P'9981 and puts it to sleep.
On both sides of the angular bottom of the P'9981 are the charging contacts for P'9981's charging stand. These really jump out at you, as a portion of the frame has been cut away to expose the contact pins. There is also a small gap in the bottom of the phone, which has been cut out as a speaker port - this is where sound escapes the phone when using the speaker phone or listening to music, etc.
The right side of the P'9981 is busy, featuring the volume up / down / mute keys as well as the right side convenience key.
The left side of the P'9981 is very clean. Exposed near the top is the 3.5mm headset port, and below that is the microUSB port for charging and syncing.
Looking at the Porsche Design BlackBerry from the side you really get a sense of the unibody frame construction. Notice in the photo below how the display and keyboard are clearly inset into the frame. As mentioned above, the exposed edges of the talk / end buttons concerns me a bit, but overall you can't argue with this somewhat unfinished industrial look. It's really cool.
Comparing the Porsche Design P'9981 to the Bold 9900 side by side, you really get a sense of just how different yet how similar the two phones are. The locations of critical buttons and ports and the display and LED are basically identical, yet between all of that the housing and finishing details are very different.
The Bold 9900 is more compact and in my opinion, more elegant, taking advantage of curves everywhere while retaining that iconic BlackBerry look. The P'9981 features more straight lines and a more utilitarian look. When I think of Porsche cars, which are curvy and beautiful, I feel the 9900 might actually be the better representation. The P'9981 almost has the feeling of a Hummer - it's bigger and boxier with a rougher finish to the look. Of course we're talking Porsche Design here, not Porsche cars, and Porsche Design has their own clear design language which the P'9981 adheres to.
With the battery doors removed, keen eyes will note the configuration change that was made to the P'9981 under the hood. The position of the microSD card was flipped so it no longer ejects into the battery as it did on the 9900 (with the 9900 you have to take out your battery to swap the microSD card). A great change, though on both my P'9981s I have found it slightly difficult to remove the SD card. It's spring loaded so you press on it and it easily ejects half way. From there you should be able to just slide it out, but there's a slight lip on the housing that can catch the card. A little light pressure applied away from the phone tends to overcome this. It's not a big deal once you figure it out. Just take note, if you're having trouble removing the microSD card, don't force it - look at it and remove it with some care.
End of the day, the Porsche Design P'9981 is a conversation starter. Whether you love it or hate it, you can't help but notice it.
Like the BlackBerry Bold 9900, the Porsche Design P'9981 is running a Qualcomm Scorpion MSM 8655 processor clocked at 1.2GHz on the Snapdragon chipset. An Adreno 205 GPU (graphics processing unit) is also onboard, powering BlackBerry 7's hardware-accelerated graphics, which RIM has dubbed "liquid graphics." At 1.2GHz, the processing power is roughly double the speed of previous generation BlackBerry phones like the Bold 9700 and 9780. In addition to more speed, this hardware platform upgrade addressed a lot of the other nagging wants we've had for a while now, including 3D graphics support (has been lacking to date on GSM BlackBerrys) and HD video recording.
For the most part, the performance of the P'9981 has been really fast. I have noticed a few occasional slow downs, but I actually attribute them more to the version of the OS software on the P'9981 (my units came with 22.214.171.1249) and running low on memory than to the processor (which we'll cover shortly). 1.2GHz on the BlackBerry OS is ample.
The Porsche Design P'9981 features a 2.8-inch (diagonal) 24-bit touchscren display running VGA at 640 x 480 pixels. Pixel density works out to 287 pixels per inch. Like the BlackBerry Bold 9900's display, the P'9981's display is really nice. Colors are crisp and vivid, and the display is bright - even at the default 70 percent setting. According to RIM the display is made of "extra hardened glass," so there's no plastic here.
The only real complaint anybody can have with the P'9981's display is the overall size. When you put a full physical keyboard on the front of a phone, it comes with the trade off of leaving less room to fit a display. If you mainly use your phone for communication purposes then a 2.8" display is fine, but activities like web browsing will have you wishing for a bigger display. The good news is that if you can afford the P'9981, you can also afford to buy a secondary device, like a PlayBook or iPad or iPod touch to go along with the P'9981. The P'9981 is the best communication tool on the planet - use it for that, and put the games and movies onto your other device and you'll have the best of both worlds.
The BlackBerry Bold 9900's keyboard is STILL the greatest keyboard to ever be put on a smartphone, period. There's no debating it. Anybody who argues otherwise doesn't know what they're talking about.
That said, the keyboard on the P'9981 is pretty good. Unless you actually compare it to the Bold 9900 side by side, you won't know that there's something out there even better. When I first used the P'9981, it was a pre-production prototype and on that particular unit I had difficulty on the keyboard - something with the bounce back on the keys didn't feel right. I was really worried that when it came time to review the P'9981 I'd be bashing the keyboard. But whatever RIM did between then and releasing the P'9981 fixed things up, as I've found the P'9981 great for typing.
Coming from the Bold 9900 to the P'9981 took some adjustment, both for me and Miss CrackBerry. We weren't quite as fast nor as accurate at the start. But a week or so later I was no longer missing the 9900's keyboard and the P'9981 felt like home. Though every now and then I pick up my 9900 again to type on it just for fun, and am still amazed by how good the 9900's keyboard feels.
The Porsche Design P'9981 ships with 768MB of RAM and has an additional 8GB of onboard memory for media storage. Additionally, there is an expansion slot that supports up to 32GB microSD cards. The phone comes with a 16GB card pre-installed. A nice touch, but I'll admit for $2,000 I was hoping for a 32GB.
Of the 768MB of RAM, a lot of it goes to powering the OS and liquid graphics. Application Storage free space will be around 200MB. As I type this right now I am sitting with about 90MB free. I've installed very few apps on my P'9981, but I get a TON of emails each day which tend to collect on the phone and eat up memory. On a couple of occasions now, when not paying attention, I've actually ran the phone out of memory just by having a really, really full inbox. When memory gets low the phone slows down. But wiping out the emails frees up all that space and it's quick again. I'm really looking forward to BlackBerry 10 phones - this type of issue will be a thing of the past.
Battery life on the P'9981 has been consistent compared to that of the Bold 9900, which is to say not as good as some BlackBerry Smartphones of the past, such as the Bold 9700. As long as I use WiFi when at home and at the office, I never find I have an issue with battery life. I'm out and about all day on 3G, then I'll find my battery gets eaten a lot more quickly (especially if I find myself in low coverage areas). On a recent trip to Miami, I actually put my phone on Edge for the week which really helped conserve battery life.
Whether the battery life is going to be enough for you will depend on usage. Miss CrackBerry has never had an issue lasting the day, but she mainly uses the phone for messaging and calls. To ensure you get the most out of your battery, be sure to check our article with 10 Tips to Maximize BlackBerry Battery Life.
I was worried that a phone with so much metal in it would drop a lot of calls, but the P'9981 has performed fine on the phone front. Call quality is good as is the speakerphone loudness and clarity. The microphone pickup is located on the front of the phone - it's a tiny little slit to the right of the caps key on the bottom row of the keyboard.
Audio quality out of the internal speaker was good. Cranking up the tunes to max volume, the sound quality didn't go all tinny and hollow. It's loud but not LOUD. Again, if you can afford the P'9981 you can also afford some awesome headphones and speakers to hook up to the P'9981.
As we noted in our Bold 9900 review, one of the nice upgrades on the BlackBerry 7 hardware is the move from a 3.6Mbps modem to 14.4. The Porsche Design theme on the P'9981 shows a 3G connectivity icon instead of the H+ I normally see on my 9900, but the data speeds are equally fast.
Like the Bold 9900, the P'9981 features a 5 megapixel EDOF (Extended Depth of Field) camera, which is to say that it lacks autofocus. This was a sacrifice RIM made on the Bold 9900 in order to make the it the thinnest BlackBerry yet, as the EDOF camera has a very thin footprint. While the continuous focus camera works well for the most part, unfortunately, the lack of autofocus can also makes close up shots extremely difficult. I often use my phone camera for taking shots of receipts or product labels, and not having autofocus has caused me to curse on many occassions with both the 9900 and now the P'9981. On the Bold 9900, the lack of autofocus was almost unforgivable. On a $2,000 phone, the lack of autofocus is laughable.
With that rant done, the P'9981 is capable of taking some beautiful photos, especially when ample lighting is present. The P'9981 can also record HD video at 720p (1280 x 720 resolution). The video recording quality is really solid.
The NFC antenna is built into the battery door of the P'9981
The P'9981 as it ships today is loaded with OS 7.0, not 7.1, but when it gets the upgrade to 7.1 (which RIM promises it will), the phone will have BlackBerry Tag preloaded. BlackBerry Tag allows you to put the NFC functionality of the P'9981 to work in a variety of ways. Check out the demo video below:
Bluetooth and WiFi are of course present on the P'9981, and everything is up to BlackBerry par. Bluetooth is version 2.1 and it does support stereo bluetooth (A2DP). WiFi connectivity is present in the form of Dual-Band Wi-Fi: 802.11 b/g/n at 2.4 GHz and 802.11 a/n at 5 GHz. Other sensors include GPS, an orientation sensor (accelerometer) and digital compass (magnetometer) that allow for augmented reality applications like Wikitude, which comes preloaded on the phone.
The best accessory for a Porsche Design phone is a real Porsche
One of the best and worst things about the P'9981 are the accessories. The best thing is that the P'9981 comes with some sweet accessories, including the best BlackBerry charging stand ever and cleaning cloth that is stamped with Porsche Design. The bad thing is, beyond what comes in the box, your selection is pretty limited. No case is included, which given the value of the phone I think a lot of P'9981 owners would be looking for (and no, cases for the 9900 don't fit the 9981). Likewise, I'd like to get another charging stand for the P'9981 so I could have one by my bed and one on my office desk, but I haven't been able to find one yet that I can buy. At ShopCrackBerry.com we do have lots of Porsche Design BlackBerry Acccessories, but not specific P'9981 ones yet (just the general stuff like batteries, bluetooth, etc.). I'm not near any Porsche Design stores to check if they're carrying any selection of accessories for the P'9981 beyond what comes in the box, but I hope they are.
A $500 clock app on a $2000 BlackBerry. The insanity.
Beyond giving the P'9881 a distinct look from all other BlackBerry Smartphones, Research In Motion also customized the BlackBerry 7 software to give it a distinct Porsche Design feel.
The Porsche Design Theme and Wallpaper
The P'9981 comes with its own Porsche Design theme pre-installed by default. There's no disabling it to go back to the traditional default BlackBerry theme. With a lot of purple and green in it, the theme has a fun vibe and it's definitely usable. Like any new theme, it takes some getting used to the new icons in the P'9981 theme, which have a mix of predominant colors including blue, green and grey. The default wallpaper is a wavy background grid of purple and black. Speaking to that retro look of the hardware, this wallpaper matches it. I swear as a kid in grade four I had my school photos done on a similar backdrop.
The most expensive ringtone you'll ever own.
Another P'9981 OS touch was the inclusion of a Porsche Design ringtone, which again, has a bit of an 80's vibe to it. It's cool. The only problem now is that both Miss CrackBerry and I feel the need to use it as our ringtone, so whenever we're in the same room and a phone rings, we're both reaching for our P'9981s. Maybe RIM could have included a few more Porsche Design ringtones. Listen to it below.
The real icing on the Porsche Design BlackBerry software cake has to be the exclusive PIN associated with 9981 phones. All BlackBerry pins start with the numbers 2AA. So if you get a BlackBerry Messenger request from somebody with a 2AA, you know they're rocking the P'9981. Likewise, if somebody tries to tell you they have a P'9981 and their pin doesn't have a 2AA at the front, you know they're lying. The P'9981 even comes with an owners card in the box that declares it is an authentic device designed by BlackBerry and Porsche Design with the PIN printed on the card.
While I am a fan of all the customizations to the P'9981 that contribute to this feeling of exclusivity and being part of an elite owners club, I am not loving that the P'9981 takes a back seat in terms of software updates. While the BlackBerry Bold 9900 is officially on OS 7.1, the P'9981 is still stuck on OS 126.96.36.1999, which is what it shipped with. In comparison, this P'9981 software is old and it's not nearly as good as the latest versions of the OS. Having used the Bold 9900 from its first builds up until the newest, the stability and speed (and functionality) of the OS has steadily improved along the way. Unfortunately, .579 is still pretty old, and it shows. Especially when roaming recently in the US on AT&T, I found the P'9981 to be out of sorts. Miss CrackBerry's 9981 has been really glitchy as of late too, with the touchscreen often not responding and then the trackpad not responding (then both work for a while, then go back to one or the other not responding). I've reached out to RIM and they have confirmed that 7.1 is coming to the P'9981. And it needs it, badly. For those looking to buy a P'9981 now, just be aware that the whole experience is going to be that much better once the phone makes the leap up to 7.1.
I'm pretty sure most would-be P'9981 owners will be familiar with the BlackBerry OS and will be people who like the BlackBerry experience. As everybody knows, BlackBerry 10 is the next generation of BlackBerry that will bring a much more robust app experience and a whole new level of performance to the phones. The BlackBerry OS as it is today excels at communication and critical apps. It's not about talking about what the BlackBerry OS is currently missing. If you're buying this phone, it's because you love what the BlackBerry operating system excels at.
The P'9981 costs about the same as the Bold 9900, iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus combined.
The Porsche Design P'9981 Smartphone from BlackBerry. Is it worth the money? The answer to that question is a personal one that potential customers will have to decide for themselves.
Since you're reading my review and presumably want my opinion, here goes:
If you look at the P'9981 from the perspective of the BlackBerry experience it delivers, the answer is no. Taking the astronomical price tag out of the equation, the Bold 9900 is actually a better BlackBerry. The keyboard on the 9900 is better, the software updates come first which makes a noticeable difference in performance. I also suspect the Bold 9900 will actually hold up better over time, thanks to all the cases available for it and the fact that the physical buttons are better attached to the device.
Where the P'9981 trumps the Bold 9900 is in psychology and panache. The P'9981 is expensive. It's exclusive. It's a luxury item. It's a symbol for success. The fact that you could buy a Bold 9900, iPhone 4S and Samsung Galaxy Nexus for the price of one P'9981 means you don't care about value. Yes, there are some really cool things about the P'9981. The styling is unique and the exclusive 2AA PIN is a cool concept. At the end of the day, however, you're buying the P'9981 because you want it and can afford it and you don't care what anybody else has to say on that matter.
As for me, I have sitting on my desk a P'9981 and a Bold 9900. They both call to me. While I know that the 9900 is already sporting OS 7.1, in the end, that is somehow less compelling than the feel of my P'9981 in my hand - I'll be leaving my SIM card in the P'9981 and my BBMs will come from my 2AA PIN - because I can.