Sunday, August 02, 2009

Two Weeks on Tour

It's been a couple weeks since I first received Blackberry's newest Verizon Wireless model, the 9630 (aka the Tour) and, as per usual, it's a mixed bag but, for the most part, I'm glad I opened this bag.

Before proceeding, it should be noted that the choice of devices for Verizon Wireless users has been somewhat limited in comparison to those offered by its main competitor, AT&T Wireless. The former has, in my judgment, the better network, but AT&T has always offered more phones -- including Apple's iPhone -- and while each carrier's rates have been slowly approaching one another's, AT&T has, for the most part, been a bit cheaper in terms of monthly use/subscription.

However, being that my interest in a mobile carrier has been quality of service, I've been relatively happy to stick with Verizon in the NYC metropolitan area. Since I manage our business contract -- which umbrellas four separate lines, including mine -- if any of us had issues with Verizon's service, I'd hear about it. And since I don't hear about it, I'm assuming that the other three lines on the contract are as trouble-free as is mine.

In either case, beyond the network quality issues, the main focus of this review should be the phone itself. Without further ado...

The phone specifications are fairly sophisticated. As per Verizon's page dedicated to the Tour, the Tour is not only a CDMA device compatible with VZW's domestic network, it also can do quad-band (ie GSM), meaning that it works elsewhere beyond North America. In plain English, it can do Europe, hence the "Tour" moniker.

Beyond that significant fact, there are some other interesting things to be had for the Tour user: it features 256MB in both Flash and RAM, up from the 96 MB Flash and 32 MB RAM featured in the last Verizon Blackberry, the Curve. Speaking of the Curve, the Tour bumps the graphics ante from the Curve's 320x240 pixel screen to 480x360. Even though the screens on these devices are about the same size dimension-wise (about 2.5"), the screen is noticeably sharp and clear.

The Tour is sized much more similarly to the Curve then the newest AT&T Blackberry, the Bold. The two devices, when placed next to one another, look remarkably similar, but the Tour is not as wide and a bit deeper. Essentially, if you've held a Verizon Curve you'll feel right at home with respect to the size of the Tour.

The keyboard is either a regression or a progression -- depending on your perspective -- to the 8800-series Blackberry models (the silver "world phone" from Verizon or the 8800 offered by AT&T). The keys are quasi-sculpted and slanted, so the left side of the keyboard -- everything from the 'T' down and to the left -- slopes slightly leftward and everything from the 'Y' down and to the right slope slightly rightward. This is a distinct change from the smaller keys featured on the Curve, and it will take some getting used to for people who punch out lots of e-mails on their Curve keyboards. The keys have good response -- but not great -- and there will be typos which will decrease as does the user's time with the Tour increases.

As far as battery life is concerned, that -- currently -- is a mixed bag for several reasons. I was using a Seidio enhanced battery in my last phone, the Curve, and noticed an increasingly tangible drop in effective charge. At first I was getting 36 hours between charges, including a 100 or so minutes of daily talk time and lots of e-mail/net usage. That dissipated over the tenure of my use of the Curve. However, the Tour, with its stock RIM battery, is requiring more frequent charging -- in fact I doubt I'll last through an entire, typical day without a minimal charge. Why? First, the Tour's screen is more graphic intensive; second, I've rarely, if ever, had the phone's audible features enabled in favor of vibrating alerts; and third, and most importantly, as is typical with many Blackberry releases from Verizon, the first version always requires some sort of tweaking of the phone's software before the battery life begins settling into a typical pattern. Put another way, I hope that this limited battery life is not typical to what this phone will be delivering. I've enjoyed not having to concern myself with keeping a spare battery in my work bag since I began using a Blackberry and I'm hoping that trend continues.

As for usability, while the iPhone 3G was released to much fanfare and a celebration of Apple's inclusion of "cut" and "paste" into the iPhone's software, Blackberry, as per usual, lets Apple celebrate loudly and just keeps improving their software. To that end, the e-mail aspect of the Tour -- which is the crux of using a Blackberry (and a smartphone in general) -- now includes the ability to view mail in HTML format (ie graphics, pictures, and formatting) as well as the ability to request delivery/read receipts with sent e-mail. This doesn't seem like much of an improvement to people who celebrate finally being able to cut and paste text from one place to another within the applications on their iPhones, but for people who communicate in the business world, HTML-viewable mail (to a degree) and read/delivery receipts (significantly) are important aspects of business communication, which, with all due respect to iPhone users, is where the Blackberry leaves the iPhone behind.

As for entertainment and games, the Tour is packed with a bunch of non-productivity 'ware. There's a half-dozen games included in the shipping model, including Poker, Solitaire, Sudoku and some others, and Slacker Radio also is included with the Tour. A variety of free instant messaging software is also included -- Yahoo, MSN, GoogleTalk, AIM -- as well as the mother of all IM cell applications, Blackberry Messenger.

There's a lot of other useful things packed into the Tour, including a Password Manager, a Maps application, a Media manager (for photos, voice notes, music and video), but the main focus of the Blackberry are the four key applications: the address book, the task/to-do list, the calendar, and the notepad. In addition to these two are, obviously, e-mail and the browser.

There are some interesting tweaks to the e-mail application -- in addition to the above-mentioned read/delivery receipt aspect. It's a bit easier to prep mail with built-in, on the fly spell checking, but as with any device, that can be more of a hindrance than a help. The calendar is a bit better laid out than in the Curve, but it's relatively familiar and effectively simple.

Something which should be noted is the inclusion of a 3.2 megapixel camera which is an improvement over the 2.0 megapixel camera included in the Curve. What's far more significant, however, is that a) the Tour includes image stabilization with the Tour's camera software, and b) there is a version of the Tour that omits the camera entirely. The price of the non-camera Tour is the same as the Tour which includes the camera, so that eliminates the suggestion that RIM wanted to be considerate of its customers by saving them some money off the $200 list price of the Tour. The reason why there is a non-camera model of the Tour is because many Blackberry users -- business users -- find themselves in situations where having a camera-phone is prohibited, so by removing the camera from the device permits them to remain in contact with people without having to surrender their phones at security checkpoints or in addition to the execution of NDA's. Put another way, it's a fairly smart move on their part to show consideration to those business users who resent having to surrender their phones on a regular basis.

As for the design, the fit and finish on the Tour is superior to the Curve's fit and finish. The Tour feels a bit heavier and substantial than the Curve -- in this case the added weight being a good thing -- and it feels solid. The screen and keyboard are bisected by the control panel buttons of send, the command/blackberry button, the control ball (aka the pearl), the back and end buttons. There is some light which peeks through from the sides of these buttons, but everything -- including the light-wheel circling the pearl and the keys -- is evenly and well lit.

One distinct negative which I encountered immediately was the charging/data port, which on the Curve and previous Blackberry models was a mini USB port, has been "upgraded" to a USB micro port. That means that cables for data/charging that worked with prior Blackberry models won't work with the Tour. However, inasmuch as needing a new cable or two is a minor inconvenience at best, the real problem is that the USB micro port is smaller than the mini port on the Curve and, as a result, it takes some effort to insure the cable for data transfer/charging is inserted properly into the Tour's right side. It's not a major problem, but the fact is that over a six-month period of daily charging and semi-regular data transfer/backups, that rough insertion/removal could affect the port and the phone's ability to charge in an adverse way. I don't know why the change from mini to micro was implemented, but I'm not a fan of the decision. The solution is to buy a charging cradle ($30 MSRP, as seen here), which merely requires a drop-in of a "naked" Tour (ie without a case) and the phone's displays immediately shows an analog clock signifying the charging process is in effect. The difference between the cable-wrestling versus the silky-smooth connection once the Tour lands in its cradle is very noticeable. Of course, in order to perform data sync/transfer and/or backups still requires the cable, but this charging solution is far more reasonable in everyday, drop-in/grab-to-go situations.

Overall, being that this phone is designated for use on the Verizon Wireless network and that the newest Blackberry models typically are released for AT&T and T-Mobile (like the newest Curve, the 8520, seen here), the Tour isn't a smartphone that is particularly exciting or incredible. It's not revolutionary, it's evolutionary. It's a solid improvement in every way (save the USB mini-micro port) over its predecessor, the Curve, and I feel it's as good if not a better option than AT&T's Bold.

The next wave, incidentally, of Blackberry models will likely incorporate the above-linked Curve 8520 trackpad, which makes a lot of sense (it will get smudged but it will have far fewer issues than the pearl's propensity for oil and grime to foul up the rollers/sensors). Knowing that there is another, "newer" phone on the horizon may or may not

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