No matter what you call it -- Niagara, Tour, 9630 -- there's no denying that this is the BlackBerry that CDMA users have been waiting for and lusting over. Ever since the very first whispers and early photos emerged, the main question on everyone's mind has been a frantic "When?!" Now that it's finally set to hit the market next week -- on a variety of carriers no less -- we can really dig deeper and give it a thorough look.
Hardware and Design
We've got to admit that in our opinion, this is one of the most attractive BlackBerry devices ever made. Whereas the Bold can seem a tad gaudy and overdone -- what with the leather back cover and visually heavy chrome bezel -- the Tour has a more subtle dull chrome bezel and a battery cover than looks sleek and attractive. That said, this is still primarily targeted as a professional device, and it comes along not a moment too soon as a replacement to the aging 8830
, which has historically been the global-ready BlackBerry of choice for CDMA customers.
We were a bit worried when we first saw the carbon fiber-esque finish on the battery cover, but it really looks great in person. We're big fans of the final finish that Verizon went with: the combination of smooth rubber and textured plastic seems to work and makes it feel virtually perfect in your hand. It adds to the professional feel of the device, and while we personally aren't rushing to swap it, we're sure that there will be a whole crop of third-party covers before you know it if the factory one isn't your cup of tea.
In terms of the keyboard, we weren't surprised to find that RIM has really hit one out of the park again. The keyboard feels spacious and comfortable, despite the fact that it has almost the same exact width as the one on the Curve 8300 series. We prefer the mushiness of the keys here over the hardness of the keyboard on the Curve; it isn't as
mushy as the one found on the Bold, but it's a happy medium between tactility and comfort. Typing out long e-mails or engaging in riveting BlackBerry Messenger conversations on this keyboard will be painless, and to us it's a step up from everything else currently available apart from perhaps the Bold, which still holds the unofficial prize for best BlackBerry keyboard ever (in our books, at least).
The Tour uses a high resolution 480 x 360 screen that really just looks stunning on the face of the device. Fonts and graphics are crisp, colors are vibrant. One minor complaint: there's a noticeable black border around the screen, and we wish that the actual screen simply stretched further across the front instead. It's by no means a deal breaker -- and it's entirely possible that there was a technical reason behind the design decision -- but it's definitely noticeable.
To make the Tour even more appealing to enterprise and business customers, Verizon is offering two versions of the Tour -- with camera and without. The review unit we secured has a 3.2 megapixel camera on the back of the device which is capable of video and photo capture. There's not else to elaborate on here; photos are perfectly decent, but you probably won't be shooting your wedding video or taking prom photos with this phone.
We're not trying to nitpick, but there are a few hardware issues that we're kind of surprised weren't hammered out before this phone went into mass production. Like on the pre-production model we'd played with before, the trackball seems excessively recessed, which makes it much more difficult to use than it needs to be. While we aren't really fond of it, some other people who played with the device seemed to like it more -- different strokes for different folks, we guess.
Also, the screen itself seems to be incredibly sensitive to pressure -- overly sensitive. Even light touches on the screen or some of the navigation keys underneath it caused weirdness with the LCD. This might be a result of the screen being flush or just not being sufficiently secured, but it's somewhat noticeable and a bit annoying. It just feels "softer" than the one on the Bold, and there's a bit more give than we believe there should be. It's too minute to properly demonstrate in a photo -- but if you go play with a unit in a store and switch from the main screen to the full splash screen with 18 icons, we're sure that you'll notice it too. We've never seen this issue with the Bold, and it raises questions about build quality on a device that business users will be counting on to be rock-solid day in and day out. Software
Software-wise, there isn't all that much new here that hasn't already been around on more recent GSM BlackBerry devices; that said, for CDMA users, it's still a big leap forward in terms of functionality and polish. We were told that the software build on our device isn't the final build, and we're glad to hear it because we had a bunch of complete freezes that required a battery pull to remedy.
We're assuming that most existing Verizon users will be upgrading from the Curve 8330 or the 8830 World Edition, so the jump to OS 4.7 will be noticeable. Generally, however, the aesthetics and theme on the Tour mirror the UI on devices like the Bold and Curve 8900 -- transparency, simple outlined icons and the like. Of course, Verizon has splashed a nice bit of red all over its customized theme, but it's nothing that can't be remedied with some third-party additions.
Die-hard BlackBerry users will be interested to hear that the Tour is packing a new build of the completely addicting BlackBerry Messenger. Sadly, it isn't the same feature-packed build that has been seen floating around with the more recent OS 5.0, but it's a step up from anything available on 4.5. It has a cleaner UI, a more extensive smiley collection, and functionality to send your location using the built-in GPS. When you send location, if the recipient is using OS 4.6 or 4.7, a preview of the map shows up; for users on older devices, a fairly useless BlackBerry Maps URL is sent instead.
Verizon is also offering its VZ Navigator
software with the Tour, which integrates with the built-in GPS chip to allow turn-by-turn navigation -- and it will support global navigation at the time of launch. As always, the service carries an extra charge which can be billed monthly or daily depending on how much you plan to use it. It works pretty much as expected -- and it's virtually the same as VZ Navigator on other devices, so we'll spare you the nitty gritty details.
We're also glad to report that the built-in GPS chip seems to be unlocked, meaning that it will work with third party apps. Verizon has gotten a lot of flack in the past about the decision to lock it down only for VZ Navigator, so we're glad to see the company following through with its promise
to start opening up.
Also bundled is the new visual voicemail app, which -- you guessed it -- is being offered for an additional fee each month. A link to the app is included as a service book, but it has to be downloaded separately for use. We don't know if this means Verizon doesn't anticipate that many users being interested or if there's some other justification, but either way it seems to get the job done -- though it probably won't shut your iPhone-toting friends up.
We didn't conduct a series of scientific tests to get rock solid numbers on battery life, but from what we can tell it seems to be pretty decent. RIM is quoting 5 hours of talk time and 14 days of standby which seems to be about right. We don't envision people having trouble getting through the day, as we were able to browse, BBM, and run our favorite Twitter apps
in the background for a solid day and a half without even getting a low battery warning. However, to be safe, you'll probably want to charge nightly -- and your own mileage may vary depending on things like Bluetooth, GPS use, and the actual amount of calling you're doing.
Put simply, the BlackBerry Tour is far and away the best CDMA BlackBerry available, and it could very well might be the best BlackBerry period if not for a few shortcomings. At this point in the game, we're still in denial that there isn't WiFi in this device -- it's inexcusable. We're well aware of Verizon's stance on the matter, and we still think it's ridiculous that they're allowing RIM to offer a device in this category that doesn't offer such a basic, universal feature, seemingly in an effort to increase reliance on WWAN data services and juice customers for a few extra bucks in data revenue. We're also disappointed that the screen doesn't make the most of the available real estate and that
it seems excessively sensitive. Bottom line, if you're a CDMA user and plan to keep things that way, the Tour is definitely the best BlackBerry available -- and it will probably be that way for a long time to come.