BlackBerry phone hits the hotspot with VoIP

RIM has developed a knack for pulling customers into new BlackBerry devices. That's no mean feat. BlackBerry is the most mature, most imitated, and most-targeted brand in the mobile industry. RIM keeps new handsets rolling out, and it keeps racking up new exclusives with wireless operators by finding gaps in its own product line and filling them better than its competitors can. By teaming up with T-Mobile, RIM's latest product helps to fill your budget gaps by providing flat-rate unlimited IP telephony from your home, office, airport, or any locale that hosts a T-Mobile Hotspot.

BlackBerry Curve 8900, an EDGE/Wi-Fi/UMA handset currently exclusive to T-Mobile in the U.S., is a pocket-sized take on RIM's traditional QWERTY recipe. Its firmware, and therefore its GUI and functionality, is a near match for BlackBerry Bold, RIM's full-sized QWERTY handset, and Curve 8900's chassis is styled after the strikingly black-clad Bold, except for a generous strip of chrome-colored plastic around its perimeter. This easily scratched trim is an unfortunate design choice for a device that's meant to mix it up with your car keys all day long. But I found it to be a fair trade given Curve 8900's fast CPU, expandable flash memory, very sharp 360x480 display (not wide aspect), respectable 3.2 megapixel camera, and best of all, seamless Wi-Fi calling.

[ See the Test Center reviews of BlackBerry Bold, BlackBerry Storm, Google Android-based T-Mobile G1, Apple iPhone 3G, and the Windows Mobile-based Palm Treo Pro, AT&T Fuze, and HP iPaq 910c. ]

A MicroSDHC card slot behind the battery cover provides room for up to 32GB of swappable storage for media and other files. The Curve 8900 identifies as a USB storage class device (flash drive) when the handset is connected to a PC or Mac, so files can be moved to and from the device without a driver. Now that BlackBerry's browser supports downloads and its mail client manages attachments as files, I've found that the ability to transfer documents to and from a BlackBerry eliminates much of the need for a costly tethering plan.

Mobile officery

The Curve 8900 comes with a special edition of DataViz Documents to Go that's sufficient for viewing and basic editing of the Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents that you download, copy to your storage card, or receive as e-mail attachments. For a very small charge, you can activate Documents to Go's complete feature set, allowing you to create new Office documents from scratch on your BlackBerry, complete with formatting and change tracking. In my opinion, Documents to Go is the dealmaker for mobile QWERTY. I couldn't imagine typing, editing, and submitting this review on a touch display device, but it's perfectly workable on the Curve 8900.

The Curve 8900's media qualifications are pretty impressive. It leads with a 2.4-inch 360x480 LED-backlit display. This square-aspect LCD is not knock-out quality like the wide screen on the Bold. I have to dial up the backlight to get similar readability with small text. Even so, the next-gen BlackBerry GUI, with its transparency effects and sublimely smoothed text, looks marvelous on the Curve 8900's densely packed pixels. RIM always puts very loud, clear, distortion-free speakers in its devices, and even music sounds pretty decent. A 3.5mm headphone/headset jack allows you to use unmodified wired headphones for stereo listening. Like other late-model BlackBerry devices, Curve also supports high-fidelity stereo Bluetooth headphones, including models with AVRCP (Audio/Video Remote Control Protocol) support. My Plantronics P590 Bluetooth headphones, which have AVRCP controls, work perfectly for voice memos, podcasts, music, and video. RIM uses CPU acceleration to equip the Curve 8900 with flawless full-screen video playback.

The quality of the camera hardware and software in the Curve 8900 caught me by surprise. RIM chose its camera supplier exceedingly well, and it uses the Curve 8900's fast CPU to great advantage. The built-in camera uses a 3.2-megapixel (2048x1536) sensor behind an autofocus lens. A white LED functions as a focus aid, a flash, and a video light. I found that Curve could shoot acceptable stills without pre-adjustment in a number of challenging conditions, including low light, moving subjects, and close focus (down to about two inches). The shutter delay for a pre-focused shot, where the shutter button is held down halfway until you're ready to shoot, is an uncommonly short fraction of a second. Images can be "geotagged," or marked with embedded location metadata using the Curve 8900's internal GPS, while you shoot. You can shoot movies in fixed focus at a paltry (but EDGE-friendly) resolution of 240x176. The fast CPU prevents motion blur even in low light, and the massive image oversampling affords a measure of image stabilization. Movies are stored on the SDHC card in MPEG-4 format with a .3GP file extension, which should open directly in any desktop or mobile mail client. Third-party movie recording software will likely do better when it emerges.

VoIP over Wi-Fi

I already had a T-Mobile HotSpot@Home wireless router and rate plan set up when I received the BlackBerry Curve 8900 for review. The new BlackBerry GUI features locally executing configuration wizards, one of which sets up Wi-Fi. Like any Wi-Fi handset, the Curve 8900 will associate with any 802.11b/g network for surfing and such, but when the conditions are right, hooking up with Wi-Fi causes the EDGE indicator to be replaced by one that reads UMA. "Unlicensed Mobile Access" isn't very descriptive. What it means, very simply, is that when you're within reach of an appropriate private (mine is protected by WPA2 security) or public T-Mobile HotSpot Wi-Fi network, your data and voice traffic can be streamed over 802.11g rather than GSM/EDGE. The Curve 8900 switches networks seamlessly and automatically, even while a call is in progress.

UMA is not VoIP as you know it; there's no special telephone number, there is no additional service provider, no need for special equipment on your end. You use your regular T-Mobile cellular number and Curve 8900 phone, oblivious to the fact that you're making Wi-Fi calls (unless you notice the UMA indicator on the display, the instantaneous call connections, or the landline sound quality). Toward the end of each month, you might also notice that your bill is a lot smaller. With an appropriate unlimited HotSpot plan, there are no per-minute charges for local or long distance calls that are handled via Wi-Fi. You don't have to overbuy daytime minutes to use T-Mobile cellular as a landline replacement, and you also don't need to hassle with signing up a VoIP provider and configuring equipment. I've only been using UMA as a primary line for a little more than a week, so I can't say I'd yank the copper out of the wall. I can say that so far, I've found the quality to be excellent and the switching completely seamless. The only drawback I see to UMA is that Wi-Fi drains the battery more rapidly on standby than cellular, but RIM still has the market's best story where power management is concerned.

The BlackBerry Curve 8900 is a winner. It's a next-gen BlackBerry through and through, with a fast CPU, a high-res screen, and a slick, high-function GUI, fully equal to professional and enterprise messaging duty despite cutting a smaller and less formal profile. Its media features fit the lifestyle bill nicely. Even without UMA Wi-Fi calling, the Curve 8900 is a worthy and competitively priced smartphone, but UMA support and T-Mobile HotSpot flat-rate plans give the Curve 8900 the edge when it comes to keeping a lid on monthly telecommunications bills.

This story, "BlackBerry phone hits the hotspot with VoIP" was originally published by InfoWorld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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