BlackBerry Tour Is a Solid Device, but It Makes a Frustrating Trade-off

 
 
By Andrew Garcia  |  Posted 2009-07-27
 
 
 

BlackBerry Tour Is a Solid Device, but It Makes a Frustrating Trade-off


With the BlackBerry Tour 9630, Research In Motion breaks no new ground in terms of its core device software or end-user usability, introduces no revolutionary or even particularly noteworthy new hardware features to the mobile device landscape, and does little to distinguish the look or feel of the device from other recent BlackBerry devices.

Nonetheless, the Tour packs many of the modern features and capabilities users have come to expect from a smartphone, and all the management and e-mail prowess mobile administrators expect from a BlackBerry, creating a fine overall experience for both sides.  

Available for both Sprint and Verizon networks (I tested the Verizon iteration), the Tour aims for international usability. As with the Storm last year, RIM has added a GSM radio family (GSM/EDGE/HSPA) for data and voice connectivity abroad, in addition to the CDMA/EVDO Rev A technology for use in the United States. 

On the Verizon network, the Tour is available for $489 with a month-to-month contract, or $199 with a two-year contract. For Sprint, the prices are $499 month-to-month or $199 with a two-year contract.

Also like the Storm, the Tour sacrifices Wi-Fi for international operation, forgoing wireless LAN technology. Given the strength and competency that RIM has shown with Wi-Fi in the comparatively few models it has shipped with the technology (particularly when it comes to security, management and tools), I find RIM's continuing lack of dedication to the technology frustrating. I imagine that IT and network administrators who are increasing the pervasiveness of Wi-Fi as a primary mode of communications within the office share this frustration.

The Tour finds the small middle ground between the BlackBerry Bold and the BlackBerry Curve 8900. Measuring in at 4.4 by 2.4 by 0.6 inches and 4.58 ounces, the Tour is noticeably smaller and lighter than the Bold, and ever so slightly longer and wider than the Curve. In terms of design, the Tour looks more like the Curve, with sharper corners and a slimmer profile. However, the Tour's backlit keyboard-with its flattened profile-is more similar to the Bold's rather than the Curve 8900's individually raised keys. Like both the Bold and the Curve, the Tour features a trackball and four action keys just below the screen.

Call quality on the Tour was surprisingly good. Smartphones frequently have muddy sound quality when pressing the phone to the ear, leaving many to resort to wired or wireless headsets for most conversations. I found the Tour's sound quality much cleaner than expected against the ear.

For headset lovers, the Tour has a 3.5mm headset jack on the top right side of the phone. The Tour also features support for Bluetooth 2.0 with A2DP, so I was able to easily connect the phone to my Motorola S9 headset for stereo sound (with media applications).

The Tour comes with a 1,400-mAhr lithium cell battery and is rated for 5 hours talk time or 14 days of standby time. Battery charging can be done via the Tour's microUSB connector, either from the included power adapter or when connected to a Windows PC running the BlackBerry Desktop software (and the associated drivers). RIM also recently announced that BlackBerry Desktop software for Mac computers will be available in September.

Screen: Small but Bright and Clear


 

The Tour's 480-by-360-pixel half VGA display is certainly on the small side by today's standards, but the screen is bright and clear. Because of the small screen, users undoubtedly will find themselves needing to do a lot of scrolling with the trackball when working with long e-mails, Websites or documents.

The 3.2-megapixel camera can easily be switched between still and video modes from the Camera application menu. The camera also features a flash, zoom controls via the trackball, image stabilization and auto-focus. The camera application makes it easy to choose whether photos are stored by default on the on-board or add-on storage.

The Tour comes with 256MB of internal flash memory, as well as a microSDHC slot that can be found underneath the back cover (and comes prepopulated with a 2GB card). 

On the software side of things, the Tour comes with BlackBerry device software 4.7.1.40. Navigation around the device is pretty much the same as we've seen since the Bold was introduced last year-with links to six applications on the bottom of the home screen and all other applications findable via the menu key. 

The Tour includes the typically good e-mail, calendaring and contact experience common to recent BlackBerry devices. As with the other BlackBerrys, however, the Web browsing experience is not nearly as good when compared with competing devices with larger screens and capacitive touch-screens-like the Apple iPhone, Palm Pre or the Android-based G1 with Google. It also appears that RIM has already scrapped the lame zoom tools that came with the Bold, forgoing the cursor-based zoom controls for a menu-driven control. 

The Tour supports SMS and MMS for text or multimedia messaging. Via a separate but included instant messaging application, users can connect to AIM, Yahoo, GoogleTalk or WindowsLive messaging systems.

The Tour I tested also came with a few Verizon-specific applications (or links to download them), including VZ Navigator, for turn-by-turn directions using the on-board GPS chip, and a Verizon Visual Voicemail application. 

BlackBerry AppWorld is preinstalled on the Tour, allowing those with a Paypal account to select from an inventory of about 1,000 free or for-pay third-party applications.

In tests, I was easily able to slide the Tour into my BlackBerry Enterprise Server 5.0 for Exchange implementation, allowing me to quickly activate the user to the phone, then provision the device with security policies and the appropriate Exchange connectivity. As expected, I could also remotely wipe the device from the BES administration interface.

Corporate buyers in particular should be aware that a new version of the BlackBerry Device Software (5.0) is in the pipeline, likely for release later this year. The new update promises a host of new features to BES 5.0 customers-including secured remote access to Windows file shares, improved e-mail folder manipulation and e-mail flagging compatible with Microsoft Outlook. While RIM promises free firmware updates to BlackBerry customers via its Website, users or mobile administrators will be able to download the code for their device only once their carrier has approved the use of that version on their network-and there is no guarantee when that will happen for each specific BlackBerry device.

Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at agarcia@eweek.com. 


Rocket Fuel