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BlackBerry Tour

July 26th, 2009
One of the best QWERTY BlackBerries but maybe the end of an era.

While those on GSM carriers have had not one but two significantly new keyboard-equipped BlackBerries -- the Bold and Curve 8900 -- those on CDMA carriers like Bell, Sprint, Telus or Verizon have been forced to either try the touchscreen BlackBerry Storm or go with warmed over versions of older phones. As such, there's a mountain of pent-up demand, and the BlackBerry Tour appears poised to address this in style: it appears to have the best features of the GSM phones rolled into a single device. But is it actually the best of all worlds, or a signal that RIM needs to move on?

design: ergonomics, the keyboard, the display

If there's any evidence required that RIM advances the BlackBerry line through gradual evolution instead of radical overhauls, the Tour is all that's necessary. The smartphone is quite literally the child of the Bold and Curve 8900 designs: it has the slightly squarish shape of the Curve, but the Bold's keyboard. It's comfortable to hold and still aesthetically pleasing, but what changes there are could be slightly negative: the back is hard plastic like the Curve, but it's glossy black and not the brush-effect surface of the older model. That invariably makes the Tour a fingerprint magnet where either the Curve's texture or the Bold's leather mitigates that problem. We like that the Tour borrows the Curve's "buttonless" lock/unlock control, but we noticed that it requires significantly more pressure than we were hoping for.

Thankfully, every other control seems to be at least as good as what existed before. Much like the overall design, the keyboard's finer points are a blend of the best traits of earlier phones. Each key has the "carved" shape of the Bold to better guide your fingers, but they all have the precise, quick feel of the Curve 8900's keys instead of the spongy feel we've encountered with the Bold. As difficult as it may be to believe, we still type quicker on the touchscreen keyboard of the iPhone 3GS but found ourselves flying on the Tour once we became used to its idiosyncrasies.

The one concern we have about the build is the battery cover: it appears to have a slight amount of give. We were never worried that it would fall off in testing, but it diminishes the perceived quality somewhat.

RIM also wisely chose to use the 8900's 480x360 display instead of the Bold's. That nets about 40 extra pixels of vertical space, a must for e-mail and the web, but still provides an absolutely gorgeous image with very high pixel density and vibrant colors. It's not perfect, as it's not true 24-bit color, but it's still one of the sharpest screens ever on a non-touch phone and eases most other tasks.

Expansion on the Tour is typical for 2008-onward BlackBerries, but that's certainly enough. A 3.5mm audio jack renders this a good choice for those who prefer their own headphones or wired headsets. The microSDHC slot is underneath the battery cover but, since the cover is easily removed, it's not a problem to swap cards (or batteries, for that matter). Our reservations about depending on removable cards for storage are starting to fade, too, as it's not hard to get a 16GB card that will hold most owners' entire music (and sometimes whole media) collections. Having said this, there's no practical 32GB microSDHC card as of this writing, so the truly dependent on large amounts of storage may have little choice but to opt for an iPhone 3GS or a Nokia N97.

BlackBerry OS, App World and neutered features

Out of the box, the Tour comes with BlackBerry OS 4.7. Functionally, there's little difference between this and what we saw in the Curve 8900 months earlier. Many of the praises still apply as a result. Most of the top-level interface elements are attractive and easy to use. Not surprisingly, messaging is still a strong point, and even the media player works well enough that the phone can be used for music without too many regrets -- although the desktop software and front-end interfaces won't integrate as tightly as on an iPhone.

Of course, many of the vices are still relevant as well, and it's here where some users may never be entirely happy without an overhaul. While very visual up front, BlackBerry OS is still very plain underneath with legions of plain text menus and drop-down selection boxes. The web browser is more accurate than many, but it's a far cry from Opera or Safari in the seamlessness of navigating and rendering pages. We'd also say that once class-leading components are starting to show their age: although RIM's Exchange support, the iPhone is much more graceful in consolidating multiple e-mail accounts as well as mass moves and deletes. RIM still has the decided edge in background apps and in the sheer depth of customizability and security, but iPhone OS 3.0 and the iPhone 3GS in particular have eroded what would have been many BlackBerry Tour advantages.

As it shipped in July, though, the Tour is one of the first BlackBerries to have the option of using BlackBerry App World for downloading third-party software. The portal isn't as intuitive to navigate as Apple's, but it's still quite deep and a far better alternative to scattered carrier or third-party shops. There's a fair amount of control over how and where apps install, and many of the titles are major titles ranging from productivity tools (Evernote) to social networking (Facebook, TweetGenius) to Internet radio (Slacker). Having said this, the discrepancy in size between App World and the iPhone's App Store is very evident: there are far fewer specialized apps and, due partly to a lack of real 3D support, far fewer games.

That BlackBerry App World needs to be downloaded after the fact highlights some of the key weakness of the Tour: deliberately stripped-out hardware and software features. It won't necessarily be the case that every Tour will be given a similar treatment, but our Bell version not only didn't have App World pre-installed (in spite of claims to the contrary) but had stock features replaced: the free and useful BlackBerry Maps normally installed by default was replaced with Bell's subscription-only navigation service, and like App World requires an after-the-fact download. We also noticed that the Canadian carrier's Bluetooth was deliberately crippled to prevent data transfer other than for contacts. Apps that can recognize the phone for USB sync will work, but the choice may sometimes force you to e-mail content that could have just as easily been sent to a local device.

And while carrier attitudes are changing, the Tour is one of the last vestiges of a me-first approach by them towards Internet use. Unlike the Bold or even the Curve 8900, the Tour doesn't have Wi-Fi at all. It's never been stated publicly, but it's widely accepted that at least one US carrier has in the past dictated that all phone data must go over its 3G network to force users into adding a monthly data plan and to prevent them from using competing services that take the carrier out of the loop. We wish carriers would more readly see Wi-Fi for what it really is -- a means of getting online when coverage fails and a way of unburdening their networks -- and encourage it whenever possible. Thankfully, it seems as though at least Sprint will have a Tour with Wi-Fi next year, so those who like the form factor but want this one addition will get their wish, albeit possibly well after the design is relevant.

call quality and battery life

BlackBerries have generally had good call quality in recent years, and the Tour still has this to its credit. Voice wasn't stellar but was still clear and (with tweaked volume) sufficiently loud. The achievement is slightly more impressive given that most of the CDMA phones we've tried have usually had strictly average quality in the past.

As with the Curve 8330 it's very likely to replace outright, the Tour is equally a champion in battery life. A heavy user will still need to recharge once a day, but moderate to light users truly can get away with two or so days of charge time before the newer phone needs its AC adapter or USB cable for more energy. Despite the push e-mail system, our example rarely drained much power when left overnight or when quietly updating in the background. If you're used to the longevity of limited "feature phones" but want a smartphone, this could be on the short list.

camera quality: still photos and videos

With little to say about changes to the photo and video capture utilities, our observations on the camera focus on the actual output. The 3.2-megapixel sensor is very likely the same as in the 8900 and as a consequence produces mixed results. Compared to many cellphone cameras, the Tour's produces sharp autofocusing without the "smearing" of a poor plastic lens and generates reasonably rich color. Low light and high-contrast scenes are still flawed, but they're also flawed on most phones where the camera isn't a cornerstone feature.

However, you don't really have fine-grained control over your autofocusing point, and our experience with the video recording function was poor. Like many smartphones, its video capture is actually limited to a low MMS-friendly resolution and suffers terribly as a result. Our test footage was small and full of low-bitrate artifacts (including audio) compared to the crisp images of the iPhone 3GS we just recently tested. It might be true that RIM's core audience of workers might not use movie recording much if at all, but with a fast processor and a modern camera sensor there shouldn't be any reason to limit the Tour's capabilities.

Notably, we also had an odd instance in which a video (recorded in the very standard 3GP format) refused to play once transferred to a computer. It could be an exception but is worrying when other phones we've tested haven't had that problem.

wrapping up

The Tour does indeed feel like the culmination of many lessons learned for its creator, and if you're primarily seeking the ultimate BlackBerry experience as we know it, the Tour is arguably your best choice. It feels great in the hand and when typing, and it's one of the most capable non-touch phones in existence. It's even more relevant if you're on a CDMA carrier and have no intentions of leaving, either due to network quality or simple work necessity reason. We would put the Tour near the top of the recommended phone list for these networks, and it's more enjoyable to use than the ostensibly more advanced but practically half-hearted execution of the touchscreen Storm. That's especially true as the fresher BlackBerry still has the GSM/EDGE world roaming of the Storm, making it an eminently better replacement for the aging 8830 World Edition.

As a culmination, though, it similarly feels like the end of an era for RIM. Whether or not touchscreen phones will become the dominant breed is a matter of debate, although a Storm sequel is in the works; but BlackBerry OS as we know it is showing signs of rapid aging in those areas that haven't been given a major reworking in recent memory. When an iPhone is sometimes better for e-mail, it's clear there's a need for a much larger overhaul. The OS isn't frustratingly old in the way Windows Mobile 6 has been, but it's evident competitors like Android or OS X iPhone are moving more quickly.

Also, if you're set on a BlackBerry but not tied to any particular carrier, the choice isn't perfectly obvious. Someone who values having both 3G and Wi-Fi on the same device could, for now, pick up a Bold on AT&T or Rogers and be content. If Wi-Fi is the only real concern, especially if it involves making unlimited calls (for a fee) on a local network, then the Curve 8900 on AT&T, Rogers or T-Mobile USA is still an excellent option. While it's a good all-around device, we'd recommend the Tour the most for those already attached to CDMA or for residents of larger US cities like New York City and San Francisco, where AT&T's 3G network is, as of press time, still extremely overloaded.

App World makes the Tour a great smartphone on the software front, but check with subscribers to a competing carrier offering the Tour to see what software is preloaded by default. You can always download App World and BlackBerry Maps, but it's potentially a deal breaker to have Bluetooth partly disabled, and we don't like it when carriers mislead new users into assuming they must pay the carrier itself for GPS navigation when free or less costly alternatives exist.

Accordingly, we can't quite recommend the Tour on a universal basis, but for those people who fit its criteria, it could well be one of the better phones of the year.

- Best QWERTY BlackBerry design yet.

- Still a capable OS for mail and media playback.

- Good call quality and long battery life.

- App World a major expansion of software choices.

- Good camera for still photos.

- No Wi-Fi.

- Certain carriers remove features, apps.

- Poor video recording quality.

- Glossy back a magnet for fingerprints.