One of the best QWERTY BlackBerries but maybe the end of an era. (July 26th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: Research in Motion
Price: $200 (contract)
- 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.
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.