First introduced at CTIA Fall 2008, the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8350i is finally available through Sprint. This is particularly good news for Nextel Direct Connect users, who haven't seen a new push-to-talk (PTT) BlackBerry model since the RIM BlackBerry 7100i, which was introduced back in June 2006. In addition to supporting the iDEN network for use with Direct Connect and Group Connect PTT services, the BlackBerry Curve 8350i brings a number of much-needed updates, including the addition of Wi-Fi, the latest BlackBerry operating system, an HTML Web, and full GPS. There were a couple of performance hiccups during our test period, including some general lag and e-mail issues, but in the end, the Curve 8350i delivers a full-featured PTT smartphone to Nextel customers. The RIM BlackBerry Curve 8350i is available now for $149.99 with a two-year contract and after rebates and discounts.
The RIM BlackBerry Curve 8350i has the same shape and design as other Curve models, but given all the features packed into the device, it's slightly bigger. The smartphone measures 4.4 inches high by 2.4 inches wide by 0.7 inch thick and weighs 4.7 ounces, compared with the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8330, which measures 4.2 inches high by 2.4 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick and weighs 4.2 ounces. It doesn't quite have the rugged casing of some other Nextel phones, such as the Motorola i365, but the Curve 8350i is a solid handset and features a soft-touch finish along the outer edges to make it easier to grip.
The Curve 8350i features a 2.4-inch, QVGA, nontouch display with a 65,536-color output and 320x240-pixel resolution. It's a sharp-looking screen that's complemented by the updated user interface of BlackBerry OS 4.6. One minor complaint we have is that a lot of the menu icons look similar and though there's a description when you scroll over the icon, it's hard to distinguish on the fly. Like the latest BlackBerrys, the Curve 8350i has a light-sensing technology to adjust the display's backlight depending on your environment and you can customize the home screen with various themes and background images.
Below the display, you'll find a traditional navigation array of Talk and End keys, a Menu shortcut, a back button, and a trackball navigator. The trackball is set a little deeper than previous Curves, so it's not quite as comfortable to scroll side to side, and pressing in to select an item takes a little more effort. It may also take some acclimation for those upgrading from the BlackBerry 7100i, which had a side jog wheel. The full QWERTY keyboard is a welcome addition over the SureType keypad on the 7100i. It features smallish buttons that feel a bit plasticky, but since there's a fair amount of spacing between the keys, most people should find the keyboard easy to use.
On the left side is a 2.5mm headset jack, a mini-USB port, and a Direct Connect button, while on the right is a volume rocker and a user-programmable shortcut key (set to camera by default). The top of the unit has a mute button, and the camera, flash, and self-portrait mirror are located on the back. Finally, behind the battery, you'll find the microSD/SDHC expansion slot and SIM card slot.
The RIM BlackBerry Curve 8350i comes packaged with a travel charger, a USB cable, a wired stereo headset, a SIM card, a 1GB microSD card, a swivel belt holster, a software CD, and reference material. For more add-ons, please check our cell phone accessories, ring tones, and help page.
With two years between the RIM BlackBerry 7100i and the RIM BlackBerry Curve 8350i, the Curve finally brings Sprint Nextel customers up to date with a number of improvements and additional features. In fact, it's the first push-to-talk (PTT) BlackBerry to offer built-in Wi-Fi and Nextel Group Connect for instant group conversations.
Since Nextel is known for its PTT capabilities, we'll start with those features. As a Direct Connect handset, the BlackBerry Curve 8350i offers the aforementioned Group Connect, which allows you to instantly set up a PTT group conversation with up to 20 contacts. In addition, there's something called Talkgroup that connects groups of up to 200 people within the same local market or Nextel fleet. And Internal Direct Connect gives you PTT capabilities with other users in Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru.
Other phone features include a speakerphone, voice-activated dialing, speed dial, text messaging, and finally, multimedia messaging. The address book is limited by the available memory only, with room in each entry for multiple phone numbers (including Direct Connect numbers), e-mail addresses, work and home addresses, job title, and more. For caller ID purposes, you can assign a photo to a contact as well a group category--business or personal--or one of 45 polyphonic ringtones. Bluetooth 2.0 is also onboard for use with mono and stereo headsets, hands-free kits, and Bluetooth peripherals. A Bluetooth GPS receiver won't be necessary, however, since the Curve 8350i has built-in GPS. The GPS is both autonomous and assisted, using satellites and cellular triangulation to find your position. You can get maps and text-based, turn-by-turn driving directions with apps like BlackBerry Maps and Google Maps for Mobile, but if you want any real-time tracking and voice-guided instructions, you'll have to use a location-based service like TeleNav GPS Navigator.
Of course, voice isn't the only means of communication on the BlackBerry Curve 8350i. There are multiple e-mail solutions. The smartphone can sync with your company's BlackBerry Enterprise server, with support for Microsoft Exchange, IBM Lotus Domino, or Novell GroupWise, to deliver corporate e-mail in real time. With BlackBerry Internet Service, you can also access up to 10 personal/business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts. There's also an attachment viewer for opening Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Corel WordPerfect, PDF, JPEG, GIF, and more. Sprint Nextel also includes popular instant-messaging clients, including Yahoo Messenger, AIM, Google Talk, and BlackBerry Messenger.
With the update to BlackBerry OS 4.6, the Curve 8350i brings more advanced productivity tools and multimedia capabilities. First, the smartphone ships with DataViz Documents To Go Standard Edition, so you can now edit Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files as well. If you want the ability to create new documents, you will have to upgrade to the Premium Edition. Other PIM applications include a Calendar, a task list, a memo pad, a voice recorder, a calculator, a password keeper, and more. You can always download more applications to the smartphone. There's a link to Sprint's software store from the main menu where you can purchase more applications and utilities over the air; for more information on BlackBerry apps and suggestions, check out Download.com.
Thankfully, the Curve 8350i offers an improved, full HTML Web browser. It's still not as advanced or easy to use as some of the competition, but definitely better than before. You can choose from two views, such as Page View or Column View. In addition to zoom-in and -out functions, there's also an onscreen cursor that you can move in any direction and place on any part of the page where you can click a link. You can get surf the Web over Nextel's network, but there's no 3G support. Fortunately, there's integrated Wi-Fi (802.11b/g), so you can browse with some speed. You can manually add a network or the smartphone can automatically scan for available networks; our review unit had no problem finding and connecting to our wireless network. There are also Wi-Fi tools, such as diagnostics, DNS lookup, and site survey.
As far as multimedia, there's a built-in media player that supports MP3, WMA, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR-NB, and MIDI music files, and MPEG4, WMV, and H.263 video clips. Other features include a search function, playlist creation, shuffle and repeat, and you get a full-screen mode for video playback. The included software CD also contains a copy of Roxio Easy Media Creator, so you can create MP3s from CDs and add audio tags. There's 128MB of flash memory onboard, but we'd load multimedia files on a microSD/SDHC card to conserve storage. The expansion slot can accept up to 16GB cards.
The BlackBerry Curve 8350i also features a 2-megapixel camera with digital zoom and video-recording capabilities. For still images, there are three size options and three quality choices. In addition to the flash, you can tweak the white balance and add color effects. The smartphone's built-in GPS also allows for geotagging photos. To use the video camera, you must first have a microSD card installed; otherwise it won't let you start recording a clip. Video options are pretty limited. You only get two formats (normal or MMS mode) and colors effects--that's it.
Picture quality wasn't particularly inspiring. Though the objects were clear, colors were pretty flat-looking and gray. Recorded videos were also sub-par, as clips were very blurry.
We tested the dual-band (iDEN 800/900) RIM BlackBerry Curve 8350i in San Francisco using Nextel service and call quality was decent. Though audio was clear, calls sounded hollow at times, as if our friends were talking in an empty room. We encountered the same scenario when we activated the speakerphone as well, though there was plenty of volume. We were still able to carry on conversations and interact with an airline's voice-automated response system, however, and we didn't experience any dropped calls during our testing period. Unfortunately, we were not able to test out the PTT services since we didn't know any Direct Connect users. We were able to the pair the smartphone with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.
For the most part, the BlackBerry Curve 8350i is a responsive device, but we did experience some lag with even simple tasks like menu navigation. There was also one instance when we exited out of the video player and got stuck on the main menu page for a few seconds, unable to scroll to other items or launch apps. While we're on the subject of video, let us say the multimedia experience was OK. Like most smartphones, we wouldn't really recommend watching a full-length movie on the Curve 8305i, but playback was smooth, so short clips were fine. We listened to several MP3 files and, as we experienced with the speakerphone, audio quality was hollow. As one would expect, the sound was much better when using headphones. Sadly, the Curve 8350i isn't equipped with a 3.5mm headphone jack, so you will need an audio adapter to use such earbuds or headphones.
We used the BlackBerry Internet Service to hook up our Yahoo e-mail account with the device. The configuration process went off without a hitch and we successfully received messages from our inbox. However, the smartphone had problems sending e-mails. We'd have to resend messages multiple times in order for them to go through to the recipient. On a brighter note, the smartphone had no problems finding and connecting to our Wi-Fi network.
The RIM BlackBerry Curve 8350i comes equipped with a 1,400mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 4 hours. In our battery drain tests, the smartphone provided 8.25 hours of continuous talk time on a single charge. According to FCC radiation tests, the BlackBerry Curve 8350i has a digital-SAR rating of 0.88 watt per kilogram.