Fortunately, you do get Wi-Fi as an alternative, and the other upside of the integrated Wi-Fi is UMA support. This means you can make and receive unlimited calls over a wireless network and not have the minutes deducted from your cellular plan. The caveat is that you will need to sign for T-Mobile's Unlimited HotSpot Calling plan, which starts at $9.99 per month on top of an existing T-Mobile plan.
Other voice features of the BlackBerry Curve 8900 include quad-band world roaming, a speakerphone, voice-activated dialing, smart dialing, conference calling, speed dial, and text and multimedia messaging. The address book is limited only by the available memory (the SIM card holds an additional 250 contacts) with room in each entry for multiple phone numbers, e-mail addresses, work and home addresses, job title, and more. For caller ID purposes, you can assign each contact a photo, a group ID, or a custom ringtone.
Like most of the carrier's handsets, the Curve 8900 supports T-Mobile's MyFaves service, giving you unlimited calls to five contacts, regardless of carrier. Individual plans for MyFaves start at $39.99 a month. You also get Bluetooth 2.0 with support for mono and stereo Bluetooth wireless headsets, hands-free kits, and dial-up networking.
GPS is built in, using both satellites and cellular triangulation to find your position. You can get maps and text-based, turn-by-turn driving directions with applications such as BlackBerry Maps, which is preloaded on the Curve 8900, 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.
The BlackBerry Curve 8900's built-in media player can play various music and video formats, including MP3, WMA9/WMA9 Pro/WMA20, AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, AMR-NB, and MIDI music files, and MPEG4, WMV, DivX4, DivX5/6 (partial support), XviD (partial), and H.263 video clips. There's 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 as well as the BlackBerry Media Sync application so you can load your iTunes library. The Curve has 256MB onboard Flash memory while the expansion slot can accept up to 16GB cards.
The Curve's camera gets upgraded to a 3.2-megapixel lens (from 2 megapixels) with video recording capabilities, flash, auto focus, 2x zoom, and image stabilization. In camera mode, you get a choice of three picture sizes and three picture qualities. There are white balance settings, and you can add various effects to your photos, such as black and white, and sepia. With the built-in GPS, you can also geotag photos. The camcorder records clips in two formats (normal and MMS) with sound and offers a video light and color effects.
Picture quality was good, as long as we were snapping shots in well-lit areas. Even with the flash or in night mode, we had a hard time getting a photo that didn't look dark or completely blown out by the flash. We also noticed a bit of shutter lag, so be sure not to move to quickly away from the scene after pressing the capture button. Video quality wasn't the best as clips looked pretty grainy, but you can still make out the objects and scenery so it'll be fine if there's a moment that you absolutely must get on film and don't have access to a camcorder.
Despite all these other features, e-mail remains the heart and soul of the BlackBerry. The BlackBerry Curve 8900 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. There's also an attachment viewer for opening Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Corel WordPerfect, PDF, JPEG, GIF, and more. With BlackBerry Internet Service, you can also access up to 10 personal/business POP3 or IMAP4 e-mail accounts. Set up is nearly instantaneous; we simply input our Yahoo log in and password, and within a couple of seconds, we received a message that activation was successful. The smartphone also comes preloaded with several instant messaging clients, including Yahoo, AIM, Windows Live, and Google Talk.
We tested the quad-band (850/900/1800/1900; GPRS/EDGE) RIM BlackBerry Curve 8900 in San Francisco using T-Mobile service and call quality was satisfactory. There was some minimal background noise that made audio quality a little less pristine than some other smartphones we've tested, but nothing that prevented us from having a conversation or using an airline's voice automated system. There's an Enhance Audio option where you can boost the treble or bass, but we didn't find a noticeable difference. Our friends reported a couple instances of warbled audio, but otherwise no major complaints. We didn't experience any dropped calls during our review period. The speakerphone was also OK. There was plenty of volume, but there was some hollowness to the audio, making it sound as if our callers were talking in an empty room. We successfully paired the Curve 8900 with the Logitech Mobile Traveller Bluetooth headset and the Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones.
The BlackBerry Curve 8900 is equipped with a 512MHz processor and is a fairly responsive device. There were some instances of sluggishness; for example, we encountered some lag when we were trying to access our photo gallery and a couple of times when we launched the camera. It wasn't anything that stopped us in our tracks or left us completely frustrated, and overall, we're pleased with the general performance.
The Curve 8900's speaker can't rival the BlackBerry Bold's rich output, but most of you will probably be listening to your music through headphones anyway, so it's a not a huge issue. Using the handset's 3.5mm jack, we plugged in a pair of Bose On-Ear headphones for a MP3-like music-listening experience. Video playback was quite impressive. We checked out a couple of clips, including an MP4 file, and found playback to be smooth and the picture looked great on the Curve's high-resolution screen. We also watched a couple of YouTube clips from the Web browser, which looked very mushy and blurry, but that's more about a video quality issue than a Curve issue.
Our review unit had no problem finding and connecting to our Wi-Fi network. On EDGE speeds, it took the smartphone about a minute to fully load CNET's Web site, while it took about 15 to 20 seconds to load CNN's and ESPN's mobile sites. Though we weren't hooked up with TeleNav GPS Navigator for real-time navigation, the Curve's GPS radio was able to pinpoint our location within a couple of minutes on BlackBerry Maps.
The BlackBerry Curve 8900 features a 1,400mAh lithium ion battery with a rated talk time of 5.5 hours and up to 14.5 days of standby time. In our battery drain tests, we were able to get 8.5 hours of continuous talk time from the Curve 8900 on a single charge. According to FCC radiation tests, the BlackBerry Curve 8900 has a digital SAR rating of 1.01 watts per kilogram.