King of the QWERTYs: RIM BlackBerry Tour

Summary:Capacitive touch screen devices are all the rage today with the iPhone 3GS, Palm Pre, HTC Hero and BlackBerry Storm. However, there are still many people who want a non-touch screen forward facing QWERTY device that is heavily focused on messaging. While I tend to bounce around quite a bit between different devices, the forward facing QWERTY form factor is one of my absolute favorite. To help you figure out which of these devices might fit your needs we are going to present a three part feature (with a summary post too) looking at the best QWERTY devices running the BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and Symbian operating systems available from US wireless carriers. The three selected devices are the RIM BlackBerry Tour, T-Mobile Dash 3G, and Nokia E71x.

Capacitive touch screen devices are all the rage today with the iPhone 3GS, Palm Pre, HTC Hero and BlackBerry Storm. However, there are still many people who want a non-touch screen forward facing QWERTY device that is heavily focused on messaging. While I tend to bounce around quite a bit between different devices, the forward facing QWERTY form factor is one of my absolute favorite. To help you figure out which of these devices might fit your needs we are going to present a three part feature (with a summary post too) looking at the best QWERTY devices running the BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and Symbian operating systems available from US wireless carriers. The three selected devices are the RIM BlackBerry Tour, T-Mobile Dash 3G, and Nokia E71x. You can check out a few photos of these three in this image gallery.


Image Gallery: You can find a few comparison photos of the three selected QWERTY devices, including a side-by-side of all three and a focus shot of their keyboards.
Image Gallery: 3 QWERTY kings
Image Gallery: Keyboard close up

If we were to look at all the most popular forward facing QWERTY devices today then this group would include the BlackBerry Bold, BlackBerry Curve 8900, Samsung Jack, Palm Treo Pro, Nokia E63, Motorola Q9H, and more. In order to present a concise series that gives you a good representation of what is available we are taking the best single QWERTY from each of the mobile operating systems, according to my hands-on experiences. One interesting aspect of all of these front facing QWERTY devices is that the operating system on each is a bit dated compared to the slick UI systems from Palm, Apple, and Google.

Unlike the Touch Titans series where each device was compared to the iPhone 3G running OS 3.0, we will look at the different aspects of each device and present a comparison of the three in the summary article. Unlike the iPhone, there really is no single device that everyone compares this form factor to at the moment.

In this first article, we will look at the RIM BlackBerry Tour. I posted some thoughts on the BlackBerry Tour last week and have spent more time with it to gain some more experiences. IMHO, the Tour is the best QWERTY BlackBerry device currently available due to the keyboard, display, camera, and more. There is one missing feature that keeps from being even better though and that is the lack of a WiFi radio.

Operating System

The RIM BlackBerry Tour runs the latest BlackBerry OS 4.7.x. The OS was updated with 4.5 and these latest versions continue to tweak and fix bugs with little change in the look and feel of the interface. That is not to say it is a bad thing though as the interface is very user friendly for the QWERTY form factor. When you turn on the Tour you see the standby screen with xx shortcut icons on the bottom row of the display (using the default layout). A single press of the Menu button takes you to all of the application shortcuts you have set on your Home screen. Like Symbian's S60, you can completely customize the organization of your application shortcuts by creating folders, moving around shortcuts (in and out of folders), hiding shortcuts, and setting up everything optimized to your usage needs. You can also customize the wallpaper to place your favorite image in the background. You can even install themes that change the look and feel of your shortcuts.

While the OS look and feel has been improved over what we saw in the past, the Settings menus takes you right back to the days of command lines with text lists, menus, and options that look like RIM hasn't paid any attention to the settings since rollout of the BlackBerry OS in 1999. There are a ton of settings that allow you to optimize the device for your use, but there are also many things hidden in there that are found through soft key menus. For example, to wipe out and clear off a device (used by reviewers before returning eval devices) you need to go to Settings>Security Options>General Settings and then press the BB Menu button and select Wipe Handheld, followed by entering the word blackberry to confirm the wipe. This is one area where I would like to see some attention in a future BlackBerry OS update.

Multi-tasking is fully supported by the BlackBerry OS and by simply pressing and holding BB menu key you can see which apps are running and switch between them. With the latest hardware, I have been able to run several apps at the same time with no noticeable impact on performance of the device.

One part of the OS that does limit power users a bit is the fact that you can only install apps to the phone memory. Since I am used to Windows Mobile and Symbian more than BlackBerry, I expected to be able to install apps to the microSD card, but that is not supported. The Google Android and WebOS operating systems currently do the same thing and power users loading tons of apps may run into an issue with memory limitations. RIM has increased the capacity of the phone memory so most people will not ever see an issue with installing apps on the phone memory, but it is something to consider.

In the past you primarily saw BlackBerry devices in the hands of corporate users, but RIM has been working to make their devices and OS more and more consumer friendly. We can see this in the improvements in multimedia support, application support, and hardware improvements.

Let's check out the Hardware »

Hardware

Before the Tour came out I would have had to decide between the Curve 8900 and the BlackBerry Bold for the best QWERTY BlackBerry device. However, the Tour takes the leading front facing QWERTY design from the Bold and shrinks it down towards the Curve 8900 size to make it much more pocketable and attractive to those looking for a narrower device. RIM also provides Tour owners with the latest and greatest high resolution display (480x360 pixels), trackball, and decent 3.2 megapixel auto-focus camera. I LOVED the Bold keyboard and super fast 624 MHz processor, but the device is a bit too wide and feels more like an old school BlackBerry device with a bit limited 2 megapixel camera.

While the Tour has an almost perfect form factor for a BlackBerry front-facing QWERTY device, there is one hardware issue that is just not acceptable to be missing from a modern smartphone today and that is the missing WiFi radio. While I understand that Verizon Wireless has an extensive 3.5G wireless network, you are not always in an area that gets a full signal. Also, as a world phone (with a SIM card slot) business customers can be found using WiFi on the road quite a bit. There really seems to be no justifiable reason to skip out on WiFi at this point in the game.

I like the standardization of microUSB for charging, 3.5mm headset jack for audio enjoyment, and the new lock and mute button controls on the top of the front of the devices. The RIM hardware is quite nice and with carrier subsidization of most devices you can pick up a BB for a fairly low cost today.

I know this is a small thing, but the BB Tour also has a new back cover design that has some users reporting it is loose and needs a better locking mechanism.

What about the carrier selection? »

Carriers

Verizon Wireless is the largest carrier in the US, in terms of subscribers, and everyone I talk to has been happy with them. I personally have pretty poor coverage with Verizon Wireless where I live and have thus never considered them as an option for my personal phone service. I also bounce daily between phones and need the flexibility of a GSM carrier.

With a 2-year contract and online discount you can pick up a BB Tour for just $199.99 at Verizon Wireless. Voice plans start at $39.99 with unlimited voice for $99.99. BlackBerry data is available for $29.99 or $44.99 per month, Visual Voicemail is $2.99 per month, text messaging measures from $5 to $20 per month, and other optional services like V CAST Rhapsody ($14.99/month) and VZ Navigator ($9.99/month) will continue to raise your monthly fees. It looks like Verizon Wireless is one of the more expensive carriers around.

The BB Tour is a world phone with a SIM card slot and radio to support using a SIM from a carrier outside the US so don't forget about that flexibility if you are a business traveler.

I overlooked the fact that Sprint also carries the BlackBerry Tour (thanks WoW>work), giving consumers an even better reason why this device serves as a king of the QWERTYs. Sprint is the other major CDMA carrier in the US and has been reported as having one of the fastest networks available. People have complained about their customer service in the past, but I found them to be great for the couple of weeks I owned the Palm Pre and if I was able to hold a strong Sprint signal I would have kept the Pre.

Unlike Verizon, Sprint has the BEST pricing options available for those looking for lots of minutes and unlimited data. Their EVERYTHING plans give you unlimited data, texting, phone calls, Sprint Navigation, Sprint TV and more all in one low price (compared to other carrier unlimited plans). I found the coverage to be about the same for Verizon and Sprint so if that is the case for you then Sprint is the way to go for more full featured plans that should save you some serious cash. The Tour is also available for $199.99 from Sprint after rebates and activation of a 2-year contract. Unlimited Everything is only $99.99 though compared to almost double what you pay with Verizon to get the same carrier features.

3rd Party Applications and final thoughts »

3rd Party Applications

RIM launched BlackBerry App World back in April and applications continue to appear in this device application storefront. You can also continue to download and install apps through other means on RIM devices. The BlackBerry App World is quite user friendly and RIM has some good practices implemented in their application store.

BlackBerry App World is loaded in the ROM of the BB Tour and looks great on the high resolution display. It is quick and easy to browse available apps using the trackball navigator on the Tour and there are plenty of apps available to try out. Like I stated earlier, you are limited to installing apps into the phone memory and this may get to be an issue as the App World gets more popular and more applications become available for the BlackBerry Platform.

I am pleased with the way you can organize your applications into custom folders on the home screen and have been pleased with the available apps on the Tour. I have not found any application I am missing and particularly enjoy using Documents To Go, streaming music apps (Slacker and Pandora), Facebook, Google Maps, UberTwitter, and Evernote.

Final Thoughts

The RIM BlackBerry Tour is an excellent BlackBerry device and if it had a WiFi radio it would be near perfect for a forward facing QWERTY smartphone. The fact that it is available on both Verizon and Sprint is a bonus for the device since it gives consumers a bit more choice and Sprint's Everything plans are definitely a great choice for the mobile road warrior.

I personally need a better Exchange platform and without a BES the BlackBerry platform does not work for me. Remember what I always say about smartphones though, each one is good for different people and there is no single device that will please everyone. I would love to see the BB Tour hardware running the Android operating system.

Go back to the beginning »

Topics: Hardware, Apps, BlackBerry, Mobility, Operating Systems

About

Matthew Miller started using a mobile devices in 1997 and has been writing news, reviews, and opinion pieces ever since. He is a co-host with GigaOM's Kevin Tofel on the MobileTechRoundup podcast and an author of three Wiley Companion series books. Matthew started using mobile devices with a US Robotics Pilot 1000 and has owned over 200 d... Full Bio

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