The BlackBerry Curve with @Home UMA service convinced me to buy my first BB

My experiences with the T-Mobile HotSpot @Home service began over a year ago when I beta-tested the service in Washington State. I was mildly impressed with the service, but the poor phone selection kept me from adding the service to my account. I then received a free compatible phone that was an upgraded version of the Samsung model I beta tested with. It still wasn't a smartphone though and I wasn't willing to give up all the functionality I get with a smartphone device. Last month, T-Mobile announced that the BlackBerry Curve would be coming with support for the HotSpot @Home service. T-Mobile sent me an evaluation unit and after playing with it for a couple of weeks I am finally ready to add the HotSpot @Home service to my account and start using a RIM BlackBerry device for the first time in my 10 year mobile device history. What did I find so compelling about the BlackBerry Curve and the HotSpot @Home service? Check out my thoughts and the image gallery for all the details.

My experiences with the T-Mobile HotSpot @Home service began over a year ago when I beta-tested the service in Washington State. I was mildly impressed with the service, but the poor phone selection kept me from adding the service to my account. I then received a free compatible phone that was an upgraded version of the Samsung model I beta tested with. It still wasn't a smartphone though and I wasn't willing to give up all the functionality I get with a smartphone device. Last month, T-Mobile announced that the BlackBerry Curve would be coming with support for the HotSpot @Home service. T-Mobile sent me an evaluation unit and after playing with it for a couple of weeks I am finally ready to add the HotSpot @Home service to my account and start using a RIM BlackBerry device for the first time in my 10 year mobile device history. What did I find so compelling about the BlackBerry Curve and the HotSpot @Home service? Check out my thoughts and the image gallery for all the details.


 Image Gallery: The T-Mobile BlackBerry Curve with UMA looks great in gold.  
Image Gallery: Curve keyboard
 
Image Gallery: Yes, that is a UMA symbol
 

The T-Mobile PR team sent me a Pale Gold BlackBerry 8320/Curve along with a T-Mobile HotSpot @Home Linksys WiFi router. The evaluation materials did say that I can keep the WiFi router if I want to and since I'll be adding the service soon and the router is free after rebates when you sign up for service I will be keeping the Linksys router. The Curve comes in either Pale Gold or Titanium and I actually think I'll get the Pale Gold one as well since it looks classy and is a bit different than the standard black and silver colors on many mobile phones.

Box contents: In addition to the BlackBerry Curve you will find a simple slip carrying case, battery and A/C adapter, wired stereo headset, USB to miniUSB cable, SIM card, BlackBerry User Tools CD, Get Started poster, Tips & Tricks card, and Reference Guide. I popped the CD into my MacBook Pro and found that PocketMac for BlackBerry is included. I haven't yet tested it out since my MBP hard drive just crashed last week and I am waiting for my replacement drive to reinstall all of my applications, like Entourage.

Specifications: The RIM BlackBerry Curve is a quad-band (850/900/1800/1900 MHz) GSM device with a 320x240 QVGA 2 inch x 1.5 inch display, integrated 802.11 b/g radio with UMA support, integrated Bluetooth 2.0 radio with A2DP support, standard 3.5mm headset jack, microSD card slot, 2 megapixel camera with flash, and integrated QWERTY keyboard. The device only weighs 3.9 ounces and while it is solid feeling it is much lighter than I anticipated.

HotSpot @Home functionality: The functionality that sets this BlackBerry Curve apart from any other BlackBerry device is the UMA T-Mobile HotSpot @Home support. Without this functionality I may never have tried the device and this support is actually what is driving me to a purchase of the Curve and activation of the service. HotSpot @Home now runs US$19.99 per month for a single phone and I believe US$29.99 per month for a family plan. It allows you to make and receive unlimited calls while you are connected to an authorized WiFi hotspot. This can be your home @Home or other router, T-Mobile HotSpot location, or other WiFi access point (even secure ones) where you do not have to enter information via a web page login (this may knock out a lot of hotels from being candidates). I may actually take along a WiFi router when I travel to setup a virtual HotSpot in the hotel room with an ethernet connection. I want to test this out when I travel outside the U.S. as I am very curious to see if I could make and receive calls internationally when connected to a compatible WiFi access point. That would be very cool to make and receive calls that appear to be from my mobile phone while traveling overseas.

The HotSpot @Home service also only looks to call initiation when determining the type of call so if you start a call via UMA while at your home or office and then commute for an hour you could stay on the call for an hour and it would not count against your wireless minutes. Also, if you get into a compatible UMA zone you may want to call the person back so the call isn't charged against your wireless minutes. HotSpot @Home phones are also designed to seamlessly switch from UMA to GSM and in testing dozens of calls I found the transfer to be just that. Neither I nor the caller even knew the switch was made during the calls. I did have a couple of UMA calls start out a bit fuzzy and I think that was directly attributable to the WiFi signal I was picking up at the time. I already get full signal strength from T-Mobile at my house, but the unlimited calling service is what may drive me to signing up. I am kicking myself a bit because I could have signed up at the $10/month introductory price back in July and saved myself some money.

BlackBerry Curve hardware: I briefly used a BlackBerry Pearl a few months ago and liked the hardware for the most part, but wasn't ready to jump to a BlackBerry. I thought the battery was missing from the BlackBerry Curve when I opened up the box (the PR firm had already inserted the battery and SIM card) as the device was so light in my hand. It is 3.9 ounces versus 4.2 ounces with the T-Mobile Dash, but just feels much lighter. The display is bright and crisp and the video content I watched (sample video) looked great. After a couple weeks of usage, I have really come to like using the trackball/pearl navigation controller. It did take me a bit of practice to figure out the best way to use the menu and escape buttons since I am used to two lower soft keys on Windows Mobile and S60 devices.

I applaud RIM for including a standard 3.5mm headset jack and miniUSB port for syncing/charging and wish all manufacturers would standardize on these connections. It is also great to see that A2DP support is included in the Bluetooth radio.

The QWERTY keyboard is very good and reminds me a lot of the Treo 650 I used to have. The keys are hard plastic and a bit slick though and I think I would like to see them with a bit more grip similar to the rubber siding they have on the Curve. There are lots of keyboard shortcuts and operations to make text entry quicker and more efficient as RIM has had years of development with their QWERTY keyboards. The Curve has an integrated spell checker for email too so your emails should be looking good when sent from the Curve. There is a very nice white backlighting on the keyboard that isn't too bright to wash out the keys and also shows the alternative characters.

The top, bottom, and sides do have great rubberized covering to help you grip the device with the slick Pale Gold color elsewhere on the casing. I find the color attractive and professional and think this is the color I'll be buying for myself.

The speakers sound great in speakerphone mode and when listening to music or podcasts. Volume is loud and clear when not in speakerphone mode as well.

I figured the camera was fairly standard, but find it takes better pictures than I thought it would. I was almost blown away by how well the flash worked, especially after using the flash on the lame HTC Windows Mobile cameras. I have a couple pictures taken with the flash in my image gallery and found them to be almost just as good as the high-powered Nokia N95 in low-light environments. There is no video capability and I am hoping maybe a firmware update will add this functionality. You can select from different resolutions, different photo types (regular, sepia, and black/white) and control a couple other settings with the camera application.

Software: The included software on the device actually had quite an impact on me that also helped push me closer and closer to purchasing my own Curve. I think the software that had the biggest impact on me is the instant messaging clients. Either T-Mobile and/or RIM decided to include Yahoo IM, AIM, ICQ, Windows Live Messenger (not even included on all Windows Mobile devices), Google Talk, and BlackBerry Messenger. With the very good QWERTY keyboard and unlimited data connection I am now finding myself on IM more than I have been with any other mobile device.

You will also find an email client, web browser, calendar, contacts, tasks, memos, call log, media suite, camera, alarm clock, voice dialer, BrickBreaker game, calculator, password manager, maps, and voice note application. I downloaded and installed Opera Mini (very good web browser), Gmail, Google Maps, WorldMate (free version for the BlackBerry), and Mobipocket ebook reader. I plan to test these and many more on the Curve.

Final thoughts: Since I evaluate and use mobile devices running Palm, Windows Mobile and S60 I didn't want to limit myself to just RIM BlackBerry devices and I guess this may have impacted my earlier decisions not to check them out. I popped the SIM out of the BlackBerry and put it into a couple other devices and discovered I can still get data access using the wap.voicestream.com APN and that was really the last barrier preventing me from giving a BlackBerry device a go. I will be limited to EDGE (for now), but I can get email, surf, and make calls if I am in a WiFi zone or at a T-Mobile HotSpot.

The Curve with the HotSpot @Home functionality has convinced me to try out both and I plan to order my own device soon. They are available for US$249.99 after rebates and activation. I think I have an upgrade discount coming from T-Mobile and sure wish this was the free @Home device they sent out a couple months ago. If you are a T-Mobile customer and need unlimited calling at home I think the BlackBerry Curve is the UMA device we were all waiting for and I encourage you to give it a try.

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