For many BlackBerry fans (and haters), the lack of Wi-Fi has been at the top of the proverbial pet peeve list for years. Well, the wait is over. The BlackBerry 8820 is the first cellular device in the company's stable to offer 802.11 connectivity. While the Wi-Fi was simple to set up, it wasn't exactly blazing, and we wish you could do more with it (like VoIP). This world phone/organizer/media player/GPS navigator has more than enough going for it to warrant the $299 price tag but not enough for current 8800 owners to upgrade.
With the exception of a Wi-Fi logo in the top-right corner of the 2.4-inch display, the 8820 looks and feels pretty much identical to its predecessor. And that's mostly a good thing. Sure, it's heavier and larger than the 3.9-ounce Curve, but the black-and-silver 8820 retains the relatively light (4.7 ounces) and slim profile (0.6 inches) of the 8800. You also get the same tightly packed but speedy keyboard and slick trackball for navigating menus.
Simple Wi-Fi Setup
RIM did a nice job integrating 802.11a/b/g without making it complicated. You simply click on the Manage Connections icon on the bottom of the main menu, which brings up a list of options that includes Mobile Network (AT&T/EDGE), Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. A built-in wizard steps you through scanning for and connecting to available networks, whether the phone is in the office, at home, or near a public hotspot. Should the network you're trying to connect to be encrypted, you can easily type in the encryption key (WEP, WPA, etc.)
We appreciated that the 8820 automatically connected to networks saved as profiles. Once we set up our office profile, the 8820 took only five seconds to latch onto our wireless network after turning Wi-Fi on. The device's range could be better, however. When we walked about 30 feet away from the router, our 8820 showed only one bar of Wi-Fi coverage (out of five), compared with the iPhone's two bars (out of three). Plus, you can't tell how strong your Wi-Fi coverage is on the 8820 while you're surfing the Web; you have to be in the Manage Connections utility.
How Fast Is It?
On our side-by-side tests, the 8820 downloaded pages over Wi-Fi noticeably faster than the BlackBerry Curve did via EDGE, but the margin wasn't very wide. On average, the 8820 started loading CNN.com and other sites a few seconds faster than the Curve, and it loaded pages completely two to seven seconds faster. The reason for these less-than-dramatic results is that no BlackBerry has a direct connection to the Internet; Wi-Fi simply queries RIM's own servers a bit faster, and those servers have always done a superb job delivering compressed Web pages in a hurry. (We downloaded Opera Mini, which offers a more desktop-like surfing experience, but it wouldn't work over Wi-Fi.)
Having integrated Wi-Fi is less of an advantage in terms of e-mail, mostly because RIM nailed that eons ago with its push delivery. We noticed a mere one-second speed advantage when downloading a Word attachment over Wi-Fi versus EDGE. You can use the 8820 at nearly 10,000 AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots in the U.S. ($7.99 per day, $29.99 per month) and at thousands of other hotspots worldwide with which AT&T has roaming agreements. Connecting to those hotspots costs $39.99 per month.
Sorry, No VoIP Here
Unfortunately, you can't use the 8820's Wi-Fi connection for making VoIP calls. For now, at least, it's for Web surfing and e-mail only. We did get Shape Services' IM+ for Skype to work on the 8820, but it worked only when we had the device's EDGE connection turned on. We're hoping the company will add Wi-Fi support in an update to the client.
GPS Still Good, Improved Multimedia
In most other respects, the 8820 is just as good as or better than the 8800. Like its predecessor, this BlackBerry can provide turn-by-turn directions when you purchase the TeleNav GPS Navigator software ($9.99 per month unlimited). We noticed much improved route-calculation times and appreciated how close to real time our location was displayed on the device. The 8820 incorrectly identified an illegal left turn as part of one route, but in general we were impressed with the accuracy of the results and the robust local search functionality.
The 8820 has also improved on the multimedia front. It's compatible with AT&T's music offerings, including XM Radio ($8.99 per month). That service delivered decent reception, but it works only over EDGE; we'd like to see Wi-Fi support added. As with the Curve, the 8820 ships with a media player that synchronizes with supplied software from Roxio, making it a cinch to drag and drop music, photos, and videos onto the device. You also get the same great multitasking capabilities as you get with the Curve, so you can surf the Web while listening to tunes through stereo Bluetooth headphones. (You can also use the 2.5mm jack.)
Solid Phone and Battery Life
Call quality was good on our tests. We noticed a little background fuzz on our end of the line, but conversations sounded pretty clear and loud overall. Other callers said we sounded very clear and almost too loud. The speaker provided more than enough volume for calls, music, and navigation. Our only nitpick is that calls sometimes took a while to connect, a complaint we also had about the Curve.
The 8820 is rated for 5 hours of talk time and 22 days of standby time. Not surprisingly, having Wi-Fi on and being connected to a network reduces this smart phone's endurance, but as usual, RIM does a nice job with power management. Even though the 8820 uses the same 1400-mAh battery as the 8800, the device lasted nearly three days with intermittent use.
Mobile workers who consider Wi-Fi a check-off item when shopping for a smart phone won't be disappointed by RIM's implementation, but they won't be blown away, either. We consider the 802.11 connection a good backup plan for EDGE, especially when you can't get a strong cellular signal indoors. So long as you don't need a built-in camera, the 8820's snappy overall performance, GPS navigation, and multimedia features make it a solid choice for AT&T customers. Others may want to wait and see what RIM cooks up for T-Mobile.
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