It's not the first BlackBerry with built-in Wi-Fi, but it's the best. In fact, the BlackBerry Curve 8320 is the best BlackBerry we've tested--period. RIM and T-Mobile took our favorite keyboard-equipped smart phone and added unlimited Wi-Fi calling for a reasonable $19.99 per month (starting in October), whether you're on your home network or at one of thousands of T-Mobile HotSpot locations. Add in the same sharp two-megapixel camera, robust media player, and good call quality we loved on the AT&T version--and throw in MyFaves and instant messaging--and you have a winner.
Weighing only 3.9 ounces and measuring 0.6 inches thick, the light and sleek Curve 8320 looks nearly identical to the AT&T-branded model, but you do get two color choices: titanium and pale gold (we tested the latter). We still love the rounded edges, the fast, spacious keyboard, and bright 2.5-inch display. You also get the same intuitive trackball for menu navigation and a 3.5mm audio jack for listening to tunes using your own headphones.
One unique (and welcome) difference is the new T-Mobile Zen-themed main menu, which includes five spots for your myFaves contacts. You get one-click access to these contacts via e-mail, calling, or text messaging right from the home screen. (You can even IM contacts from this menu if the other person is signed in.) Beneath this area is a row of icons for accessing frequently used applications like e-mail, calendar, and the browser.
The Curve 8320 is very much like its cousin in the features department, too. A 312-MHz processor provides snappy performance; the 2-MP camera takes sharp pictures without much of a shutter delay (but doesn't capture video); and the bundled Roxio software makes transferring music, photos, and videos to the device easy. We especially like we can multitask; we could easily switch from the music player to the Web browser without missing a beat and still have control over our tracks' volume. And like all BlackBerrys, the 8320 is an excellent push e-mail device and personal organizer.
What makes this model better than the AT&T version is how T-Mobile leverages the Curve 8320's Wi-Fi connection. Unlike the BlackBerry 8820, which merely uses Wi-Fi as a stand-in for EDGE when surfing the Web and viewing e-mail, the 8320 can make phone calls over Wi-Fi using the T-Mobile HotSpot @Home service. The carrier offers specialized routers along with this service that do a good job of prioritizing calls over other types of data traffic, but because they use the older 802.11g technology, we stuck with our own 802.11n-based home network. Call quality was still quite good, and voices came through loud and clear on our end of the line.
The 8320 also did a fairly good job handing off calls from Wi-Fi to GSM, and vice versa. The experience was a little smoother than when we first tested the T-Mobile HotSpot @Home service with the bargain-basement Nokia 6086. When standing outside a Starbucks in Manhattan, one of nearly 8,500 HotSpot locations in the U.S., our phone took about a minute to recognize and switch over to the T-Mobile HotSpot network, but our test call connected without any issues. As we walked away from the coffee shop, the call automatically switched back to T-Mobile's GSM network without a hiccup.
At home, we experienced some dropped calls when walking away from our house in one direction as the call switched from our Wi-Fi network to GSM but not when we walked in another direction. If you start a call on Wi-Fi and switch over to cellular, the call counts against your unlimited HotSpot @Home plan, not your monthly allotment of cellular minutes. However, if you start a call and then roam onto your home network or a T-Mobile HotSpot, that call will eat into your cellular minutes.
We were pleasantly surprised with the call quality of the Curve 8320 over GSM as well, especially compared with other T-Mobile phones we've tested. Although one caller complained that it was tough to make out some of our words, other callers said we sounded fine, and we were generally satisfied with the clarity and volume on our end. A button on the right spine automatically activates voice dialing, and we had no problems pairing a Motorola stereo Bluetooth headset for calls and music.
Data performance was also quite good. Surfing over Wi-Fi didn't really speed things up, mostly because RIM's servers already compress Web pages, but we were impressed with the speed of the 8320's EDGE connection. In most cases, surfing on this device was just as fast (or faster) than with the AT&T Curve. Yes, the formatting is crude, but in most cases we got the info we wanted in less than 15 seconds. Unlimited data costs a reasonable $19.99 per month.
Another unique perk on this Curve is the array of instant messaging clients. In addition to BlackBerry Messenger, T-Mobile bundles AOL, Google Talk, ICQ, Windows Live, and Yahoo. We tested Google Talk and Yahoo and found both services snappy. Yahoo had better emoticons, but Google Talk's IMs showed up in our general Inbox.
As with all BlackBerrys, the Curve 8320 lasted a pretty long time on a charge. With moderate usage our device lasted about 3.5 days, compared with 4 days for the Wi-Fi--less AT&T Curve. Rated talk time is 4 hours and standby time an unrealistic 17 days.
If this device has a letdown, it's the integrated Maps application from Tele Atlas. It's certainly a useful app, but it feels like a watered-down version of TeleNav, which you'll find on some AT&T BlackBerrys. We like that you can look up addresses and get directions and that the software integrates with the Curve 8320's address book, but you can't search for businesses, and you don't get real-time turn-by-turn instructions as you do with the BlackBerry 8820.
You really can't go wrong with either the AT&T or T-Mobile BlackBerry Curve, but those looking to ditch the landline should consider the latter because of its ability to make unlimited calls via Wi-Fi for an affordable price. For $50 more, you get a smart phone that can be your only phone.
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